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Not again! Another qualifying shake-up for Formula One

Australian audiences will have few opportunities to see Daniel Ricciardo in action this year. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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24th February, 2016
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A lot of people refer to the early 2000s as the glory years of Formula One. It was free on TV, all the teams had healthy rivalries and Herman Tilke hadn’t designed half of the tracks.

However, there was one thing amiss with Formula One in the 2000s: qualifying.

The rules for qualifying seemed to change every weekend in the noughties. It started in 2003, with one session on Saturday replaced with a flying lap on Friday to set the running order for another single flying lap session on Saturday.

In 2005, this changed again with an aggregate time system adding the times on Saturday and Sunday, a move unpopular with fans and the press, with the former usually unable to see qualifying live and the latter unable to publish full qualifying reports in the paper.

This was replaced six rounds in with a single hot lap in an order set by the finish of the previous grand prix.

In 2006 things got even more confusing. The current three session elimination rules were introduced, but with an added fuel credit system to prevent drivers using burning up all their fuel in the final session.

As part of the system, in Q3, the drivers ran on a fixed race fuel load and every lap the drivers did was compensated with one lap’s extra fuel, leading cars to drive as slow as possible on their in and out laps.

In 2007 the session times were tweaked, but the problem of fuel burning remained. The fuel credit system became even more controversial, noticeably during the in team spat at McLaren between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, where qualifying fuel strategy often influenced the race at circuits where overtaking was difficult, such as the Hungaroring.

In 2008 refuelling after Q3 was banned, getting rid of the fuel burn issue, but rules were tweaked to prevent drivers from blocking other drivers. 2010 saw refuelling after qualifying return, but drivers who got to Q3 had to use the tyres they set their fastest time on. In 2011 the 107 per cent rule returned, but has often been ignored since.

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Now a new qualifying format is set to be introduced for this year. In a rare case on the strategy group agreeing on something, the new qualifying structure sees the three session structure remain, but with changes to the rules to prevent the mid-session lulls where no cars are on track.

Q1 could be now 16 minutes long, but after seven minutes the slowest driver is eliminated.

Every 90 seconds after that, the next slowest driver is eliminated and so on. Seven drivers will now be eliminated in Q1.

Q2 follows a similar format, the session remaining 15 minutes long, where after six minutes the slowest driver is eliminated every 90 seconds, leaving only eight to progress to Q3.

Q3 is lengthened to 14 minutes, where after five minutes the slowest driver is eliminated until the Chequered Flag, leaving the final two drivers to battle over the last 90 seconds.

The revamp seems sound in theory, but how it will play out on track will be the big question.

The format seems to encourage many cars to be lapping until the chequered flag, and with the new tyre restrictions in 2016, drivers will have to push in Q1 and Q2 with possibly one set of tyres only.

The spectacle of Q3 could suffer as well, as out of a possible pool of four drivers who could set pole, (the Mercedes and the Ferraris) only two will be allowed to contest. This might cause the odd upset, but it is most likely that this rule will only reinforce Mercedes’ dominance.

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This new qualifying revamp brings back a heady sense of déjà vu for fans who remember the confusing and chaotic years of the naughties. Given the current system is probably the best Formula One has seen in a while, this move could ruin something that wasn’t really broken in the first place.

However, as the 2000s show, qualifying rules can change at any moment. And this proposal is at least one of the better ideas mooted by the strategy group. The less said about their other idea, time ballast – which adds extra time to qualifiers depending on their championship position – the better.