New qualifying to begin at Silverstone
INDIANAPOLIS -- Single-car qualifying has been used in one form or another at the Indianapolis 500 ever since the first race in 1911. The current single-car four-lap qualifying method was introduced for the 1920 "500."
In Formula One, meanwhile, the short-lived era of single-car, one-lap qualifying (it was introduced at the start of the 2003 season) looks like it is coming to an end. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of this weekend's United States Grand Prix, will probably be the second-to-last venue to ever stage single-car F1 qualifying.
After months of arguing, F1 team bosses and F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone have finally, sort of anyway, agreed on a new qualifying system. It should be introduced at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. That means that the French Grand Prix, the race between the events in Indianapolis and Britain, will be the last time F1 uses single-car qualifying.
"Essentially there's going to be only one official qualifying session," team owner Frank Williams said, "and that's split into two 25-minute sessions with a 10-minute gap in between. Each (driver) is allowed to do a total of six laps, allowed to use four sets of tires for that first 25 and the second 25 session. You must start the race on the tires on which you qualified. (Your) qualification time is based on the aggregate -- for the first time ever in F1 -- on the best lap of the first 25 minutes and the second 25 minutes."
With the current system there is all sorts of strategy involved with fuel loads because a driver must make his final qualifying run with enough fuel onboard the car to take it through to the first pit stop in the race.
With the new system, cars will qualify with as light a fuel load as possible and then fuel will be added before the race. This means that a team with a slower car will no longer be able to try a strategy of qualifying with a lighter fuel load in order to move further up the grid while balancing that starting position with the fact that they will have to pit earlier.
Now, the fastest cars will be at the front of the starting grid and the slowest cars at the back.
While there has been a verbal agreement, the new rules won't go into effect until everybody has signed off on them.
"I think there's some reservation that maybe what we're doing presently is maybe better than what we're going to do at Silverstone, if it happens," Williams said.
What the teams have all basically agreed upon is that they will do what's best for the television audience. And F1 TV is Ecclestone's realm.
"It's very difficult to find a format which is perfect for everybody," said Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn. "We all have our ideas. So this is a format which has been proposed by Bernie (Ecclestone), so really he's got to take responsibility for it if it doesn't work. And he is the promoter of F1, so we have to do our best to try and help the promoter put on as good a show as possible. In that respect, we support it."
Some people say that the one-car, one-lap method is boring. But others see problems with the new proposal.
"Not very good," Jaguar driver Mark Webber said of the new qualifying. "Adding the times together is crazy. The track is still going to have its good points of when you want to be on it. You have two 25-minute sessions, and the last part of the 25 minutes is when all the activity is going to be. No one is going to run for the first 10 minutes."
One of the benefits of the single car system is that each team gets TV coverage of its car, and the fans don't miss any of the action. By going to the new system with all the cars basically out on the track at the same time, the TV cameras are naturally going to focus on the fastest cars, which means the likes of Minardi and Jordan won't get a lot of air time for their sponsors. Furthermore, while the cameras are following one quick driver they may well miss the lap of the guy that wins the pole.
Brawn says that fans watching at the track will have a difficult time following the system of the aggregate lap times.
"My only concern is to make sure that we present the accumulative or aggregate system properly to the people at the track," he said. "I think it's easy for a TV viewer to follow what's going on because the technology. But I'm concerned that the people in the grandstands know what's going on. So it's very important that we get the message across somewhere, wherever it is and what the situation is, because it will be a shame if the people at the track aren't following what's going on in qualifying."
Most drivers like the idea of not qualifying with a lot of fuel because this means they can really push the car to the limits.
"I think the no fuel bit is good," Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya said. "The aggregate of the two laps; I am not a big fan of that. It might make it very interesting."
McLaren's David Coulthard has never done consistently well on the one lap qualifying runs.
"Having the opportunity to qualify on low fuel, having the opportunity for the drivers to get out there and build on their first qualifying lap is going to be more exciting for us and hopefully more exciting for the spectators," he said.
Toyota driver Cristiano da Matta learned about one-car qualifying in his CART days on the ovals. He's got mixed feelings about F1's new system.
"There are two sides," he said. "The grid position is definitely going to be less mixed up than it can get right now because if you have a slow car you cannot play with fuel level. It's going to be more the true performance of the car, so maybe a little bit less excitement for the race. But on the other hand, we will know after qualifying the true performance of each car and each driver. So that is a good thing."
McLaren director Ron Dennis believes that the mystery has gone out of the how-much-fuel-should-you-qualify-with strategies.
"Everybody now has mastered the strategy game," Dennis said, "and most cars have started qualifying with similar levels of fuel. The racing is not now being dramatically improved by this regulation, and it has been to the significant detriment of qualifying. One of the nicer points of changing it at Silverstone is that it will give us the opportunity of considering further changes for next year."
And that's another thing just about everybody in the F1 paddock agrees on: whatever qualifying turns into for the rest of this season, it will change in 2005 as F1 continues to look for answers.
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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