The Ben Evans column: qualified failure

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Another week, another qualifying rules change, as F1 strives to create a made-for-TV-extravaganza that also produces a good race.

The one-hour, 12 lap, sessions used to be cracking TV and a rare opportunity to see what the teams and drivers could conjure up when they focussed their efforts on a single banzai lap. Problem was they were more often than not better than the races they preceded, with the cars at the front, without any strategy trickery, being the quickest and therefore romping away for the afternoon.

So what can be done to improve the situation?

The three-segment session introduced last season wasn’t too bad – it was particularly entertaining seeing Ralf Schumacher’s scowl as he failed to get out of Q1. However the Q3 ‘fuel burn’ laps were painful and embarrassing. Try explaining to a neutral why the cars are going around slowly to burn fuel, that they then can add so they have a good strategy. I tried with my girlfriend, unsuccessfully (although I did better than my attempts to explain DTM’s pit stop rules).

So for 2008 the fuel burn laps are out, but as we’ve seen it means drivers will cruise in on their in-laps. This, having been a part of Formula 1 for many years, is now decreed an extremely dangerous thing, and therefore like most risky elements of motorsport today must be removed. I am always struck with the irony that the most vocal of the drivers on this matter, David Coulthard, only got into F1 because motorsport is a very dangerous sport.

This means that on Saturday in Bahrain we will have a compromise with drivers having to complete their in and out laps with a set amount of time. It will probably work quite well, but it just seems like another change too far in an unending litany of amendments to the qualifying format.

In the club races in which I compete, a controversial system is currently used – the driver who goes fastest on any given lap in a 15/20 minute session gets pole, the second fastest gets second and so forth. Shocking, I know. Who would have thought that the grid for a motor race could be set on pace alone and not depend on computer strategy wizardry and pit windows.

What’s more this approach also rather negates a lot of the whinging you get in F1 about slower cars and busy tracks. In a typical Formula Vee qualifying session at Oulton Park there are 32 cars on the circuit, and the drivers have just 15 minutes to set there time, regardless if they get baulked or Fernando Alonso gives them the evil eye. Believe me, setting a decent time in one of these sessions is a challenge, but then motorsport is supposed to be difficult, otherwise why would F1 drivers earn their many millions?

My point is this: qualifying is a key aspect of any race weekend. In Formula Renault and Formula Three and often in Formula 13 it is arguably the most important part. And is devastatingly simple in its premise – perhaps more so than the race itself.

Yes it is important for setting up an interesting race, but if it is going to be a TV show too, it must make sense for the common fan. To keep tinkering with the format is a sure fire way to put people off. Six years ago I never missed a qualifying session because they were exciting and unpredictable. Now I rarely watch one, I find them confusing and unnecessarily complicated.

For several years now F1 has struggled to have a cohesive ‘show’ for the entire race weekend. The current format just about works, but for me it is over-engineered and gimmicky. Unfortunately I don’t see F1 reverting to its old system any time soon, but if it does I will be cheering the loudest.

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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14 comments on “The Ben Evans column: qualified failure”

  1. I think the current system works quite well, actually. I’d say the only complicated part is the last session, because you don’t really know who’s gone fastest because of race-fuel qualifying. If they got rid of this then I think this current format would be perfect.

  2. I prefer the current 3 part quali for one simple reason. All cars are forced on track even in the early stages of the qualifying. The old 12 lap qualifying everybody is crying after brought some hectic mad dashes but only towards the end of the session.

    I don’t know, I think we should not complain too much when FIA actually listens and tries to improve things. It may take few more tweaks before the current system is perfectly fine, but why not ? Would it be better if they change it for something totally new ? Or do we really want the old 12 lap system and  then wait for 50 minutes till we see first Ferrari or McLaren on track ?

  3. I’d just like to see them qualify on low fuel, with drivers right on the edge for that fastest possible lap. Pole should be the fastest, end of. It makes sense to me and I’ve watched F1 for years. It makes sense to the neutral spectator too. If they still want race strategy with fuel then make all top 10 drivers submit in a "closed envelope" their intended race fuel prior to session 3.

    My favourite qualifying memories go back to watching onboard footage of Senna. That was without the semi automatic gearbox too. It was always fantastic to watch and a real highlight of the GP weekends. Otherwise when else do we see a driver with fresh tyres and low fuel pushing for that ultimate lap? We don’t. We see drivers getting a good enough time to get into the top 10, but it’s not the same. How do we know they really are going for it?

  4. Whoa, looks like Milos went straight off at the corner there.  Slow down, buddy!

  5. I´d like for qualy, just to put the fuel for the race on Saturday and then have an hour to set your time. So the race starts on Saturday and finishes on Sunday. If you get traffic it is your problem, and if you need more laps to get better on the grid pay for it during the race.

  6. Chalky said all there is to say.Now dont take this too seriously, but if drivers dont want to drive hard for position, let the test drivers qualify or use a substitute, like me! I will do it for free regardless of the risk! 

  7. Yes I know, I can’t handle the corners since the TC ban :-)

    I do not know what’s wrong, I have this problem since the new design here … I used "enter" to forcibly break the lines, I tried to see what happens if I don’t … Well, I went off the track :-)

  8. i personally hate this knock-out system… But the 12 laps qualy wasn’t any better actually. The final part of the session was interesting, just that.

    I loved the 1 lap qualy from 2003-2005. As you could watch the entire lap of each driver. Sometimes even onboard, and you would ALWAYS watch the pole lap. Okey, it had it’s problems, but it was the best format for me.

  9. MacademiaNut
    3rd April 2008, 17:47

    I like the present qualifying format, except for the race fuel load in Q3.  Here’s my suggestion.1. Let the teams declare their race fuel before Q3.2. Q3 has 10 minutes time for every person to set their fastest time.3. The best part:  No refueling during Q3.  You need not start with the race fuel.  4. In lap:  You must get into the pits within your best time + 10%; and your car may not stop (due to lack of fuel) during the in-lap.  If so, you are relegated the last spot.On the race day, you start with the race fuel you declared before Q3.

  10. as many said, take away the fuel restrictions and this format is way better and more entertaining than anything done before.

    qualis on fumes!

    i would possibly add an additional tweak: the top three have an additional chance to improve  on their q3 time in a q4 single-lap shoot-out in direct order (1 to 3).
    so we really get the first three to push and enjoy their laps fully

  11. The traditional longer, open-type qualifying sessions of the past were fine when you were actually at the track watching and were walking from corner to corner for different vantage points.
    But making a qualifying system that will work for the short attention span of TV couch potatoes, myself included, is a different matter. I think they are getting there, and they should keep working on it.
    Schuey qualifying at Spa-I tried never to miss it. The in car view was the best!

  12. I dared suggest elsewhere that maybe qualifying should be disposed of completely and we should order the cars by blind draw.

    I think the realism of the matter is to consider that there is no way for a qualification system to fairly order the cars from fastest to slowest: that is what the race is for. As we see from week to week, the race doesn’t do that good a job of ordering the cars, either.

  13. I think we keep Q1,2,3. For those that get knocked out in 1 & 2 they get a random grid position within that bracket, ie qualifiers knocked out in Q1 are givien a random position from 17-22. For Q3, the fastest and 2nd faster qualifier are on the front row, but the rest of the Q3 qualifiers get a random grid position 3-10.

  14. Robert McKay
    4th April 2008, 18:26

    Isn’t tweaking qualifying just fiddling while Rome burns? Until the aero is properly fixed then it doesn’t matter where everyone starts, there’ll still be no passing. Ok, we don’t want it like NASCAR where being in front is positively a disadvantage, but cars need to be able to run closely without being seriously hampered by the airflow.

    Back to quali:

    The fuel load thing is rubbish, as we all know, more or less. It kind of made some semblance of sense when it was brought in (with the the hateful single-lap quali). There was a choice to be made, either running very light for track position or running very heavy and cashing in on race day. But things like the "field spread" (Brundle is always going on about it) and the aforementioned aero passing problems render it a bit pointless as all the teams more or less gravitate to the same time for stopping, plus/minus 1-2 laps at most. I really don’t get the "write the fuel load in an envelope before Q3 starts" school of thought. It just seems unneccessary (though god knows F1 loves unneccessary). You might as well run it on empty tanks. Being 11th and being allowed to pick your fuel on the day was only a (small) advantage for a few races anyway. I don’t know what the official FIA line is on WHY they actually have to qualify on race fuel, because the reasons they might have started doing it no longer apply these days.
    The old 1 hour, 12 lap format was good, but too few laps for too much time. An in-out-hot run takes around 6 minutes, roughly, times 4 is 24 minutes, for a 62 minute session (given the final run was generally being made after the flag was out) – no wonder there was so much dead time. If you want that format back, give them more laps and then there’s less sitting around waiting. In 1996 they could do as many laps as they wanted.

    Me personally, I’d adopt a similar style of Moto GP’s quali. An hour, unlimited laps, but with a few sets of qualifying tyres for the end. I like that because being superquick on a quali tyre does not mean you have a great race setup and there’s no certainty by any means that pole sitter=race winner. By all means make quali about being the fastest driver/car package over one pure hot lap, but do it in a way that’s a bit different to race day, to give more variety and possibilities for things to change.

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