Qualifying is one of those aspects of grand prix racing that has been tinkered with countless times ever since the first major tweaks were introduced in the 1990s to make it more interesting for television viewers. What we have now is almost unquestionably the best format in history, which can provide shocks right up until the finish. However, Formula 1 bosses want to toy with the idea of scrapping qualifying as we know it altogether and replacing it with qualifying races.
It is a gimmick. There is no question of that. Because of the nature of how these races are expected to run – with the championship standings reversed forming the grid, it is an artificial way to penalise drivers for succeeding and placing those who are not towards the front.
There is some merit to this. We, as fans, should want more exhilarating racing, and forcing drivers in the faster cars to carve as far up the field as possible should, in theory, provide this. There would be guaranteed passes and an opportunity for those in inferior machinery to be able to showcase what they are capable of doing in combat against stronger opposition.
But as far as positives go, that’s about it. The price paid for losing qualifying as we know it is that we lose the one time of the weekend where the cars and drivers go absolutely 100 percent flat in an attempt to be as fast as possible. Is that a price worth paying? An ability to master a single lap has been the basis for many drivers’ championship campaigns in the past and is the one indicator for who is the outright fastest. A major skill of which some of the greatest ever have been judged upon will be lost.
Having drivers artificially start towards the back isn’t a new concept, but one that in the past decade and a half – ever since grid penalties for engine changes were introduced – was lamented than praised for being confusing/unfair/etc. So why then, suddenly, is having drivers start in the wrong position now the solution to fixing F1’s problems?
The racing in F1 can be awful, but it’s not the fault of the current qualifying format for that. For years, qualifying has been scapegoated to cover over the true reasons for the racing being naff. Reasons that the drivers have become more and more vocal over, with multiple champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel very critical in particular. Drivers who do not have agendas other than racing. They’re racers, not something the considerable majority of the key players in F1 can attest to.
“I think we know that if we want to improve things it is very clear we need to string the field more together; we need to have better racing. It is just a plaster,” said Vettel in Singapore.
“I don’t know which genius came up with it, but it is not the solution. It is completely the wrong approach.”
He’s totally right.
There will be unintended consequences too. In the event that a driver joins the series mid-season, by default they will be set to start the subsequent qualifying race from pole position. Not only could this be dangerous if it is a rookie but may give a drastic advantage if they are in good equipment.
This is a world championship. This is supposed to be an immensely high level of sporting contest, and hurling gimmicks at it and seeing what sticks can be incredibly detrimental to the series and to motorsport as a whole. The fate that bestowed the World Touring Car Championship and the way NASCAR’s Cup is heading are superb examples of what happens when the wrong approach is taken to improving the product.
It is not so much of an issue lower down or at a national level. The likes of the British Touring Car Championship has reversed grid races and it works very well. W Series experimented with a reversed grid exhibition race at Assen (in the same format F1 wishes to trial) and it was probably the race of the season. Formula 2 and Formula 3 both have reversed grid races for the Sunday, with the top eight from the previous day reversed, but those races count for fewer points and those races always feel a bit less special to win normally.
The Drag Reduction System is another fine example of these knee-jerk reactions that have simply not worked as intended. Yes, it was clear that there needed to be more overtaking, and that it needed to be easier to follow cars. But now we have a situation where it is often impossible to defend a position.
Qualifying as it stands doesn’t require too much work. The only real change it would be nice to see would be scrapping the rule about the top 10 starting the race on the tyre they qualified on in Q2. Sometimes, midfield teams are severely hampered by this, and it often reduces the strategy options for the teams at the front.
These Saturday races are not the solution to fixing qualifying. It is certainly not the solution to fixing the racing. This is a band-aid, a band-aid slapped onto something that doesn’t even require one, just as became apparent very quickly with the last time qualifying was unnecessarily screwed around with back in 2016 with that bizarre elimination format.
It is baffling at how it has taken 70 years of running the world championship for people to decide that having the fastest driver starting a race from pole position is now suddenly a bad idea – something detrimental to the series and the product. Pole positions for grand prix are something to be earned, something to be praised, and not something that should be awarded because of a silly gimmick that boosts a driver up the field at a track that isn’t easy to overtake on.
The power teams may not want to budge on rules that will actually make the racing better, that may actually close up the field, that may give the underdog the chance they deserve to steal podiums more frequently and actually have a shot of winning. But if this rules overhaul is going to be a success, it is crucial that the right regulations are put in place. The last thing F1 needs to do is continue its path of messing around with pointless gimmicks that risk damaging the sporting aspect of motorsport.