The last time Formula 1 introduced a major sporting regulation change in the two weeks leading up to the first race of the season, it didn’t go too well.
In 2016, F1 delivered a new qualifying package with an elimination format. Forecast to fail by engineers, the concept was quickly dropped after just two races and the old system was swiftly reinstated.
This developing story is hardly of the same scale as changing the qualifying format, but it is the prospect of a rather surprising change to the rules that is once again being added in winter’s 11th hour.
The FIA World Motorsport Council has approved the introduction of a point being awarded to the driver who sets the fastest lap in a race. All that stands between the proposition and its implementation ahead of next weekend’s Australian Grand Prix is the F1 Commission, who will vote on the subject in the coming days.
It is not guaranteed that the Commission will vote in favour of the rule change – it is rare for the body to be the last to vote on a subject, with the WMSC vote usually serving as a rubber stamp to policy that has passed through first the Strategy Group and then the F1 Commission.
However, if the rule is implemented then it will pose a change the dynamic of races. It will certainly add relevance to a drivers’ question, “what’s the fastest lap?” – usually posed to an uptight engineer in the closing stages of a race and met with a comment to dampen enthusiasm on a subject that has never really mattered.
Expect to see drivers dropping back from a car ahead to find a clear piece of track if an overtake is proving unlikely and those outside the top 10 could easily dive into the pits late-on in order to fit a new set of soft tyres and pinch a point from nowhere.
Many series that implement a fastest lap point will specify that it can only be earned by a driver who finishes inside the points scoring positions in order to avoid a flurry of late pitstops for this purpose.
There are two big issues with the fastest lap point concept. Firstly, a championship could be decided by a fastest lap. In 2008, for instance, Felipe Massa would have won the championship, beating Lewis Hamilton had the system been in place.
In Formula E, where fastest lap points were on offer during the season two championship finale, early contact meant that title contenders Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi spent most of their title showdown race simply chasing the fastest lap with a points scoring finish out of the question.
It’s a confusing situation for fans and hardly a glorious manner in which to win a championship.
Secondly, how has the conversation seemingly bypassed qualifying points?!
In an era where drivers spend much of a race managing pace and driving to a limit set by tyre degradation, fuel mileage and powerunit wear, qualifying is the biggest driving challenge of most race weekends.
As many as five points for pole position would be fully justifiable considering F1’s current points structure and would add extra value to Saturday’s running.
There is even an argument to suggest that a point for topping a practice timesheet has more value than one for a fastest race lap. Friday running would instantly become more compelling, particularly the first session of the day where short run evaluations can often by few and far between. It would be an easy way of making Friday’s competitive and instantly more entertaining.
While points in practice might, admittedly, be a stretch, a points reward in qualifying is fully justified and at a time when F1 is considering the prospect of rewarding a driver for what can often be a non-achievement in a fastest race lap, it’s almost baffling to think that Saturday running is currently void of a points reward.