The 2023 Australian Grand Prix was the clearest indication yet that Formula 1 has been changing how its races are managed. It was the first F1 race in history that had three red flags and you could make a strong case that the second of those (Kevin Magnussen’s Turn 2 crash on Lap 52) was a red flag purely to bring the field together for a two-lap dramatic finish with a standing restart. But is F1 compromising its sporting integrity to solve a problem that so rarely surfaces?
The FIA approved the standing restart rule change in 2018 (after a failed attempt three years earlier) and standing restarts have become what Race Direction generally leans towards when a red flag restart is needed.
But I’m not going to lie to you readers, I find it strange and somewhat ironic that the red flag – the ultimate safety tool, the flag you only see when a race is too dangerous to continue – is being used to facilitate the standing restart. A rule that was only brought in for entertainment purposes and is arguably just as potentially dangerous as the red flag that came out to enable it in the first place!
Even before the 2023 Australian GP, there were signs that this was the way F1 was going. Baku 2021 had a two-lap sprint finish that I think many fans were quick to ignore because it did work in generating some surprise, with Lewis Hamilton’s “magic” button push and Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly ending up on the podium.
Monza in 2022 generated some intense debate over Daniel Ricciardo’s stricken car late on. Should that have been red-flagged, or was the idea of finishing a race under a safety car now considered the boogeyman?
And let’s not ignore the obvious one. Former FIA Race Director Michael Masi somewhat stretched the rulebook at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP; an era-defining moment in this sport, partially because he believed he had a handshake understanding with the teams to try and finish a race under green if possible.
Annoyingly, a part of me understands where F1’s coming from. The world of global motorsport is also trying to move away from conventional formats and scoring. NASCAR was one of the first to ditch its traditional scoring system and implement what became “The Chase”, a playoff tournament bracket that crowns a champion in an attempt to avoid an end-of-season lull for ratings.
MotoGP just had its biggest-ever format change by taking F1’s sprint concept over an entire season. World Superbikes added a Sprint race too, with reverse grids when Jonathan Rea was dominating. Until this year, IndyCar – the originators of using red flags to orchestrate end-of-race sprint finishes – had double points on the Indy 500, by far its most important race.
Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not as fans, series organisers are always really scared of when teams and athletes in their respective series dominate. It’s exactly why F1 changes its technical regulations every five years or so, they don’t want the same manufacturer winning for long periods. You can’t risk your product being boring. It’s easy to brush off the above as “gimmicks”, but without some degree of entertainment, your sport will die anyway when people don’t want to sit down and watch it.
F1 in Australia this week had examples of both that could drive an even deeper wedge between integrity and entertainment. On the one hand, it’s hard not to argue it made us care a little bit more about a race that Max Verstappen was set to dominate as Red Bull looks good to run away with it in 2023.
But from K-Mag’s crash to the eventual chequered flag, it took an hour between organising two restarts and the faff of trying to figure out a new running order without the multiple crashed cars. A finish so confusing, that Haas ended up protesting the result. All of that for an attempted sprint finish, that ended up finishing behind a safety car anyway.
And to top it all off look at this fun fact: We’ve had 550 Grand Prix since the safety car procedure was introduced into F1 in 1993. Do you know how many races have finished under a safety car since then? 11. That’s a 1 in 50 average. So one has to wonder, is this even a huge problem the sport’s trying to mitigate? Why risk your sporting integrity for that?
Every sport at some point has to weigh up the balance between its integrity and ‘the show’. And F1 has flirted with danger on both ends of the scale in recent times. Drive to Survive isn’t going to be the hook for new fans forever. Red Bull could dominate the sport for the next three years and it wouldn’t surprise me. F1 may have to keep conjuring up new ways to keep us interested as the sport regresses to its usual means, but it can’t do so by compromising the racing integrity – the thing that probably got a lot of us hooked in the first place.
And it really can’t afford to do that for a problem that has occurred just 11 times in the last 30 years.
Do you think F1 has gone too far to prioritise ‘the show’?