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Formula 1 Qualifying: Would Aggregate Times Really Be Better Than Elimination?

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2016

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 02: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland drives the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), behind Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and ahead of Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 2, 2016 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula One qualifying will once again be top of the agenda when the sport's rule makers get together on Thursday.

Per Sky Sports F1, the teams will have their second opportunity of the season so far on Thursday to vote on whether they want to get rid of the controversial and unpopular elimination qualifying format.

If they all agree, it will be consigned to its proper place in the darker reaches of the sport's collective memory, never to be seen again. And all the teams do indeed agree on one thing: none of them want elimination to still be in place when qualifying begins for the Chinese Grand Prix on April 16.

Only, there's a problem. There is unanimous agreement that elimination should be scrapped, and all 11 team principals would vote without hesitation to return to the system used in 2015but the FIA is refusing to allow them that option.

Instead, the teams will be offered a choice between keeping elimination and switching to a new system based on aggregate times.

On one hand, they have the devil. On the other, the deep blue sea.

Lewis Hamilton en route to his 51st career pole at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton en route to his 51st career pole at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix.MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/Getty Images

Until the end of 2015, the qualifying system in F1 was one of the few things that no one really seemed to want to change. The teams, drivers and fans were all happy with it, and it worked well to give us a full hour of exciting on-track action.

The session was split into three partsQ1, Q2 and Q3.

Part one, Q1, determined the lower reaches of the grid. All the drivers took part and needed to set a time, with the slowest five (we only had 20 cars last season) being eliminated at the end.

The second part, Q2, ran in much the same way. The remaining 15 cars all went out and set the quickest laps they could in the allotted time, with the slowest five being eliminated at the end and the remaining 10 going through to the final part, Q3.

Here, those drivers competed for the top 10 grid slots. Of all the qualifying systems used by F1 over the years, this one appeared to be the best.

Bernie Ecclestone and FIA President Jean Todt.
Bernie Ecclestone and FIA President Jean Todt.Clive Rose/Getty Images

However, during the winter ahead of the 2016 season, qualifying came under attack. The driving force behind the push for a change was commercial rights chief Bernie Ecclestone, who wanted to see a more mixed-up grid with more drivers out of position.

The teams unanimously agreed to adopt a new system in which drivers would be eliminated one-by-one, rather than in a group at the end of each part. But it later transpired they had not been deciding between the old system and the new; rather, it was a choice between elimination and something far, far worse.

Speaking to Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde), Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda revealed:

I am part of the Strategy Group and Ecclestone came up with the idea that it would be necessary to change something in the fight for pole position in order to make it more competitive.

The initial proposal was to reverse the grid, with the fastest time in 10th place and so on.

For us at Mercedes it was not a compelling idea. So it was better to accept the other proposal, though I don't know if everything will be ready in Melbourne to deliver it.

The teams had been forced to opt for what they saw as the lesser of two evils. Lauda was speaking ahead of the Australian Grand Prix weekend, and even then he said the new system seemed "stupid."

After seeing it in action for the first time in Melbourne, the whole world agreed with him.

The Saturday scenes in Australia were nothing short of farcical. Q1 was bad, and Q2though it had its momentswas little better. But it was the end of the session that really highlighted quite how unsuitable the system was.

The excitement and drama that usually accompanies the end of Q3 were gone, replaced by the sight of a timer counting down to an empty track. Only two carsthe Mercedesdid more than one flying lap, and as the countdown hit zero, Lewis Hamilton had already secured pole position.

Not only that, he'd also had time to drive back to the pits, get out of his car, smile, wave, get weighed and hop into a course car for a lift down the pit lane.

To say the F1 world was disappointed and angry with this was an understatement, and the reaction of fans on Twitter left no doubt over the strength of their feelings.

Duston Nixon @silverc10

Let's just eliminate the people that created the new #F1 qualifying format in intervals of 90 seconds.

Kerri Cebula @ProfessorCebula

Catching up on F1 qualifying. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.

Dom Arbon @Dom1wom

The new #F1 qualifying rules are atrocious.

But no one in the paddock was even slightly surprised at what had happened; as soon as the system was proposed, everyone knew there would be little or no action at the ends of the three parts.

The teams and drivers knew they could not risk leaving their run to the end as they used to, because there was a very real chance they would be eliminated if they did.

Instead, they had to get out as early as possible to ensure they had time to complete their laps. The action shifted from the end of each part to the beginning, and with a driver needing several minutes to get out of the pits and set a time, no one had a chance to respond if they found themselves next in line for the chop.

Nico Rosberg after qualifying second. The countdown timer was still going strong when this picture was taken.
Nico Rosberg after qualifying second. The countdown timer was still going strong when this picture was taken.BRANDON MALONE/Getty Images

Given the strength of feeling, it looked like the teams would agree to get rid of elimination in time for the next race. Unfortunately, the option to switch back to the 2015 system was not giveninstead, they were again given another "lesser of two evils" choice, with the alternative being a half-baked hybrid of elimination and the 2015 format.

The hybrid would have been better than full elimination, but several teams dismissed the idea. Auto Motor und Sport (h/t Grand Prix 247) reported four of themMcLaren, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Williamswere unwilling to support a format that featured any elimination at all.

As a result, we had to endure full elimination again in Bahrain. To the surprise of absolutely no one, it was again disappointingand yet another new format has popped off the conveyor belt of terrible ideas, as reported by Sky Sports F1.

Aggregate times.

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 01: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari in the garage during practice for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 1, 2016 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

According to Sky Sports F1, should this new system be approved, the three parts of qualifyingQ1, Q2 and Q3would be retained, and the slowest drivers would be removed at the end of each part as they were in 2015.

However, rather than the drivers' single fastest laps determining the gridas was the case last seasonthe order in each part would be set by adding together each driver's quickest two lap times.

Any driver who set only one timed lap in any given part would be eliminated, regardless of how quick he was.

For example, if Nico Rosberg set the quickest time in Q1, then for whatever reason failed to set a second lap time, he would be kicked out and would start the race behind all the drivers who recorded two lap timeshowever slow they may have been.

Eric Boullier may or may not be in favour of the new system.
Eric Boullier may or may not be in favour of the new system.PETER PARKS/Getty Images

Some teams have already signalled they will support the introduction of this format when they vote on Thursdaythough enthusiasm is thin on the ground. Crash.net's Ollie Barstow quoted Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene as saying it "doesn't sound that bad," while Eric Boullier said, “I think it is a vote yes, but to be honest we don't even know."

Their support appears to be born out of a view that anything at all would be better than the elimination system; a belief that if this is the only alternative, the only option is to support it.

Autosport's Lawrence Barretto quoted Jenson Button voicing this opinion, and it's an understandable viewpoint. Elimination is a horrible, badly thought-out system that simply doesn't work. No one likes it, no one wants it and it needs to go.

But would aggregate times really be any better?

Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

Minor practical problems with an aggregate system are obvious, the most glaring of which relates to tyres.

For a driver to complete a full session, participating in all three parts of qualifying, he would need to do an absolute minimum of six flying lapsand the Pirelli tyres usually only have one proper lap in them.

Mercedes and Ferrari have a sufficiently large advantage that they could get through by setting two times on the same set in Q1 (and maybe even in Q2), and Red Bull would occasionally be able to do the same.

But the teams normally fighting over the positions between seventh and 18thWilliams, Force India, Toro Rosso, Haas, McLaren and Renaultwould not have this luxury.

Sahara Force India F1 Team's German driver Nico Hulkenberg drives during the second practice session at the Sakhir circuit in Manama on April 1, 2016 ahead of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH / AFP / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/Getty Images

Such is the closeness of the midfield, it's entirely feasible that a driver like Felipe Massa or Nico Hulkenberg would need to burn two sets of the fastest tyres to be sure of getting out of Q1, and two more sets to snatch a top-10 berth in Q2.

Even if Pirelli provided additional rubber to ensure all the cars in Q3 went out on the track, these would be of little comfort to a driver who had just taken the best out of four sets of tyressignificantly reducing his strategic options for the racejust to get this far.

And would Pirelli be donating these extra tyres out of the goodness of their hearts, or would the already cash-strapped teams have to find even more money they don't have to pay for them?

An aggregate system would also be more difficult for fans to follow and far more vulnerable to being completely ruined by unfortunately timed red or yellow flags.

But the biggest problem with such a format is not a practical issueit's a sporting one.

Under an aggregate timing system, the quickest driver would be less likely to start on pole than he would be with the elimination format. In qualifying for the last race in Bahrain, Hamilton's record-breaking, fastest-ever lap around the circuit would not have been good enough for pole.

Not because someone else would have been quicker, but because he made a mistake on his first run.

Despite setting the quickest lap, Lewis Hamilton would not have been on pole in Bahrain under an aggregate system.
Despite setting the quickest lap, Lewis Hamilton would not have been on pole in Bahrain under an aggregate system.Luca Bruno/Associated Press

Rosberg would have started at the front and Sebastian Vettel, who was significantly slower than both Mercedes, would have been second.

The quickest driver, the guy who had just lapped the circuit faster than anyone in history, including the drivers of the V10 era, would have been third. Aggregate timing would have given us a grid based on consistencynot on ultimate speed.

Primarily for this reason, the idea has received a hostile response from many, including former driver and current commentator Martin Brundle.

Martin Brundle @MBrundleF1

So the new suggested qualy format apparently involves aggregate times, a word that should only be associated with Tarmac and concrete.Not F1

Sebastian Vettel was even less complimentary; asked for his views by Sky Sports News HQ, he described the aggregate time system as "a s--t idea," while Nico Rosberg was a little more polite, indicating he is of the view that simply returning to the 2015 system would be the best solution.

And speaking to Autosport's Barretto, Romain Grosjean detailed his own objections to the system:

I'm not a huge fan.

I spoke with Jenson and said that I don't mind, but that qualifyingwhen you're in Q3 and have two sets of tyresyou want to go for the ultimate laptime and, with this, you cannot really push.

In the past, you are doing a good laptime with the first set and then you are putting the new set, which you have to give back so you don't care about flat-spots or whatever, and it was 'come on, let's go for it' give it everything, balls on the table.

Now, if you have to put two times together, you have to be more consistent, the fastest laptime might not be the guy that starts on pole, so who is the lap record holder?

Every driver likes last year's qualifying and that's what we want.

Unfortunately for Grosjean, the other drivers, the teams, you, me and millions of irritated, confused and angry fans all around the world, the option to return to last year's qualifying will not be on the table on Thursday.

Luca Bruno/Associated Press

As a perfect solution lies in the background, trapped under the weight of Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt's stubborn refusal to admit they were wrong, the teams will have a choice between two awful systemsthe best of which will be sticking with elimination.

Brundle, Vettel and Grosjean are rightaggregate qualifying has no place in F1. Qualifying should be about 22 drivers going out onto the track in a quest to produce that one special, perfect, single lap when it matters.

It should always be about the ultimate pace of the driverand should never, ever be about multiple-run consistency.

Elimination is a dreadful system, and yes, the sport does need to get rid of itbut not at any cost.

Going up against aggregate times in Thursday's vote, it's very much the lesser of two evils. The team bosses would be better off keeping elimination in place for the Chinese Grand Prixand hoping that the next option that gets slapped on their table is a real step forward.

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