Much has been written about the revised qualifying process set to be introduced at the 2016 Formula One World Championship season opener in Melbourne in 10 days’ time. Questions have been raised around its introduction, is it simply change for the sake of change? whether or not the broadcasters and timing software providers can support the change at such short notice and perhaps most fundamentally will the change have any impact on the racing itself.
For context the FIA announcement regarding the qualification process and details around the changes themselves can be found here.
As a fan of the sport, I believe the new qualifying process could have been fantastic. Unfortunately owing to the politics of the sport in which regulation is defined by committee, what may have started out as a great concept became watered down into something that may have little or no impact. I believe the originators of the concept may well have been mandated to bring jeopardy to Formula One action on a Saturday. To increase the frequency of cars on track and increase coverage of mid field teams. To make qualifying ‘must see TV’
In order to achieve this, inspiration was taken from the world of cycling. More specifically from the Elimination race which takes place in a velodrome. In this event competitors lap together all on track at the same time, once a certain distance is met the rider in last place is eliminated lap by lap. This film from the London 2012 Olympic Games shows a race in full.
Now, imagine if the FIA had been able to implement a system where by qualifying positions were determined in this format. In a totally unconstrained view of the process, drivers could actually be challenged to overtake in qualifying to move up the grid. It’s possible to imagine this kind of session could far exceed the entertainment of a standard race let alone a qualifying session.
Then sanity kicks in, how do you determine the order in which car’s leave the pits to ensure no unfair advantage? Not possible. So the session becomes time rather than position constrained. All cars must be lapping on track at all times, and the slowest lap after a predefined point in the session becomes the first car to be eliminated, until there are only two cars left.
Also not possible. Current tyres would not last an entire session in which drivers would have to complete at least 25 laps (warm up laps then 22 elimination laps, one per car) So the system is sanitised again through maintaining the Q3, Q2, Q1 philosophy, with a set number of drivers eliminated from each session after a predetermined period of time. Splitting the session allows drivers to pit and not be disadvantaged.
Finally, the concept that all cars eligible to run in a session must be running on track at all times with only their last lap being the lap that counts. Again not possible because it sends out the wrong environmental message about fuel and tyre waste. So the system is sanitised again. Drivers have to set a lap time within the opening 7 minutes of a session, after which time the slowest driver will be eliminated one after the other with every 90 seconds that passes. Which means the top teams will possible run even less than with the current format, and this is the new process we are left with.
The originator of the regulation had a fantastic concept, drawing from great sporting events, but in order to achieve that much heralded ‘unanimous approval’ from the F1 commission, the concept is watered down in to a change that the casual fan may not even notice. Sure we should wait to see the process in action, but I doubt the objective of making qualifying must see TV will be achieved through this change. Democracy in Formula One is serving only to stifle the sport.