Australian Grand Prix qualifying: What went wrong?

Debates and Polls

Paul di Resta, Force India, Melbourne, 2013Instead of setting up the first race of the season, the first qualifying session of 2013 gave us one-quarter of a grid and two hours of sodden marshals sweeping water around.

This is the third time an F1 qualifying session has been postponed. It happened twice previously at Suzuka in 2004 due to the approaching typhoon Ma-On and again three years ago due to heavy rain.

Could it have been avoided? Or are occasional disruptions to sessions unavoidable?

Race control: Too cautious?

The rain grew heavier and lighter at different stages causing first Q1 and, later Q2, to be repeatedly delayed. The start of the session was held up by half an hour and the beginning of Q2 was delayed by a further hour before being postponed until tomorrow.

The chief concerns in wet weather are visibility and aquaplaning. When the cars took to the track for Q1 it was clear the conditions were challenging: Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Giedo van der Garde, Charles Pic and Esteban Gutierrez all crashed during the 20 minutes of running.

Some tracks are better equipped to cope with heavy rain than others. Temporary venues such as Albert Park do not have the advantage of being custom-designed to aid drainage and pose other hazards such as painted lines on the surface which become slippery when wet.

All this, as well as input from Medical Car driver Alan van der Merwe who made regular inspections of the course, will have factored into the decisions taken by the FIA’s Charlie Whiting. But some believe the sport has become overcautious when it comes to risk management.

Start time: Too late?

The Australian Grand Prix start time was moved back to 5pm in 2009 so the race would be broadcast at a less inconvenient time for audiences in Europe. Qualifying is held at the same time.

However this leaves little room for manoeuvre if the session is disrupted. With sunset due at 7:38pm, as the rain delay wore on it became increasingly clear that poor visibility due to falling light levels would be a problem.

The stewards cited “inclement weather conditions and the failing light” as reasons for the postponement. Had the session started earlier in the day there would have been a larger window in which there might have been good enough weather to hold qualifying.

Qualifying format: Too complicated?

Although qualifying was not run in its entirety, all 22 cars did take to the track and set times. Why then, is this not sufficient to form a grid?

The regulations do not allow the times for Q1 to be used to form the grid. This is fair and logical, as drivers are compete in it with the goal of progressing into Q2, not necessarily to achieve the best possible lap time.

But the point remains that if the qualifying format were less complicated – if, say, a single hour of qualifying were used as was the case in 1993-2002 – the limited amount of running the cars were able to do today could have been sufficient to form a grid.

Over to you

How do you think F1 should respond to qualifying being postponed? Which solutions do you prefer?

Or was F1 simply the victim of bad luck? Have your say in the comments.

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121 comments on Australian Grand Prix qualifying: What went wrong?

  1. electrolite (@electrolite) said on 16th March 2013, 12:37

    But the point remains that if the qualifying format were less complicated – if, say, a single hour of qualifying were used as was the case in 1993-2002 – the limited amount of running the cars were able to do today could have been sufficient to form a grid.

    There’s your solution for this morning, if you ask me…

  2. fishfingers (@fishfingers) said on 16th March 2013, 12:38

    The start time of Q2 and Q3 is great! Nice and convenient for watching just before bed.

    They should take note of that for 2014. It would be awesome if qualifying was at 11pm UK time on Friday and the race was at 11pm UK time on Saturday. They could still show a repeat the following day.

    Then there would be no problems with light and no doubt the TV audiences for the live broadcast would be significantly better.

  3. wigster (@wigster) said on 16th March 2013, 13:02

    As I was only listening to commentary on the radio I can’t really comment on whether race control was overly cautious, but in general from the races I have seen, I think in general, they are overly cautious when it comes to running in the rain.

    The start time I think should be one that suits the local audience rather than an international one. After all the event is part of the Formula One WORLD Championship, and there are events spread across a lot of the worlds time zones. Just as the championship is moving away from being Europe centric, it’s audience should too, and to help that spread, surely the races should start at a time that suits the locals hosting the race rather than European TV audiences. That way all audiences will lose out at some point and have races at inconvenient times, but I think that’s only fair when its a world championship. Presumably in the case of Australia that would mean an earlier start time to allow time for unexpected delays to happen and sessions still to finish before it gets dark.

    Finally the current format of qualifying is fine. Reverting back to the old 60 minute / 12 lap system wouldn’t help, you would still end up with people complaining about the outcome if sessions were stopped early. And after all there are contingencies to form a grid using number order, run qualifying early on race day, or the stewards can decide something else.

  4. beninlux (@beninlux) said on 16th March 2013, 13:03

    I’m based in Europe, but was more concerned with the Aussie fans. To have braved the weather themselves, only to be told that it was too wet for the cars must have been a big disappointment.
    I plan to take my young (4yo) son to Spa for Saturday Quali. I’m not sure he’s sit still for a whole race but think he’d manage 3 Quali sessions. I’d hate to take him and it be cancelled due to weather

  5. foleyger (@foleyger) said on 16th March 2013, 13:27

    Lets say the race should start at 1pm local time in Australia. That would mean 2am here to watch it, which would be perfect. Qualifying should have been on earlier too. If Bernie is really worried about exposure to the fans, have cheaper tickets, more races and season available on DVD and not picking rubbish tracks cause they will pay him like Bahrain. True fans will always stay up for the live action.

  6. MahavirShah (@mahavirshah) said on 16th March 2013, 13:55

    I think a lot of time was wasted by being cautious. There were clear periods when the rain had abated sufficiently to atleast have Q2 in the bag. Instead, playing the watch and wait game meant that those precious periods were lost. I am sure once the cars would have take o track during those moments, the track would have been dried enough atleast for inters to be used on a proper racing line. There have been races in weather much worse than this. I think this is becoming an increasingly common occurrence during rain. Even Montreal 2011, when the rain was low enough to get a proper race saw the safety car circulate for around 10-11 laps.

    In my view they could have atleast let the cars out to circulate for a few laps and then begin the qualifying. If they can do it in races I am sure this could be done in qualifying as well. If the conditions became worse as they did then by all means call it off. But at the very least, try!

  7. Nick.UK (@) said on 16th March 2013, 14:03

    The light wasn’t really an issue in my opinion. A contributory factor for sure, but it continued to rain after dark so it’s a bit of a moot point. As for the start time, yes if the session was at an earlier time we could have had a complete session, but that’s the same as saying; “Well, if we did the race last week it wouldn’t have been rained off.” It’s a nothing argument, the race is scheduled at a certain time well in advance, if it rains during that time then it’s just bad luck and you work around it to achieve the best possible result.

    I think the sessions should be scheduled for no later than a 3.30pm start – or four hours before sun down in any location for that matter. If the limit on a session is 4 hours, why not leave enough time to accomodate the full time allowance should it be needed? Silly.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 16th March 2013, 14:29

      @nick-uk

      yes if the session was at an earlier time we could have had a complete session, but that’s the same as saying; “Well, if we did the race last week it wouldn’t have been rained off.”

      Of course I’m not saying “it was dry earlier, they should have held qualifying then”, that’s obviously a useless, after-the-facts line of reasoning.

      The point is that the earlier a session starts, the higher the chance that we’ll get sufficiently good conditions to hold a session in.

      For example, if you start a two-hour race two-and-a-half hours before it goes dark, then a delay longer than half an hour (for any reason) will cause a problem.

      But if you start the race earlier, you have a larger window of opportunity to hold the race. That half-hour delay isn’t a problem any more.

      I think the sessions should be scheduled for no later than a 3.30pm start – or four hours before sun down in any location for that matter.

      Exactly.

      • Nick.UK (@) said on 16th March 2013, 15:34

        @keithcollantine Yeah I think we are on the same page. My comment was relatively generalised in response to the article and sitiation in qualifying. I wasn’t accusing you of making the suggestion that I highlighted.

  8. Antonio (@frosty-jacks-racing-team) said on 16th March 2013, 14:25

    I have only just watched the highlights on BBC and I was a little confused the weather didn’t look THAT bad compared to some I have seen. Is it more the modern cars are less suited to rain or the track being temporary being too treacherous? I’m guessing the circuit must have quite a change in elevation or something, maybe you locals can knowledge me :D

    • HoHum (@hohum) said on 16th March 2013, 15:34

      Firstly, Tony, TV cameras compensate for “Low light” so it was a lot darker at the track than it appeared on TV, secondly the track is flat so the water does not run off quickly.

  9. Did they actually change the start time for this race?

  10. Lauri (@f1lauri) said on 16th March 2013, 14:37

    Current Quali format is the best I’ve experienced. I’ve followed F1 for more than 20 years and we have had really boring Quali formats. Lets stick with this one!

    The main reason is that race time is too late. Same for Korea (?)! Just make the race and Quali start earlier local time, and you have more room to play with.

    And the tyres. Cars should have even more extreme tyres. Is it so impossible to make? I think the wet-weather tyres haven’t changed a lot for years and years. Maybe time to improve their capability in clearing water?

    • Lin1876 (@lin1876) said on 16th March 2013, 15:05

      @f1lauri Can’t imagine that creating a monsoon tyre would be that difficult. If my memory serves me correct (and it may not), such a thing existed in the 90s, though I could be talking rubbish.

      I’ve no idea how much water the Pirellis clear in relation the the old Bridgestones, but I imagine it’s around the same amount. I suspect that’s somewhere in the fine print of the contract.

      • Kimi4QDC said on 16th March 2013, 16:02

        It’s not about tyres. Teams basically don’t even look at what they can change for rain conditions anymore. Why should they, if they can get session stopped at their convenience.

        Look at the rain setup 10 years ago or more now you can hardly find a difference, it’s inconvenient.

      • Metallion (@metallion) said on 16th March 2013, 16:13

        @lin1876
        I believe too that there was a monsoon tire in the 90’s but it was rarely used so they stopped making it to save costs. I was trying to find some info about it but I couldn’t really find any good source.

        I found that the 2010 Bridgestone tires could clear 61 litres of water at 300 km/h while the 2011 Pirellis could clear 60 litres. I don’t know if that has changed since the 2011 season though.

        • Lauri (@f1lauri) said on 17th March 2013, 15:11

          So these couple of races just have to start earlier, to be able to postpone and stop the sessions for 2-3 hours.

          But do the cars go to water slide because of tyres can’t cope with the water or because the floor “floats” on the water?

  11. craig-o (@craig-o) said on 16th March 2013, 14:40

    The answers to the three questions asked? No, no and no.

    The difference between tracks like Silverstone and ones like Albert Park is that Silverstone is a purpose built racetrack. Albert Park is not, we’ve also had a lack of rain over the last few seasons there so if there’s a problem, we just haven’t noticed it. Note that MontrĂ©al and Albert Park are two very similar tracks, and last time it rained there, we were sat waiting for two hours.

    The start time, is one with a no-win situation. You can either have the start time at 3/4am and have hardly anybody watch it (I know I would struggle if I had work or coursework to be able to mess up my sleeping pattern), or you can have it at 5/6am with the risk of running low light. Alternatively, the date of the race could be a few weeks earlier, where the sun stays up a bit longer, but I doubt the teams would be up for this…

    As for the quali format, I’d keep it as is. If you have a situation like this, or one where in the event of somebody being seriously hurt, I think it would be harsh to turn around to a driver, who may have not gone absolutely flat-out in Q1 for example, and tell him “yeah, you’re starting there tomorrow.” despite having the potential to be further up the grid.

    I just think this is one of those weird situations. Canada 2011 and Brazil 2009 seem more like a decent reference than Europe 2007 or Silverstone 2008. We all remember what happened in Canada and Brazil.

  12. Lin1876 (@lin1876) said on 16th March 2013, 14:53

    Let’s assume that race control are not being too cautious, and that anything significantly worse than intermediate conditions really does require a red flag (I’m not convinced, but for the sake of argument let’s proceed with that view). Surely that’s a problem with the cars, which seem unable to survive conditions which cars could a decade ago. Are the tyres less effective? Are the cars significantly lower to the ground? Is the suspension gemoetry ill-suited to a wet track? I’m no engineer, but the fact that other series can and do run in far worse conditions suggests this is a problem which affects F1 far more than other series.

    What of the solutions? Pirelli could create deeper wet tyres to raise the ride height and move more water. Perhaps the teams could be allowed to make wide-ranging set-up changes in the event of weather changes, hence removing the problem of cars set up for dry running having to cope with a sodden track. As for the spray issue, perhaps F1 could consider IndyCar-style wheel guards which would act as mud flaps.

    It’s clear that the status quo is not working, because we have seen needless disruption at several races in recent years. With the sport visiting countries like Malaysia, China and Japan where heavy rain is very likely, a solution needs to be found because the weather can and will be worse than what we saw this morning. Solutions like deeper wet tyres and allowing set-up changes would be quick to implement, and the FIA have acted quickly in the past, like after the tyre fiasco at Brazil 2003.

  13. Steve Tyson said on 16th March 2013, 15:00

    It was a farce and its time Charlie Whiting retired, his rain calls are getting more and more timid. These are the best drivers in the world and they have rain tyres, get on with it! I bet Sir Stirling Moss would be staggered at the wusses that run F1 these days. Pitiful!

  14. mildertduck (@mildertduck) said on 16th March 2013, 15:28

    If drivers don’t want to drive, they can just *not* drive… there are options in the rules for cars which don’t set times…

  15. GT_Racer said on 16th March 2013, 15:30

    Speaking to some guys at the track, Seems the conditions were much worse than they looked on TV.

    The rain was apparently extremely heavy for a large portion of the delay while on TV they didn’t always look that bad.

    The painted lines round the track have been painted by something which has made them twice as slippery at they usually are & all 22 drivers were complaining about them.

    Also there were 2 rivers going across the track which cameras couldn’t really pick up right due to the angles. The 1st was where Pic crashed exiting turn 10 & the other was in the kink going down to turn 13.
    The one exiting T10 was draining from a massive puddle that had formed behind the concrete wall.

    There was also a big puddle through the T8 sweeper, They showed on the Sky coverage that Hamilton had a big moment there early in Q1, The puddle was said to be much worse after the heavy downpour that came down after Q1.

    Regarding how decisions like this are made, Its not just Charlie Whiting sitting up in race control deciding these things. He’d have got some input from teams/driver, Got feedback from the medical car driver, Been watching the weather radar to see if there’s any rain on the way, He’d also have been getting input from marshall’s & FIA people around the track. The marshalls & FIA people around the track would inform him of any standing water & any places where rivers are going across track.

    Regarding the medical car, Its sent out more so the driver can look at where puddles have formed & he can surprisingly get a pretty decent gauge on how much or little grip the surface is providing.

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