With Formula One President and CEO Stefano Domenicali confirming in an interview with Sky Sports that one-third of F1’s record 23-race 2023 calendar will feature Sprint Qualifying, the Saturday sprint races will certainly be a mainstay of the championship for the foreseeable future. Surprisingly, the concept of sprint races being the component of a Grand Prix traces its roots back further than one might assume.
The current iteration of Grand Prix sprint qualifying is a unique product of the early 2020s, but sprint races were first prominently featured on Grand Prix timetables during the late 1920s. A myriad of factors led to the inaugural Gran Premio di Monza in 1929 being the first Grand Prix event to hold sprint races and continue to do so annually in future editions.
First, this story begins sadly with the deadliest motorsport disaster until the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. On lap 18 of the 1928 Italian Grand Prix, Emilio Materassi behind the wheel of a Talbot 700 lost control of his car while attempting an overtake down the pit straight at Monza. He left the circuit at 124 mph into the crowd of spectators. At least 22 spectators were killed after being struck by the out-of-control racing machine. Materassi was also killed after being thrown from the car during the accident. A later court decision forced the Automobile Club d’Italia and Autodromo Nazionale di Monza to financially compensate the families of the victims, greatly influencing what would come next.
The 1929 Italian Grand Prix would be cancelled, but not due to the tragic events of last year. The World Championship organized by the AIACR (the former initialism of the FIA) was extremely unpopular. And yes, Formula One wasn’t the first attempt at a Grand Prix World Championship. It’s a long story that we could get into another time. What is important now is that race promoters disliked the championship’s formula because it failed to attract strong entry lists. Small entries lists meant minuscule revenue from entry fees and low ticket sales that generated lackluster gate receipts.
Some events however were obligated to run under the championship formula. The Italian Grand Prix was one of those events because it was also the European Grand Prix. At the time, the European Grand Prix was an honorific title awarded to the best race in Europe as determined by the AIACR and that race was then required to be the World Championship finale. The Italian Grand Prix was slated to be the European Grand Prix for the third consecutive season in 1929, the Automobile Club d’Italia decided to skirt those obligations by simply cancelling the race.
The ACI replaced the cancelled race with a new race, the Gran Premio di Monza (or Monza Grand Prix.) Instead of using the AIACR formula, the ACI used Formula Libre regulations, which basically meant there were no rules. This meant the entry list was full of vehicles that greatly varied in terms of weight and engine displacement. The race organizers also had to split the competitors into groups to safely accommodate racing on the oval.
Yes, the 1929 Monza Grand Prix was an oval race. After 1928, modifications were made at Monza to improve spectator safety. Initially, the safety improvements were only made around the 2.8-mile oval portion of the 6.2-mile circuit. 19 starters were split into three groups based on engine displacement. Each group would separately compete in a 61.5-mile heat race with the top three finishers in each group advancing to a 61.5-mile final. The Grand Prix was eventually won by Achille Varzi in an Alfa Romeo P2. Notably finishing in second was Tazio Nuvolari driving a Scuderia Materassi Talbot 700.
The 1929 race would be the only Monza Grand Prix solely contested on the oval. The unique event would continue for the next five seasons, even cohabitating the venue with a returning Italian Grand Prix. The event would even add a repêchage (or last chance qualifier) where those who just missed out on advancing across all groups could race each other for the last few spots in the final. This run of the Monza Grand Prix would end after 3 drivers were killed in 2 separate incidents over the course of the 1933 edition.
The Monza Grand Prix is an anecdote of commercial circumstance and catastrophe. Formula One might be much safer today, but there still are parallels between the historic heat races and modern Sprint Qualifying. There is no perpetual constant within Formula One. Love it or hate it, Sprint Qualifying could be a part of F1 for the next two seasons or the next twenty. No one knows for sure. A multitude of external and internal factors greatly influence the direction of the sport as a whole, not just the race weekend format.