What unfolded in Melbourne on Saturday was embarrassing for Formula 1.
The past few years have been marked by a series of political conflicts between many of the sport’s major stakeholders, ironically coming in a period when democracy, in one form or another, has been given a go.
Bodies such as FOTA, the F1 Commission and the F1 Strategy Group (the latter, admittedly, being undemocratic) have all pushed for one thing: consensus. And they have failed time and time again.
The only thing that the Strategy Group wholeheartedly agreed on was the ban on helmet design changes for 2015. It was also responsible for the double points ruling at the last race of 2014, albeit striking a compromise after F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone wanted to implement it for the final three races.
“A camel is a horse designed by committee” – no saying better sums up the mess which F1 got itself into with qualifying.
UNITY AS A COMPROMISE
The F1 Commission met in Geneva last month and agreed to look at a way to spice up qualifying and give fans at the track on a Saturday more of a show, as well as shaking up the starting grid.
Ecclestone’s favored course of action has been to give the previous race winner a time penalty, while reverse grids have also been suggested as a way of sticking the all-conquering Mercedes in the middle of the pack and forcing them to fight their way to the front.
Ultimately, the addition of quickfire eliminations to the existing three-stage qualifying structure was agreed on. It was approved unanimously by the F1 Commission, made up of teams, promoters, circuits and sponsors of F1.
And yet in the days that followed, no-one came out in favor. Instead, they expressed doubts in the new system. The unanimous vote was a compromise, not an endorsement.
The engineers and drivers knew what was coming, but it was not until Saturday afternoon in Melbourne that it all became clear. The beginning of Q1 was busier, which was good, and we were treated to a nice little dice on-track between Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton.
But as the session wore on, it became increasingly clear how flawed the format was. Drivers were sitting the pits waiting to be knocked out, defeating the object of getting more cars on track.
Most galling was the fact that pole was decided four minutes before the end of qualifying with only Hamilton and Nico Rosberg out on track as other teams had to save tires.
If anything, the new qualifying format only exacerbated the very problems it was meant to fix.
It is impossible to see this qualifying format being retained for the next race in Bahrain on April 3. The fall-out has been disastrous, with all of the major team bosses and even Ecclestone coming out against the format.
Motorsport.com reports that a meeting has been scheduled for Sunday in Melbourne to sort a plan for Bahrain, with the solution likely to be one of two options: keeping the eliminations for Q1 and Q2 before going back to 2015-style Q3, or having the old format throughout qualifying.
Revamping qualifying remains a desire for Ecclestone though. This has been a storm that proves the flawed nature of consensus, giving him a reason to try and push through change himself where possible.
However, his desire to see the Mercedes drivers starting in the middle of the pack at each race is unrealistic. Mercedes should not be punished for doing a better job than everyone else. It would be artificial to stick the drivers in the middle of the field for the start, and would be unpopular at a time when there are calls for F1 to drop gimmicks such as DRS and fast-degrading tires.
Instead, more pitfalls need to be put in Mercedes’ way. This system had the intention of doing so, the belief being that Mercedes might end up mistiming its runs. However, the fact that at the first time of asking we ended up with the same result, a Mercedes one-two, suggests that it wasn’t enough.
A possible option is one-shot qualifying, as last used back in 2005. In itself, that was already a midseason replacement to replace an aggregate system that had debuted to mixed reviews in Melbourne. The more things change…
The one-shot system was a difficult one for broadcasters to deal with, as there were always cars on track, but this way it put huge pressure on the drivers. If they make an error, that’s it. Rain on your lap? Tough luck. Better luck next time.
But what if F1 looked across the Atlantic for inspiration?
FAST SIX THE RIGHT FIX?
IndyCar’s qualifying structure could hold the answer to what F1 is looking for. Like any system, the cream will likely rise to the top (i.e. Mercedes may suss things out quickly), but it offers more margin for error and a more exciting form of qualifying.
For road and street courses, the IndyCar field is split into two groups, as determined by the classification from the final practice session. Drivers who finish P2, P4, P6 and so on are in Group 1, while those finishing in odd-numbered positions are in Group 2.
Group 1 and 2 take to the track separately in Round 1. In St. Petersburg last weekend, 11 drivers featured in each group, with six advancing to Round 2. These 12 cars then take to the track and are reduced to the ‘Firestone Fast Six’ who then fight for pole position.
It is a system that would work well for F1. Firstly, it would place a greater importance on FP3 as finishing position would matter. Tactically, teams would consider whether it is best to split their drivers between Group 1 and Group 2, or to have them in the same session.
This split Q1 would also result in more on-track action later in the session. Under the 2015 system, Mercedes could put in a quick lap early on and then return to the garage, knowing full well that the likes of Manor and Sauber would not beat its efforts as 15/20 progressed. However, as only 6/11 go through with this system, there would be more pressure to stay out and ensure your rivals don’t get ahead.
If the groupings balance in such a way that you get both Mercedes, both Ferraris, both Red Bulls and both Williams in one session, there will be big scalps guaranteed to drop out. On the flip side, it would help other drivers who get an easier draw to reach the top 12 when they may not otherwise on merit.
It’s a system that would obviously be tweaked to fit F1 as the bosses see fit, but it would create more intriguing battles throughout qualifying. Shorter, sharper sessions are better for broadcasters, and offer less margin for error on-track as well.
By having a very short ‘Fast Six’-style Q3 session, there would be the pressure of getting a single lap right for the drivers. Mistakes would be punished, opportunities would be created. It would result in a more varied grid and, as those in F1 crave, more exciting racing.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE, DON’T FIX IT
Underpinning this entire debate is the fact that F1 qualifying did not need tinkering with in the first place. The session format changed regularly in the early 2000s before the current system was settled on in 2006; the fact it lasted 10 seasons without anyone batting an eye should speak volumes.
A good economic rule of thumb is that simple fixes are often the best ones. In this case, shortening Q3 so drivers get one lap each or giving the slower teams a softer set of tires for the session seem like better fixes. This way, it doesn’t make it impossible for the quickest team to take pole. The complexity of the new system made it confusing for ardent followers of the sport; one must pity first-time watchers of F1 who tuned into qualifying.
Change can be a force for good, even if to just shake things up. Adopting an IndyCar-style qualifying would do the job for F1, although such a drastic overhaul of qualifying is unlikely to be viable in-season.
But whatever happens, something must change for Bahrain in two weeks’ time.
And, ironically, perhaps we’ve found some kind of consensus on that…