Yet again the qualifying rules have been tinkered with, and yet again the law of unintended consequences struck. This time round, the fact that drivers aren’t allowed to refuel after qualifying led to Nick Heidfeld on a quick lap being dangerously impeded by around half a dozen cars crawling around at a snail’s pace trying to save fuel.
Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen have rightly been punished for blocking Nick Heidfeld. While other drivers were going slowly as well, it was the McLaren drivers who stuck to the racing line, thereby impeding the BMW.
But it would have been dangerous enough even if all of the drivers avoided the racing line. It is simply unacceptable for a sport that supposedly puts safety at the top of its agenda for cars to be going at radically different speeds at any one time.
This was a foreseeable — and foreseen — consequence of the new rules whereby cars in the top 10 are not allowed to refuel between qualifying and the race. Yet again, scandalously, the FIA have let it go ahead regardless. We don’t even know if they plan to rectify it. You would hope so.
Many people — particularly journalists — are saying that the remedy is to enforce a minimum lap time to ensure that drivers do not baulk on their way back to the pits. But this is just adding yet another layer of complexity to an already ridiculously convoluted set of qualifying rules which are now near impossible to follow.
We have ridiculous engine penalties. These are supposed to cut costs to help the smaller teams. But in reality it gives the smaller teams more incentive to change their engines because they are at the back anyway, so do not feel the penalty. Even though this did not work and is a bloody nightmare for fans to follow, the FIA decided to introduce a similar rule for gearboxes. And you can change your engine once without getting penalised. This is now a mad web of rules which is now so convoluted that even the intention behind them is not clear any more.
But the worst rule of the lot has been the set brought to us by the introduction of “parc fermé conditions”, whereby mechanics cannot touch the car between qualifying and the race. Gradually, some of these restrictions have been dropped over the years. But one confusingly remains resolute — race fuel loads during qualifying.
The race fuel load rule has existed in a variety of guises. It was relatively innocuous when it was used in the one lap qualifying format. Then, drivers would drive their one lap with the fuel load they would carry into the race. It mixed up the grid a bit and was relatively fuss-free, with not much opportunity or incentive for the drivers to mess about.
But the rule should have been dropped when the qualifying format was changed to the knockout system. But, for reasons that I still cannot reach, the FIA decided it would be a good idea to keep race fuel loads during Q3. Not only this, but a layer of complexity was added with “fuel credits” whereby drivers could have their fuel levels topped up after qualifying according to the number of laps they completed. I still don’t understand why.
This led to the patently ridiculous “fuel burning phase” of Q3 whereby cars would tour round the circuit for the first 10 or 15 minutes doing nothing but… burning fuel. When F1 is supposed to be projecting a more environmentally friendly image, perhaps it least green rule ever was introduced. Not only that, it was also deathly dull and it looked simply stupid.
In an attempt to remedy that this year, the FIA have decided to shorten Q3 to 10 minutes and get rid of the fuel credits system, so cars cannot refuel after qualifying. This has, of course, led to the problems we have seen today.
The race fuel loads rule is supposed to (if I remember correctly) mix up the grid slightly. But if you ask me, this makes the races even more boring. Because if a car qualifies on a light fuel load, that means he goes into the race with a compromised strategy. This makes it even more likely that the leaders will be able to run away with an easy race win.
If you ask me, this whole thing could be remedied simply by getting rid of race fuel loads in qualifying, and simply having every driver set a fast lap on a light fuel tank. But of course, Clive is right when he says the last thing we need is a sticking plaster solution.
The FIA needs to go back to square one. It needs to sit down and decide what the purpose of qualifying is. Is it to entertain the fans watching on television, or the fans at the racetrack? Is it to have the fastest driver on pole? Is it to mix up the grid in order to make the race more entertaining? Once it has decided what qualifying is for, it needs to come up with a simple, elegant solution aimed at achieving that goal with the minimum of rules.
That might finally end the farce of qualifying that has lasted for too many years now.