Fairer or just more complicated? Formula E’s new ‘duels’ qualifying explained

Formula E

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Formula E’s original qualifying format was criticised for putting certain drivers at a disadvantage. Was that criticism fair, and will the new ‘duels’ format which will be used for the first time next week prove a change for the better?

What was wrong with the old format?

Since it started in 2014, Formula E used a format which split drivers between four different groups, during which each had a short window of opportunity to set a single timed lap. The fastest drivers from the groups would then go through to an additional round of one-by-one laps to decide the order of the top six cars (originally five).

To begin with the groups were decided by a somewhat laborious qualifying ‘lottery’, which didn’t help to offset the somewhat village-fete-esque vibes of those early Formula E events.

Even in those opening seasons, drivers sometimes considered themselves particularly disadvantaged by the system. The high track evolution on Formula E’s low-grip street tracks sometimes meant the later groups had a better chance of setting faster times. But, in general, the fastest cars ended up in Super Pole during the early seasons. Sebastien Buemi, the most dominant driver during FE’s first three seasons, took eight of his 14 career pole positions during that time.

In the 2017-18 season groups were switched to be decided by championship order. Therefore drivers with the most points coming into an event were put in group one, the next five into group two and so on. This was initially viewed as a move to make the order fairer, preventing the random, luck-of-the-draw element of groups. However the front runners were quick to complain it made their lives harder.

Formula E’s qualifying format is getting a shake-up
Nonetheless, the fastest cars generally kept on winning. Techeetah were able to exploit Renault’s dominant powertrain with operational advantages to take the drivers’ title for Jean-Eric Vergne that year and Audi took the teams’ championship with what was almost certainly the fastest and most efficient car on the grid.

While the race format was overhauled when Formula E’s ‘Gen2’ era began, qualifying stayed largely the same. The occasional rumblings of protests about group one being disadvantaged continued but, with a handful of exceptions, the fastest cars usually competed for pole.

However the strange circumstances of Formula E’s most recent two seasons raised questions about the format’s shortcomings. At pre-season testing in 2020 it was noticeable that teams and drivers were practising slipstreaming.

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Techeetah’s dominant clear-up during the six-race Berlin finale of the 2019-2020 season had been partly down to playing the aerodynamic game – not something that had been a huge factor in low downforce FE before – to make massive significant gains. Rival teams also suspected it had been a key part of Antonio Felix da Costa’s extraordinarily successful qualifying run at the Tempelhof races which saw him clinch the title earlier in the season than Formula E had ever seen.

New ‘duels’ format will decide grids in 2022
Even so the fear of ‘group one’ last season seemed exaggerated at times and prompted something of an over-reaction from teams. In a four-minute session there might be some advantage to going out dead last but there’s a much bigger disadvantage if you fail to set a lap – something which happened more than once, even to the title contenders. One memorable qualifying in Monaco saw Mercedes attempt to slow down group one before the chequered flag, creating a congested, nose-to-tail hot lap for all six.

Whether group one really was a sentence for a poor qualifying is hard to tell. The second group out often had much better luck at getting to Super Pole, despite less track evolution between the two. Perhaps the fact teams were less inclined to play games in group two was a contributing factor.

However, qualifying results for the top-scoring teams did begin to affect the championship order. Poor qualifying sessions for Jaguar and Mercedes contributed to the back-and-forth swings of the constructors’ title and could’ve done the same for the drivers’ if Mitch Evans’ car hadn’t stopped on the grid at the final race.

But the double-header weekends in the 2020-21 season made points swings across a single event gigantic and also contributed to the swings of form in a championship which saw 18 drivers enter the final weekend with a chance of taking the title. But as the pandemic continued to make double-header races something of a necessity, group qualifying was an easier target to address.

Throwing down the gauntlet for duels

One of Formula E’s limitations is that it can’t use an F1-style qualifying system – or even a more open-session one, like in junior series – because of its extremely tight circuits. F1 has had a few near-misses at shorter circuits, like the long queue of cars at the Red Bull Ring last year and if Formula E was to try the same on much shorter, narrower tracks disaster would be a practical certainty. So splitting out drivers in some way will always be necessary.

A few years ago in Marrakech, Lucas di Grassi said he believed the fairest option would be to send drivers out individually for one lap and so minimising the time between each car and avoiding the risk of someone else’s crash during a group affecting your lap. Whether that would have been fairest, it’s not what Formula E have decided on after working with drivers, particularly Sam Bird, to agree its new format.

As of the first races in Diriyah in two weekends’ time, Formula E will now only split drivers into two groups. For the first race of the season, these will be decided as one driver from each team goes to group A or B; from then on, it will be by championship order with the odd-number-placed drivers in group A and the rest in group B.

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De Vries won Valencia race one but failed to escape group one
Each group of 11 cars gets 10 minutes to run as many laps as they like and the top four of each group go through to a second stage, known as ‘duels’. For these duels, the drivers are paired up to go head to head; in the quarter finals, the fastest from group A is paired with the fourth-fastest from group B and so on. Each pair then gets a chance to run a lap each, with the fastest in each duel going through to semi-finals.

The process then repeats, until the fastest from each semi-final goes to the final and then whoever is fastest in the last duel takes pole, the slower finalist lining up alongside them on the front row. Whichever of the remaining semi-finalists set a faster lap will take third, the other fourth and the same for quarter finalists down to eighth place.

The rest of the grid is determined by their group qualifying order, with whichever group the pole position driver came from taking odd-numbered places on the grid and the other even-numbered. In theory, that eliminates any track evolution advantage between the groups but also means the pole winner determines not just their own place but also 14 others.

Within Formula E’s packed, one-day format schedule it’s a complicated process. Teams and drivers, for the moment, seem enthusiastic. Whether that remains the case after the first weekend will be one of the many things FE’s had to try out to find out.

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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24 comments on “Fairer or just more complicated? Formula E’s new ‘duels’ qualifying explained”

  1. I haven’t watched much Formula E (I keep meaning to and I’ll make an effort to keep on top of the calendar from now on) and so far the only events I’ve watched are the main race. To be honest, I’ve not thought much about qualifying and didn’t realise that’s how they’d done it.

    Any qualifying format which requires a couple of read-throughs to grasp it doesn’t seem like an elegant solution, but I approach everything with an open mind I’m looking forward to seeing the duel format and see how it looks. Hopefully it works well. What I’ve seen of Formula E I’ve really enjoyed and it’s changed so much since it started, at first it did feel like a bit of a novelty race but it’s evolved into a great racing series. ….I just need to make sure I watch more of it!

    Di-Grassi’s suggestion of sending 1 car out at a time for a hot lap seems pretty good. Maybe have a 20 second gap between each car going out and have every car go out twice. But I’m just a keyboard warrior, I don’t know enough about the sport to know if that would really work.

    1. @geekzilla9000

      Any qualifying format which requires a couple of read-throughs to grasp it doesn’t seem like an elegant solution

      I agree, but there isn’t anything about it which strikes me as unfair or inconsistent (unlike, say, F1’s sprint qualifying) so I’m not actually against it. Seems a bit convoluted but it may prove alright and I’m happy to give it the benefit of the doubt. And grateful for motorsport in January!

      1. I have to agree this format seems to be more fair than the previous format, so it’s got that going for it. But this does seem in the same vein as the changes made to Formula 2 and 3 last year (that’s already been changed for next season), where even after explaining it still made no sense how the 3 races had their grids set.

        It also runs the risk of being to gimmicky, which just devalues the sport as a, well, sport. Motorsports is already a thing where technic easily supersedes pure racing craft as a factor for who can win and who cannot, but adding in more and more artificial gimmicks just dilutes that even more.

        I think Formula E, now that electric gets faster and faster with each generation, has to start moving away from artificial tracks towards real tracks sooner rather than later, and when that is done, move away from the gimmicks and just adopt a normal qualifying session.

    2. Rather than thinking about it in so much detail, think of it like it is – a fifa world Cup knockout tournament.

      You have a few group stage where everyone competes, then a series of 1v1 duels with the winners advancing, the overall prize being pole position.

      Frankly, we don’t need to know (nor do I care) that the first place in group A faces fourth in group B or whatever it is. Just a list of who is racing who.

    3. I’d agree that on the face of it, one-lap qualifying is the most simple, elegant solution. However, surely this would encounter the same problems with track evolution unfairly disadvantaging the earlier drivers and probably isn’t workable for this reason. F1 dabbled with it in the mid-noughties and as a purist I have to admit the knockout quali we have now is much better, though for reasons already stated, F1’s quali format isn’t really practical for FE either. I’ll have to be open minded about this format until we’ve had a season with it, even if it seems a bit unnecessarily complex.

  2. Jonathan Parkin
    19th January 2022, 7:51

    What was wrong with one hour twelve lap qualifying. It was easy to explain and easy for the viewers to understand. But the trend seems to me to make qualifying so arcane and complicated because reasons!

    I get it there was a ‘dead’ period where nothing happened. There are three ways round that a) reduce qualifying to 45 minutes b) increase the number of laps drivers are allowed to do or c) Do both

    Doing it this way means if there are any penalties to be applied a driver loses their fastest/2nd fastest/3rd fastest time(s) so they will have a time listed on the qualifying list as opposed to nothing, and it also means fastest is on pole, slowest is at the back. You don’t have weird situations like four drivers who were eliminated in Q2 setting a faster time than the 10th place driver in Q1 for example

    1. I think the old regular quealifying format is quite static compared to new modern and dynamic solutions. I think the newer formats get more viewers interested and also fits with the modern aesthetic of Formula E in general.

    2. Ahm, Jonathan, you seem to adress issues you see with the F1 qualifying format. But that is not changing. Instead this article is about formula E (the electric formula car racing worldchampionship) where there were previous some issues with the existing format of qualifying (as is described in pretty solid detail in the article).

      1. Jonathan Parkin
        19th January 2022, 13:59

        Yes I am talking about the old F1 qualifying from ’96-02 but I was trying to put across (very badly) is there WAS a simple system for a qualifying session that could apply to ANY single seater series but it doesn’t

        Instead we have a ridiculously difficult system that isn’t easy to read and is lengthy to explain. As opposed to 1 hour, 12 laps per driver, 4-6 of which set the time for the race the next day

        1. It would still encounter the issues described above, with too many cars being on track causing dangerous situations.

    3. The problem with one hour 12 lap qualifying was that often for the first half an hour nothing happened. Maybe a backmarker would go out to get some air time for its sponsors but generally it was quite dull until the last 20 minutes or so.

      I remember a particular Italian Grand Prix Qualifying session (i think it was 98) where Murray Walker was reduced to talking about some grass he had picked up from a crack in the asphalt because it might have been ran over by one of his boyhood heroes.

      1. Jonathan Parkin
        20th January 2022, 4:45

        So either reduce the time to 45 minutes, increase the number of laps or do both

  3. That new qualifying format sounds fine, although the end might drag on a bit. But to be honest, I don’t think it could possibly be any worse than the last one. So this change can only be a positive.

  4. It looks fair. I like it. F1 should try it at least in Monaco where to avoid crash-decided poles and in Monza to avoid queues.

  5. Actually sounds like fun to watch!

    Thinking out of the box, I can also imagine a 1 hour session for all drivers with a maximum of 1 (or maybe 2) flying laps per run. A traffic light at the end of the pits to limit the amount of cars being out on track at the same time. This could give everybody a shot at 2 or 3 runs, with a bit of tactics going on when to join the queue in the pit lane. And combine it with a start/finish line that is before pit entry to remove the need for a full in-lap.

  6. Sounds like FE qualifying might actually be worth watching – I found the old format a bit of a waste of time. The amount of action over the qualifying “hour” was probably only about 20 minutes worth when you had all the groups essentially doing their lap at the same time. And the teams never learned to stop tripping up with each other, and with the groups in championship order the result always just felt totally random and artificial, which made the entire championship feel totally random and artificial over the last few years.

    I want the champion to be *generally* the best driver/car combo over the whole season. Doesn’t always work out exactly like that, but what I don’t want is for it to be just who lost the fewest points from being mired in the crash-bang-wallop midfield because the qualifying system essentially guaranteed that’s where they’d be.

    Also, if I remember rightly to the dim and distant past, didn’t Superleague Formula have a sort of “duel” system with knockouts etc. for quali? Although I think there they were even more adventurous and had both cars on track at the same time half a lap apart?

  7. Having different qualifying for E series is not a good way of selling EV to the masses. Also the awful noise produced by these cars is another deterrent. Must drive the rats out of the places that hold these races so that is a plus.

  8. Hats off to them here. Whatever about the quality of the racing or the cars, I really like the sound of this qualy format. It might sound a little complicated on paper, but I think in practice it’ll work really well. Not that I’d like to see it replace F1 qualifying outright, but it might be fun to see it as the Friday qualifying for Saturday sprint races.

  9. I don’t like this particular formula, but I’m very happy that it will now give all drivers equal chances, and the grid order will actually reflect their speed. I gave up on FE during last season’s randomness, but this makes me want to watch it again.

  10. RandomMallard
    19th January 2022, 18:08

    I’m undecided so far. I’ll wait until after the first races to make up my mind. It does sound like a good idea, once you get your head around it, and it does appear to be fairer than the old format, but it’s getting your head around it in the first place that I find most difficult. It’s an interesting approach I’ll admit, applying a “tournament-style” knockout format to motorsport qualifying.

    This article is actually a great explanation, probably the best I’ve seen so far, so thanks @keithcollantine.

  11. This is much like the indycar format, except for the duels. Willing to see how it goes but does seem unnecessarily complex. Why not just go with the top 8 out for a Q2 top 4 for Q3 or something like that.

  12. RocketTankski
    19th January 2022, 21:44

    Just have them line up in order of their social media fanbase. Most popular drivers start at the front. It’s the best way to drive fan engagement

  13. I like how it sounds so far. Sounds like something F1 could adopt at tighter circuits too.

  14. I like the sound of duels. Perhaps F1 tries that instead of sprint.
    But the track evolution is not fully eliminated as the group which delivered pole position all get to start on the clean side of the track.

    I feel that all track organizers (Across categories, F1, F2, F3, FE) should be allowed to scrape clean both sides of the grid for any rubber before the warm-up lap. Drivers anyways have a distance advantage over the driver behind. Why complicate it with some grip advantage / disadvantage based on left / right side of grid.

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