The twists and turns of last weekend’s qualifying session for the Belgian Grand Prix proved the highlight of the event.
After the surprise of two Marussias and a Caterham reaching Q2 and the drama of Paul di Resta’s pole position near-miss, the race was always going to struggle to top it.
Qualifying is increasingly an unmissable part of an F1 race weekend. But live broadcast qualifying sessions are, fore viewers in many countries, a comparatively recent introduction.
The 1996 season marked a major turning point in the qualifying rules. The grid, which had previously been decided by two separate qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday, was now settled in a single hour of action.
This proved a much better solution for television yet F1 continued to tinker with it. In the early 2000s a new qualifying format was introduced almost every year.
Eventually the three-part knockout system became established. But each of the different systems has produced memorable moments like the ones we saw last weekend. Here’s ten of the best.
1997 European Grand Prix, Jerez
The remarkable qualifying for the season deciding 1997 European Grand Prix at Jerez has a habit of showing up in these top ten lists.
Jacques Villeneuve set the reference time in the the one hour, 12-lap session, crossing the line with a lap of 1’21.072.
Championship rival Michael Schumacher was up next and remarkably matched Villeneuve’s time to three decimal places. He did so despite passing a Jordan which was being recovered by a course vehicle under yellow flags after brother Ralf had spun off. The Ferrari driver escaped a sanction but it was a contentious point as Villeneuve had been disqualified for a similar infringement at Suzuka two weeks earlier.
If that wasn’t incredible enough, Heinz-Harald Frentzen astonishingly then set the same time as his team mate and Schumacher. Then as now, the rule book said the drivers would take positions based on the order in which they set the times, handing Villeneuve pole position from Schumacher and Frentzen.
it mattered little on race day as Schumacher and Frentzen passed Villeneuve within seconds of the lights going out. That set up the controversial conclusion to the championship which saw Schumacher swing into the side of Villeneuve as the Williams driver attempted to pass.
1999 French Grand Prix
Barrichello triumphs in rain
The grid for the 1999 French Grand Prix was more a ranking of each driver’s ability to predict the weather rather than their speed. The first three men to set lap times – Rubens Barrichello, Jean Alesi and Olivier Panis – took the first spots on the grid. They demonstrated the value of setting a ‘banker lap’ in mixed conditions, having correctly predicted the rain would only get worse, while their rivals lounged in the pits.
Putting into perspective quite what an unusual top three it was, none of their teams – Stewart, Sauber and Prost respectively – had previously set pole position.
Further down the grid, title contenders Mika Hakkinen and Eddie Irvine were a lowly 14th and 17th respectively. Five other drivers – including Jordan’s Damon Hill – failed to beat the 107% time, though they were permitted to race.
More rain on Sunday ensured the race was just as unpredictable as qualifying. Panis dropped to eighth, Alesi spun out of podium contention in a mid race deluge, and Barrichello finished a fine third. But it was Jordan’s Heinz Harald Frentzen who took the chequered flag.
2003 French Grand Prix
The first of several new qualifying systems was tried in 2003. A ‘single-shot’ format saw each driver get one chance to set a time.
To determine the order in which drivers did their laps on Saturday, each had to do a lap on Friday. At Magny-Cours mixed weather conditions saw the Minardi duo of Jos Verstappen and Justin Wilson top the time sheets for the first and only time in the team’s history (though Wilson’s time was later annulled for technical infringements).
Unfortunately for the perennial backmarkers, it was only Friday qualifying. And despite having secured an advantageous running position the following day, the two drivers ended up on the back row of the grid as usual.
2004 British Grand Prix
Win when you’re spinning
The following year Friday’s qualifying session to decide the running order was moved to Saturday, but it remained an unpopular solution. And at Silverstone that year it was downright farcical.
A fundamental flaw in the concept had been exposed. The fastest drivers in the first part of qualifying earned the right to run last in the grid-deciding second part. Running last in qualifying is usually an advantage as by that time the track surface is cleaner and has more rubber on it.
But that doesn’t apply if the teams have studied a weather forecast and expect rain to arrive during qualifying. This led to most drivers completing slow laps in an attempt to secure an earlier starting position for the following session. Some drivers even deliberately spun on track in order to lose time.
This eventually forced another re-think of the qualifying rules. In the meantime the fickle Silverstone weather delivered the inevitable punchline to the ridiculous proceedings as the anticipated rain failed to materialise.
Nor was this the first time F1 had seen a deliberate ‘go slow’ on the part of some drivers in qualifying. At Magny Cours two years earlier, Arrows instructed their drivers to deliberately lap outside of the 107% time during qualifying as they could not afford to race the following day. The team folded a week later.
2005 Australian Grand Prix
The 2005 season saw the introduction of a poorly conceived two-lap aggregate qualifying procedure was introduced, in which the final grid positions were not decided until Sunday morning.
For the first race of the year in Melbourne the qualifying running order was set by the finishing result of the previous round of the championship which had taken place six months earlier in Brazil. A heavy downpour fell halfway through the session with the result that those drivers who had finished in the middle of the field in Brazil occupied the front rows in Australia.
So Giancarlo Fisichella, Jacques Villeneuve, David Coulthard, Jarno Trulli and Christian Klien, who had all finished between 9th and 14th at Interlagos, lucked into top six starts. Most of them scored points on race day, with Fisichella taking victory for Renault.
Not surprisingly the aggregate qualifying system proved hugely unpopular, and was scrapped after just six events.
2006 Monaco Grand Prix
In 2006, F1 introduced its seventh different qualifying system in four years, and finally it was on to a winner. The three-part knock-out qualifying system proved a hit with fans and has been used in much the same format to this day.
Qualifying well has always been of paramount importance at Monaco, where overtaking in the race is virtually impossible. And with a 20-minute shoot-out now deciding pole position, most of the front runners would set their quickest laps at the same time, presenting an opportunity for the unscrupulous.
Arriving at Monaco Schumacher trailed championship leader Fernando Alonso by 15 points. Both made it through to the Q3 shoot-out and Schumacher’s first effort – a 1’13.898 – gave him a slender margin over Alonso of less than a tenth of a second.
But two-thirds of the way around his final lap Schumacher had found no improvement – he was almost two-tenths of a second off his previous best as he passed the Swimming Pool. Arriving at Rascasse the Schumacher took an abnormally tight line on the way in, and slid suspiciously wide at the exit, coming to a stop. That brought out the yellow flags, preventing his rivals from improving on their times.
Few expected Schumacher to be stripped of pole for his blatant tactics – this was an era when the FIA was often jokingly referred to (with some justification) as “Ferrari International Assistance”. But, after hours of deliberation, the stewards agreed Schumacher had “deliberately” parked his car, and sent the seven-times champion to the back of the grid.
2006 French Grand Prix
Popular though the new qualifying was, it was not without its flaws, the most glaring of which was the bizarre ‘fuel burn’ period seen in Q3. A quirk of the rules meant drivers spent much of the final session circulating the track for no reason other than to use up fuel as quickly as possible in order to reduce weight and set a faster time.
It took two years for F1 to get rid of ‘fuel burn’ qualifying which was tedious to watch, complicated to understand, and did nothing for F1’s environmental credentials.
However a rare highlight of the ‘fuel burn’ laps came during the 2006 French Grand Prix. Alonso and Schumacher, still duking it out for the title, spent the first half of the session racing each other around the Magny-Cours track, each trying to gain track position over the other.
Straight after leaving the pits, Schumacher dived down the inside of Alonso under braking into the Adelaide hairpin, and then covered off the inside line down into the next corner to prevent the Spaniard from re-passing. But a few laps later Alonso pulled the exact same move on Schumacher to regain his place at the head of the field.
Alonso’s psychological victory mattered little: Schumacher led an all-Ferrari front row and romped to victory on Sunday.
2007 Hungarian Grand Prix
Meltdown at McLaren
Two major stories dominated the 2007 season: allegations over McLaren using confidential information from Ferrari, and the fierce rivalry between reigning twice-champion Alonso and precious rookie team mate Lewis Hamilton.
In qualifying at the Hungaroring the two stories collided with dire consequences for McLaren.
Ahead of the session, it was agreed that Alonso would be given track position ahead of Hamilton at the start of Q3. But Hamilton refused to cede the position when the session began, to Alonso’s intense displeasure.
Both McLaren drivers had to visit the pits between runs and Alonso came in first, followed by Hamilton. It was here Alonso seized an opportunity for revenge: with time ticking down before the chequered flag, Alonso delayed his departure from the pit box as Hamilton sat behind him, ensuring his team mate would be unable to set a quicker time.
Alonso’s final effort handed him pole position – temporarily. The stewards decided he had deliberately impeded Hamilton and handed Alonso a five-place grid penalty. They also didn’t think much of McLaren’s defence and told the team they would be stripped of any points scored during the race.
But that penalty became moot once the full ramifications of the weekend had played out. Following the debacle of qualifying a furious Alonso allegedly told McLaren boss Ron Dennis that technical information from rivals Ferrari was being secretly used within the team, and threatened to inform the FIA if he was not given preferential treatment over Hamilton.
Dennis – whether genuinely shocked by Alonso’s revelation or attempting to jump rather than be pushed – passed the information on to the FIA. This began a chain of events which ended with McLaren receiving a $100m fine for using Ferrari’s information, and Alonso leaving the team.
This was not the end of the consequences for Alonso. On race day he struggled to make much progress back up the order and could only recover two places to fourth. Had he stayed his hand and settled for a likely second on the grid and in the race, the extra points could have helped him to a third world championship at the end of the season.
2009 Japanese Grand Prix
Mayhem at Suzuka
In 2009 Suzuka made a welcome return to the F1 calendar after a two-year break. The sinuous course is a favourite among drivers but it is also highly challenging, as an eventful qualifying session featuring no fewer than five shunts proved.
The field was already down to 19 cars before qualifying even began, Mark Webber having pranged his RB5 in final practice. Once the session got underway Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi spun off at the first Degner but was able to crawl out of the gravel trap.
In Q2 his team mate Jaime Alguersuari went off at the same corner and hit the wall, bringing out the red flags. Four minutes after qualifying resumed, Timo Glock’s weekend – and, it subsequently turned out, his season – came to an end when he injured his leg in a high-speed crash at the final corner.
Soon after the wrecked Toyota was cleared away Buemi was in the wars again, hitting the wall at the exit of Spoon and causing a nuisance as he traipsed back to the pits in his battered car.
A third red flag appeared when Heikki Kovalainen became the latest driver to visit the barriers at Degner in Q3.
The drama didn’t finished stop the chequered flag. Following the session four drivers were penalised for speeding under yellows, two received penalties for gearbox changes, Buemi was sanctioned for dangerous driving and Glock’s car was withdrawn.
This threw the starting order into disarray. Once it had finally been checked and triple-checked the mass of penalties had some unusual repercussions. Rubens Barrichello, for example, had been handed a five-place penalty, yet only moved back one spot on the grid in the final reckoning.
2010 Malaysian Grand Prix
Top teams trip up
Strategic incompetence left McLaren and Ferrari with egg on their faces during qualifying for the 2010 Malaysian Grand Prix. Neither anticipated the rain shower that hit the Sepang circuit in the closing minutes of Q1, ensuring their drivers were unable to set a competitive time before the heavens opened.
Ferrari drivers Alonso and Felipe Massa qualified 19th and 21st, sandwiching Hamilton’s McLaren in 20th. Jenson Button scraped through into Q2, but a spin on his way back to the pits left him beached in the gravel and unable to continue, leaving him 17th.
Never before had McLaren and Ferrari’s full works line-ups failed to qualify inside the first eight rows of a grid. Among those who lined up in front of them were Kovalainen and Glock who shared row eight for two new teams who were making their third F1 starts.
Over to you
Which qualifying sessions stand out in your memory from the past 17 seasons? Have your say in the comments.
F1 top tens
- Mark Webber’s top ten F1 races
- Top Ten: Track masters
- Top Ten: Memorable qualifying sessions
- Top ten: Jobs for a retired Formula One driver
- Top ten: Unbeatable Formula One records
Read more top tens
Images © Williams/LAT, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Daimler, Red Bull/Getty