Elimination-style qualifying – another sorry mess

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News that plans to introduce a new “elimination-style” qualifying system to Formula One will be delayed until at least the Spanish Grand Prix is just another clear indication of the haphazard and disorganised world in which the rulemakers of the sport operate.

The new system, which will see drivers eliminated at 90 second intervals throughout three segments of qualifying until just two remain on track for the final part of Q3, came about as a bombshell thrust upon the fans and the media just last week, while the first pre-season test was underway.

It immediately drew the ire of fans across the internet and social media, and this latest hiccough in F1’s attempt to push through an ill thought-out and unwanted system is likely to do nothing but further get the backs of the viewing public up.

The question that needs to be asked is why it took until just three weeks before the start of the season for this idea to be mooted? Why was this system not made public when there was still time to create the software needed for it to be a viable television spectacle?

There has been three months in which to implement this and ensure that everything is up and running in time for Melbourne, yet the Strategy Group appears to have thought this up in a manner reminiscent of a university student loading up Microsoft Word the day before an important assignment is due to be submitted.

Introducing a new and convoluted system in Spain is not the way Formula One should be going about things. Rule changes, unless for safety reasons, should never take place during a season. By moving the goalposts in the middle of the championship, it risks damaging the integrity of the series’ position as the pinnacle of motorsport.

While you would be hard pressed to find someone who felt that the qualifying system needed changing at all, now that it appears that we are likely to get it, the only logical step is to delay its introduction to 2017, when all of the ins and outs have been explored and all of the software put in place to allow it to run as smoothly as possible.

New qualifying format is fundamentally flawed

That aside, many fans are up in arms at this new system, and it is easy to see why.

One very simple fact is that the current qualifying format has been one of the great success stories of the Grand Prix weekend since its introduction in 2006. It provides every driver on the grid with a fair chance to achieve the best result possible, and, with between 12 and 18 minutes to get things right depending on the session, gives them ample time to get as far up the grid as possible.

The beauty of the current system is that it’s simple, easy to understand, yet also rewards those who are on the ball. The dying seconds of Q3 has become one of the most thrilling parts of the weekend, more so than ever in the last two seasons as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg exchange blows in one of many fights for pole position.

When numerous teams are competitive, it is not uncommon for as many as four or five drivers to be in the hunt for pole right up to the end of the session, each of those men’s final laps crucial in making the difference between clear track at the start of Sunday’s Grand Prix or an opening stint stuck in traffic.

Under the new system, the final 90 seconds of qualifying will only ever be contested between two cars. While drama will most certainly not be lacking when you have a pair of closely matched cars vying for honours, it will rob the viewer of the possibility of a three or four-way fight for pole.

That also assumes that the only aspect that piques the viewer’s interest is who starts in front. Some of the most thrilling moments of qualifying have come when an unfancied runner suddenly pops up at the sharp end right at the end of the session. This will now be lost, as a Force India or Toro Rosso driver clawing their way into the top five will be known for several minutes rather than coming out of nowhere in one short, sharp jab.

One of the main arguments made by proponents of the new system are that it will mean an end to the dead time at the start of qualifying when few cars venture out onto track.

Mercedes and Ferrari may appear on circuit in the opening two minutes of Q1, but does anyone truly believe that when they pop in a lap fast enough to see them through they will continue to circulate for the remainder of the session?

You may see more of the midfield scrappers, but with no increase in the sets of tyres that teams can use, it is likely that – first lap banker aside – it will only be when a driver becomes in danger of elimination that we will see him on track again.

In some cases, when a driver knows he will be unable to improve his time and avoid elimination, viewers will be treated to the sight of a defeated car cruising into the pit lane, a move that is hardly likely to increase tension.

Is the current system perfect?

While this post may appear as a blanket opposition to any change to the qualifying format, one change that I would advocate to the current system is to remove the restriction forcing the top ten to start the race on the tyres on which they set their best lap in Q2.

Allow drivers free use of tyres in qualifying, free choice of which rubber they start the race on and guarantee everyone a new set of both compounds they choose to run on, and you automatically open the door to the possibility of differing strategies at the sharp end of the grid.

Imagine the possibility of Lewis Hamilton at the front of the grid on fresh, soft tyres, Nico Rosberg alongside him on new mediums, with both men given the freedom of running their own race without having to make compromises on a Saturday afternoon.

Now that would be worth watching.

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