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AUGUST 17, 2004

Purnell's good idea

Ford's racing boss Tony Purnell has proposed an interesting and intelligent concept for Formula 1 qualifying which spices up the action without detracting from the purity of the sport. The concept is based on procedures which have worked very successfully in karting for many years.

Purnell's idea aims to address the fact that the sport is offering TV viewers and spectators very little on Friday and Saturday. This he believes will make the sport stronger as TV viewing figures on Sundays are holding up in interested countries, although obviously there are geographical elements that affect the numbers. There is no secret in the fact that TV figures would boom if the sport could find a competitive Chinese, Russian or American driver.

Purnell's argument is that the sport needs to be seen to be doing a better job putting on a show and he is proposing a complete revamp of qualifying. The system would kick off with the usual testing on Friday but would be followed by the drawing of lots to establish the grid for a 10-lap qualifying race. The drawing of lots was the traditional way of establishing grids for the first 50 years of the sport.

The result of the qualifying race would establish a qualifying "score" which would be carried over to Saturday afternoon when there would be a "mirror image" race with the 10-lap race being run with the original grid reversed. The "score" from Friday would be added to that of Saturday and a ranking would thus be created. This would reward the drivers who did the most overtaking because each successful passing manoeuvre would give the driver a better qualifying score.

This does not in any way affect the World Championship points but simply creates a grid in a more exciting way.

Inevitably there would be drivers with the same score but the grid would be set by putting the men with the fastest laps being put in front of those on the same score. Rewarding overtaking with a better grid position is a very intelligent idea and with time available for repairs the drivers might be willing to take on a few more risks.

The system would inevitably lead to some unusual situations with unexpected winners in the qualifying races (creating good publicity for middle-ranking teams) and the chance to get better coverage for everyone. There would also be incidents but this would help to create a grid which represented the speed of the drivers but would also have an element of chance to enliven the race on Sunday.

To avoid qualifying cars Purnell feels that there would need to be parc ferme on each evening.

The only real problem with the idea is that three race starts each weekend would increase the danger involved and there might be more damage inflicted on the cars, which would add to the cost. Purnell says that if the system attracts more viewers it is a worthwhile cost and that money can be saved elsewhere.

Some of the other F1 team bosses have been busy thinking up reasons why it would not be a good idea but many of these sound like "not made here syndrome". These include the belief that as overtaking is so hard drivers that rather than racing drivers would deliberately slow down to create space ahead of them on the track in order to produce a fast lap to try to get ahead of a group of drivers with the same qualifying score. This might be so but that would probably add to the spectacle rather than detracting from it.

The question of danger has also been raised but while having three starts a weekend is obviously going to create more statistical chance of an accident. The dangerous crashes in F1 nowadays are caused by mechanical failures rather than collisions. The cars are incredibly safe when it comes to the usual bumps that occur between drivers and the FIA is currently looking at the biggest problem area, analysing how wheel over wheel accidents occur and what can be done to minimise the danger involved.