After four seasons of seeing one change made after another, I personally wanted nothing more at the beginning of the 2006 season than for the series to go back to its original format of many years ago. Just put the cars out on the track, give them unlimited laps and let them go at each other and set the best time. No single team was dominating, and it seemed the easiest system for fans to understand, and the best to look at.
What actually happened was that Formula 1 then came up with what was the most complicated qualifying system in the history of motor sports, and I was among the first to say that it would also be the biggest failure of them all. I quickly became among the first to admit that I was entirely wrong, and that with the exception of a problem toward the end of the new system, the sport's rules makers had in fact come up with the best system so far.
Today's Winning Formula
On paper it seems complicated, but when watching the new Formula 1 qualifying on television or at the track, it is clearly the most interesting and exciting system. It works like this: On Saturday afternoon the teams have a one-hour qualifying session divided into three parts.
Here, to simplify, are the exact words of the system as laid out in the sport's official rules book:
The qualifying practice session will take place on the day before the race from 14.00 to 15.00.
The session will be run as follows :
a) From 14.00 to 14.15 (Q1) all cars will be permitted on the track and at the end of this period the slowest five cars will be prohibited from taking any further part in the session. Lap times achieved by the fifteen remaining cars will then be deleted.
b) From 14.22 to 14.37 (Q2) the fifteen remaining cars will be permitted on the track and at the end of this period the slowest five cars will be prohibited from taking any further part in the session. Lap times achieved by the ten remaining cars will then be deleted.
c) From 14.45 to 15.00 (Q3) the ten remaining cars will be permitted on the track.
The above procedure is based upon a Championship entry of 20 cars. If 22 are entered six cars will be excluded after Q1 and Q2 and, if 24 are entered, six cars will be excluded after Q1 and Q2 leaving 12 cars eligible for Q3.
Any driver whose car stops on the circuit during the qualifying session will not be permitted to take any further part in the session. Any car which stops on the circuit during the qualifying session, and which is returned to the pits before the end of the session, will be held in parc ferme until the end of the session.
A Wild and Crazy Time
Although these rules look terribly confusing when compared to all cars on the track for one hour and trying to beat each other, the result is exciting. Effectively, the qualifying period turns into three separate, exciting events compressed into one hour and during which time great drivers are eliminated and don't make the cut for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is often that they get caught in traffic at a bad time. As the session happens, the timing clocks show who has not yet qualified for the next session, so there is a constant suspense.
The one flaw that I spoke of, is that in the last session the cars spend much of the time going around in circles burning off fuel and not setting fast laps until the end of the session. This has to do with the rule that stipulates that cars may only refuel after qualifying to the same level of fuel they had before qualifying. In other words, they will start the race with the same amount of fuel that they had when starting qualifying. As most want to start the race with a full tank of fuel, but they want to set a fastest lap in qualifying by having as little fuel as possible, they simple go out onto the track and turn around burning off fuel for the first 10 or more minutes of qualifying.
As Formula 1 has suddenly become conscious of trying to do good to the environment, it may well change this aspect of qualifying in order to stop needless pollution and burning off of valuable fuel. On the other hand, the third session always begins with excitement as all the 10 remaining cars line up in the pit lane to be the first out to burn off fuel. So as far as having found the right formula for great spectating, the sport has finally succeeded after five seasons of turmoil.