If there is one quality to Formula 1’s controversial sprint round format that even its critics cannot deny, it is that the lack of practice and preparation teams get before the competitive sessions certainly helps to add intrigue over a race weekend.

The next time the 20 drivers head out onto the Shanghai International Circuit on Saturday, it’ll be for a 100 kilometre sprint race. Many of them will do so less prepared than they’ve ever been for a race in Formula 1 – especially the six having their first taste of this track in a grand prix car.

A brief interruption due to the grass on the inside of turn seven igniting meant teams didn’t quite get a full hour of practice running in at the start of Friday in dry conditions. That plus most of the first phase of qualifying was all the dry running most of them had. But while an hour-and-change might be enough running for a typical player on F1 23 to get ready for a race, it’s far less than a multi-million pound professional F1 team would want.

Norris has sprint race pole again

The challenge is even greater this weekend, for two main reasons. First, the most recent data from Shanghai that teams have available to help guide them is at least five years old now, run on a different generation of car with a drastically different aerodynamic concept. Second, the circuit they have returned to made have not changed in layout, but the asphalt and the grip level offered up by it is drastically different.

If it was a typical race weekend at circuit with these characteristics, drivers would expect to benefit from major track evolution across three hours of practice and a qualifying session before the race. They would also have refined their car set-ups and have plenty of data for each of the three compounds, but most teams have neither of those.

Several teams – Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, Aston Martin, RB and Alpine – only ran the mediums for the first time in SQ1. The Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, and Fernando Alonso still haven’t touched their soft tyres yet, and must now decide what compound they will commit to for the 19 laps of the sprint race.

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Pirelli expect the mediums to be the default choice for the first race of the weekend. “The medium is clearly destined to be used in both tomorrow morning’s sprint race and Sunday’s grand prix,” said the tyre manufacturer’s chief engineer, Simone Berra.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Shanghai International Circuit, 2024
Soft tyre gamble could offer a route to victory

However he believes some drivers could be tempted to start on the soft tyre. “The soft is possibly a valid option for the sprint race, especially if it is held in cooler conditions than this morning’s free practice.”

Saturday’s sprint race carries an uncommon level of interest due to the fact neither Red Bull car will start in the top three positions on the grid. For the second sprint race in a row, Lando Norris will lead the field down to turn one and hope to remain in front across the race to take his first win in any official Formula 1 race.

Hamilton’s Mercedes will start alongside Norris on the front row, equally hungry for a first place. But both expect they will likely need more rain if either is to achieve that goal on Saturday.

“There is still a chance of rain tomorrow, so if it’s like this [qualifying], then I think our chances of a good result are relatively decent,” Norris said. “But the race is very different to qualifying and I’m sure everyone is going to catch up a bit tomorrow.”

Starting from fourth, Verstappen will have to dust off his overtaking skills if he is to win the opening sprint race of the season. The world champion has made just two competitive on-track overtakes so far in 2024 – first on Norris in Jeddah and the second on Charles Leclerc in the last grand prix in Suzuka – but both were passes made on cars that were out of sync with him in the pit cycle, rather than genuine gains of position.

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Overtaking is certainly possible around Shanghai, due in large part to its extremely long back straight and generous DRS zones, but before Verstappen can make use of it he has to navigate what he expects will be a very tricky start off the grid.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Shanghai International Circuit, 2024
For the first time this year Verstappen isn’t on pole

“There will be low grip for everyone due to the paint on the Tarmac here and so we have to try and have the best start possible,” Verstappen said. “I think it is going to be quite a long stint on one set of tyres for the sprint, but I think that that will make it quite interesting.”

Assuming a dry sprint race, the main challenge will be in looking after the left-front tyre around the endless first corner as well as through turn 13 leading onto the back straight. But if it proves wet again, then the drivers will have to figure things out as they go for the second consecutive day.

Rain is expected overnight in Shanghai, which could further wash away any rubber than potentially built up from the opening day. Current predictions put the risk of rain for the sprint race at just under 10%, but the likelihood increases as the race is set to progress, which could mean more surprises in store.

However, Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur says Ferrari “expect the rest of the weekend to be dry,” which may well play into the hands of his drivers Carlos Sainz Jnr and Charles Leclerc, who start down in fifth and seventh, respectively.

A dry sprint race will also have a big impact on what happens over the two grand prix sessions after it. With 19 laps of race data, teams will be able to use that to make set-up changes heading into grand prix qualifying. So even if a team do not seem particularly strong in the sprint race, there is a chance they can go some way towards putting that right for the most important sessions of the weekend.

Until then, however, there are too many unknowns to be sure about anything heading into the first sprint race of 2024. Which, in the current era of Formula 1, is refreshing enough in itself.

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