A new season, a new qualifying format.
A new Formula 1 season kicked off at the weekend’s Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park, Melbourne, and with it, so too a new qualifying format. No sooner that it had got off the ground however, it has been foiled, it’s start aborted and if you watched the seasons first qualifying yourself, it is easy to see why.
So bad it was, that you could have even been listening to the tones of top James Allen commentary on BBC Radio 5Live and you still would not have understood your have’s from your have nots.
The main issue was with the ’90 second countdown’ introduced to try and and make qualifying more dramatic for the viewing public. It certainly did this, but not in the way anyone imagined. If you are a regular fan of F1 you will know that qualifying was fairly dramatic enough as it already was. Resultantly, despite the aim being to make a more challenging session for the driver, in reality the opposite was true.
The first thing noticable was that nobody, aside from the various race engineers, actually seemed to have any idea about what was to unfold. Now this does not mean something will be a definite failure but it soon transpired that in actual fact, it was! You would have expected the odd team principle to come out and explain how and why they thought it might benefit them, but all were keeping their cards close to their chests’, now we can see why.
Having watched the seasons opening race on the newly devised terrestrial channel 4 coverage, both commentators Ben Edwards (BE) and David Coulthard (DC) seemed confused as to when the the new ‘knockout’ format would take hold. During a lively opening 5 minutes, DC first proclaimed that it was “7 minutes into’ a session that was 16 minutes in total.” He was in fact right, although Ben then responded with, “at 7 minutes, the slowest car will be knocked out,” seemingly unsure as to whether “at 7 minutes” meant 7 minutes in or 7 minutes to go. In reference to Lewis Hamilton, Edwards then went on to say
‘He may not decide to be around in the knockout session’ after Lewis had set the fastest time early on. It transpires in actual fact, he had already decided not to be.
The idea with the 90 seconds was that each of the slowest 7 drivers in Q1, Q2 and Q3 would have one lap to push themselves higher up the order and survive to the subsequent session. Many (including me) thought this meant a fresh 90 seconds for each driver, but however it did not. If a driver’s time did manage to jump him up the order (inside the 90 second window) the next driver would ONLY have what was remaining of the current 90 seconds to improve himself. If this were to keep happening, it would mean a dominoe effect whereby each driver would have less and less time to improve so one would eventually run out of time whoever was fastest.
Realising this, most engineers had told their drivers to not bother entering the circuit once the knockout phase began as doing so would only waste fuel and rubber. The even more ridiculous result of the format meant (as it transpired) that the last placed driver at the end of each session (Q1-Q3) would actually be able to finish his lap, regardless of whether the final 90 seconds had elapsed so therefore he most probably, would jump a fair amount up the order. The idea being the final two drivers would battle it out to be higher up the grid. As it transpired however, not much battling was on show. The drama of Saturday, was actually watching people realise this as it unfolded.
Just one simple look at Channel 4’s qualifying highlights shows you just how much confusion this supposedly improved format actually created, right to the very top of the commentary box and the first voices we hear on tv.
Having suddenly changed his mind that 7 minutes into a 16 minute quali session did not mean 9 minutes would be left, DC stated with 8 minutes to go,
“30 seconds or so to go until we get into the 90 second drop out…” suddenly believing it meant 7 minutes left. BE then adding “I think Wehrlein will be the first to be eliminated.” No Ben, if you look at the left side graphic his position (22) has gone red. He already has been.
Esteban Guttierrez and Romain Grosjean then both end up in the “knockout zone” while BE debated whether each would have enough time. You could slowly see people realising that cars in danger actually needed at least 3 to 4 minutes track time to get out and FINISH a hot lap which could push them up the order. With a laptime just shy of 1min 25, they needed to be on a hotlap ideally before the 90 seconds was on them. Edwards best comment coming when discussing Romain Grosjean,
“Grosjean…in elimination territory here…he’s on circuit and he should have time…” before conceding that actually, “I’m not sure he has got time either.” Finishing a hotlap inside the 90 second window was something DC really initially struggled to comprehend, saying repeatedly while drivers were on outlaps,
“He’s going to have enough time to get across the line..(to start his hotlap).” Sauber’s Felipe Nasr was a victim of such confusion as he made his way round to complete what he thought would be a perfectly legitimate lap. BE then sparked the first on-air verbal disagreement of the weekend and indeed of the season when trying to correct his colleague by stating that Nasr would not actually finish his hotlap before the computerised 90 seconds were up. Dani Kvyat in the Red Bull was about to be eliminated but hadn’t even bothered to enter the track. Sauber had had all possible time to jump Nasr up the order, but had still been beaten by the system. I understand any new system in any environment will always mean people need time to adjust, but please, not to the level it was affecting the teams here when the on-track action was relatively quiet.
We still had time for everyone including myself (I had initially got a quicker grasp of the system than the Channel 4 commentary team) to be completely flummoxed by the events effecting the end of the session. Brit Jolyon Palmer was the final man in the knockout zone as the session ticked towards a close, just below Marcus Ericsson. If his lap had been run according to everyone else’s previous, he would have also run out of time to move up the order. As it was, as he was the last man affected in the session, he was (and would be under the revised system) allowed to complete his lap, however long was left after the chequered flag had dropped. Over to you Ben Edwards,
“I think Palmer’s going to run out of time…..ahhh he’s the last one out yea….. so as he’s the last one, he will be allowed to stay out and the clock ticking down, wont effect him as it does the others…”. It transpired that Palmer’s lap was easily enough to get him into the top 15 although Marcus Ericsson, out at the same time as Palmer (eliminated if he couldn’t better Palmer’s time) was unable to challenge the Renault rookie himself. The Sauber man was thus the final driver to exit in Q1.
I appreciate this whole concept is complex so will spend as little time as possible on Q2, however BE inadvertently summed it up perfectly when opening the session to viewers,
“No top 10 shootout anymore, it’ll be just 8 cars in the final part…” Many believed that qualifying until this year was fine and did not need changing, only the race itself was in need of a shake up. The words “top 10 shootout” used here though sounded far more appealing than anything else on show at the time.
The outstanding moment from Q2 was Torro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz jumping out of the dropzone into the top 5, He would go on to be more than competitive in the race. This then pushed Alonso into danger and the other noticable problem had arrived. As mentioned earlier, when a driver in danger betters his time, this pushes another driver into trouble. The new driver does not get a renewed 90 seconds. Therefore Alonso (who was in the pits anyway) only got a final 10 seconds in which to get himself out of trouble. The 10 seconds which were originally part of Sainz’s 90. Fernando did not and could not bother to improve. Nobody could blame him.
In the space of just over 10 seconds the timing beam had gone through 3 drivers and it seemed that every driver was metaphorically gasping for breath, never really in control of their destiny.
As Nico Hulkenburg then did manage to improve (albeit only by one place) the second session petered out, as was the case with Q3, Hamilton spending a considerable time on pole with a very empty track as response.
Anyone could see that this ‘new system’ was flawed and without any doubt at all, it was scrapped the following race morning at an emergency meeting, not fit to be continued, but many have asked, why was it changed in the first place? I for one, am also one of these people.