Honda website
Honda website

MAY 29, 2004

The qualifying conundrum

The Formula 1 team bosses met on Friday evening at the Nurburgring to discuss the future shape of the qualifying sessions and came up with an idea of how they think things can be improved. No-one is happy with the current situation but no-one seems to be very happy about the result of the meeting because the fear is that allowing refuelling on Sunday morning will mean that the races are less exciting than at the moment when the grid is scrambled because of different fuel strategies. Having the fastest man on the front of the grid and free strategy will end up with dull racing. Reversing the grid is no good, even if points are awarded in qualifying because then people will be looking to qualify halfway up the grid.

But what options are there that provide the show that the TV stations want? The old system of having an hour long qualifying session on each day of practice has gone out of the window and the idea of having one hour of qualifying on Saturdays has been rejected because in such circumstances the first half of the session will have little action as teams save their tyres for the closing minutes, when the track is better. There is a decent argument that qualifying should be done in just half an hour but the TV companies come back and say they want time for their advertising as well.

The latest idea of having two free-for-all mini-sessions within the final hour of qualifying has the advantage that cars have to run for six laps (two sets of tyres) in each of the sessions and the times must then be added together and the total time used to establish the grid position. This is not a bad solution but if the fuel loads are then allowed to be changed for the race the danger is that while qualifying will become more of a spectacle, the races will suffer.

There have been other suggestions: that the hour should be split with the first half hour being a free for all and then the top 10 should run off against one another with fuel in the second part of the session.. The problem with this is that there is the issue of safety as there would inevitably be drivers who would finish a qualifying lap and wanting to save fuel would drive as slowly as possible around the lap afterwards. There would be a serious danger of an accident if other drivers were on flying laps.

There is the idea that the hour should be divided into four 15 minutes sessions.

There are other ideas that have been thrown around. The teams could declare their fuel load to the FIA on Saturday morning and then run qualifying with light tanks and then the cars would be refilled under supervision afterwards. The problem with this is that very quickly all the teams would conclude that the best strategy would be to run heavy in the races and so the fastest man in qualifying would be the man at the front.

The argument then turns to whether or not there should be pit stops at all or whether it would be best for the racing to have tyre stops but no refuelling. This would mean that everyone would have to set up their cars for qualifying on heavy fuel but could have more aggressive strategies in races. The danger is that at some tracks even a car with a huge advantage would not be able to overtake a slower car ahead. Bernie Ecclestone however is against any such idea and wants more pit stops rather than less.

More radical theories suggest that there is no workable solution by which qualifying and the race can both be interesting and say that the grid should be drawn by lottery as it was in the old days of the sport. They argue that this could be a televised event and all the focus of the should be on the race. Inevitably this idea is hated by the purists of the sport, despite the fact that this was how grids were establish from the very earliest days of the sport. Outside the sport there are many who believe that the grids should be drawn up based on the result of the last race, with the winner at the back, as it makes no sense at all to have the fastest men at the front if one wants racing to be interesting.

The basic argument is not really one of different qualifying systems but really whether or not the sport should become a show business activity.