F1: None Of Us Is As Dumb As All Of Us
Today we got to see the new knockout qualifying format in action for the first time. I've aired my thoughts on the ever-changing face for Formula 1 qualifying before, but that was mostly about the past rather than about the detail of the new system.
In practice, the new knock-out qualifying format works well - to begin with. With only the slowest six cars being eliminated, most drivers felt they only needed to go out and do one flying lap at the end of the session. The unscheduled stop caused by Kimi Raikkonen's crash made it even more interesting for those that left it to the end. With only enough time left in the session for one flying lap and almost all the cars queueing in the pitlane, it was bound to ruin someone's day. Ralf Schumacher had just gone out when the red flag was shown and a problem in the pits put him at the back of the queue for the restart. As a result he failed to set a representitve time on his one flying lap. That was his excuse anyway. According to ITV pit reporter Ted Kravitz, he came back into the pits and asked his mechanics for setup changes before being told that he was done for the day. Priceless! It'll be a small comfort that team-mate Jarno Trulli didn't qualify much better even though he did make it ahead of the team once known as Minardi.
The second segment passed with rather less incident and the six cars eliminated were more-or-less how you'd expect. It's the twenty minute final segment that has got people talking. Renault's Pat Symonds goes into more detail on the knockout qualifying format and it's implications for both qualifying and race strategy on Renault's team blog. The ten cars that start the final segment have to be fueled ready to start the race. At the end of the session they'll be allowed to add a certain amount of fuel back depending on how many laps they've completed during that segment. The obvious upshot of this is that the drivers need to do as many laps as possible on their used tyres - not even trying to set a time - before pitting for new tyres and setting a fast time. They can pit with 6 minutes to go if they want to set two fast laps on new tyres or if they're feeling really confident like Renault, they can pit with about 3 minutes to go which gives them enough time to do an out lap before the chequred flag falls.
There are at least two reasons this format is dumb:
- The cars are only going to try once or twice to set a flying lap right at the end of the session - the rest of the 20 minutes are more-or-less superfluous.
- Flying in the face of calls to save money in F1, and Max Mosley's apparent conversion to environmental activist, they are sending the cars out for 15 minutes simply to burn fuel!
The title of this blog entry comes from the spoof motivational poster in the accompanying image (made by Despair Inc. Visit their site for lots of other funny posters, calendars, etc.). The slogan I take to mean that when people get together they often make really dumb decisions that they wouldn't have made as individuals.
That seems to be what happens a lot in Formula 1 rule making. Bernie originally proposed this knock-out qualifying format some time ago. When it became apparent in the middle of 2005 how hated the single-lap snore-fest was, the plan was resurrected. Of course everone agreed that qualifying could be improved, even though they were mindful that the rules had been changed too many times already. Still, Bernie really pushed this time for his qualifying idea on the basis that "the show" needed to be improved - he is afterall in the business of selling the TV rights. The original plan was just to have the three sessions with teams refueling and changing tyres as they pleased (like the good old days). They would refuel for the race on Sunday morning.
But wait, there are dissenters! Ron Dennis says that the teams have already designed their cars with the current system in mind. They are expecting to qualify with race-fuel onboard. McLaren wouldn't want to be at a disadvantage if another team had decided to build their car with a larger fuel-cell. If teams could dump any fuel load in before the start of the race, McLaren with their small fuel cell would be stuck on a three-stop strategy when other teams might benefit from a two-stopper. That wouldn't do, so the Formula One Commision agrees that the final session will be run on race fuel levels. They obviously didn't spend much time at that meeting last year thinking about the implications of that one small decision.
The exact rules on how cars would refuel at the end of the session were only recently finalised. At the time of the meeting they said they would weigh the cars before the session and the teams could add fuel at the end back to that weight. Then the realised that would take far too long so they said they would credit each car a set amount of fuel per lap run in the session. Then someone pointed out that cars might dawdle around the track (thus using less fuel) in order to get an unfair amount of fuel credit at the end, so then they added another rule that all laps have to be within 110% of the drivers best time in the session to count.
Without this race-fuel aspect, the 20 minute session would have been like the old qualifying with drivers going out, making adjustments, looking for clear bits of track, trying to put in a fast lap at the end, etc. The only thing that would be missing is the sight of a driver manically running back the pits to jump in the spare car - or even better, borrow their team-mate's car. The two-race engine rule put paid to that as a viable option in the event of a crash during qualifying, and just to make sure nobody tried it the FIA introduced another rule that if you stop on track during qualifying, you're out.
With the race-fuel aspect, the session takes on a completely different complexion. You have all the cars on track for nearly all of the final segment because they need to burn off fuel. Forget about finding a clear lap. Moreover, most of the 20 minute segment is just as pointless as the much-lamented first 20 minutes under pre-2003 qualifying. Having all the cars on track but not even trying to set a time is just as bad as having them all sit in the garage. All becuase of one objection to the proposed format.
And I haven't even gone into the effects of race-fuel qualifying on the race. As Pat Symonds points out, you now have the top 10 cars starting on fairly low fuel loads. The 12 cars behind can refuel as they please and will probably add enough fuel for a two-stop strategy at most tracks in the hope that they can leapfrog cars from the top 10 by staying out longer and being stationary for less time during pitstops. So now we have two different races - it becomes difficult to compare the performances of one group with the other and you still don't know if the man on pole really has the fastest car compared to other drivers in his group.
I'm pretty sure that if you asked any one person to design the sporting regulations for Formula 1 they wouldn't come up with this system in a million years. Somehow you need a meeting of 25 people, all with their own vested interests and no focus on the needs of the sport.
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