At time the current Formula One qualifying system leads to chaos on track. Fernando Alonso has called for a reconsideration of the procedure suggestions a return to the Indy500 style ‘superpole’ method of deciding the F1 race grid starting order.
The 2019 Italian GP qualifying was described by Sky F1’s Martin Brundle as “one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen in F1” while Mercedes boss Toto Wolff insisted it made “everybody look like idiots.”
The chaos began as teams waited and waited for others to send their cars out in Q3 so they could take advantage of ‘the tow’. At certain circuits with long straights there is an opportunity to set a faster lap time when following another car in its slip stream. This is called getting ‘the tow’ and can be worth 3-4 10ths of a second, often the difference between several start positions in the race.
The 2019 Italian GP saw nine drivers leave the pits with less than two minutes to the end of the session.
The drivers needed to get a hurry on as the time allowed to reach the start line and get a final lap in was limited. Yet, they jostled for position, driving slowly, with no one wanting to take the lead of the train.
In their desperation to be behind another car and get ‘the tow’ only one driver made it to the start line in time to set a final lap time.
Carlos Sainz made it but failed to improve on his first run and so Charles LeClerc took pole from an earlier time he set.
At the 2022 Baku qualifying session, we saw similar scenes. Following a red flag after Lance Stroll crashed his Aston Martin, just 2 minutes 30 seconds was left on the session.
14 drivers lined up in the pit lane waiting for the session to be restarted, yet when the lights went green they crawled out of the pit lane all looking to create a 4-5 second gap to the car in front to optimise their lap times and get ‘a tow’ towards the end of the lap.
Again there were drivers who failed to make the start line for a final lap time, but those who did ended up charging towards the end of the warm up lap to make the start line before the chequered flag came out.
Any casual onlooker would have thought through turns 12 onward, the cars were in an actual race.
For the cars which made the start of the final lap, it was chaos. Land Norris was trying to overtake Mick Schumacher into turn 1 and others were side by side down the pit straight.
Few of the drivers improved on their previous time and the bottom 5 remained the same and were eliminated from progressing to Q2.
After the session Williams driver Alex Albon accused Fernando Alonso of ‘playing games’.
“He needs to get penalised, this guy [Alonso], he has to” Albon demanded to his team over the radio.
“This is ridiculous. He was doing it the whole lap. He was driving slowly on purpose and then it was so obvious, how he went off the track it was ridiculous.
“He braked so early and then he just went off the circuit.”
Alonso missed turn 9 and ran into the escape road causing a yellow flag which meant Alex Albon had to abort his final quick lap attempt.
Fernando dismissed this accusation to reporters after the session, but suggested that the current F1 qualifying format should be altered.
“I think Esteban [Ocon] missed Q3 because of a yellow flag in Q2 from McLaren, so we need to find a better solution for this kind of problem because we should all be able to make our laps.
“Even the old format with the superpole, where we all had one lap alone on track, maybe it was good for TV and it was good for us as well, because at the moment there is too much interaction with other cars, with tows, with yellows flags and this is not the best.”
The problem for the Formula One regulators is given the difference in performance of the various team cars, qualifying and the races can become too predictable.
If the drivers were allowed a clear qualifying lap each with no other cars on track, the results each week would become almost pre-determined.
Sometimes chaos makes for great viewing if not for fair opportunities for all the F1 drivers.