Look back in history Sunday: The progression of F1 qualifying, so why the sudden change?

| Photographer Credit: Red Bull Media

Last week we witnessed a Formula One qualifying format that is quite a change and deviation from what has gone before.  Since 1950, qualifying was always determined by who was able to set the fastest lap within the qualifying rules with the vagaries of weather, machine and driver all at play.  Now the category is allowing an experiment where the grid of a Grand Prix is to be determined by a race!  Quite odd for the purest, but mana from heaven for marketing and finance.

Since the Formula One World Championship began in 1950, pole position was always awarded to the fastest driver across practice and qualifying.  For many years, in fact through to 1996, two sessions, one on Friday and the other on the Saturday of a race weekend were used to find the fastest overall time.

In fact, during this period, we saw special one-lap qualifying tyres, special engines that were wheeled out and fitted for qualifying, then taken away and replaced with a race specific motor.  It’s draw-back, which probably led to its demise, was that it didn’t make good live TV.  There was no climax, particularly if the Friday qualifying session was dry and the Saturday wet.

This progressed to a one-hour session on the Saturday where drivers had a maximum of 12 laps to set there fastest time.  I remember that for me, a F1 purest at the time, loved the drama of that 60 minutes. At the start of the qualifying hour, most of the drivers would head out and complete three laps – one warm up, one fast and a cool down – leaving nine laps left to complete.  If the weather was fine, no one would take to the track, giving the commentators a headache on how to fill with no action.  Then, with minutes to go, everyone would take to the track hoping that both the track temperature had increased giving better grip levels and those that had gone before them cleaned the track and put down more rubber. 

All would put in another fast lap before pitting for new tyres and ultimately starting their one-remaining lap, seconds before the 60 minutes was up.  The twist in this progression of qualifying was if it was either wet, or it became wet part way through the 60-minute qualifying session.  Anything could happen, and it was then that there could be a shakeup of the entire grid.

Well, the marketing people must have not liked the periods of no action so from 2003 it progressed to a one-lap qualifying format.  The slowest driver from Friday would go first through to the fastest, last.  A problem with this was that again, the weather could change conditions during the procedure advantaging some and not others. 

This system received various tweaks and then in 2005 the grid was determined by aggregating times from two runs.  One with low fuel on Saturday afternoon and the other run on Sunday morning with cars fuelled for the race.  We soon found that while a driver may qualify well, he was more likely to pit early for fuel!

 Not favoured by teams and fans, this format then progressed to an elimination type.  In 2006, a new three-part qualifying saw a process of elimination down to a top ten.  While this knockout formula proved a hit, it took a number of tweaks to refine it to what it is today, mainly with regard to the amount of fuel carried and if more could be added before the race.

Now F1 is toying with changing qualifying to a 100km sprint race, the results determining positions on the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix. Grid positions for the sprint race are determined from ‘qualifying’ on Friday afternoon. This will be tried at three Grand Prix this season, the first one was last weekend at the British Grand Prix.

The result of this new format heightens the importance of Friday and effectively gives fans ‘two races’ for the weekend. It should mean more bums-on-seats and higher TV ratings which means more revenue, so a winner for the F1 .

Maybe this is now a requirement going forward with no guarantee that in the Covid-19 present and future, how much revenue will be gained from spectator participation.

Arguably its a change and not a progression that has taken place. For the last 70 plus years, qualifying has been a format of how fast each driver can lap a circuit. Now, while it is still about the fastest, it has moved to who is the quickest over 100km and no longer about one lap.

Benjamin Carrell is a freelance motorsport writer and currently edits talkmotorsport.co.nz. He writes for a number of Kiwi drivers and motorsport clubs. That's when he's not working in his horticultural day-job or training for the next road or mtb cycle race!


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