I think we can all agree that the new qualifying format didn’t exactly work brilliantly in Australia. While most would sooner throw the whole system in the bin and simply go back to what we knew before rather than give it the second chance it has been afforded in Bahrain, I have tried to argue there are some merits to the new way which, if given the right environment to flourish, could actually work rather well. But I’m beginning to doubt that there are.
I spoke strongly in favour of giving this new system a fair crack when it was first announced. I’ve taken a fair hit for that and an onslaught of pessimism, but to my mind it was worth giving it a go. Its intentions were solid. Shake up qualifying, shake up the grid, create a more exciting race on Sunday. But while the theory was sound(ish), there are some key, ground level issues which have stopped and will sadly continue to stop qualifying being quite as good as it might have been.
The first issue is straight up negativity. There were a lot of “I told you so” sentiments on Saturday evening in Melbourne. We should take no pride in the farce that was played out in Q3. It was an embarrassment. Attempting to make personal gain with a sneering and lofty attitude is unbecoming. Indeed, so negative was the general consensus that I would argue the system had no option other than to fail. It was doomed before it had even started. The same will be true in Bahrain, where the sentiment will be “Why is this still here?”
Secondly, the TV graphics also let it down. The countdown clock should have started at 90 and should have been in place from the very first knockout, rather than only showing up after a few drivers had already been booted out. Greying out a name also did not work. Perhaps a chequered flag by each man knocked out would have proved a more obvious means of showing who was in and who was out. There was enough confusion going into qualifying. Had the graphics made things clearer, it might have translated to a more enjoyable experience.
But these are small issues and easy to fix. The most important hurdles are somewhat harder to leap.
The big problem (issue three) that many people had was in not allowing drivers to finish a lap if time ran out. Personally, I liked that. It reminded me of the 1980s computer game Out Run, or indeed any one of those racing games where you had a giant timer at the top of the screen. When you ran out of time it was Game Over, whether you were an inch from the checkpoint or a mile.
The fact is, if you allowed every driver to finish a lap that had been started within the 90 seconds allotted under F1’s new qualifying system, then you would have bedlam. The simple rule that if you are bottom of the pile when 90 seconds rings out may seem unfair, but it is the same for everyone. It is very harsh, but that is why it works. It forces drivers and teams to get their sums right and to ensure that they get their flying lap done at the right time.
Haas lost out by less than half a minute for both of their drivers, leaving them way out of position. But it was the saga of Valtteri Bottas that I enjoyed the most. He was looking safe to go through to Q3 until all of a sudden a great pair of laps from Sainz and Ricciardo left the Finn out of the top 8, with a countdown clock against his name and no time to respond. Frankly I thought that was brilliant. Was it harsh? Yes. Was it fair? You could argue not. Or you could argue he should have set a better time earlier.
Therein lies what I like about the system. These are the moments at which you will find drivers out of position. That is when you shake up the grid. And that’s why the system was brought in.
The major difficulty with all of this, however, and this is issue four, is refuelling. Modern Formula 1 cars are not quick and easy to refuel. So if you send a driver out on low fuel for his first run, it follows that you have to bring him back into the garage, unlock the fuel cap, plug in the fuel machine, refuel and send him back out again. We don’t live in an era of quick and easy refuelling. It isn’t possible to pit, change tyres, splash and dash. That is why so many drivers were sat in their garages. And that is why the likes of Haas missed the cut off.
The biggest problem with this new system is that nobody on the Strategy Group thought about refuelling.
The other big setback that we have is tyres. I’m going to call this issue number five. There aren’t enough. If you are expecting drivers to do two runs per session then really, we need to be making more tyres available for qualifying. It’s a simple flick of a pen and a ticking of a box for the FIA to make it happen, which is why it won’t. I’d argue for two sets of super softs for each driver in Q1, Q2 and Q3, and then a super pole shootout between the top two on ultra softs.
As is becoming worryingly clear however, these issues are not simple to rectify in the politicised world of Formula 1. While tyres could be freed up, they won’t be. And the issue of fuelling means that we either have to make the intervals at which drivers are knocked out larger, or teams will start taking unnecessary risks with quicker refuelling.
Or neither of those things will happen and drivers will end up sitting in the garage and qualifying will be a failure. Again. Even bringing in an old style Q3 doesn’t alter the fact that the cars can’t refuel fast enough and there aren’t enough tyres.
So while I was all in favour of giving the system a go, and while I do think that in theory it wasn’t the worst idea, the practicalities of it in the sport today mean that it sadly will not work. Bahrain will be just as bad as Australia. It’s a shame, but it’s the cold reality. Great in theory, pretty rubbish in practice.
So what do we do? Well, Pandora’s box is open and with nobody able to agree on anything, it seems unlikely we will go back to what we had.
So I’d like to propose something completely different.
Here’s the setup and the influence on my thinking… Oval qualifying in Indycar. It’s a system that works, it is TV friendly, it ensures coverage for every driver, every team and every sponsor, it is exciting, it allows for absolutely no mistakes, it’s a proper driving challenge and it might just give us those jumbled up grids we’ve held up as the Holy Grail.
So how would it work?
Either Friday afternoon immediately after FP2 or Saturday lunchtime in the run up to qualifying, Formula 1 holds a televised draw. All 22 drivers are present and pull a number out of a trophy / helmet / large Perspex ball. That number determines the running order for a one lap qualifying shoot-out.
For TV, you’ve got all 22 drivers in one place at one time having a bit of banter and a laugh. Jenson gets 13 for the fourth race in a row, Lewis is drawn as the second driver to go out, Pascal is number 22. Brilliant. So many possibilities. It wouldn’t be like the old days when the running order for one lap qualifying was determined by an actual competitive session. It would be completely random. Completely fair.
Qualifying begins, and each driver has one lap to set his time. Each driver starts his outlap as the one preceding him starts his flyer, and so on, until we have a grid. If it rains, tough. If you lock up, spin, miss an apex, tough. You’ve got one shot, make it count. High pressure, high intensity, from first driver to the last.
Every driver and every team has guaranteed TV time. It’s constant action from start to finish. The chances are you’ll have at least one driver who gets it wrong, and given track evolution you might even see some surprises on the front row.
Give every driver a set of ultra soft tyres. Heck, why not remove the fuel flow limit and try and push these things properly hard?
It’d be sticky tyres, 1000+hp, gutsy, high stakes qualifying. Isn’t that what we all want to see?
When it comes down to it, yes we can try and make it convoluted and complicated and try to shake up the grid in any number of ways, but surely the trick here is to make it exciting but crucially to keep it simple.
So that’s my idea. When we get back to discussing qualifying again after a second shambles in Bahrain, if I was sitting on the Strategy Group, I’d be proposing this.