It seems that with each passing Formula One season comes with it yet another qualifying format to get used to. The FIA like fiddling with the system in order to perfect it, and the news on Friday was that FOTA will hold talks with the FIA next month about a planned adjustment to the way the grid is decided. But do we need a new qualifying format? Is the current system really broken? And why did we ever move away from the old-fashioned way of deciding? You know, fastest driver wins…
The Good Old Days
In the good old days of sorting out the fastest drivers from the slowest and everyone in between, the Formula One pilots were each given a maximum of twelve laps and sixty-minutes with which they had to post the fastest time possible around the circuit. The common option was for the drivers to complete four runs of three laps; an out, a fast and an in-lap. This method was used for many, many years, but Bernie Ecclestone became increasingly annoyed by the lack of track action in the first 15-30 minutes of qualifying – the drivers opting to stay in the garages and let the lesser-funded teams rubber the track in.
The Bad Old Days
The fix this, the idea of a one-lap shoot-out was dreamed up and in 2003 the new system was implemented. Essentially, the drivers came out on track one-by-one and posted the best time they could do. They each only had one lap, and as the lap was complete, the next driver was just about to start their’s, such was the timing of it. However, it was boring and rainfall mid-session unfairly penalised drivers.
The Mediocre Days
In 2006 this was tweaked to something very similar to what we had this year; a three-part shoot-out. The twenty-minute first session sees all drivers attempt a fast lap on whatever fuel load they choose and however many times they can fit in. The bottom five are knocked-out and the session progresses to the fifteen-minute part two where the next bottom five drivers are given an early day. The final phase sees the top ten drivers attempt a lap to get them onto pole position, but the fuel they have left in their tanks after qualifying is the fuel they will start the race with the following day. This final element adds tactics to the qualifying procedure and more often than not, the Q3 times are slower than those set in Q1 and Q2 (typically set on minimum fuel to save weight.).
FOTA are suggesting that all drivers go out on track, each with the same amount of fuel on board to set a lap. For fourteen laps, all drivers will complete a time and the slowest pilot on each tour will be eliminated. After fourteen laps, the remaining six drivers will return to the pits, change tyres and head back out on track to fight for pole position. They will each have the same amount of fuel though, making it more of a fight for the outright fastest.
However, there are problems with this system. Firstly, it becomes processional, much like the one-lap shoot-out was back in ’03, and what happens to an eliminated driver when they’re returning to the pits? If it happens to be a front-runner, are they going to impede the laps of others behind them as they filter back through the field?
Traffic could also prove to be an issue. If I’m assuming correctly and the order the drivers take to the track will be the finishing order of the previous race, what happens if (for arguments sake) Adrian Sutil manages a third place at a rain-soaked Monaco Grand Prix where just about everyone retires? Can everyone behind Sutil in qualifying for the Turkish event overtake? Would following drivers overtake knowing that may lose them time? What if Kimi Raikkonen suffered an engine failure in Melbourne on the first lap? Is he going to have to attempt to qualify behind a Force India in Malaysia?
Ultimately, I am all for equal-fuel qualifying, and no part of the qualifying fuel strategy should be carried over to the race. The two events are separate, and qualifying should allow fans to see the cars and drivers at their absolute, unhindered fastest. That is what qualifying is; sorting out the fastest from the slowest. However, I’ve never really been a fan of knock-out systems as it only reduces the number of potentially odd possibilities, one-off specials and rain-induced pole positions from the back-of-the-grid teams.
What Do You Think?
So what do you think about this new system which, incidentally, could also see a point being rewarded to the pole position winner? Do you think it is better than the current system or any previous to that? Which was your favourite so far. And are you okay with qualifying being tweaked and changed so much from season to the next?