In the 68-year history of Formula 1 there has been five variations in qualifying formats that has given us entertainment, astonishment, excitement and delight over the years.
Qualifying is the session, on a race weekend, in which we watch in awe as some of the finest drivers take to the track, with their cars on maximum attack, to deliver the ultimate lap time around some of the greatest circuits in the world.
It’s the driver’s chance to prove, no matter what machinery is at their disposal, they are the quickest driver in F1.
On a Saturday afternoon, the track is enlightened with the roar of an engine revving up in the garage before these unparalleled machines are unleashed on to the circuit to deliver every single breath of horsepower they can produce, with drivers pushing the boundaries and limits to stick their name on the coveted spot of pole position.
It’s a feeling no other sport can match, and few will taste during their career. F1 has always aimed to solve one of the toughest questions of all: who is the fastest driver on the grid? And with that comes a series of formats designed to test a driver to and beyond its natural ability.
As the world evolves – so does Formula 1. Through rules, regulations, advancements in safety and technology, is now the time for the sport to consider altering its qualifying format after over a decade of similarity? Well, here is why Liberty Media should take note of why a change shouldn’t be ruled out.
Analysing the stats
Firstly, lets take a look at the statistics from the previous one-lap qualifying sessions from 2003-2005. In that three-year period, the format was tweaked on a couple of occasions.
When introduced in 2003, as part of a radical overhaul of the sporting regulations to improve the show, the session ran on Friday and Saturday in two separate sessions.
The cars would run in championship order in the first qualifying session, meaning the slowest driver on Friday would run first on Saturday on race fuel. The following season saw a tweak to the format, with both sessions spread apart on Saturday but classification from the previous race determined the running order.
However, an obvious flaw was apparent as demonstrated at that year’s British Grand Prix. Several drivers, including world champion Michael Schumacher, slowed deliberately in the first segment of qualifying so they could qualify earlier in the order to avoid a potential rain shower in the second session.
F1 resolved this issue with another change in 2005, this time aggregate qualifying. Drivers would perform two single-lap runs – one on Saturday and one on Sunday – with their times from both sessions combined to give an overall qualifying time.
This was scrapped after just six races after proving unpopular with the fans and teams, replaced with a single session on Saturday afternoon. From 2006 onwards, the current format of three separate sessions has made qualifying one of the must-watch spectacles of a race weekend – especially following the ban on refuelling in 2010.
The low-fuel runs are spectacular to behold and often lead to last-lap shootouts. However, if you look at the numbers since the beginning of the V6 hybrid era, it tells a different story.
Since 2014, only seven drivers have taken pole position – four of them non-Mercedes. Moreover, over the last four-and-a-quarter seasons, stats show there hasn’t been more than four pole-sitters over the course of a year.
In comparison, one-lap qualifying showed a regular variation in pole-sitters. In 2003, six different drivers started on pole, increasing to seven in 2004 and an incredible nine in 2005. In total, 10 different drivers claimed at least one pole position over the three-year period, compared to the seven over four years in the current format.
As a note to end on, five drivers claimed their maiden pole position during the days of the one-lap shootout that included the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. On the other hand, just two drivers have scored a first career pole in the current guise in the V6 era: Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas.
What are the pros and cons?
Moving away from the statistics, what are the potential pros and cons of one-lap qualifying? Firstly, there is more possibility of a mixed-up grid. Although there isn’t likely to be anything other than a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull on pole, one-lap qualifying means the smallest mistakes can be punished.
Plus, it presents the midfield teams with a chance to qualify higher than usual if they take advantage of those errors. Secondly, it potentially allows a variation on strategy. Currently, teams may qualify on a slower tyre to benefit their race chances, this could also apply in one-lap qualifying and, therefore, give an interesting overlook for the race, with drivers relinquishing a better grid slot for a different race strategy.
Thirdly, as was one of the reasons for its introduction in ’03, it gives all teams more exposure on TV, which is a benefit for sponsors. Furthermore, the possibility of a rain-affected qualifying potentially means some drivers would be forced to qualify in wet conditions, with others benefiting from a drying track, mixing up the grids in a similar fashion to ie Japan 2005.
Finally, with all the talk over Liberty Media considering “fundamental” changes to the format of the entire grand prix weekend, implementing one-lap qualifying in a similar fashion to 2003 gives Friday’s an added excitement for the fans attending and watching at home.
Now the cons. Due to the fact this session was run during the days of refuelling, this could have a factor on its aim of trying to mix up the grid in the current era, with teams fuelling cars light and the bigger teams running special engine modes.
Moreover, there is the possibility of less cliffhangers to the end of a session. This would be apparent if there was a mixed order for the second session due to a change in the weather, with a slower car running last, or if a driver made a mistake and was clearly not on par with the pole position time.
Finally, the current generation of cars has widened the field giving some teams an almost impossible chance of pole. As previously hinted, a non-Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull pole would be unlikely and result in less variation than planned.
What is the Conclusion?
Looking at the talking points, it is an interesting debate as to whether one-lap qualifying would be welcomed back to F1 with open arms.
For the elder, more nostalgic fan, it would return them to the so-called ‘glory days’ of F1. For the younger fans, it would be a whole new experience watching each driver tackle 21 circuit’s on an isolated track, with the slightest error costing them lap time and a higher grid position.
The stats seemingly go in favour of one-lap qualifying, with a clear indication that there were more pole-sitters over that period but, more crucially, in less grand prix’s. 2003 had five races less than the 2016 season, with the latter having three less drivers on pole position across the year.
The sport was heavily criticised for its switch to a hybrid formula that has witnessed Mercedes become one of F1’s most dominant teams of all time, and leave fans gunning for a shakeup in the pecking order.
For this reason, and the support of the stats, Liberty Media should seriously consider reverting to a much-loved format as they continue to push for a more competitive and unpredictable Formula 1.