Formula 1’s qualifying flop a reminder of the sport’s conflicting objectives

Saturday’s Formula 1 qualifying at the season opening Australian Grand Prix highlighted one of the sport’s underlying problems: that its wealth is a two-edged sword.

Formula 1’s income, and ultimately its survival, is dependent upon casual viewers and new fans. These are the people who make up the bulk of the TV audience, which dictates the cost of the TV rights, which is how Formula 1 makes its money. The more fans there are, the more expensive the TV rights, the more revenue the sport receives. To attract casual viewers and new fans the sport must be exciting and engaging upfront on a race by race basis: it must be entertaining without the need for greater investment.

Mercedes dominance over the past two years was becoming boring and predictable and harming the sport’s TV audience (if not yet statistically then certainly theoretically). This is not a new issue. For at least the past twenty years, Formula 1 has been characterised by dominance of one team interspersed with the occasional close fight. In the early noughties it was Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, Brawn ran away with the championship in 2009, then Red Bull won four titles in a row.

The sport’s reaction to dominance is to fiddle with the rules, generally with two aims. One is to directly spice up the visual spectacle and the other is to improve competition via attempts to level the playing field, usually through limitations on spending. In response to Schumacher and Ferrari’s dominance, for example, the qualifying format was changed to a single lap shootout with race fuel loads on board in an attempt to make it more of a lottery, add some intrigue about strategy and (artificially) give the impression that racing was closer. Meanwhile the FIA also sought to impose restrictions on testing and engine use that negated some of Ferrari’s financial advantage.

Similarly over the past few years there has been a steady stream of changes – some evolutionary, some revolutionary – designed to keep the sport entertaining and the competitors close: the introduction of DRS; restrictions on wind tunnel use; race weekend staff curfews; the banning of innovative design components; and, recently, revolutionary new engine rules designed to reset the playing field and shift the focus onto something with more “real world” relevance and accessibility.

Most of the measures fail or create a new series of problems for which another solution must be found. The problem, however, is not as simple as F1’s rulemakers being hopeless or failing to undergo proper consultation. Rather it is vested in the fact that F1’s entertainment requirements are incompatible with the nature of its competition. There is too much money at stake for teams at the pointy end to be anything other than focused on protecting their advantage and winning. On one side there are the sponsors of the top teams who would almost certainly take umbrage if their positive association or airtime was deliberately limited. On the other side are the hundreds of millions of dollars at play in the Constructors Championship, where the difference between first or second in a race could add up to ten million in prize money.

So it doesn’t matter what rules are implemented, the teams will always look to exploit an advantage. Thus restrictions on testing just resulted in the wealthier teams diverting funds into other developmental areas such as wind tunnels, computer aided design, and manufacturing less engines just meant more money for research and development. Meanwhile innovation benefits the teams with more money, but limiting it results in spec-cars which detracts from the essential constructor and team component of the sport. And structural changes to qualifying and the race that respect the nature of competition and don’t incorporate handicaps will only temporarily mask true car performance. We saw in the noughties, for example, Schumacher qualifying fourth, but with enough fuel on board to make one less pitstop than all the cars ahead.

Equally, teams will never agree to any sort of handicap. So when F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone proposed alternative qualifying systems to artificially mix up the grid, one of which was that the driver who won the race would be given a time penalty in qualifying at the subsequent event, the teams baulked.

The F1 Strategy Group, the first hurdle for any new rules, incorporates Ecclestone, the FIA and six leading teams. The teams were therefore able to object to Ecclestone’s qualifying proposals at the outset. However, historically his ideas have had a way of becoming part of the sport, either directly or indirectly by shuffling the regulations in their direction. In 2009 his proposal to award the championship to the driver with the most wins via medals for wins became part of the Sporting Regulations against the teams’ wishes and only failed to remain there due to a technicality. Moreover, in December 2015 the World Motorsport Council (WMSC), who are the ultimate governors of F1 and final determinants of the sport’s regulations, approved a mandate for FIA President Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone to “make recommendations and decisions regarding a number of pressing issues in Formula 1”. Although this has not been tested, it increased the possibility that one of Ecclestone’s qualifying proposals could have been introduced against the teams’ will. Thus, rather than simply veto the new qualifying system the teams looked for an alternative, which led to the ongoing elimination qualifying introduced at the Australian Grand Prix.

Because it was a kneejerk reaction and rushed through – it was developed in February and only approved by the WMSC in March, and the necessary software almost wasn’t ready for the season opener – the new qualifying system was unlikely to be a success. But quite possibly that didn’t matter. It looks to have been nothing more than a roadblock to Ecclestone’s other proposals. And whether by accident or by design, it seems to have served its purpose.

The old qualifying system of two elimination sessions followed by a final shootout for pole position worked well, and had become stable after years of different systems. Indeed when the new one was proposed people questioned why it was even necessary: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? At this point the simplest option will be to revert to the old system for the next race. Moreover, the Sporting Regulations make clear that from 15 March they cannot be changed without the unanimous agreement of all competitors. So there is no longer the same risk that Ecclestone can get any of his proposals implemented.

However, this does nothing to resolve the fundamental conflict. Ecclestone’s responsibility is the commercial side of the sport and he is focused on solutions that increase the entertainment value and therefore the TV audience. From this point of view, his proposal has a lot of merit. Mixed up/handicapped grids are one of the best ways to make the racing more exciting. It defies logic to believe that if you have the cars fight it out to see who is the fastest and then line them up in that order that the subsequent race will be anything other than processional. But on the other side, Formula 1 is a competition with a lot at stake. It goes against this concept to limit or curtail the capabilities of the best competitors in any way.

Unless the sport sorts out these conflicting objectives, Formula 1 will continue to cycle through dominance interspersed with close racing and implement solutions that create more problems than they resolve.

Formula 1’s qualifying flop a reminder of the sport’s conflicting objectives

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