Paul di Resta, Force India, Spa-Francorchamps, 2013

Top Ten: Memorable qualifying sessions

Top TenPosted on | Author Greg Morland

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?óÔé¼Ôäós 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?óÔé¼Ôäós 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?óÔé¼Ôäós history (though Wilson?óÔé¼Ôäós 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


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?óÔé¼Ôäós 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?óÔé¼Ôäós 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?óÔé¼Ôäós 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.

F1 top tens

Read more top tens

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

Posted on Categories Top TensTags ,

Promoted content from around the web | Become an F1 Fanatic Supporter to hide this ad and others

  • 66 comments on “Top Ten: Memorable qualifying sessions”

    Jump to comment page: 1 2
    1. Interesting article. I’d forgotten all about the bizarre fuel burn bit in 2006. I do remember the aggregate quali, or what little ITV showed of it after Melbourne. I thought the 2003 Friday/Saturday single lap thing was pretty interesting, although it lost something once they lost the Friday session and it should never have been fuel-in to begin with.

      I also remember the early days of the three part knockout, when you had to get your time in before the clock ran out (unlike now when you can set a time after the flag comes out if you’re already on a hot lap). That was interesting watching drivers start a 1.30 lap with 1.20 left on the board and then them suddenly realising a few corners from home it wouldn’t count.

      Further back, there was a German Grand Prix qualifying session in, I think it was 2000, where it started chucking it down literally as the lights went to green and so the whole pack actually raced each other around the lengthy Hockenheim circuit in order to be first man over the line to get the best conditions.

      A bit like the Schumacher-Alonso one it was a proper hardcore on-track dice between cars, with a few of them trying to cheat by running up escape roads to shortcut chicanes and get further up the running order! Those drivers ended up losing their times.

      I think in the end Coulthard headed the pack, grabbed the provisional pole and then the remaining, oh, 55 minutes of the sessions were spent with everyone in the garage because it was clear it wasn’t going to dry up, leaving Murray and Martin a difficult job filling airtime.

      Probably not a classic qualifying hour per se and it was overshadowed by Barrichello’s maiden win the following day but that mad dash round the opening lap was like a bonus Lap 1!

      1. In that qualifying session I remember Frentzen short-cutting the first chicane on his outlap so he could move up in the order. That move was penalized and he lost his first timed lap (which was his best), ending the qualifying in 17th. He had a good race though and was even in contention for podium until car failed.

    2. I remember the 2010 german gp qualifying was great, SV beat FA by 0.002 seconds! Although everybody remembers the ‘Fernando is faster than you’ from that grand prix. Another qualifying that comes to my mind was in the last turkish grand prix. The RB had taken the front row from their first hot lap in Q3 and they didn’t even try a second hot lap in order to save a tyre set!

    3. I wish people on this site would comment on articles like this with a little more information than they give.

      For example @Boomerang “Nothing beats Monza 1990!”

      Please say why it was the best. PLEASE!!!!!

    4. Senna vs Prost: best I remember is Monaco 1988 and 1990. Prost gave everything he had, Ayrton was 1.5 secs faster (i think it was 1990). The facial expression of Prost and Ron Dennis made my day. Both could not believe it. and Suzuka 1989: Senna did it in 1.7 secs less than Prost. Tough to swallow for Alain

    5. France 1999 was memorable for another reason – UK viewers never got to see it!

      Bizarrely, Bernie had discovered that ITV’s contract had never actually included qualifying, and pulled the plug on their coverage of the French & Austrian sessions, leaving them with the race only. Ironically, in between came the British GP, where ITV were in charge of producing the coverage, and thus allowed to show it!

    6. Am no expert, but I thought Spa 2009 deserved a spot. For the sheer surprise and joy !

    7. One qualifying session I remember fondly was Spa ’94. I f I’m correct first (Friday) qualifying took place during wet conditions, but they improved during the session resulting in most of the usual suspects (notably M. Schumacher, Hill) to end up on top again. What everybody missed was that Barrichello crossed the line in his Jordan Hart with seconds to spare and got one more lap in. Obviously, being Spa in wet conditions, the lap took almost 2 and a half minutes to complete. Meanwhile, commentators started rounding up and closing shop, and the FIA had even already published the provisional qualifying results when Barrichello grabbed pole. I’m not even sure they updated the list right away!
      Conditions on Saturday were worse, giving Rubens and Jordan both their first pole position starts.
      I might be romanticizing it a little, but this is how I remember it ;)

    8. Monza 90
      Interlagos 91
      Monaco 92
      Adelaide 93
      Spa 94
      Monaco 96
      Jerez 97
      Suzuka 98
      Magny Cours 99
      Suzuka 2000
      Hockenheim 2001
      A1 Ring 2002
      Malasia 2003
      Monaco 2004
      Monaco 2005
      Monaco 2006
      Indy 2007
      Monza 2008
      Interlagos 2009
      Interlagos 2010
      Interlagos 2011
      Silverstone 2012

    Jump to comment page: 1 2

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    All comments are moderated. See the Comment Policy and FAQ for more.