Soapbox: Bring back one-lap qualifying

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Magny-Cours, 2007, qualifying, 2Everyone seems to think the qualifying problem has been fixed – but Duncan Stephens of Doctorvee reckons there are still big problems that need fixing.

Recently I have begun to wonder if I should bother watching the qualifying sessions. What should be done with qualifying has been one of F1′s most contentious issues over the past few years.

This has led to a great deal of tinkering with the system. And still most people feel that the current format is far from perfect.

Before I continue, let’s take a look at the route that has been taken with the qualifying formats. Many fans now pine for the days of old – the system where each driver had 12 laps to set the fastest time in an hour-long free-for-all session.

A few years spent experimenting with variations on a format where each driver had just one lap were deemed by most to be a failure. So for 2006 the system reverted to what is essentially a modified version of the old free-for-all.

People look back on that 12 lap system with rose-tinted glasses. But let us not forget that there were very good reasons why that “12 laps in an hour” format was ditched.

Under that system, you were very lucky if anything meaningful happened in the first fifty-five minutes. And you were lucky if anything at all happened in the first half an hour. Even then, it would probably only be a Minardi with airtime-hungry sponsors.

Then, in the last couple of minutes, it would be a complete information overload. All the cars would be on track trying (and usually succeeding) so set their personal best time. It was action-packed, for sure.

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, Montreal, 2007, qBut you could not see the wood for the trees. All too often, it was simply impossible to keep track of who was doing what. And unless the TV director was really on the ball, viewers would end up missing most of the important action. You would be just as well seeing a list of times scrolling across the screen rather than pretending to make sense of what is actually happening on the track.

As I said, the current format is really just a revised version of that system. The addition of knockout stages was designed to force drivers to go onto the track in the early stages of qualifying. What has happened instead is that we now suffer all of the problems of the old format in microcosm – three times every race weekend.

Nevertheless, many seem to think that the current system is at least close to perfect. Some say that simply taking out the race fuel levels to remove the tedious fuel burn-off phase would be enough to spice up qualifying.

I too would favour the removal of the fuel burn-off phase (an embarrassing anachronism given that the FIA wants F1 to become more environmentally friendly). But I could not pretend that doing so would make the qualifying sessions any more exciting.

In Q3 nothing meaningful ever happens until there are at most about two minutes of the session to go. Most people point at the fuel burn-off phase as the cause of this. But Q1 and Q2 – where cars run on fumes – also suffer from similar problems.

Increasingly, nothing at all happens for the first three minutes of each session. Then, as the end of the session nears, it is complete bedlam.

The most recent qualifying session at Magny-Cours was a typical example. More than once, the TV director was noticeably struggling to keep up due to the sheer volume of traffic coming across the start / finish line – and he seemed to give up completely during Q3.

Even using Formula1.com’s excellent live timing feature, it is just impossible to keep up with what is happening. I really would be just as well not watching qualifying and just reading the results once it’s over.

So what do I propose instead? I know this will be controversial, but I want to see a return to the one lap format. I usually felt like I was in a minority of one, but I was a big fan of the one lap system.

Jenson Button, Honda, Magny-Cours, 2007, qualifyingSo what does the one lap format have going for it?

First of all, from a TV viewer’s perspective, you were guaranteed to see all of the important action. You would see the whole of the pole lap and you would see it when a driver made a mistake. You just don’t get that under the current system.

Fans of the “free for all” style say that it is exciting because it builds up to a crescendo. But the reason it built up to a crescendo was because it spent the first forty-five minutes as a whimper.

But the one lap format also built up to a crescendo – but without leaving fans with nothing to watch for most of the hour. Because the top drivers were usually out on track last, you did not know who was on pole until the last driver had crossed the line. Often, it was nail-biting stuff, particularly when the championship was nearing its climax.

As we know, many drivers crumbled under the glaring spotlight of the one-lap format. Kimi Raikkonen was a high-profile scalp in the very first one-lap session. Michael Schumacher was also caught out at Imola in 2005. Every driver was caught out at one time or another. It was nail-biting stuff.

Who could forget Montoya losing it on the very last corner at Hockenheim in 2005? You simply do not get drama like that under the current system. This is because drivers are not put under that kind of pressure to perform. Make a mistake? Under the free for all system this is no problem – just go round again (or fall back on your banker lap). By contrast, the one-lap system was uncompromising.

Nico Rosberg, Williams-Toyota, Montreal, 2007, qualifyingThis led onto another of its benefits – unpredictability. It mixed up the grid without compromising the ideal of having the fastest driver on pole position. This allowed drivers like Nick Heidfeld to score a pole position on merit.

Sure, there were plenty of times where drivers used light fuel loads to get a “Mickey Mouse” pole (Jarno Trulli being the stand out example). But this problem can be solved simply by fixing the fuel rules.

The slightly mixed nature of the grid also led to more overtaking during the race, which is what everyone is screaming out for at the moment. There was the time, for instance, where Michael Schumacher had a mountain to climb just to score a point at Suzuka in 2005. That made for a tense, exciting race.

Sure, Schumacher’s grid position was down to bad luck because of the weather conditions during qualifying. This was not ideal, but you would be a fool if you did not believe that luck had a huge part to play in the free for all system as well.

How often do you hear drivers excusing woeful performances by whining about traffic? This is something else that happened in the recent Magny Cours session, when Anthony Davidson said the amount of traffic made it feel like he was on the M25 – that being his excuse for not being quick enough.

Drivers also often have their laps ruined by yellow flags. Even red flags can ruin a driver’s chance as he would lose a run under the old 12 lap system or run out of time under the current system. None of this was a problem with the one-lap system.

For all of these reasons, I was a fan of the one-lap format. Even though I was on my own, I was opposed to the move away from it. Now we are once again stuck with a system that varies from mind-numbing tedium to brain-frazzling information overload.

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11 comments on Soapbox: Bring back one-lap qualifying

  1. Long term I suspect the answer is to embrace IDTV – let the viewer control their own coverage.

    We already have multiple camera angles available for football, NFL and cricket, how hard would it be to make mutliple feeds available for selction from behind the red button or on the net?

    Whilst covering every driver and every corner is a bit extreme, the viewer could perhaps choose from the following:

    1. Usual TV Coverage
    2. Most recent ‘fastest’ lap.
    3. Laps from the big 4.
    4. Onboard with driver of the day.
    5. Fixed stream from an interesting part of the track.
    6. Highlights

    Broadcast it in HD, make it free and I’ll have a moon-on-a-stick please!

  2. the above 6 points are quite close to what Kangaroo TV offers during the race weekends.

    The one lap in terms of being able to see everything. It was not as bad as many say. I did not like 2 things about that:

    a) It took one hour from the first to the last driver to complete their flying laps. The track conditions were too different, the weather changed. Drivers with bad result in a race were penalized for the next race with unfavourable qualifying run.

    b) It was OK on TV, but quite boring on the track during the race weekends. Watching cars one by one for 2 hours and at the same time having almost nobody out during free practice (because of the old rules) did not bring good value for the price of the ticket.

  3. f1punter — that sounds very similar to the old F1 Digital + service. I recently wrote about why I think they should bring it back.

    milos — Good points. I can sympathise with the idea that it might be a bit boring if you are at the track.

    As for point a), I disagree with the point about drivers being penalised for having a bad result. For one thing, this helped to mix the grid up a bit without resorting to Mickey Mouse methods. If a driver had an unfavourable quali run, it was because he deserved it. Plus, it creates another incentive for drivers to overtake during the race.

    Watching qualifying at the moment, another problem with the current system has occurred to me. The random weight checks which can ruin a driver’s entire session. In one-lap qualifying they could just weigh each car after they’ve done their lap.

    And we also saw the yellow flags problem in Q1, when Davidson went off on the track. For a long time at the end of the session (when it is most important) drivers were unable to improve on their S3 time because of the yellow flags.

  4. Robert McKay said on 7th July 2007, 14:54

    I do agree with some of the points raised here. Given a lap takes 90 seconds, roughly, then clearly one hour was far too long to do 12 laps. However, the problem with single-lap quali was (a) it was unfair when the track conditions changed hugely: sessions starting dry and fnishing wet just rendered it a lottery as you had to go when told to, and not choose your own time and more importantly (b) it was dull. I think the majority of F1 fans would say that. True you did get to see all the laps, which was one benefit, but the lack of ability to respond to a lap removed a lot of the excitement. It was tense, yes, but more because drivers LOST pole by making mistakes than drivers winning pole.

    I also agree that we are seeing the teams, nearly all of them, leaving their Q1/Q2 runs ever later and so cramming more laps into the final moments. That problem was in part created by letting drivers finish laps aftr the chequered flag, and not like the original set-up where you had to have the time before the clock hit 0. It effectively increases each session to almost 17/18 minutes: again, far too long for a maximum of two runs of three laps.

    Not sure what the ideal solution is. The current system is not bad, though Q3 is the weakest part which is ridiculous as it’s most important. It needs to be low fuel too. Maybe Q1/Q2 only need to be 10 or 12 minute long – 15 is too much.

  5. I found one-lap qualifying frustrating to watch. After watching the first five go round (because Jordan, the team I supported, was invariably among them), I would mentally switch off for the next several and only pay attention again for the last four drivers (from whom pole was almost invariably selected). Fuel considerations (which also afflict the current system) made pole relatively meaningless – until this year, when overtaking was finally made so difficult that qualifying became everything.

    It also made teams and drivers so cautious that they would either qualify at 9/10ths of their true pace (not what qualifying was for) or give up altogether (most sessions had at least one driver not bother to set a time). As a result, mix-ups were rare (I certainly don’t remember any that were not either weather or mechanically-related) and the sense I had that pole had been earned went away. Attaching the qualifying order to the previous race result, while preventing the occasional farce (Silverstone 2004 comes to mind), accentuated the “unearned” problem.

    The real reason 12-lap quali was originally dropped was the long build-up. Even though I for one enjoyed the build-up, contracting the length of qualifying would have been a far superior solution to a method that was dull and rewarded conservatism over speed.

  6. Personally I would like to see a mix between the options. I would like a return to the hour long free for all; however, I think it should be split into three where each driver needs to have set a time within a certain percentage of the number one to continue. The times would not be reset though, a time in any part of the hour is counted.

    I don’t think they need to decide on fuel until the morning of the race, I would rather it be a complete surprise rather than now where we pretty much know what is going to happen. Of course banning refuelling would be the ideal.

    I would also like to a see a return of the within percentage rules so that some teams could fail to qualify and therefore would not even start.

  7. Carldec said on 7th July 2007, 21:23

    I love the new qualifying. I have always found it exciting and I enjoy rooting for the backmarkers to make it into Q2 and then into Q3. I think it is totally superior to the old single file way of qualifying and I hope they never go back to the old way. I now look forward to Qualifying almost as much as the race.

  8. It all depends on the object of qualifying. If you are trying to put on a good show for the television viewers, the present system provides a lot more excitement and tension (admittedly in small bunches) than any previous arrangements. But if the idea is to establish who is the fastest and the grid order, today’s system is too constrained by silly rules on fueling and tyres – too often it comes down to who had the best (and most ridiculous) strategy for the shoot-out.

    Being an old fogy, I would say: Let them have an hour to get the fastest time they can, no limits on fuel or tires (except that they must be race tyres, not qualifiers). Then those who have a minor problem with the car have time to sort it out, anyone overcooking it and landing in the gravel isn’t automatically excluded and everyone gets a fair crack.

    Sure, it won’t be the great spectacle we seem to expect these days, but why must F1 always bow to the desires of the TV audience? Money? Oh yes, I was forgetting that…

  9. One burning lap is the most honest format for qualifying, though, not to borrow too much from sportscars, I’d rather it be two or three.

    I think the ideal qualifying format would be a session where the cars are lined up in the pit and sent out one by one by a steward, not with cars alone on the track, but after the first car is sent out, the next car waits until the first car reaches sector two or three depending on the length of the track, and so on until all cars are out and have gone for their allotted time or lap distance. (Three laps- exit lap, hot lap, and cool-down lap should do just fine.) The order can be determined in the same way it was for the one-lap format.

    If a one-lap on-your-own format is reintroduced, I hope that there can still be an “elimination” concept so that one bad lap can ruin your grid position, but in order to earn pole, you must have three good ones. Better yet, how about having the top eight or ten hot laps put in a sprint race for pole? Would that take too long with the expected number of cars next year?

    Despite the criticism, I indeed find the qualifying sessions more interesting than the race itself on most weekends this year.

    (Just out of curiosity, how many times has David Coulthard been the first one out on a Q session this year?)

    The problem I see with bringing on the one-hour system is that F1 teams think they are exposing some secret if they put their car on the track too soon, so that in the end, most teams don’t have more than two cracks at a good lap anyway, so unless the time limit is turned down to about 5 minutes, I don’t see a good reason to use a timed format.

    Good topic.

  10. Nathan Jones said on 8th July 2007, 4:54

    this guy has obviously bnever been trackside while the 1-lap system was in place!
    the new system is good but i do miss the old 12 lap system

  11. Scott said on 8th July 2007, 10:00

    Doctovee talks about a return to “the old system” of 12 laps, however this too is a relatively new system. Depressingly some of us can throw our memories back a lot farther and compare some much earlier versions :-)

    To me the big difference came when the focus changed from “establish the grid order” to “maximise the entertainment and crowds on the Saturday”. The former is about the event and is relatively straightforward to do, the latter is only tangentially about the race, and requires a lot more fiddling to be fair, meaningful, and a good show.

    Sorry to broaden the discussion, but the shift seems to me to be symptomatic of a wider shift in society. F1′s qualifying fiddling is about improving the show to bring in more fans, however not all things can appeal to all people. Football doesn’t do well in the US, and I’ve always felt a part of the reason is that US sporting culture needs things constantly happening – scoring in basketball, constant downs in American football etc, whereas football has long periods of pressure waves, probing, passes – it doesn’t fit. Fortunately football has a large enough worldwide appeal it doesn’t need new boots and panties to pander to the US audience, but F1 is not like that, and is seeking to change and expand. As far as existing fans are concerned, it’s not always for the better.

    Personally I rather like the new system, however for me at least it fails in what it sets out to do in that I don’t watch it all the way through – why watch the 12 slowest being eliminated, then the 10 fastest circulating for 10 minutes? I tune in for the last 10 minutes or so and watch the meaningful part. What I like about it is that the compromises each driver introduces have an effect on the race. It carries a level of strategy and intrigue. Most complaints are that there is no flat-out one lap, but we get that more or less in Q2. Anyway the old one lap would be compromised now by engine life, no tire competition etc. For me one-lap will mean Senna with one set of super-stickies left, sitting in the garage with three or four minutes left looking for a gap in the traffic to nail a one off banzai effort. Now that I would tune in for!

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