Formula 1 Insight

Qualifying and the Television
Thanks to the fuss made over the breakdown of McLaren's strategy in session 3 of qualifying for the Hungarian GP, focus has returned to the weaknesses of the current qualifying system. When the three-part system was first introduced, there was general approval and the FIA congratulated itself on getting it right at last. But we should remember that a large part of that approval was relief at the demise of the one-lap, get-it-right-first-time-or-you're-dead, system. At last we could see more than a single car on the track again.

Lewis Hamilton

Time has revealed serious problems with the new system, however. The development of Q3 into a fuel-burning phase has been criticized many times as an obvious contradiction of the sport's stated intention of becoming more environment-friendly. A few drivers have pointed out that the requirement that cars in Q3 be fueled as they will be for the race means that it is actually better to qualify in eleventh place, rather than tenth. You are then free to adjust your fuel strategy to suit the race, instead of attempting a compromise between that and the need to set as fast a lap as possible in qualifying. And there are still long periods in Q1 and Q2 when the track is empty as teams wait for others to lay down rubber and so optimize the track surface.

Scrapping the fuel requirement for Q3 might seem the easiest way to get rid of the complications of Q3. Yet this would turn it into just another version of Q1 and Q2, with everyone waiting until the last moment before attempting to set a fast time. The complaints of hot laps being spoiled by traffic would multiply, and we have seen just how hot and bothered the stewards can become if they suspect that a crowd favorite has been blocked.

Allow me to suggest that the FIA's optimistic experiment with the qualifying system and its constant adjustment as problems are encountered has gone on long enough. I cannot recall when the governing body first started meddling with the rules in this area but it hardly matters; the point is that it has gone on for years and still we encounter one unforeseen problem after another. It is time to admit that it was a mistake to change things in the first place and to return to an older system that worked.

Give the drivers an hour to get in a decent time with no limit on number of laps or fuel or tires. It should be as simple as that.

Immediately I hear the shouts that this would lead to the old problem of an empty track for three quarters of an hour and a hectic last quarter as everyone tries to take advantage of improved track conditions. My response is: so what? If teams want to risk their best laps being hampered by traffic in the dying minutes of qualifying, that's their problem.

I know that the real objection to this system is that it makes for a pretty poor show for the audience, especially the television viewers. And this is what matters to Bernie and the FIA, since TV viewers are now numbered in the millions, whereas those who can still afford to attend the races are counted in thousands only.

It becomes a matter of priorities in the end. Is F1 just a form of entertainment that must take account of viewing figures or die? Or is it a contest between the best drivers and teams in the world that just happens to be pretty entertaining to watch too? The answer is that F1 will continue even if the bottom drops out of viewing figures; there are thousands who participate in motor sports around the world where the only audience is a man out walking with his dog. We are human and will compete whether anyone is watching or not.

Of course, the disappearance of an audience will also destroy F1's sources of income. Yet it would continue, adjusting its cloth to suit its finances. And really, things are not quite as bad as this worst case scenario.

The empty track problem is more a failure of television to cope with reality than a deficiency in the sport. With a little imagination, the television producers could fill this period with interest and solve another of F1's problems at the same time. Consider how often we hear the complaint that the drivers are too remote from the public in F1, that the accessibility of the stars has been a factor in the enormous success of NASCAR in the States. Why should not the TV cameras be allowed full access to the pits during qualifying, so that we could have interviews with the drivers that are a little longer than those conducted in the grid walks of the likes of Martin Brundle and Peter Windsor?

It is inevitable that drivers will give little more than peremptory platitudes in the heat of the last few minutes before a race; in fact, I am always amazed that they bother to speak with us at all in the circumstances. How much more could be obtained if they were to be approached in the more relaxed atmosphere of the long wait while Super Aguri or Spyker clean the track for everyone else.

So the problem of satisfying the television audience is not insurmountable. With a little thought and invention, we can reach a compromise between the demands of entertainment and the health of the sport. Let us stop trying to patch over-complicated systems with yet more complication and get back to something that we can all understand and enjoy. It's racing, for pete's sake - so let's race!


I would agree wholeheartedly that Q3 is a complete waste of time, fuel and everything else - yes we have cars on track to give us something to look at, but they aren't racing or even trying to set a fast lap until the last 10 minutes so what's the point?

I'm a bit wary about going back to the old system - not because the empty track for 45 minutes would upset me, but because I dread what drivel James Allen would be forced to come up with during that time of inaction!
Date Added: 10/08/2007

Dan M
I would like to see something like 4 cars are allotted a 10 minute qually session. Teams would complain about one group getting more rubber on the track during their session, but if it was decided based on Championship points (teams with the most points go first to give the back markers a chance log times closer to the top teams) and possibly steal some higher grid positions.... The top teams would actually have to pass someone to get the lead (gasp!).

If you want to spice it up even more, give the top 4 drivers at the end of that session one hot lap to set pole. This should lead to some blistering fast laps right a the end of qualifying (where they should be). This would work even better with decreased aero so that if a fast car is stuck far back in the pack he would be capable of working his way to the front.

I think this would also lead to better TV coverage. You would be forcing cars to be on track throughout the entire qualifying, and with less cars out at any given time maybe they would broadcast entire hot laps through the on board camera.

Its great to see how hard the drivers have to work the steering wheel. It also gives you a better idea of what car is working and which isn't. I mean if a Spyker and a Ferrari were painted the same and no telemetry was on screen would you be able to tell which is faster? (I guess you could always look for the car with the fuel line and know that was the Spyker).
Date Added: 10/08/2007

The mind recoils in horror, Craig! I think we will definitely have to write into our changed rules that James Allen is allowed nowhere near a microphone. ;)
Date Added: 10/08/2007

"the long wait while Super Aguri or Spyker clean the track for everyone else." LOL! Nice...
Date Added: 10/08/2007

It took me a couple of reads, Dan, but I get the gist of your suggested system. I have two problems with it, the first being that it's as complicated as our present system - and I maintain that we need to be simplifying systems, partly to avoid the constant need for rule adjustment as we run into unexpected problems, and partly to make things so simple that they can easily be understood by someone watching the sport for the first time.

My second point is more fundamental to what I was driving at in the article - and you have shown me that I haven't explained things effectively. Which is good, the purpose is to work together towards a solution (even though we have no power at all and those who do will never read all this).

The words that give you away, Dan, are these: "If you want to spice it up even more..." That's my point - I don't want to spice it up at all. I figure that motor racing proved long before Bernie and the gang came along that it is pretty good entertainment just as it is (or was in those days). Before anyone gave a thought to improving the show, television viewing figures were increasing and we needed no scandals or artificial systems to make it interesting - it was quite gripping enough, thank you.

Now that Bernie and Max have changed everything they can get their sticky paws on, all we hear are complaints about the poor quality of the show and the terrible two think up wilder and wilder schemes in their efforts to "spice it up" (night races indeed!). I say they should forget it - it isn't working and everything they try just makes things worse. Let us focus instead upon the primary business of allowing the teams to race and let the entertainment aspect look after itself. In other words, it is the television producers' job to make the sport watchable; let the FIA do their job and TV worry about how to present it.

Simplification seems to me the only way to drag the sport out of the mire it has created for itself. In this post I have suggested a way for the qualifying to be simplified so that qualifying can become a straight fight on the circuit again, rather than the strategy-encumbered nonsense it is at the moment. And that applies equally to all other aspects of the sport - everything has become so complex that the simple matter of plain motor racing has been lost in the confusion and now far too much is decided in the law courts rather than on the track. Scrap it all and back to basics, say I!
Date Added: 10/08/2007

Glad you liked it, Neil - I'm kinda partial to it myself (in a suitably modest and British way, of course)!
Date Added: 10/08/2007

Well, I like the knockout system, even more than the old 12-lap system. It puts good pressure on the drivers and creates good TV.

But like most others, I want to see changes in Q3. Here's my suggestion: Drivers be given 12 laps (enough for 3 or 4 attempts). Now, the catch is, ALL the laps must be used up within the 15 minutes. That way, the teams are forced to run most or all of the 15 minutes.

In this case, race fuel should ideally be out of the question. But if the FIA thinks that they like the strategy bit, no problem: simply get the drivers to declare fuel levels BEFORE Q3, but leave it out of the actual Q3. That way, we have a proper fight for pole. That shouldn't be a problem, right?

What do you think?
Date Added: 11/08/2007

I think it's a brave attempt to save a system designed entirely for the viewing public, Journeyer. And that is what is got us in the mess in the first place - forgetting that motor racing is for the racers, not for those who watch it.

This over-emphasis on the show rather than competition is a direct result of our decision to classify F1 as entertainment. As such, it becomes subject to the natural rules of the entertainment industry: all that matters is bums on seats and the best movie is the one that sells the most tickets and makes the biggest profits.

You and I know that just isn't true; invariably the most popular movies are tripe over-hyped until they eclipse the really good ones that receive no publicity. And the same applies to F1 - as long as we strive towards "improving the show", it will only get worse.

We need to bite the bullet and return to the view that racing is for racers. Get the racing right and let the entertainment side stand or fall as it will (it will stand anyway, I guarantee it). To do that, we are going to have to get rid of all the changes that have been made with the intention of improving the show.

And the easiest way to do that is to return to basics, go back to a simple, clear system in which everyone knows the rules and the teams can fight it out without recourse to the law courts for interpretation (opinion) of complex rules that sometimes mean one thing and at others something completely different.

So I cannot support your proposed system, as excellent as it may be. I am for throwing the baby out with the bath water, wiping the slate clean, making a new start based on something from the past that worked then and should work now. And next time, let's take no notice of viewing figures whatsoever.

Build it and they will come!
Date Added: 11/08/2007

Qualifying is (or should be) a session wherein the cars are classified from fastest (pole) to slowest (tail end). This pecking order can only be truly established if the conditions are similar for each car, reasonable opportunity is provided for drivers to correct error, and for teams to make whatever adjustments/repairs may be necessary to extract the maximum performance from their cars.

Anything other than that introduces elements of chance or handicapping, neither of which belong in a contest to establish the world’s best team and driver.

Personally, I favor returning to a 12 lap system following the final test, which would provide a rubbered in clean track. Can anyone rationally argue the Schumacher - Hakkinen contests were not sufficiently entertaining? Current close qualifying times suggest that spectacle would only be improved. I have no opinion on how to fix the present system, since I believe it’s too flawed to be fixed.
Date Added: 11/08/2007

I agree with your first two paragraphs completely, David; the intent surely is to establish the fastest cars and drivers in the correct order without chance interfering. The twelve lap system worked well enough to meet those criteria, so I am prepared to be moved from my somewhat more radical original approach.

And you are certainly right about attempts to fix a flawed system - a new start is always preferable.
Date Added: 11/08/2007

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