Why F1 should ditch free practice

The scene was set for Lewis Hamilton to vanquish Sebastian Vettel and claim a fifth world championship at last weekend’s United States Grand Prix, but Mercedes fluffed its lines.

Faced with a Ferrari team back on form and a Mercedes car somewhat out of sorts, Hamilton battled tyre blistering and a suboptimal strategy to finish third behind Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen and just one place ahead of Sebastian Vettel.

His points lead grew from 67 to 70, but the total was agonisingly short of the magic 75 he needed to seal the deal in Austin, protracting the surely inevitable conclusion by at least one more round.

But at this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix the permutations are extremely simple:

  • For Vettel to fight another day, he must win the race with Hamilton no higher than eighth.
  • For Hamilton to claim the championship, he must finish seventh or higher regardless of Vettel’s finishing position.

All things being equal, the chance of a Mercedes car finishing the race outside the top six is remote, meaning Hamilton should have the title sewn up by the time he leaves Mexico City.

The unexpected delay in formalities brought with it a substantial silver lining, however, with a three-driver, three-team battle for victory in the closing stages of the race more than making up for any disappointment among Hamilton fans.

The tight result was unexpected for all three podium-getters. Raikkonen, who hadn’t won a race in more than five years to begin with, wasn’t supposed to have a car quick enough to snatch victory after a month of wayward Ferrari development. Max Verstappen started 18th on the grid and made work an ambitiously long stint on the supersoft tyre. Lewis Hamilton, starting from pole, was supposed to walk to victory on a circuit around which he’s historically excelled.

A variety of factors influenced the result — Ferrari removing months worth of updates from the car, Vettel’s lap-one spin, some poor strategy on Mercedes’s part — but none was as big as the day of practice lost to bad weather.

Rain lashed the Circuit of the Americas on Friday, limiting drivers to mostly intermediate-tyre running in both 90-minute sessions. FP2, the most important practice session of the weekend, featured almost no running at all until the final half hour.

Teams obviously have ways to prepare themselves for such eventualities, but inescapable is the fact that close and variable racing almost always follows.

Consider again that the top three drivers, racing for three different teams, finished within three seconds of each other on three different strategies.

“That’s unusual in Formula One,” Formula One motorsport boss Ross Brawn said. “The level of sophistication in terms of simulation and strategy is so high that one doesn’t usually get such a variance, especially when it involves the top three teams.

“This was probably down to the fact that no one had been able to run dry weather tyres on Friday as the track was wet throughout the three hours of practice. That meant the teams had less data than usual on which to base their race plans, and thus the margin for error increased.”

What we saw in Austin was teams having to think on their feet and drivers having to race by feel. Deprived for three hours of practice running, they were to a certain extent in the dark about how to best set up their cars and how to best approach tyre strategy.

Lewis Hamilton’s race is a perfect example. The Briton and his team overestimated how much punishment the soft compound could take early in a stint, which in turn led to blistering that forced him into an imperfect two-stop race. Those imperfections in understanding would’ve been ironed out during Friday practice, but in Texas instinct became a differentiator thanks to the rain.

“It’s definitely more uncertain and therefore another topic for discussion when looking at ways to make our sport even more exciting, from the first lap to the last, as was the case this Sunday in Austin,” Brawn said.

Is the answer to severely curtail practice time at race weekends to put more emphasis on competitive sessions?

“The more you limit the track time, the more vulnerability you have,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said after the race, but he added, “I think you would just … have more simulations and more computers running in the background, trying to emphasise how to put the car on track.”

But even if the solution for great racing mightn’t as simple as slashing the amount of practice time teams have on a race weekend, but it’s certainly a start. Subsequently limiting the amount of simulator work that can be conducted on a race weekend, for example, could be a way to prevent teams from putting their headquarters into overdrive to compensate.

Formula One is already undertaking a review of how to best to structure race weekends, with all sorts of ideas, from qualifying format changes to second races, being thrown around, but the quickest and easiest change to improve racing while keeping the focus on a Sunday grand prix would be to reduce the time teams have to decide how to create the most straightforward race.

But until that happens, Friday’s forecast for this week’s likely title-deciding Mexican Grand Prix predicts plenty of rain.

Should make for a great race.