Ever since the qualifying format was changed in 2003, people have never quite been fully happy with qualifying. Formula 1’s self-styled “purists” want a return to the old-style twelve-laps-in-an-hour free-for-all. They forget that people weren’t very happy with qualifying back then either.
They forget that in the old system you were very lucky if anything significant happened in the first fifty-five minutes, if anything interesting happened in the first forty-five minutes, and if anything at all happened for the first half hour.
It was rubbish. Unless there was rain forecast, every single qualifying session would begin by not beginning, with no cars coming out onto the track, unless they were Minardis, and they only did it to get airtime for their sponsors.
The “purists” say that the old system meant that the fastest driver was always on pole. This is bollocks. All too often fast drivers would get stuck in traffic, or there would be yellow flags forcing them to slow down. Sometimes even red flags wiped away drivers’ times completely.
And even then, too often the pole-setting lap was missed by the cameras, whilst the viewers were watching Michael Schumacher set a mediocre lap or something.
Sure, the crescendo was great. But that didn’t make up for the forty-five minutes of utter boredom that preceded it. And how many classic qualifying sessions are there, really?
I think the current qualifying system is great. You get to see every driver’s lap in full, so you don’t miss poll position. Often you don’t know who’s going to be on pole until the last car is out, so there is still an element of the crescendo. I mean, who can deny that the qualifying sessions for this year’s European and German Grands Prix were exciting? Yesterday everybody saw Kimi Räikkönen’s amazing heroics first out on track, and Michael Schumacher’s brilliant response — his blistering lap almost a second faster than everybody else. In what way is that not great?
The fact that the race results determine the running order for the next race’s qualifying session is also great. It asks the drivers to push that bit harder; to go that bit further if something’s wrong with the car. It adds some extra encouragement for drivers to overtake, even if it will mean nothing in terms of the championship. There have been some fantastic mid-grid battles this season.
As for fuel loads, many people dislike it because they think that it means the fastest driver doesn’t go on pole position. But I think that this element is great aswell. It adds an extra tactical element, a sense of mystery and excitement before the race has even begun. There has been talk of “fake poles” and there have been a couple, but only a couple. It comes out in the wash, it never works, and the teams don’t do it any more because they know that. And so what if Heidfeld or Button grabs pole position anyway? Is there something wrong with that?
If you ask me, the current qualifying system is one of the few things that Formula 1’s rule-makers have got right in recent years.