By Steve Aibel, Senior F1 Writer
The Australian Grand Prix showed us exactly what is good, and what stands as opportunity, for Formula 1 racing. In Melbourne’s Albert Park, we saw a disastrous qualifying session on Saturday followed by a race that showcased all the good that Formula 1 can be. With unexpected runners at the front, a highly competitive mid pack, drivers walking away safely after a very dangerous crash, and a new team scoring points on their debut, the looks of a great season are right in front of us.
But a dangerous undertow has been threatening F1, and it reared it ugly head during qualifying.
The problem comes from decisions that appear to have not been fully flushed through and wind up being experiments played out on track and which ultimately undermine the confidence and leadership of the governing body.
This one surrounded the decision to alter qualifying.
Late in the off season, the FIA decided to alter qualifying by proposing a knockout session that altered the way the cars were eliminated from the 3 sessions in qualifying. Instead of a number of cars being eliminated after each session, the cars would be eliminated during the session at set time intervals.
The reasoning behind this was to improve the on track battles and keep more cars on the track fighting to avoid elimination. This was supposed to keep tightened interest throughout the session and in theory could be exciting.
In Melbourne, it was not!
Instead, the cars found very tight elimination windows in which to run laps and the majority of them did not have enough time to improve on their lap times as the windows passed by too quickly.
The Australian qualifying session looked like this.
Cars in the garage as the were knocked out instead of battling on the track!
Drivers walking away before the session ended!
And worst of all, a pole winner decided with time left on the Q3 clock and no driver on track attempting to win pole!
In the end, just a massive disappointment.
Technically, trying a knockout qualification could be a great idea, but this format was thrown together too quickly and did not deliver on its promise of increased battles on track. And this is the problem. You can’t pitch an idea to the public and expect them to embrace it when the initial roll out falls flat on its face. The public will begin to second guess new ideas which will lead to a conservative leadership team that shies away from experimenting with ways to improve the product.
And that’s a problem.
Now truthfully, it is understood why the FIA and those with commercial rights interests would want to spice up the activities of a race weekend. More exciting sessions bring in more race fans, which of course brings in more money. And this is good for racing, that much is clear. But qualifying might have been the strongest element in an F1 weekend.
The old format not only worked, but worked well.
Simply put, qualifying was not broken and did not need tweaking.
Fortunately, a unanimous decision by the team principals and managers took place in the morning before the race. It was unanimous that the old style qualifying should be put back in place for the next race in Bahrain. The decision needs approval from the F1 Commission next but that is now expected. This is a good short term, but if it creates a governing body that is afraid to take calculated risks to change the product, it could create a short term fix with long term implications.
And this is the challenge faced by the sport.
The solution? Insure that roll outs of new ideas are well thought out and deliver more excitement on track for the fans. Take the time to do it right the first time!
Now on the flip side of the coin, Formula 1 has a great product when there is strong racing at the front of the field. With Nico Rosberg taking his 4th consecutive victory spanning two seasons, and Ferrari having the on track pace to challenge the Silver Arrows, this season looks nothing like the run away dominance that we have seen the past two years. Add to this the decision to limit radio communication which puts more control in the drivers hands, and the additional options with tire strategy, and we have many factors that should improve the on track product.
These are FIA decisions which should be commended.
They were well thought through, and although not initially popular, will gain acceptance when the teams and fans see the racing improve as we did in Australia.
So what is the grade for Melbourne?
Even with the qualifying hiccup, we come away with a A grade. Although much of the attention will be focused on qualifying, the fact that the decision was made quickly to revert back to the old qualifying format, will make this issue go away quickly and place the focus back on what was a great season opener for Formula 1.