Formula 1’s latest – and completely unnecessary – change, yet again, in its qualifying format has rightly and roundly been criticised as a complete fizzer.
It failed to generate anything like the mixed up grid that it promised and – despite the allocation of an extra set of ‘qualifying only’ tyres by Pirelli to encourage more on-track running – the final grid was all but wrapped up with almost five minutes to go on the clock. It was hardly the edge of the seat spectacle that one traditionally associates with deciding who is the fastest driver on a single lap.
So how did Formula 1 get itself such a mess, and complete lose sight of the raison d’être of qualifying: it’s about determining who is the fastest driver over a single flying lap and using those results to determine the starting grid of the race.
Most major motorsport championships have undergone comparatively little experimentation with their qualifying formats over their respective histories.
Not so for Formula 1.
By our reckoning, there have been no less than twelve – count them! – different formats that have been used over the years since 1950. Since 2002, fans have gone through a staggering nine different formats. On the basis of Saturday’s farcical example in Melbourne, we could well be on our way to a thirteenth variant.
So which of these formats stood the test of time, and which found themselves rapidly sidelined almost as soon as they came into being? Let’s take a trip down memory lane to rate the legends and the lemons…
1950-1992: The Two-Session Format (Unlimited)
In the pre-War era, it wasn’t unheard of to determine the starting grid by drawing lots. That would permanently change when the Formula 1 World Championship was inaugurated in 1950, when pole position would be awarded to the fastest driver in qualifying.
There were no gimmicks, timed countdowns, tyre or fuel restrictions – how radical!
It was simply a pair of one-hour sessions during the race weekend – usually on the Friday and Saturday afternoons – where the entire field would be let loose to set the fastest lap times they possibly could. The sessions were a pure, uncomplicated demonstration of outright skill: the drivers had little assistance from the trackside marshals, and if they were held up on a flying lap, there weren’t any grid penalties and post-qualifying calls to the Stewards’ offices. You just had to suck it up and get on with it.
Various decades had their own characteristics, particularly in the latter stages when special qualifying engines and tyres were being becoming the norm. The peak probably came in the mid-1980s turbo era when you would see drivers running on super-sticky tyres for one flying lap with their engine capable of running at 1,500bhp for a single lap before blowing itself to bits.
While guaranteeing good trackside attendance thanks to qualifying being over two days, the format did have one particular drawback: a potentially thrilling climax could be wiped out if the second (typically quicker) session was washed out by rain…
1977-1992: Friday Pre-Qualifying
With today’s grid sitting at 22 cars, it’s sometimes a surprise to remember that almost 40 entrants were competing to qualify during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Given it was simply unfeasible to have so many cars out on track at the same time, the governing body introduced a pre-qualifying session to whittle the field down to 30 cars in time for the official practice and qualifying sessions, out of which only the fastest 26 qualifiers would get to race.
This session was assigned to any new entry teams, as well as the outfits with the worst record over the previous half-season.
Pre-qualifying traditionally took place early on a Friday morning before the first official practice session when track conditions were at their worst. Only the fastest four runners would make it beyond the session, while the rest would find their race weekends finished at that point if they failed to make the cut.
Former FIA WTCC title-winner Gabriele Tarquini holds the record for the most failures to pre-qualify (26 times out of 79 attempts) while former F1 team owner Aguri Suzuki failed to make it beyond pre-qualifying for the entire 1989 season in the lamentable Zakspeed Yamaha.
Even some of the best in the basis have a few on their CV – future World Champion Keke Rosberg chalked up four in his debut season in 1978 (picture above).
Pre-qualifying came to an end in the latter stages of 1992 when many small teams withdrew from the sport in the wake of the global recession.
1993-1995: The Two-Session Format (‘Diet’ version)
The pair of one-hour qualifying sessions continued until the end of 1995, although the final three years saw each driver restricted to just twelve laps per session in a bid to curb the use of the super sticky qualifying tyres.
Ostensibly that allowed one driver a maximum of 10 times laps (with an out- and in-lap) to post their best qualifying time, although most drivers used to run four three-lap segments on the lowest possible fuel load with just an out-lap, flying lap and in-lap.
1996-2002: One-Hour Qualifying
In order to guarantee that every Saturday afternoon session had the potential to attract the most fans possible, the first major qualifying rule change was implemented where the grid would be decided by a single one-hour session with a maximum of 12 laps per driver. The Friday practice session was converted into an additional ‘Free Practice’ session, today known as FP2.
As the field had fallen to below 26 cars, it therefore meant that everyone would automatically qualify regardless of how slow the drivers at the bottom of the timesheets were. The less-well-funded teams were having to make use of ‘pay drivers’ of sometimes questionable talent to help their bank balances, and so the 107% rule was introduced to guarantee a minimum level of competitiveness in the field.
If a driver’s fastest qualifying time was not within 107% of the pole-winner’s time, that driver would not be allowed to start the race unless with the discretion of the FIA Stewards. Those to fall foul of this rule included such luminaries as Luca Badoer, Andrea Montermini, Giovanni Lavaggi, Vincenzo Sospiri, Ricardo Rosset, Tarso Marques and Alex Yoong.
2003: One-Lap Qualifying (Version 1)
In the final years of the single one-hour qualifying format, it became increasingly apparent that more teams, anxious to take advantage of the best track conditions, would spend lengthy periods in the garage waiting for other cars to ‘clean up’ the track surface.
That was clearly not going to work well for the sport’s paymasters and advertisers, and so this kickstarted the phenomenon of trying to maximise as much on-track action as possible. The more cynical might suggest that it was also a way of trying to extract more revenue from the television broadcasters if it was perceived they were televising more ‘high value’ footage.
The first solution? One-lap qualifying.
This would guarantee constant on-track action and have the added bonus of giving the smaller teams an equal amount of TV exposure as their more successful rivals.
Qualifying would be split into two sessions, with the first being a completely pointless Friday session where each driver would complete a single flying lap purely to determine the running order for Saturday’s official qualifying session, which was again a one-lap affair.
To add an extra plot twist designed to mix up the grid and spice up the racing, the Saturday lap would have to be run on fuel levels the drivers would start the race on.
2004: One-Lap Qualifying (Version 2)
One of the many problems with a one-lap qualifying model was that at least one driver could be disadvantaged by the running order, particularly if they were the victim of significantly changes in track conditions or the weather. Even so, the one-lap model – an overly complicated gimmick that did nothing to solve a problem that didn’t really exist – would remain in place for several years, with a few tweaks along the way…
The first of these changes came the very next year in 2004. With Friday’s one-lap sessions attracting poor TV audience figures, this season saw the two sessions scheduled back-to-back on Saturday.
A number of drivers used the first low-fuel session to manipulate their running order for the second (particularly if bad weather was feared in the latter), and we saw the laughable spectacle of deliberate spins and slow running at several Grands Prix.
Early 2005: Aggregated Qualifying
By far and away, the nadir came in 2005, where the sessions were split into Saturday and Sunday, with single-lap running on low and race-starting fuel loads respectively. This time, the times from each session were combined to determine the starting order.
The provisional grid orders barely changed from the first session to the next, and – with TV audiences shunning the Sunday sessions and the press complaining about there being a Sunday session at all – the concept was mercifully dumped after half a dozen races.
Mid-2005: One-Lap Qualifying (Version 3)
For the remaining thirteen races of 2005 came another qualifying format change: each driver would now post a single flying lap on ‘start of race’ fuel loads on Saturday afternoon. The running order of the session would be determined by the driver’s finishing position in the previous race, but it meant that a driver who retired from the preceding race was often screwed in qualifying because their running order was compromised.
That being said, the system did produce some brilliant ‘burn from the stern’ performances by those who’d fallen victim to the one-lap model: recall Juan Pablo Montoya’s charge from the back of the grid to the podium after crashing on his flying lap at the Hockenheim (pictured above) or Kimi Räikkönen’s charge to win the Japanese Grand Prix from 17th on the grid.
While this format was undoubtedly an improvement on the aggregated system – frankly, anything was an improvement – one-lap qualifying was decidedly on the nose with fans worldwide.
Cue another change…
2006-2007: Knockout Qualifying (Version 1)
It took three years, but officials finally acknowledged everyone’s complaints that the one-lap format was a lemon; Formula 1 went back to its roots – sort of – and returned to multi-lap qualifying.
Of course, there was a twist.
A new three-part ‘knockout’ format was introduced where the slowest drivers in each qualifying segment would be progressively eliminated until ten drivers are left to fight it out for pole position in the final session.
This system proved to be more popular than its predecessors – not an achievement in itself – thanks to the potential for surprise results, but its first iteration was not without its detractors.
The last era of in-race refuelling certainly spawned some very odd – and quite awful – advents in the rule book. As these final ten runners still had to qualify with their first stint of race fuel on board, the FIA decreed that for every lap a driver ran in Q3, they were credited with a lap’s worth of fuel before the race.
This was purely to ensure the cars kept circulating for the TV broadcasters and it led to the odd spectacle of the drivers trying to drive as many laps as possible while burning as little fuel as possible, before going all out at the end with their final flying lap – all to get their tanks replenished with what was effectively a ‘bonus’ amount of fuel.
Trying to even explain this rule to the everyday fan – let alone an expert on the sport – was laughably difficult, not to mention flying in the race of the increased pressure being placed on the sport to become more environmentally friendly.
2008-2009: Knockout Qualifying (Version 2)
The sight of the Honda team’s ‘green’ RA107 on a pointless qualifying fuel burn underscored the folly of ‘fuel credits’, and so in 2008 the system was tweaked again.
This time the teams could no longer add fuel after Q3 – thereby getting rid of the ‘fuel burn’ phase – but now the focus of the session swung to who was carrying the most fuel, rather than who was actually the fastest driver on track.
2010-2015: Knockout Qualifying (Version 3)
The ban on in-race refueling triggered yet another qualifying format change, but for the first time since 2002, qualifying would be about what was genuinely the fastest driver/car combination.
The 107% rule returned, although this time it only applied to Q1. To automatically qualify for the race, every driver had to post their fastest time within 107% of the segment’s fastest overall time.
The return to the low-fuel shootouts that had proven to be so popular in the past was warmly welcomed. The three-part ‘knockout’ format remained unchanged for six seasons.
2016: Knockout Qualifying (Version 4)
In 2016, for reasons best known to the Formula One Strategy Group, the rules changed again.
This time a progressive knockout model was introduced. The three-part format would remain, although this time the drivers would have just five minutes to set a benchmark time, and after which the slowest driver would be eliminated every 90 seconds.
With 22 entries this year, 15 will progress into Q2, and then eight into Q3 – until there are just two men fighting it out for the right to start from pole.
At least that’s how it read on paper. The majority of drivers were critical of the model, while every engineer predicted that it would reduce the on-track action and lead to more predictable qualifying sessions.
Not for the first time, the powers that be didn’t heed any of those concerns and signed off on a new process that nobody had asked for. Now the same group of people has publicly decried the system as ‘rubbish’ and will meet to decide on F1’s next new qualifying adventure.
Images via DNPQ, George Hitchens, LAT Photographic, McLaren, Red Bull Racing, Williams Racing, XPB Images