On Saturday in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton became only the third man in Formula One history to take 50 pole positions.
The prodigiously talented Max Verstappen continued to show just why it is only a matter of time until he earns the right to sit in a car capable of challenging for the title with a stunning lap to put himself a stunning fifth on the grid in Albert Park.
McLaren and Honda showed that they have made real progress over the winter, with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button qualifying 12th and 13th respectively and looking serious contenders for a points finish in tomorrow’s season opener, while further down the grid rookies Jolyon Palmer and Rio Haryanto defied expectation by outqualifying highly-rated teammates in Kevin Magnussen and Pascal Wehrlein.
These should have been the main talking points from the first qualifying session of the new season, but instead what we got was almost universal derision of a convoluted system that both baffled and failed to produce excitement in equal measure.
An estimated 100,000 fans were at Albert Park – notwithstanding the millions across the world who arose from their slumber at an ungodly hour of the morning to watch on television – to witness the culmination of a pre-season that had so many questions to answer.
What they deserved was a thrilling qualifying session that gradually built to a crescendo across all three segments and a full hour in which the drivers that they had shelled out hundreds of Australian dollars to see entertained them in uninterrupted fashion.
Instead, what they got was a shambles in which the teams appeared just as flummoxed by the new format as the fans themselves. All the meaningful running was done at the beginning of the sessions, countless drivers – hamstrung by a lack of tyres – were unable to react when on the brink of elimination and the final minutes of each segment were so quiet that the collective sounds of pins dropping could doubtless be heard across the Victorian landscape.
The sight of Lewis Hamilton wrapping up pole with four minutes of Q3 remaining, followed later with the appearance of Sebastian Vettel in the post-session presser in team jacket and jeans, would have been comical had it not been such a farcical PR disaster for the sport.
Worse still were the reports from Albert Park itself that the fans that had paid good money to watch the metaphorical car-crash unfold were unable – thanks to big screens devoid of any timing graphics – to follow the action, with many leaving their seats while the session was technically still in progress.
Yet the saddest part of all was the fact that those inside the sport had seen this coming a mile off. Drivers and engineers had warned that changing the format would result in confusion and a lack of action towards the end of the session, yet in spite of their pleas, the F1 Commission voted this system through regardless.
Fans at Albert Park reportedly left their seats while Saturday’s qualifying session was still in progress (Credit: Twitter user @chrisraynesf1)
What resulted after the session was the equally farcical sight of those same team bosses – chief culprits among them Toto Wolff, Christian Horner and Niki Lauda – rushing to condemn the very system that they had been partly responsible for pushing through in the first place.
Regardless of the apologies of the aforementioned trio, or the description of the new system by none other than Bernie Ecclestone himself as “crap”, all of this could have been avoided by simply not touching qualifying in the first place.
Martin Brundle summed it up perfectly in commentary when he said that if he was asked to change ten things about Formula One, qualifying would not be on his list. The old system that had been in place since 2006 ensured that cars were on track for the vast majority of the session, but also had the ability to catch out a big name and invariably led to an exciting conclusion.
Almost no one was calling for it to be changed, and now on the evidence of this sorry mess, even fewer people can see why it was.
The fact that an urgent meeting at which the new elimination-style format is almost certain to be ditched will be held tomorrow is proof, if ever it were needed, that those responsible for rushing through this system are now nursing self-inflicted gunshot wounds to their feet.
The only logical solution to this mess is to go back to the system that has served the sport so well over the last decade and ensure that it is in place in time for the next race in Bahrain.
What we got in Melbourne was an ill-conceived experiment that did nothing but attract a deluge of negative headlines and further embarrass the sport on a global stage. Many more debacle of this nature, and the very credibility of Formula One as a serious competition is in grave peril of exceeding tipping point.
Saturday should have been the day that we celebrated the return of Formula One following the end of the winter famine. Instead, it will be remembered for its latest own goal.