Australian Grand Prix: New F1 qualifying is already an unqualified failure

In an age where they are fighting to maintain the public interest with global TV ratings falling, putting on a show with regular periods of empty track is not what is needed or wanted, writes Graham Caygill.

Mercedes-GP and Lewis Hamilton are likely to dominate this season despite the new qualifying rules. Diego Azubel / EPA
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“I think the new qualifying format is pretty rubbish.”

Toto Wolff, the executive director of Mercedes-GP, summed up succinctly the overriding reaction to Formula One’s misguided, and quite frankly ill-advised, attempt to spice up the show on a Saturday afternoon of a race weekend.

Confusing, flawed, boring, and farcical are just some of the words that could best describe Saturday’s qualifying session for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.

There was a lot wrong with F1 last year, but the actual format for qualifying was not one of them.

Split into three parts, with a certain amount of cars eliminated after each part, the system did not produce wildly unpredictable action, given the fastest car usually took pole position (Mercedes-GP have topped the times in qualifying in 36 of the past 38 races), but it did at least ensure consistent track action, with the identity of the pole sitter not normally decided until the final seconds.

On Saturday, Lewis Hamilton was already out of his car and high-fiving his mechanics with two minutes of the session remaining, knowing his 50th pole had already been achieved.

The problem in the final 14-minute session, which the fastest eight drivers were taking part in, was that only the Mercedes cars of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg did more than one flying lap.

The new format, sanctioned by the FIA, motorsport’s ruling body, last month, was designed to encourage an exciting end to qualifying, with after a five-minute opening period, the slowest car being eliminated every 90 seconds from there on, until only two cars are left, leading to, in theory, a final showdown to decide who would start at the front of the grid for the race.

Unfortunately that did not happen. What happened was all eight cars went out and set the mandatory lap time they had to, but then all returned to the pits, and only the Mercedes cars would reappear.

This was due to the teams being limited to how many sets of tyres they can use in a race weekend, as in previous years, and so wanting to preserve their rubber, particularly the option tyre, the faster compound to race on, for Sunday's 58-lap event when the championship points are won, which is completely understandable from their point of view.

So, you had the anti-climax of the clocking ticking down to eliminate each driver, with on most occasions the driver sat in his car in the pitlane twiddling his thumbs as the timer hit zero.

Meanwhile the spectators at the track in Melbourne must have wondered why they had paid money to watch even less track action on a Saturday than in previous years, while TV viewers were left to listen to commentators trying to explain why in what should have been the most exciting period of Saturday’s session there was instead dead air.

Yes, the first two parts of qualifying did have a little drama as cars charged around on last gasp efforts to avoid being eliminated early, but still some midfield teams, such as McLaren, only did one flying lap in the second period, when last year you would have expected them to complete two or three laps in an attempt to start as high up as they could.

Wolff’s blunt comment summed up the general consensus of the F1 paddock that the new format was a mistake, even after only one appearance.

Producing less track action, while producing a largely predictable grid with Mercedes and Ferrari still dominant, seems to highlight the urgent need for a re-think to the alteration.

In the short-term it may well be making the final part of qualifying go back to the way it was run in 2015, with an open period of time and no eliminations as the clock runs down.

Hamilton and Mercedes will dominate either way, but at least in the old way he was out on track in the final seconds of a session pushing to the limit.

It is unlikely F1 will be too knee-jerk in their decision making, but in age where they are fighting to maintain the public interest with global TV ratings falling, putting on a show with regular periods of empty track is not what is needed or wanted.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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