Formula 1 isn’t due to stage its first proper trial sprint race until the British Grand Prix next month, but it seemed race director Michael Masi couldn’t wait to give the concept a go on the Baku street circuit, with a two-lap shootout to conclude the grand prix.
Previously, such an incident so late in an F1 race generally led to the result being declared at the time of the red flag or a finish behind the safety car.
Just a few years ago, the prospect of F1 chiefs stopping a race to ensure a two-lap shoot-out – with a standing start, no less – would have seemed somewhat gauche; something unbecoming of the pure art of grand prix racing.
So what has changed? Well, after picking his way through the resulting chaos to finish third, AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly put it best: “Americans took over, so I wasn’t surprised that we go with the entertainment.”
That lighthearted comment made me laugh, because of how various F1 paddock members have previously spoken slightly loftily about how Nascar and Indycar series use safety car periods and late-race restarts to artificially close up the field in the name of entertainment.
For example, just last year, red flags in both the Italian and Tuscan Grands Prix that led to standing restarts prompted Sir Lewis Hamilton to raise concerns about safety, adding: “They do it in Nascar: put out the yellow flag all the time and safety cars, whatever, all the time to keep the race exciting.”
The stoppage in Azerbaijan clearly wasn’t a classic Nascar ‘phantom yellow’ for debris on the track, though. Explaining his decision, Masi said he redflagged the race because he knew it would take longer than the laps remaining to clean up the debris; and while he could have just ended the race early, he chose to restart it because “there was no reason not to”.
Masi added that the red flag rules allow every driver to change tyres – a key move if there really were an issue with the Pirelli rubber. But still, he didn’t exactly deny that the entertainment factor might have factored into the decision.
And what’s wrong with that? Televised sport is in essence entertainment, so surely F1’s organisers should do all they can to make it entertaining.
Certainly, the two-lap shoot-out was wild, unpredictable and thrilling. Was it fair? Absolutely not. Hamilton’s error at the restart cost him second place, while Sebastian Vettel’s mega launch allowed him to overtake Gasly and Ferrari man Charles Leclerc to achieve a podium for Aston Martin that would else have been out of his grasp.
But sport often isn’t fair. Just ask Verstappen how he feels about losing victory due to that sudden tyre failure. And the Baku sprint finish was fairer than finishing a football match with a penalty shoot-out.
The simple truth is that sport is entertainment, and if a late-race incident leads to the choice of an anticlimactic early finish or a wild sprint, I will take the latter every time. It might not be pure, but it’s definitely pure entertainment.