MEDLAND: F1's qualifying works. Why mess with it?

Sebastian Vettel celebrates pole in Canada. Image by Tee/LAT

MEDLAND: F1's qualifying works. Why mess with it?

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: F1's qualifying works. Why mess with it?


I do wonder where new ideas in Formula 1 come from sometimes.

In Japan, the team bosses all decided to get together and have a discussion about ways the sport – or more specifically, ‘the show’ as it is now so often described – could be improved.

Solid plan. No complaints there. So how did it go? According to Force India team principal Otmar Szafnauer: “Great.

“[F1] has got better, but it could be even better. For example, if we had a two pitstop race it could be better, or a combination of some doing one and some doing two. How do we get that? It is all about improving the show.”

He asked the question himself: How do we get that?

“Maybe we came up with some suggestions, but I didn’t hear anything different to whatever was said before.”

Ah. Right. No new ideas there, then.

I’ll admit, more pitstops would help on-track battles due to bigger variations in tire performance at different stages of a stint, and more opportunities to do something different. But on many circuits, the difficulty of following another car makes track position king, so teams would rather opt for a one-stop race and drive below the ultimate pace than a theoretically faster two-stopper and have to make up ground on track.

So the root cause comes from not being able to follow the car ahead more closely and overtake without the need for a massive pace advantage. And F1 is already going about addressing the first part with front and rear wing changes in 2019.

With that fairly significant regulation change coming next year, another item discussed during the team bosses meeting was the qualifying format following a proposal from Liberty Media to tweak it. Instead of three sessions involving 20, 15 and finally 10 cars, Liberty has suggested four sessions of 20, 16, 12 and then eight.

Lewis Hamilton has eight poles so far in 2018. Image by Hone/LAT

It won’t have received total backing in last weekend’s meeting, given McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran’s thoughts on the situation.

“To be honest I quite like [the current] qualifying format,” de Ferran said in Russia. “I think of everything that I have seen over the years – and that’s a pretty wide range including Friday qualifying, Saturday qualifying, also the limited number of laps, single laps, one set of tires per weekend, the whole gamut – I think this is still my favorite type of qualifying.”

And I’m with Gil. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?

OK, we had the one-off strange Q2 in Russia, where penalties and tire choices meant only 10 cars ran, but that was very much an exception. On the whole, the current qualifying format has been a success, especially this year.

With such a close midfield battle, it hasn’t been uncommon to see a team lose one car in Q1 and then have the other in with a chance of progressing into Q3. And the tire regulations help keep the field a little closer together, with the top 10 forced to start on the compound they advanced from Q2 on. Add in a free set of the softest tire for Q3, and there’s nobody holding back once the session reaches the battle for pole position.

I’m not suggesting that just because something is already good it cannot be improved, but the catalyst behind any planned change needs to be analyzed. If the fact that the top three teams tend to easily lock out the first three rows at present is the reason, there’s no guarantee off the same pecking order and gaps next year. It may only be a change relevant to this year.

If it’s more to do with potentially crucial laps being missed as it’s all happening at once, then that comes down to good directing and the use of things like split screens to show more of the action. Fans at the track need things happening in front of them, too.

Plus, it wasn’t all that long ago the qualifying format seemed to be changing every season in an attempt to find something entertaining that set a fair grid with the fastest driver on pole. Breaking it down so that each driver had the track to themselves for one lap could compromise one unfairly over the other, be it due to weather or the track simply getting quicker as the session goes on.

For a brief spell, that experimentation included aggregate qualifying, but that often meant the addition of race fuel or a mid-session change in the weather could mean the outright fastest driver wouldn’t necessarily start from pole position. At the rain-affected 2005 Australian Grand Prix, Mark Webber set the best qualifying lap for the weekend, but still only started from third on the grid despite not having incurred any penalties.

When being fastest wasn’t enough: Mark Webber in the 2005 Australian GP’s Saturday qualifying session. Image by LAT

Even with refueling now banned, two quick laps compared to one stunning one and another with a small error could prevent the fastest lap time from securing honors.

“I think that the most important thing in qualifying, at least for me when I am watching, I want to know the fastest guy is on pole,” de Ferran said. “As a driver, I took a lot of pride in qualifying. I always wanted to be the fastest guy, and I think this format is the best format to actually determine that so that when you’re on pole position, it has some meaning and has some value.”

To that end, adding a Q4 for the top eight wouldn’t change a huge amount. The quickest driver should still end up on pole position, and the structure means they would do so with a lap on low fuel and fresh tires. But then it also doesn’t really change anything, other than reducing the number of cars to keep an eye on in the final session.

It could even have the effect of more cars targeting P9 over a place in the top eight, because it means starting a whole row further forward without being restricted on tire choice. If that were to prove the case, Russia’s Q2 scenario could become less of an anomaly.

And even a small change with the intention of improving things can have big consequences. Remember the knock-out debacle at the start of 2016? Yeah, that.

Making such a change would essentially be a window-dressing exercise. If you want qualifying to be thrilling, make sure the cars are closely-matched. Close performance ramps up the pressure, rewards the best laps, makes mistakes more costly, and reduces the predictability.

You don’t get that through changing the qualifying format, you get that through regulations and the way money is distributed and spent. Even cars that are tough to race will make for a brilliant qualifying spectacle if they’re all within 0.5s of each other.

No amount of tweaks and small changes will go close to the impact of a more competitive field that is able to race closer on track.

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