Top Ten: Memorable qualifying sessions

Top Ten

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

Three-way tie

1997 European Grand Prix stasrt, JerezThe 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

Minardi first!

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

Aggregation consternation

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

‘Rascassegate’

Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Mark Webber, Monaco, 2006In 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

Qualifying race

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

Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Hungaroring, McLaren, 2007Two 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

Sebastien Buemi, Toro Rosso, Suzuka, 2009In 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

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Sepang, 2010Strategic 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.

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Images ?? Williams/LAT, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Daimler, Red Bull/Getty

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66 comments on Top Ten: Memorable qualifying sessions

  1. Boomerang said on 1st September 2013, 11:13

    Nothing beats Monza 1990!

  2. 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.

    I had never thought of it that way before. I guess an old phrase comes to mind here…

    Fantastic article as always!

    • Guilherme (@guilherme) said on 1st September 2013, 18:16

      @vettel1 It also reminded me of the 1984 season – if Prost didn’t push for the red flag in the Monaco Grand Prix, he’d be awared 9 points instead of 4.5 while Lauda had retired – and even if we assume Senna would have overtaken him, it would still have been 6 points, which by the end of the year would have secured him the championship by 2 points!

  3. Dimitris 1395 (@dimitris-1395) said on 1st September 2013, 11:17

    For me 1999 San Marino and Suzuka were the best quali sessions I’ve ever watch. Also Austria 1998 was quite unexpected.

    PS. In Malaysia Lotus and Virgin were making their 3rd F1 start…

  4. KaIIe (@kaiie) said on 1st September 2013, 11:17

    Nice list, but it’s definitely missing one of those epic Mika-Michael sessions from Suzuka. All the three sessions from 1998-2000 (especially the last one) were like watching a boxing match, with the contestants having four shots at pole and delivering heavier blows with every fresh set of tyres.

    • mzs16 (@mzs16) said on 1st September 2013, 11:34

      Totally agree, to me the ’98 edition was the most memorable of those three.

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 1st September 2013, 12:36

      They were indeed good, but I suppose they were little different to any of the other Schumi v Hakkinen qualifying duels of the era. I generally prefer to try and pick out the more unusual incidents in F1 history!

      • GeeMac (@geemac) said on 1st September 2013, 13:38

        @ned-flanders The Schumi – Hakkinen qualifying session I always remember most has to be San Marino 2000.

        Hakkinen’s lap was nothing short of remarkable, grabbing pole by the slenderest of margins (which I know to be 0.091 seconds thanks to Wikipedia :p) after having been a tenth down at the end of the second sector and after having made a mistake at Variante Alta. That lap was so special it very nearly defines him for me.

    • Osvaldas31 (@osvaldas31) said on 1st September 2013, 13:15

      Yeah, I remember one of these kind of qualifying session battles between Schumi and Hakkinen, but it wasn’t Suzuka, because it was broadcasted later in the day. Schumi beat Hakkinen by 1 thousandth of a second. It was epic. Maybe someone can remember which grand prix it was?

  5. Still shivering from Hungary 2007.

  6. David not Coulthard (@) said on 1st September 2013, 11:36

    Monza ’08 and Suzuka ’10 wasn’t too bad……..I think.

  7. Austria and Belgium 1998 were very memorable to me. Alesi and Fisichella fighting over pole in Austria was an impressive sight, even if neither could stick around in the race. I think Damon Hill really outdid the car in qualifying for the Belgian GP as well, beating Schumacher in wet conditions.

  8. kiufiu said on 1st September 2013, 11:53

    this was an era when the FIA was often jokingly referred to (with some justification) as “Ferrari International Assistance”.

    Now this is laughable. Even if this does not hold any truth in it, people keep repeating until it will become the common truth, the axiom of F1. Such a shame, for an otherwise very good article.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 1st September 2013, 12:45

      Whether or not you agree with it, it was a commonly used phrase at the time.

      • Indeed it was; I don’t know how people can take offence at this comment.

        @keithcollantine should link the phrase in the article to a Google search for that term: https://www.google.com/search?q=%22ferrari+international+assistance%22

        When searching for that exact phrase gives 80,000 results, you can’t argue that it wasn’t in common use.

      • P Smith said on 26th October 2013, 19:09

        Sometimes it’s referred to as the FIAt. Ferrari is run by FIAT, and the FIAt is run by Ferrari.

        If the 2006 season doesn’t make you believe in a pro-Ferrari bias, nothing will:

        * Alonso was penalized for “slowing” during Monza qualifying while he was risking life and limb to get to the start line for a hot lap

        * Renault’s “illegal” aerodynamics were penalized (despite being within the rules) while Ferrari’s illegal aerodynamics (1999) were not within the rules but NOT penalized

        Among other questionable calls that benefitted Ferrari and Michael Backmarker.

    • Exactly. The FIA pulled out all the stops after the 2002 and 2004 seasons to stop Schumacher’s domination of the sport.

      Kind of like how people bring up that old “bespoke tyres” chestnut. Michelin had the better tyres from 2003 onwards. McLaren went to Michelin after 2001 not because Bridgestone favoured Ferrari but because they saw Williams leapfrog them in outright pace in 2001 with Michelin tyres. Williams had come from nowhere to challenge Ferrari and McLaren.

      • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 1st September 2013, 22:20

        Michelin had the better tyres from 2003 onwards.

        Michelin certainly produced some very good tyres for 2003 – which were then effectively banned on dubious grounds a few races before the end of the season.

        That began one of the longest streaks of success for Ferrari – they won 15 out of 16 races from that point onwards and the performance advantage they had from their bespoke Bridgestones clearly played a significant role in their success.

        • The FIA press conference, with Patrick Head and Ross Brawn coming to metaphorical blows over this issue, reminds me of the Pirelli Mercedes debacle this year…

          I think it would have been good for F1 to have had Montoya or Raikkonen crowned champion that year too. It would have broken up Ferrari’s 5 year winning streak, which resulted eventually in random rule changes to try and stop their streak :P, which brought about half the sessions in this article!

          I remember Silverstone 2004, it was mad to see Alonso go through Stowe at full whack, before basically stopping in Vale as if it was an out-lap. But we got to see the car up close and almost at a stand still!

    • +1 for kiufiu. It was a commonly used phrase for you so keep it for yourself. How would you call it nowadays after Red Bull escaped sanctions scot-free 3 years in a row (blown diffusers deemed illegal at first in Silverstone than allowed, without point deductions, gum front wing etc.)? Formula Red Bull World Championship?

      • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 1st September 2013, 22:13

        It was a commonly used phrase for you

        By “commonly used” I obviously meant “by more than one person”. I’m not so arrogant I would say that if I utter a phrase often enough it has entered “common use”.

      • I also think it would have been better for F1 if the FIA had not backtracked on these changes, and maybe broken up Red Bull’s streak (likely to be 4 this year).

  9. David-A (@david-a) said on 1st September 2013, 12:19

    Monza 2008 and Interlagos 2010.

    • P Smith said on 26th October 2013, 6:47

      Monza 2008 definitely belongs on the list. We knew back-field teams with customer engines were getting faster and Vettel was a rising talent, but NOBODY predicted Vettel on pole, never mind a win.

      Vettel’s pole and race win are in some ways more impressive than Senna’s second in the rain at Monaco with a Toleman back in 1984. Senna was driving a car with a naturally aspirated engine (thus he could feather the throttle) while the likes of Mansell and Prost had turbos (full power or nothing). Vettel, on the other hand, had an engine equal and inferior chassis, yet he was able to outperform Ferrari, McLaren, Sauber and Renault. Driver skill counted much more for him than it did for Senna. And that was BEFORE the economic meltdown and cost cutting measures, when the front teams were spending hundreds of millions (a billion?) more than the back teams.

  10. One which was by no means a classic but a really memorable one for me was Monaco 2011 – that lap from Vettel was nigh-on perfect and of course there was Perez’s crash to add to the drama.

  11. the_sigman (@sigman1998) said on 1st September 2013, 12:34

    Interlagos 2009. Big names at the back, and the longest qualy ever :P

  12. “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.”

    In fairness to Hamilton and his character, his intent wasn’t under-handed/malicous. Alonso left the pits behind him, Hamilton then refused to cede position because both Ferrari’s came out of the pit right behind Alonso and would have meant potentially losing track position to them. Hamilton had the foresight to see the best thing to do in that given situation was to remain as they where, and as Keith says, if Alonso had have let this situation play out, things could have been very different.

  13. matt90 (@matt90) said on 1st September 2013, 12:50

    The grid, which had previously been decided by two separate qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday, was not* settled in a single hour of action.

    *Should that be now?

    A nice list. I forgot just how poor the early 2005 qualifying system was.

  14. Alessandro Aleotti said on 1st September 2013, 12:52

    What about Monza 2008? Ferrari and McLaren tac mistake and Vettel’s first Pole and win!

  15. Kanil (@kanil) said on 1st September 2013, 13:36

    Kimi doing a near perfect reenactment of Michael’s parking job at Rascasse in 2007 was pretty funny and memorable. It looked so remarkably similar, I at first thought they were showing a replay of 2006.

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