F1 qualifying has undergone yet more changes. This time for the better, we hope…
What to do with F1 qualifying has been an ongoing subject of debate over the past few years, and the system has been tinkered with so much that it was all too easy to forget what we had before.
Qualifying with all cars running at the same time had worked well for decades. It only became an issue when, in the 1990s, the Saturday show became an ever more important part of the TV package sold to the broadcasters by Bernie Ecclestone. The problem was that it invariably began with commentators desperately trying to maintain the interest of casual viewers as the cars sat in the garages, awaiting the magical last 15 or 20 minutes.
The one car at a time system made sense. It was introduced to keep the track busy, to ensure that brilliant pole-winning laps were not missed by the TV cameras, and to facilitate the introduction of parc fermé restrictions.
While it occasionally produced interesting grids, there’s no question that the system failed to capture the imagination either of the public or F1 insiders. That was clearly shown by the fact that it has been changed so many times. There were endless suggestions on how to improve the procedure, but all missed the point, as we got further and further from where we started.
Thankfully we’ve gone back to basics in determining a suitable format for 2006 and beyond. If it works, the knockout system could be fantastic. It’ll be a bit like a major golf tournament as even the very best will have to work hard early on to make the ‘cut’ and guarantee passage to the top 10 run-off. The key thing is that there is no limitation on how many laps drivers run, other than those provided by engine mileage and tyre performance, so action is surely guaranteed.
Crucially, a race fuel element has been retained, and nobody is quite sure how that will play out. The top 10 contenders will be weighed at the start of the final 20 minutes session, and will then be topped up to the same weight before the race. That in theory will further encourage drivers to take to the track in that final period — the more laps they run, the less fuel they will have on board for their last-ditch efforts. Whatever they’ve used, they get back for the race.
This presents a fascinating strategic conundrum for the teams. And not least because the drivers knocked out in the earlier sessions will then be able to run whatever fuel loads they want come the race.
Starting eleventh with a full tank is a pretty good option — just ask Kimi Räikkönen — and that could create some interesting scenarios come the race. After all, whatever the merits of the qualifying show, Sunday is what it’s all about after all…