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.
But 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.
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.
This 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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