F1’s qualifying debate is missing the point

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton in formation at the 2018 Russian Grand Prix.

The Russian Grand Prix was no lights-to-flag thriller, but it nonetheless delivered Formula One its true lifeblood: controversy.

For one, nothing gets people revved up quite like team orders, and Mercedes did a particularly average job of managing its preferred outcome in Russia, but bubbling along quietly in the background is a push to change qualifying after a series of complaints over recent races.

Romain Grosjean started the process in Singapore, where the Frenchman lamented the fact that qualifying in the top 10 was a disadvantage for midfield drivers because their rivals in 11th or lower had the benefit of choosing their starting tyre, whereas those who qualified for Q3 were forced to start on used and delicate compounds — indeed Grosjean was unable to score points exactly for this reason despite qualifying eighth.

This became a public problem at the following round in Sochi, however, where this concern over tyre strategy combined with a series of penalties to turn Q2 into a farce.

The source of the problem was that three drivers — Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly — made it through to Q2 with back-of-the-grid penalties. With their grid slots already predetermined and with engine mileage coming at a premium so late in the season, they chose not to run, leaving just 12 cars in the session.

Renault then chose to field neither Carlos Sainz nor Nico Hulkenberg because they would automatically qualify 11th and 12th whether they set a time or not, thereby avoiding the problems that so concerned Grosjean at the previous race, and as a result only 10 cars took part in the session, all of which obviously progressed to the top-10 shootout.

Conveniently enough, the disappointment came as the sport mulls over expanding qualifying into a four-segment session in which four cars are eliminated in the first three segments before the final eight compete for pole.

Is there any merit to the idea beyond making change for change’s sake? Or is this just another example of the sport reacting half-cocked to the benefit of no-one — or, worse, to the detriment of the sport, as per the short-live 2016 elimination qualifying format?

Given the fact it doesn’t address either of the key problems exercising minds this season, it’s difficult to believe the revised format will do much to prevent the problems already afflicting qualifying.

Tyre strategy is likewise a bit of a red herring given the rule is designed to give cars starting outside the top 10 a strategic advantage — admittedly not as significant as it was at the anomalous Singapore Grand Prix — and comes with the bonus of ensuring qualifying ends in a proper flat-out, all-in session every weekend.

Pointing the finger solely at the engine penalty regime is similarly misguided — for one, the current system is the best of all the proposed solutions.

The favoured alternatives to grid drops, namely fines or points penalties, are deeply flawed models, with the former giving enormous benefit to cashed-up teams — little wonder it’s Red Bull Racing’s preferred option — and the latter allowing a manufacturer to sacrifice its championship campaign to give one of its drivers a distorted advantage in the individual title chase.

There is one undeniable flaw in the current system — starting position for multiple cars with back-of-the-grid penalties is decided by the time they leave pit lane during FP1, not qualifying result, which is what led to Saturday’s problems in Sochi — but the fix to this specific issue is easy enough, with the FIA considering using qualifying position as a determiner when more than one car has been ordered to start from the back.

But while this would go some of the way to ameliorating this problem, it still doesn’t strike at the heart of the matter, which is that power unit penalties are playing such a significant part in Formula One in the first place.

The maximum allocation of power unit components per car this season is as little as two for certain elements, the lowest of the turbo-hybrid era, and as a result 50 per cent of the grid has already served at least one power unit-related penalty in 2018 with just under a quarter of the season still to run. Though Renault and Honda are the highest-profile sufferers, Mercedes and Ferrari have both blotted their copybooks.

The limit was introduced on the grounds of cost-saving and technical challenge, but on the count of the former teams are required to buy more power units anyway to cover unreliability. As for the latter justification, while it could be argued raising the limit would be catering for the lowest common denominator in a sport supposedly striving for engineering excellence, the balance between sport and spectacle must be maintained — surely the last thing F1 wants is for a championship to be decided by a power unit penalty in the dying moments of a season, for example.

The fix, then, should be easy: there’s no need for structural change to qualifying nor a dramatic revision to sanctions for technical infringements; all that’s needed is an increased power unit allocation for each car to ensure the sport never trespasses into this territory in the first place.

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