By Kunal Shah
On 23 February, with less than a month to go for the 2016 Formula 1 season, Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) announced unexpected changes to the already interesting F1 qualifying format. The powers that control the sport thought that the best way to spruce up the usually humdrum Sunday (the race) would be by mixing up grid positions determined on Saturday (qualifying). Strange!
But that’s the thing about Formula 1 lately – if something doesn’t need to be fixed, there’s a high chance that it will be. And things that actually need fixing go untouched. This is precisely why the much-needed fix in payouts to the teams will remain unfixed for seasons to come. And then there’s the unnecessary ban on change in helmet design, of course.
The new qualifying format retains the existing three-phase elimination process. The big change, however, is in the process of elimination itself. Every 90 seconds, the slowest driver will be eliminated from the session. Thank god that despite the new format, the DNA of qualifying remains speeds! Formula 1 should consider renaming ‘Qualifying’ to ‘Eliminations’ given the paradigm shift in focus.
Experienced drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Filipe Massa believe that the elimination countdown would usher in chaos in qualifying. The new system relies on faster drivers being eliminated due to driver and/or team error in calculating the traffic, accurate time and fuel loads needed. That Pirelli’s preferred tyre compounds for qualifying might not offer bite for the entire duration of elimination through each phase is another issue altogether.
The only positive about the change in qualifying format is that the action on Saturday, which is considered as the advertisement for Sunday’s Race Day, will possibly get better and unpredictable. But the downside is that there’s full chance that despite a cracking qualifying session, the race on Sunday will be boring and unpleasing. There’s full chance that the drivers who got eliminated due to errors will be unchallenged as they climb their way through the pack by employing drag reduction system (DRS).
Formula 1’s immediate need to fix is the format of the race or the racing itself. However, F1 authorities deserve a pat on the back for not employing ‘reverse grids’ as an artificial means to improve the spectacle. We’ve all seen how the artificial and unwanted DRS takes the joy away from overtaking.
Formula 1 hasn’t thought through the execution of this seemingly good idea. While the television viewer will be adequately informed via graphics during the broadcast, the stadium spectator will only end up being more confused in this fast paced elimination format. But that to you is Formula 1 again – overly complex!
And it isn’t the fans or the drivers alone, even the Formula 1 marshals aren’t sure of how they’d execute this format on track, especially the narrower ones. Since time would be of the essence during the elimination period, focus will be on accurate usage of the ‘blue flag’ to ensure that the eliminated driver successfully stays out of the way of those on their ‘hot laps’. This format will call for better coordination between drivers; we wonder how Mercedes will handle the Rosberg-Hamilton tension in this context.
Since the announcement of this new format, there have been expert views and fan opinions flying on social media. However, it is only when the qualifying for the 2016 Australian Grand Prix starts that we will know the impact of these changes – for the teams, drivers and the fans.
Kunal Shah is a former racer who was a part of the management at the Force India F1 Team for over five years. He blogs on F1 and also hosts the Inside Line F1 Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter - @kunalashah
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