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Formula 1 Is Right to Introduce a New, Elimination-Style Qualifying Format

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2016

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams drives during day three of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 24, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Say what you like about Bernie Ecclestone—many often have and many always will—but Formula One's ringmaster certainly knows how to get things done.

Little more than 48 hours after Mr. E hinted that changes to qualifying were on the horizon, per MailOnline's Jonathan McEvoy, as well as discussing matters from the state of his sport to funeral plans—"They can put me in a cardboard box. Some advertising on the side would be nice. Then they can stick me in the oven"—there came an official announcement.

The qualifying format F1 has grown to love over the last decade, as we know it, is soon to be no more.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 12:  F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone looks on in the paddock during the Russian Formula One Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom on October 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

A statement released by the FIA's official website on Wednesday confirmed the F1 Commission, following a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, had "unanimously accepted" a proposal to tweak the Saturday system as soon as 2016.

The three-part, knockout-based structure first introduced in 2006 will remain, yet where groups of drivers were once eliminated at the end of the opening two segments, the slowest cars will now gradually disappear one-by-one at regular, 90-second intervals until just two are left to fight head-to-head for pole position.

This development was supposed to be the first step toward a fresher, more stimulating era of Formula One ahead of the major regulation changes planned for 2017. But, to many of its followers, it felt like the final insult.

Dinalli @Dinalli

I mean what was the point of the @GPDA_ survey, doesnt seem to have come to anything either

Those who hoped they would finally have at least some influence on the direction of the sport as they completed fans' surveys last year were not only ignored, but almost betrayed by the rulemakers, who often say the right things in the glare of the public eye but continue to make questionable decisions within the cocoon of closed doors.

And in its efforts to improve the show, the court of social media ruled, F1 had only succeeded in needlessly tampering with one of the very few aspects that already worked.

To bemoan the introduction of the new format, however, is to overlook the flaws of the outgoing system.

The three-part, knockout qualifying format was used for the first time at the 2006 Bahrain Grand Prix, where Michael Schumacher claimed pole position.
The three-part, knockout qualifying format was used for the first time at the 2006 Bahrain Grand Prix, where Michael Schumacher claimed pole position.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Sure, it worked fine in the early years when McLaren and Ferrari—and, occasionally, the likes of Renault, Honda and BMW Sauber—could begin qualifying with realistic ambitions of securing pole, ensuring a minimum of four drivers were automatically in contention for the No. 1 grid slot.

But since 2010? Since two teams—first Red Bull and currently Mercedes—were able to establish a clear, considerable advantage over their competitors?

Since the difference in quality between the front-runners and backmarkers widened significantly with the arrival of three new teams—Manor and the now-defunct Caterham and Hispania outfits—meaning the final six places on the grid were decided long before the session even began?

Between them, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have claimed all but two pole positions since the beginning of 2014.
Between them, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have claimed all but two pole positions since the beginning of 2014.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Qualifying had become predictable, the format had become tired and the top-10 shootout—the crescendo of the hour-long session—was all too often reduced to a two-minute tussle between two drivers in the fastest car.

Nothing too wrong with the latter, of course, but at a time F1 is determined to become exciting, spectacular and unmissable once again, the opening 58 minutes of qualifying had become the opposite, which is why the sport's efforts to create relentless on-track action from start to finish should be embraced.

The new system, it appears, is aimed at creating a compromise between retaining the heritage of qualifying, whereby the fastest, cleanest driver is still rewarded with pole, and implementing the excitement associated with reverse grids—without the shameless gimmickry that is reverse grids.

Could the new qualifying format have been inspired by Kimi Raikkonen's trials and tribulations at Sepang 2015?
Could the new qualifying format have been inspired by Kimi Raikkonen's trials and tribulations at Sepang 2015?GREG BAKER/Getty Images

With Ecclestone telling Reuters' Alan Baldwin how "it will be the same as qualifying in wet conditions," it wouldn't be a surprise if last year's Malaysian Grand Prix, where Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen qualified only 11th as the drivers jostled for track position to post a lap before the arrival of a torrential thunderstorm, was mentioned at the Geneva Summit.

Although F1 has a dark history when it comes to basing rule changes on one-off occurrences—Pirelli was famously asked to use the 2010 Canadian GP as a template for its fast-degrading tyres, per ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson—there are reasons to believe the qualifying changes will work, despite the initial scepticism.

ESPN F1's Maurice Hamilton, for instance, is among those who fear the new Q1 will see the fastest drivers "bang in their times at the beginning instead of at the end, and then sit back and wait for Q2." Yet, on a track crammed with 22 cars all scrambling to set a time and fighting for free air, will it be quite as simple as that?

Traffic will be a major theme of the revised qualifying system in 2016.
Traffic will be a major theme of the revised qualifying system in 2016.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

If Nico Rosberg turns into a corner to find a dozy Manor driver sitting on the apex and ruining his lap in the opening seven minutes of the session, the German would face a race against time—especially on a longer circuit such as Spa-Francorchamps—to post a time before the start of the elimination process.

And could it result in more skulduggery among the teams? With it surely almost impossible for the blue-flag rules to be enforced under the revised format, might Ferrari—no strangers to experimenting with the dark arts—sacrifice Raikkonen to interfere with Lewis Hamilton's lap and consequently aid Sebastian Vettel's chances?

It will, of course, be unclear exactly how the new system will play out until it is used for the first time at May's Spanish GP, as Ecclestone told BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, though Saturdays should finally become far more unforgiving.

F1 teams are currently testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and it will not be until they return for the Spanish GP that the new qualifying format will be implemented.
F1 teams are currently testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and it will not be until they return for the Spanish GP that the new qualifying format will be implemented.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

In years gone by, qualifying was regarded as the most stressful part of a grand prix weekend, centered around the one lap that would decide a team's prospects for the race. Yet that significance has been lost in recent times.

If a driver made a mistake on their initial flying lap—locking up, running wide, hitting traffic or seeing their time deleted for exploiting track limits—they could simply return to the garage, change their tyres, take a deep, deep breath and go again.

More often than not, they would immediately right that wrong and the earlier error would be forgotten. 

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives ahead of Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Th
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

From this year, however, there will be no second chances, no get-out-of-jail-free cards and no margin for error as Hamilton, Vettel and Co. are forced to drive "on the limit" in an all-or-nothing, now-or-never situation.

In other words, qualifying will become a little more like how qualifying should be.

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