The Australian Grand Prix left plenty of questions to be answered. One thing which was clear, however, was that the new F1 qualifying format – which saw cars eliminated at 90 second intervals, was simply dire. Martin Brundle said said on air that “it should be put in the skip”.
F1 qualifying has followed multiple formats in the past, and some have been better received than others. One thing which was evident was that the previous knockout qualifying format (which has seen several ever-improving iterations over the nine years it was in action) had no real problems with it.
Really, this all came about as a knee-jerk reaction to Bernie Ecclestone wanting reverse grids for the Grand Prix, which is simply too much of a gimmick. So any past, present or future solution the real solution to the so-called F1 qualifying ‘problem’?
N.B. All formats which explore the idea of gimmicky reverse grids, gimmicky random grids, gimmicky ballasts or (not quite as) gimmicky qualifying races will not be explored here.
12 Laps in One Hour Format
The first major change to qualifying for the benefit of TV purposes was the format used until 2002 which saw drivers given just 12 laps (that includes in and out laps) within the space of an hour. There were flaws however: the early part of the session was incredibly dull where usually only the Minardis would venture out. Red flag periods would see drivers unfairly lose laps. Small teams would complain that later into the session, TV directors would only ever focus on home favourites and those genuinely battling for pole position.
With limited tyres now in F1, and with slick tyres so sensitive to track conditions, this format as it stands would not really work. The rules could be tweaked so that drivers had to return a set of tyres at the end of a 15-minute interval, then that may reduce the issue of having no cars on track in the early part of the session.
F1 decided to have a one-lap (or two-lap in the early part of 2005) Superpole format between 2003 and 2005. This gave the drivers one out lap, one fast lap and one in lap. The notable flaw of having cars qualifying on their race fuel would be irrelevant now. However, F1 cars no longer seem as exciting to watch due to the weight and the way the downforce on the cars work. This system was also incredibly undramatic and simply dull, tedious and was scrapped for a good reason.
This format completely flopped when it was put into action for the first time at Albert Park, somewhat unsurprisingly. But then again, everybody seemed to be predicting it three weeks before it happened. As it stands, in its current iteration, there is absolutely no way possible that this format works.
Was there actually anything wrong with this format? No? I thought so.
A Hybrid Format
It would appear that the proposed ‘solution’ to this qualifying ‘problem’ is that having Q1 and Q2 in the new format with Q3 in the old format is the way to go, however that is simply not the case. What irked many about Q1 and Q2 was that it was possible to tell that drivers would be eliminated well before they actually were, that many of these drivers were sat in the garage whilst they were eliminated, and that there were few if any cars on the track at the end of the session. That’s hardly exciting.
These problems were not exclusive to Q3. Tweaking the format is all well and good, but there is absolutely no guarantee that any of these tweaks will actually solve the issues with the format, which was quite clearly rushed and nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction by the powers that be (yet again).
Is an hour too long for qualifying? A shorter session (which has been proven to work with the knockout qualifying) seems to generate much more excitement than a single long session. A single session of just 20 minutes with a four-lap allocation could work.
MotoGP uses a knockout qualifying format, albeit differently to F1, where the big names are already guaranteed to make it to the final part of qualifying dependant on their free practice times. IndyCar also uses a knockout format for the road and street course events, ironically based partly on the format F1 had previously. However at Indianapolis, the qualifying is determined by a four-lap average, but that format is unlikely to work, especially with the tyres as they are.
This whole mess would have been very much avoided, and time would not have been wasted had F1 not committed yet another pointless reaction to a problem which never existed in the first place and kept with the qualifying format that worked just fine.