The most recent strategy group meeting suggested a review of the race weekend format was among many changes being considered for Formula 1.
A Saturday qualifying race was mentioned as a possibility to determine the grid for the Grand Prix. There have since been suggestions that instead of forming the grid, a Saturday race could be for third drivers, giving up-and-coming talents a chance to shine. Predictably, the idea of racing on Saturday brought as much criticism as approval, with Sebastian Vettel leading those who felt it would devalue the Grand Prix itself. There are also those who feel it would break an important thread of history.
But the traditional format militates against good racing. The British GP proved yet again what’s been shown many times: if you put the fastest cars out of position, you get a good race. Williams rocketed past the faster front-row Mercs at the start and created intrigue even before the rain arrived to mix things up further. The fastest car-driver still won, but had to work hard to do it. The 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, one of the most thrilling in the sport’s history, was such only because Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher started from near the back. If we line the cars up in order of speed and then set them loose, it’s not really surprising if the racing isn’t good.
What would be so bad about a non-points Saturday sprint race to determine Sunday’s grid? The Saturday grid could be determined by reverse championship order, with the Saturday finishing positions forming the GP grid. We could still have a fastest single-lap session – that could be Friday’s main event and could carry title points. It would just no longer form the grid.
So, the championship leader would know that he would be starting last in the Saturday ‘grid race’. His realistic aim wouldn’t be to win that race, but to place himself in a grid position for Sunday in which it would be possible to win the main event. Could Lewis Hamilton in his current Mercedes get up to, say, eighth from 20th in 20 laps? At most tracks that would be feasible given the performance advantage. Could he then win the Grand Prix from eighth? Not easy, but possible. And imagine watching him try – and the other fast guys coming through from the back; it would be thrilling. There’d be races, Monaco being the obvious example, where they’d simply be blocked and the result wouldn’t be based on merit. But at most tracks, the faster cars could pass the slower ones.
If for a few races the fastest guys didn’t make it through to the front before the end and an ideally placed mid-grid car got a run of success instead, that would soon come to be reflected in its more difficult Saturday starting position. So the fastest car should still carry the advantage over the season. Careful consideration of the optimum number of laps for the Saturday grid race would ensure that it wasn’t impossible for the fastest car to prevail by the end of the Grand Prix on Sunday. Some software simulation would give an approximate answer to that.
Yet more artificiality and gimmickry? But is having the slow cars start from the front any more artificial than the traditional method? Yes, F1 should be looking at ways of configuring the cars so that genuine overtaking, unaided by DRS, is less difficult than currently. But even if that solution is found, good racing would then require that the difference in performance through the grid was much smaller than it is – precisely because the fast cars would still be starting ahead of the slow ones.
Good tradition is all very well, but bad tradition should be recognised as such.