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Weekend Debate: What has Formula 1 learned from the qualifying saga?

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Weekend Debate: What has Formula 1 learned from the qualifying saga?
Apr 10, 2016, 8:28 AM

In life it's okay to make mistakes, but it's considered bad form to make them again.

In life it's okay to make mistakes, but it's considered bad form to make them again.

Formula 1 stepped back from a potentially damaging schism this week, when the governing body (FIA) and the commercial rights holder (Bernie Ecclestone) backed down after the teams united to tell them that they wanted to revert to the 2015 format and ditch the unloved elimination format.

So what has been learned from this episode and what will be the effect going forward?

Incubator of bad ideas

The starting point for considering this is where the idea came from. It was one that had been considered some years ago, long before the creation of the F1 Strategy Group, but not adopted. We have to remember that, over the years, many different qualifying formats have existed.

When I began my F1 career in 1990, we had qualifying on Friday and Saturday. Saturday was generally faster, unless it was wet, so you had a provisional pole sitter overnight and then everyone had another hour on Saturday to go faster. This was the days of Senna in his prime, so those Saturdays were pretty exciting, even if all he did was move the bar higher for the rest. At that time Qualifying was not a TV spectacle in particular.

To expand the TV offering, the format was adapted through the late 1990s and 2000s; we had single lap qualifying for a while, then we had single lap Qualifying on a Friday and Saturday one year and then the format resolved in 2011 to the one we were all familiar with until this season.

F1 start

The point is that qualifying has been through many changes and facelifts, so that is nothing new. What was new was making that change so close to the start of the season and going ahead with it, despite teams running simulations that told them it would be anti-climactic.

The story that the elimination was something the group resolved to as a 'least worst' option after Berne Ecclestone had wanted to reverse the top ten does neither the idea nor the Strategy Group format great service either.

The impetus behind making any kind of change was to try to avoid two Mercedes starting on the front row every week. One way to look at precedents is to look back to 2005, when a single tyre rule was adpoted for both qualifying and race. This was to stop Ferrari winning everything, having done so for the previous six years.

It worked. A Michelin car, Fernando Alonso's Renault, won the world championship. But it was very strange to have the drivers forced to qualify and then do an entrire 300km Grand Prix on one set of tyres. It took away one of the signature moments of F1 racing, which is the pit stop.

That very poor idea, like the one which put four longitudinal grooves into each tyre, germinated from the governance method of former FIA president Max Mosley and had nothing to do with the Strategy Group, which has undoubtedly been made the scapegoat of this latest 'elimination qualifying' episode. The take-home for most people is that the governance is broken and needs urgent repair. That is certainly Ecclestone's argument.

Twitter

Social media commentary

Imagine the reaction if we had single tyre sets for qualifying and race in 2016. And imagine if Kimi Raikkonen had been leading a race, got a flat-spot on his tyre, declined to change it because the team wasn't sure whether that was allowed or not and then the vibrations caused a suspension failure at 180mph? That actually happened in 2005.

What has made the difference today is the constant social media commentary, which has given the fans a voice and which has made the rule makers and teams immediately aware of what fans think. When you have an overwheimingly negative reponse, you need to change the product.

That did not happen in the case of elimination qualifying. Or rather, the teams read the mood music and met in Australia to confirm that they all felt the same way and it was imperative to revert. Todt and Ecclestone didn't want to do that, they wanted to explore whether there was a way to improve the last part of qualifying and move forward. The teams finally got their way last Thursday.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 07.16.06

A couple of years ago the F1 Strategy Group also waved through the double points idea for the last round, which all the fans and most people working in the sport also hated. Luckily that only happened at one race, rather than at every event. And in fairness, it did keep the season alive a little longer and set up a showdown final round. Without that Lewis Hamilton would have been champion before the season finale. But it was still a bad idea.

The point of this reflection is that F1 has always been prone to making daft gimmick rule changes, but it seems to be doing so more frequently today and the social media commentary makes those at the centre of the sport more immediately aware that something isn't popular. The prevailing mood music therfore is that this sport is in a mess.

Todt said in his Bahrain press briefing that he does spend time reading social media, but believes you cannot run a sport based on being reactive to the whims of fans.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 07.25.14

Even on these pages, with the thousands of comments we get every week, we do not have a unified fans' view. Someone has to take charge and regulate the sport. Ecclestone's argument is the F1 Strategy Group is 'too democractic.' Of course what he means by that is that he cannot get his way as easily as before. He's the promoter and he needs to be able to make his product appealing. Likewise Todt made it clear that he is not a dictator. Ironically from the response to this episode, it sounds like many fans and people inside the sport wish he were, because they want the governing body to govern.

So at the end of this month we have two further flashpoints; the approval of the 2017 regulations and the engine makers' proposals to make engines cheaper and more widely available.

Will the rule makers learn from this embarrassing episode, or will we have more of the same?

What do you think? Leave your comment below

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