Elimination qualifying: gimmick over logic?

As social media was meant to be winding down following a fascinating second day of winter testing, Twitter was instead whipped up into a frenzy last night, as news of a radical and imminent change to the qualifying format broke. During a meeting of the F1 Commission, the teams have decided to overhaul the qualifying hour, introducing an elimination style session which is expected to be implemented for this season.

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Image Credit: Rachel Clarke (via Flickr) [CC-BY-NC-2.0]

Safe to say, the news has divided opinion, with the majority siding with the likes of Karun Chandhok

Elimination style qualifying, where the slowest drivers at specific time intervals are ejected from the session, is the type of format made famous by kart racers of the Mario variety. However, this fast paced knockout format is set to be adopted in 2016, pending the approval of the World Motorsport Council, who usually rubber stamp policy which has passed the F1 Commission.

The purpose of the change seems to be to create a wider window of excitement during qualifying, with drivers needing to post competitive time right from the outset. The most chaotic of sessions will be in either wet conditions, or where the rate of track evolution is high, as the last man over the line will carry an enormous advantage and track position will therefore be all the more critical.

Aside from these circumstances, however, the qualifying results will largely be free of anomalies. It is doubtful that the greater emphasis on the start of each segment of qualifying will have a profound effect on grid order.

Moreover, it feels as though F1 has made a change for changes sake. While there are problems in the sport that need to be addressed, qualifying is one element which has worked well. Even in the era of Mercedes domination, the nature of the Q3 shootout has meant that Saturday afternoon’s have always been entertaining, even when the races have been classed as processional.

Former BBC F1 presenter Jake Humphrey hit the nail on the head;

The fundamental issues with the sport ultimately boil down to a lack of engine parity and turbulent air. The former is notoriously difficult to address. The effect of turbulence on cars, meanwhile, is an element which given the engineering expertise within the sport, should be a simple fix. If engineers are able to create a powertrain which runs at 47% thermal efficiency, then stripping down the front wing and finding downforce from other areas should be easy.

Even after a chaotic qualifying session, which sees the likes of Hamilton and Rosberg mired in the midfield, there is still no guarantee of an entertaining spectacle under the current technical regulations, as they would struggle to follow the slower cars ahead and as such, be unable to overtake.

While the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2015 was a stunning afternoon’s entertainment, the closing stages saw Daniel Ricciardo following Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. On fresher tyres, the Red Bull looked capable of snatching a surprise win but was unable to clear Rosberg given the turbulent air pouring off the back of the Mercedes.

In the end, he took a chance and made a dramatically bold move down the inside which ultimately ended badly for both parties. It is this inability for drivers to race wheel to wheel that needs addressing.

While this new format may well be a “bubble burst,” it is important to avoid jumping to conclusions too soon. Qualifying may not have been broken, but it is yet to be seen as to whether this has a negative effect on the show.

If anything, it is likely to have little effect other than making drivers more anxious to get a great lap in early and giving TV producers, who have to edit qualifying into a more condensed format, a headache.

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