It’s apparent that Formula 1’s qualifying format – and the debate about what it is, what it should be and what it’s changing too now – isn’t about qualifying at all.
It’s about power and control.
It was something NBCSN F1 insider and pit reporter Will Buxton noted in his latest blog and it’s a point agreed upon by one of the most salient voices in racing, in Stefan Johansson.
Johansson has filed his latest blog post in an interview with Jan Tegler, following the second rounds of the respective F1 and IndyCar seasons at Bahrain and Phoenix, respectively.
Following a look at several teams’ races – Mercedes, Ferrari, Haas (and we’ll get to them separately in a moment), Williams and Force India of note – Johansson dovetailed into F1’s qualifying mess and how it’s really about the political squabbling at the moment.
“To me it’s clear that all this has nothing to do with qualifying,” Johansson writes. “I don’t recall a single person complaining about qualifying previously. Everyone was quite happy with it, and this is pure politics, unless everyone has completely lost the plot, which I really don’t think is the case.”
Johansson, whose best years in F1 came with Ferrari and McLaren from 1985 through 1987, noted that although that era’s format of qualifying had a slow start to sessions, inevitably, the last 10 to 15 minutes was fascinating.
“I don’t see what was wrong with the qualifying format that we used for years. You had an hour to qualify and three sets of tires. You just went out to qualify whenever you wanted to, using whatever combination you liked. At every single race, the last ten minutes were electrifying.
“Senna or Prost would go out with two minutes to go with a new set and it was always a game of chess at the end of qualifying. Maybe the weather conditions were changing. What were the competitors doing? I think that was way more exciting than even the format they want to go back to now.
“Or, if you were allowed to turn the power units up to their highest output – it would be awesome to see them with 1200 horsepower just for qualifying.”
Here’s the political struggle and problem: when you’ve got 11 different teams in the room, all of whom have competing goals and ideas, you’re rarely going to reach consensus.
“My theory is that this is a political move from whatever the source is to destabilize the F1 Strategy Group (F1’s rule-making body which includes the FIA, FOM and six teams),” Johansson writes. “I think the ultimate goal is to get rid of it or break it up somehow. Since the group was formed, nothing has happened. It’s been a disaster from day one.
“To repeat what I’ve been saying forever, if you have the teams involved in the decision making nothing will ever get done. They can’t even agree on when to have a meeting let alone what they should talk about. They’re so suspicious and paranoid about each other.
“If the goal of all this is to eliminate the Strategy Group, it’s a good idea in my opinion. Doing it all publicly shows that nothing can get done as long as this group exists. It’s the old trusted “divide and conquer” idea. The fact that you have this committee that has to approve any changes instead of simply saying – “That didn’t work, let’s go back to what we had before” – shows how broken it is.
“This is a move to shake things up and force changes. When things don’t make any sense – which this one clearly doesn’t – you know something is up.”
One team that has undoubtedly shaken things up in the first two Grands Prix of the year is Haas F1 Team, who have banked sixth and fifth place finishes in the opening two races as Romain Grosjean is off to the best start of his six-year career.
While the Frenchman has delivered the results, he and the team have also acutely utilized the rules to their benefit. Between using as much Ferrari content as they are for the VF-16 chassis, then Grosjean being happy to qualify ninth to ensure he had the best tire strategy for Bahrain, Haas has gone about things much smarter than you’d expect for a first-year entrant.
“They’re very impressive. They’ve shown everyone that Australia wasn’t a fluke. As in Australia, they had real speed in Bahrain and executed their strategy and pit stops pretty well,” Johansson writes.
“It begs the question, why aren’t more people in F1 doing the same thing? Instead of spending ridiculous amounts of money to build every single part on a car, why not do a deal for a good portion of the package or as much as the rules will allow you with one of the major teams that have all the resources for R&D? Instead, focus on doing the best job you can with the race team and then have the potential to finish in the top 10 consistently.
“If you look at Sauber, Force India, Manor and the rest who sit at the back of grid and rise or fall a little bit every year and wind up being similar at the end of day, you have to ask why? What Haas F1 has done seems to me to be the obvious way to go.”
The way Haas has gone about its business is also something that stands out.
“Everyone in the paddock is well aware that the model is unsustainable, yet everyone seems shocked at what Haas has done.
“Haas has been very smart and done their homework well – shame on everyone else for not adopting the same idea.”
Further insight on the Mercedes AMG Petronas teammate battle, IndyCar’s downforce dilemma and Scott Dixon’s latest triumph at Phoenix, and how rookies Stoffel Vandoorne (first ever Grand Prix), Max Chilton (first IndyCar oval race) and Felix Rosenqvist (first ever oval race) all got on in their respective first races are all included in the remainder of Johansson’s blog.
For a look back at Johansson’s post-St. Petersburg, Melbourne and Sebring blog, click here.