It feels like déjà vu to an extent. Two weeks ago a highly enjoyable Formula One Australian Grand Prix weekend was marred by the farce that was qualifying.
Thanks to the ill-conceived format brought in for the 2016 season, the end to Saturday’s session to decide the grid at Melbourne was a hive of drivers sitting in their cars in the garage, twiddling their thumbs and looking thoroughly bored.
The idea of having elimination periods after a set time in each of the three parts of qualifying was always going to be flawed, given the current regulations on the limited number of tyres available to each driver.
By making them all go out early in the session, you were ensuring a busy first few minutes but then a dull last period, as drivers were reluctant to waste another set of fresh rubber, needed for the race, just to try to gain a couple of places on the grid.
The race itself was one of the best season opener’s in many years, but that had nothing to do with qualifying.
The poor starts of the two Mercedes-GP cars, and the race stoppage after Fernando Alonso’s big crash shook the order up, put cars out of position and made for an entertaining spectacle with the top four cars all on different strategies come the race end.
The teams had voted in Australia on race morning to scrap the new qualifying format immediately and revert to the simpler format of three sessions, with slowest cars eliminated at the end of each session rather than during it.
However, the F1 strategy group, following discussions with the FIA, motorsport’s ruling body, have chosen to keep the format, at least for this weekend in Bahrain, before another assessment of the system will be made before the next race in two weeks time in China.
So, what we have to look forward to is another daft one hour tomorrow, where much of the time will be spent with little track action, before another debate post-race on whether the system should be ditched or not.
Does not sound like much fun, does it?
Especially, when it has been quite apparent to anyone, either involved in F1 directly, or a spectator, what the obvious flaws with the idea were when it was announced.
The main concern with this issue being allowed to run and run, is that it is actually distracting from trying to resolve F1’s real issues.
Namely, trying to make F1 more competitive and closing the sizeable performance gaps between the front and the end of the grid.
While Australia did not prove a conclusive guide to what we can expect over the coming seven months of action, but it did show that at best, we have two quick teams at the front, in Mercedes and Ferrari.
If, and the word if needs to be highlighted strongly here, given there were enough hints at Melbourne that Mercedes do still have a slight pace edge over their Italian rivals, that is a step forward from the past two years – 2014 and 2015 were effectively private parties for victory for the Mercedes cars with Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel (the lone two non-Mercedes drivers to win during the past two years) picking up the scraps from the rare days that the German marque’s drivers either collided, had reliability issues or made a strategic error.
Ferrari gave hope at Albert Park they can fight with Mercedes, but it is a sad state of affairs when all the eggs are in the basket of one team to make it more than just a one-team title fight.
Essentially you have two teams in a 11-team grid who can win, barring freakish occurrences, making the other nine cars also-rans who will occasionally have a day at the front to show what they can do.
It has not always been like this. Even as recently as 2012, you had seven different drivers, from five teams winning the first seven races of the year. F1’s answer to the problem of few cars being competitive compared to the all-conquering Mercedes cars has been to try to shake up qualifying, in misguided fashion, to get more mixed up grids, with cars starting out of position.
But that is trying to work around the problem rather than dealing with it.
The F1 fraternity should be working on ways to make the sport more affordable to attract more teams, and create stable rules that give all teams a chance to fight at the front, regardless of what engine they have.
Trying to manipulate the running order to have faster cars farther down the pack screams of an organisation not confident in their product and with no apparent clue on how to resolve it.
What the sport needs is strong leadership to decide what it actually wants to be.
If it is pure entertainment, then just abolish qualifying, make it reverse grids from the previous race results – winner starts last, etc – and be done with it.
Would it be fair? No.
Would it be sporting? Definitely not.
Would it liven up the show?
But if F1 wants to remain a true sport, then the focus must not be on cheap thrills and working out ways to try to get the teams closer together.
There will always be a fastest team in F1, it just would be nice if there was more than one other team challenging them to be top of the podium and some different faces up there once in a while.
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