A split on the sprint and too many races? F1 Q&A before Imola

Image of the 2024 F1 drivers

Formula 1 heads to Italy this weekend for round seven of the 2024 season.

It is the first time F1 has returned to Imola in two years, after the 2023 race was cancelled because of flooding.

Last time out in Miami, Britain's Lando Norris secured his maiden F1 win.

BBC Sport's F1 correspondent Andrew Benson answers your questions before the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

With the large number of upgrades coming to teams across the grid at Imola, could we see a closer grid for the rest of the season? – Luke

Everyone in Formula 1 always says that the longer a set of regulations is left in place, the closer the grid will become.

But, at the front of the field, there has not been much evidence of that so far under these current rules, which were introduced with a specific plan to close the grid up, and are now in their third season. Red Bull have started this season with an even bigger advantage than they had last year.

However, Lando Norris’ victory for McLaren in Miami did provide some hope that things might be about to change.

McLaren had a major upgrade on their car for Miami and there was some evidence that Norris had similar - or perhaps even better - pace than Max Verstappen even before the Red Bull driver’s collision with a cone, which the team said damaged the car.

On the three laps between Norris being released by Sergio Perez’s pit stop, and Verstappen hitting the cone just before his pit stop, the McLaren was on average a little quicker than the Red Bull.

Could this be evidence McLaren could now challenge Red Bull from time to time? Norris believes he can win again this year. And Ferrari have their own significant upgrade coming for this weekend’s Emila Romagna Grand Prix, even if they are playing down its potential publicly.

Give it a couple more races, then, and there might be a clearer answer to this question.

The sprint qualifying/races produce more exciting viewing for fans, so why is there so much resistance from teams and drivers for sprint weekends? – Kevin

First, let’s just deal with the general perception of the sprint weekends in F1.

The drivers are actually split on them. Max Verstappen has made no secret of his disdain for the sprint format. But Lewis Hamilton is very much for it - he said in Miami that he “loved it” and “we need more in my opinion”.

Most of the others are in the middle - they quite enjoy the sprint but would not want it every weekend.

The teams, meanwhile, are mostly in the final category. They are happy to have some sprints - remember, they voted for them to happen. But many of them, too, don’t want them to become the norm.

People recognise that there is more competitive track action over a sprint weekend, and that has benefits for the audience.

But the sprint has a flip side. There are large gaps between sessions - “a lot of hanging around’, as Hamilton has put it - and there are still questions as to whether the sprint race has much meaning.

And by and large, people like the flow of a traditional grand prix weekend, the feeling that there is a building momentum to the main race.

Ideally, many would prefer two-day weekends, with one practice session before a qualifying and then the grand prix. But the circuits don’t want that - they need the extra day to generate revenue.

Lando Norris' McLaren spins out at the first corner of the Miami Grand Prix sprint race
Lando Norris was eliminated at the first corner of the Miami sprint race before going on to win the main grand prix the following day [Reuters]

If anyone is to challenge Red Bull next season, who would it be and can we expect any surprises for next season? – Lucy

The answer to this question feeds into the earlier one. Next year is the last year of the current regulations before a big change in 2026, with new chassis and engine rules.

The project is so big for 2026 that most teams will simply go into next year with a development of this year’s car. In that context, big changes in relative performance level from this year to next are not that likely.

But 2024 is only six races old, and there are another 18 races over which performance levels will play out. And Norris says he is “100%” confident McLaren will be title challengers next season.

Which current drivers in the paddock do you think are most vulnerable to losing their seats mid-season? – Guy

The two big candidates here are Williams’ Logan Sargeant and RB’s Daniel Ricciardo.

Sargeant is looking very much like a driver whose time in F1 is coming to an end. Unless he turns things around, the only question seems to be whether it will be during the season or at the end of it.

Williams are said to be keen to replace him before the end of the season with Mercedes protege Andrea Kimi Antonelli, who is racing in Formula 2 for the first time this season.

But Antonelli is only 17 and at the moment does not qualify for the super licence all drivers need in F1. Senior sources have told BBC Sport that there is next to no chance of the Italian racing in F1 before his 18th birthday, which is on 25 August.

That means he could be in a Williams by the Dutch or Italian Grands Prix after the summer break.

However, this plan depends also on Mercedes’ driver strategy, as it’s unlikely Williams would want to take Antonelli for a part-season only for him to move to Mercedes for 2025. So if he drives for Williams this year it is likely to be only if he will also stay for next season.

As for Ricciardo, he took some pressure off himself with his strong qualifying performance in the sprint in China - which he repeated in Miami - but his overarching level is still below team-mate Yuki Tsunoda’s.

He needs to change that if he is not to risk being replaced by reserve driver Liam Lawson at some point this season.

Do you think we have too many races per season these days? Fewer races gave an increasing level of excitement building up to the weekend. - Richard

Pretty much everyone in F1 thinks that there are too many grands prix in a season.

For one thing, the calendar is exhausting for everyone involved. For another, there is the feeling that grands prix risk losing their lustre if there are too many.

Most think the sweet spot would be around 18-20 races.

But the people who decide on this - Liberty Media, and F1’s bosses Greg Maffei and Stefano Domenicali - don’t agree. Their business plan is for at least this many races. So there is little prospect of change.

Who do you think will partner Nico Hulkenberg at Sauber/Audi next season? – Rupert

The driver Audi want is Carlos Sainz. However, he is also an option at Mercedes and Red Bull. And he is in no hurry to make up his mind.

Audi are somewhat down the pecking order, too, and there are plenty of dominoes to fall yet.

Take Mercedes, for example. They have made little secret of the fact that they are trying to tempt Max Verstappen to leave Red Bull. Verstappen is under contract to 2028 but has ways of getting out if he chooses to do so, as explained in this article.

This seems less likely for 2025 than it does for 2026. But that is option one. If Mercedes don’t get Verstappen for next year, their choice is between Sainz (or someone similar) or promoting Antonelli.

Red Bull, meanwhile, may not change at all. If they lose Verstappen, they have a drama. But they may yet decide to replace Sergio Perez with Sainz if Verstappen stays.

For Sainz, both these options are more interesting competitively than Audi. But they may also be much more short term. So he may decide to commit to a long-term future at Audi.

If they can’t get Sainz, Audi could do a lot worse than stick with Valtteri Bottas. He is, after all, a proven winner who was not that far off Lewis Hamilton when they were Mercedes team-mates and occasionally straight beat him.