After a month where a political power play has seen F1 qualifying beaten from pillar to post, it seems that a return to the popular 2015 format is now a prospect off the negotiating table. Instead, Sunday’s meeting of F1’s bigwigs saw a new aggregate qualifying proposition formulated as an alternative to the much maligned elimination format.
While it is yet to be voted upon, it has already added yet more fuel to F1’s latest controversy, with Sebastian Vettel stating “It’s a good idea if you want random things to happen, but Formula 1 should be about racing. It’s a s*** idea.”
Vettel’s frustrations have strong foundations. Aggregate qualifying, as a concept, has failed in the past. In 2005 times from separate qualifying sessions on a Friday and a Saturday were combined to form a grid. While this latest proposal would see the structure of the qualifying hour unchanged, the theory of adding times together mirrors that of the 2005 format.
While unanimous agreement in the F1 Commission would see this format replace elimination qualifying – the source of near ubiquitous disapproval by F1 fans in Australia and Bahrain – the sport would surely be jumping from the frying pan and into the fire.
Aggregate qualifying would punish mistakes far too highly. For instance, with Q2 being 12 minutes in length, teams will only have enough time to complete two runs on the majority of circuits, meaning that a mistake on just one of the laps would effectively devalue the second run for a driver.
Had this format been in operation in Bahrain, Hamilton’s mistake on at the final corner on his first run would have seen him seed pole position to Nico Rosberg, despite his record breaking second run.
However, it is highly likely that if the format is approved, it will be a fixture for the season. It should tick all of the boxes for promoters and the FIA alike. With drivers needing to complete two runs per session as a minimum, it guarantees higher mileage in qualifying, and more cars on track rights one of elimination qualifying’s wrongs.
Moreover, it is also a much more effective way of mixing up the grid. With the cost of mistakes heightened, drivers will be under significant pressure in all three sessions. They will have to nail the perfect lap twice per segment and will not have the opportunity to post a banker lap, as was possible in the 2015 format. It is still unlikely that a Mercedes or Ferrari would find themselves out in Q1, but the probability of a shock is increased.
Vettel’s skepticism is, however, absolutely justified. Qualifying should be about the fastest driver on the day claiming the spoils. Over-complicated formats with convoluted rules that force fans to watch with a calculator at hand is simply unnecessary.
Neither elimination qualifying session has provided a surprising grid thus far. In both Australia and Bahrain the races simply did not need a random Saturday to be exciting. The new-for-2016 tyre regulations and single clutch mechanism have served to spice up the action on a Sunday. So far, Saturday’s have been the problem.
If a return to the 2015 format is off the table permanently, in what must simply be an aim for F1’s rule-makers to save face, then aggregate qualifying is a fair compromise. It should be better than elimination qualifying, but only just.
It would be another unwanted detour as F1 prepares to move further away from what qualifying should really be about. Which driver and car combination can get around the track in the quickest time.