F1 drivers weigh in on reducing Free Practice sessions

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Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali sparked controversy after his comments at the MotoGP opening round in Portugal last weekend. This came as the weekend was being held in the new format of having a Sprint race on the Saturday which will replace a free practice session. The Italian said: “I am a supporter of the cancellation of free practice sessions, which are of great use to the engineers but that the public doesn’t like.”

This sparked fierce debate amongst fans on social media, but what do the drivers themselves think? In the press conference preceding the Grand Prix weekend in Melbourne, we got a taste of their opinions on the matter. Responding to a question from David Croft on how many practice sessions they feel they need, Mercedes Driver George Russell – also a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association – put his case forward:

“Obviously the more practice you do, the more up to speed you’ll be, the more comfortable you’ll be with the car. I don’t think it’s right that Formula 1 has three times the amount of practice that you have in the F3 and F2 categories…..No practice would be too little. I wasn’t in favour of the sprint races initially, but having done – how many have we done now? Six, nine, maybe over the two years? I really enjoy the sprint races and having action on a Friday, I think, is vital for all of us and also for the entertainment factor.”

Russell’s use of the term “entertainment factor” is likely music to the ears of F1, with its increasing popularity demanding more evolution than ever and the all-important TV viewing figures being at their lowest during Free Practice.

Alpine’s Pierre Gasly was in agreement with the British driver, saying:

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Perhaps an F1 newcomer might feel differently, and take as much experience of a circuit as they can get? Well, Nyck de Vries it seems, doesn’t feel that way: “

The 2019 F2 Champion aligned himself with Russell on bringing the format of F1 and the junior categories closer together. De Vries’ fellow F1 rookie Logan Sargeant was also in agreement with the Williams driver saying: “Yeah, I think three is definitely a lot, especially coming from F2 where you just have to take risks a lot sooner than I currently have to. So as a rookie, I don’t mind having two or three but going forward, I don’t think three is necessary.”

However, Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg is in favour of the format staying just the way it is:

Russell did feel that the stakes during practice should remain just as they are though, with nothing on the table other than “just practice”. However, with much talk about the number of races on the calendar these days and the amount of time away from home, Russell put forth a different option for the format of the Grand Prix weekend:

“For the benefit of the two or three thousand people travelling around the world, having the first session on a Friday afternoon, evening so there’s less pressure for teams to arrive, let’s say, on a Wednesday. If you have your first session on Friday morning you need to be here on a Thursday which for a lot of the races requires flying on a Wednesday and if we can push that back to allow teams to fly on a Thursday morning… You add that up over 24 races in a year, you’re getting on for almost a month extra at home or sleeping in your own bed, which is huge for everybody in this circus.”

Alex Albon was on board with the GDPA director’s idea for a condensed weekend, speaking after Russell’s comments to the media, the Williams driver gave his support for the shorter format:

But with the 27-year-old being so comfortable putting in simulator time back at Grove, he felt less practice sessions could benefit those who put in the work on the sim:

“I’m biased though, because honestly speaking, when you limit testing, it creates more randomness to the weekend. You’ve got to be better on the simulator than everyone else… there’ll be a bit more work pre-event, but if you’re doing a good job at that, I often feel like we tend to have a good car actually quite early in the weekend. By FP1, FP2, we’re already at our happy place. It suits us. We can hopefully get into it early and then get straight to qualifying when everyone else is struggling a little bit more.”

Reigning World Champion Max Verstappen wasn’t quite as in favour of some change as the other drivers however, with the Dutchman saying:

With mixed feelings from the drivers, this debate is sure to continue further into the season, and no doubt the engineers in the paddock might feel somewhat different too, as one would expect they will take as much opportunity to gather data and do valuable on track testing as they can get. Will we see a change in the F1 weekend format in the near future? It doesn’t seem too unlikely, but we shall have to wait and see exactly what that will be.