Another week, another qualifying rules change, as F1 strives to create a made-for-TV-extravaganza that also produces a good race.
The one-hour, 12 lap, sessions used to be cracking TV and a rare opportunity to see what the teams and drivers could conjure up when they focussed their efforts on a single banzai lap. Problem was they were more often than not better than the races they preceded, with the cars at the front, without any strategy trickery, being the quickest and therefore romping away for the afternoon.
So what can be done to improve the situation?
The three-segment session introduced last season wasn’t too bad – it was particularly entertaining seeing Ralf Schumacher’s scowl as he failed to get out of Q1. However the Q3 ‘fuel burn’ laps were painful and embarrassing. Try explaining to a neutral why the cars are going around slowly to burn fuel, that they then can add so they have a good strategy. I tried with my girlfriend, unsuccessfully (although I did better than my attempts to explain DTM’s pit stop rules).
So for 2008 the fuel burn laps are out, but as we’ve seen it means drivers will cruise in on their in-laps. This, having been a part of Formula 1 for many years, is now decreed an extremely dangerous thing, and therefore like most risky elements of motorsport today must be removed. I am always struck with the irony that the most vocal of the drivers on this matter, David Coulthard, only got into F1 because motorsport is a very dangerous sport.
This means that on Saturday in Bahrain we will have a compromise with drivers having to complete their in and out laps with a set amount of time. It will probably work quite well, but it just seems like another change too far in an unending litany of amendments to the qualifying format.
In the club races in which I compete, a controversial system is currently used – the driver who goes fastest on any given lap in a 15/20 minute session gets pole, the second fastest gets second and so forth. Shocking, I know. Who would have thought that the grid for a motor race could be set on pace alone and not depend on computer strategy wizardry and pit windows.
What’s more this approach also rather negates a lot of the whinging you get in F1 about slower cars and busy tracks. In a typical Formula Vee qualifying session at Oulton Park there are 32 cars on the circuit, and the drivers have just 15 minutes to set there time, regardless if they get baulked or Fernando Alonso gives them the evil eye. Believe me, setting a decent time in one of these sessions is a challenge, but then motorsport is supposed to be difficult, otherwise why would F1 drivers earn their many millions?
My point is this: qualifying is a key aspect of any race weekend. In Formula Renault and Formula Three and often in Formula 13 it is arguably the most important part. And is devastatingly simple in its premise – perhaps more so than the race itself.
Yes it is important for setting up an interesting race, but if it is going to be a TV show too, it must make sense for the common fan. To keep tinkering with the format is a sure fire way to put people off. Six years ago I never missed a qualifying session because they were exciting and unpredictable. Now I rarely watch one, I find them confusing and unnecessarily complicated.
For several years now F1 has struggled to have a cohesive ‘show’ for the entire race weekend. The current format just about works, but for me it is over-engineered and gimmicky. Unfortunately I don’t see F1 reverting to its old system any time soon, but if it does I will be cheering the loudest.