How Do You Solve A Problem Like Qualifying?

It was a disaster in the inaugural attempt at elimination-style qualifying. Can it be improved or is the format ultimately doomed?

Not exactly Formula 1’s finest hour, and not the way fans hoped the season would start. I predicted that the qualifying format would be one of the stories to watch this year and straight away, it’s a major talking point.

The first session saw a number of teams, including Red Bull and the new Haas team, being caught out by timing. This was a reflection on the complexity of the rules, which state drivers would be eliminated at 90 second intervals, except for at the end of the session where drivers could finish their current lap. Furthermore, a failure of the onscreen graphics in the early part of the elimination process meant that fans at home, and at the track by some accounts, were in the dark as to when the eliminations were happening and who had been eliminated. The next two sessions saw a lack of action from drivers and teams who didn’t want to use their race tyres and/or who saw no point in heading back out to attempt a faster lap time.

In advance of meetings being held between team bosses tomorrow morning to discuss further changes to qualifying, below I consider the four options available…

1. Keep It As It Is

Another classic F1 debacle (Photo: David Hsu)

They can’t… can they?

We’ll start with the most unlikely option, which is to keep the format as it is currently. There is a next to 0% chance of this happening as the teams, media and fans would react very negatively. But this is Formula One. A sport where once only 6 drivers started a race due to indecision…

2. A Fix to the Format?

The system had never been tested before today. Is it possible that today’s chaos was just teething trouble or is the format ultimately flawed?

Tyre strategy was a major issue for this version of qualifying but it’s possible that the format could be fixed, or improved, if there are no limits on tyre usage.

If the sport had to keep the elimination qualifying, I’d go for a slightly different approach. Give three extra sets of the softest compound tyre available at the race, which will only ever be able to be used in qualifying, to every driver. That way, qualifying won’t have an effect on race strategy and the drivers can do more laps on fresh tyres, meaning that they won’t be forced to stay in the pits to save tyres for the race. Drivers would still be able to dip into their race allocated tyres if they deemed necessary though.

It would be a risk if a decision to tweak the format was taken, and there’d be potential embarrassment at the next round in Bahrain if it was still a lacklustre affair.

3. Back to Knock-Out Qualifying

Is this a classic case of attempting to fix something that isn’t broken?

In my opinion, this is most likely and safest option for the decision makers to take. When the idea for the new version of qualifying was first mooted, many fans questioned why qualifying needed changing at all. Indeed, the qualifying format used last year was solid and even produced the odd shock result, Sebastian Vettel, for example, was eliminated in Q1 at the final round of the season last year. Following today’s farce, a return to this system would be welcomed by fans. Plus, there was a lot more on-track action with this format, which is a fairer deal on the trackside spectators.

Would you be happy to see a return to knock-out qualifying?

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4. An Alternative Idea

Of course, there are plenty of alternative formats that could be used in Formula One qualifying. Ideas from a return to a one-lap approach or an adaptation of the IndyCar qualifying for F1 have been circulating in discussions on Twitter. An idea that I have is to have a single hour session but make it more interesting by having the drivers on track at all times. Bring back refuelling for qualifying only, remove the limits on tyres and enforce a rule whereby drivers must be on track at all times except for pit stops for new tyres and fuel. The hour would start counting down when all cars were on track. With this idea, the fans would see more cars on track, and the drivers would be setting fast laps and pushing the cars to the limit throughout the session. As with any format, there’s a ton of issues which would need to be addressed, but I believe it would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Which version of qualifying works best? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Header photo: Francesco Crippa

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