Why a modern twist on an old favorite is Formula 1’s qualifying solution

Imagine the scene: It’s the final seconds of qualifying at the 2022 Formula 1 season opener in Bahrain and, with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton having just completed their final laps of Q3, all eyes are on. towards George Russell as the last man across the line.

Violet in the first sector and with a personal best in the second, world television catches Russell just before the braking zone of the last corner.

Perfect thumb through there, final hurdle cleared, all that’s left for Russell to do is accelerate, take one last dose of DRS and… P1. Pole position. On his mercedes start.

“What a trick from George Russell!” commentators and social media are erupting in unison. “Mr. Saturday does it again!”

What a trick indeed.

In reality, though, it’s not really The Lap they relish, is it? How is this possible when the cameras only captured the last bend?

It’s not the turn anymore time – something quite different and altogether less romantic. It’s more about the accomplishment, the outcome – the end product rather than the process – and quite often it’s only later, after the session, that the trick itself is seen in its entirety and in all its glory. .

There’s a special intimacy that comes with watching the pursuit of the perfect lap unfold live and uncut, most clearly captured in modern times by Verstappen’s attempted seizure of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix circuit. in the penultimate qualifying session of 2021.

Viewers felt like passengers as the white-helmeted Red Bull zipped through Jeddah’s collection of high-speed corners, skimming walls and scattering sparks in a gripping and stunning assault on the senses.

So when everything suddenly went wrong – Verstappen reacting to a lock-up on the final corner by refusing to let the lap go to waste, still determined to bend the car to his will when it would have been more beneficial to back up slightly – the l he impact with the wall was felt all over the world.

It felt like being shaken from a trance and, certainly, the sense of what had been lost was infinitely deeper than if the live footage, in the rush of cars crossing the line, had only found Verstappen in the final stages of the greatest ride that has ever been.

Of all the things that need to change in Formula 1 in 2022, by common agreement the format of qualifying is not high on the list and has been trying to interfere with it in recent years – first with the elimination experience ill-conceived in 2016 and the sprint qualifying trials last year – met fierce opposition from some fans.

Yet while the Q1/Q2/Q3 system is a staple of race weekends – and, having been introduced in 2006, all an entire generation of spectators have ever known – it has arguably become obsolete, especially at a time when the competition’s spread is so wide that many have long since fallen into the habit of dividing the 20 cars into separate classes.

Science tells us that the more samples you run, the more accurate the result and, in this context, the existing format – allowing leaders to dig holes themselves created by flat tires or overrunning track limits simply by running another race on another set of tires – is too forgiving and robs Formula 1 of the very unpredictability it needs.

One of the big stats at the end of Valtteri Bottas’ five seasons as a Mercedes driver, after all, is that he reached Q3 in each of his 101 qualifying sessions with the team.

Unpredictability, of course, was a key motive behind the introduction of the sprint format and its effect on races in 2021 – creating the conditions for collisions between Verstappen and hamilton at Silverstone and Monza before giving the latter a head start in his recovery from the back in Brazil – was undeniable.

Once it quickly became apparent, it was essentially a glorified opening passage, however, some fans’ decision was made.

F1 intends to double the number of sprint weekends to six in 2022, although those plans remain subject to a vote ahead of winter testing amid friction over how they will work for teams in the context a tightening of the cost ceiling.

Freedom, you suspect, will eventually find a way to push it through because that’s the path they’re seemingly determined to take.

But, at this point, why doesn’t Formula 1 just go back to one-lap qualifying and not get it over with?

As well as instantly eliminating traffic-related safety concerns after several close calls in 2021, the one-shot system is perhaps the purest form of F1 qualifying and would bring intense pressure to everyone in the pit lane without stray into gadget territory.

At a time when there is a concerted effort to make pilots the stars of the show, there is something to be said for shining the spotlight on each one of them on a Saturday, putting their skill and bravery under the microscope with no margin of error. in the one and only chance to shape their Sunday.

This would create a tantalizing psychological challenge between risk and reward for drivers. How willing would Verstappen be to risk a track limit violation (and therefore an invalid lap and poor grid position) at Hungarian Turn 4 to put Hamilton on pole? – and potentially blurring the lines between the real world and eSports, another of Liberty’s favorite projects.

Although the sport itself has refrained from using it since late 2005, the one-shot format has been a long-standing feature of official F1 games. Another centerpiece of the virtual racing world? Ghost Cars – and it is perhaps here that qualification as a TV show could be achieved better than ever before.

Rather than relying on sponsored AWS charts claiming to measure car performance, could car data be used to create something a little more tangible and useful? Could the technology be developed so that the session’s fastest lap at any given time is transposed onto live television footage like a ghost car, a moving target for the driver on track to beat?

As the session progressed, this would provide a great overview of each car’s strengths and weaknesses – a visual indicator of the differences between a latecomer and a strong midfield team, a podium finisher and a title contender – with the climax in the battle for pole.

The sight of Verstappen racing a virtual representation of Hamilton’s car would be surreal, but the ability to examine the subtly different lines and techniques around each corner – the areas of the track where Max wins and Lewis loses time – in real time would make the SkyPad actually redundant.

With Formula 1’s fan base expected to grow younger and more informed – despite the bile projected by some on both sides of the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry as 2021 turned sour – it’s the kind of data-driven sophistication that Liberty maybe should aim.

As Formula 1 seeks a new long-term solution to its age-old problem of how to spend its Saturdays, perhaps the best option of all would be an old idea – putting the drivers and the intimate artistry of their laps front and center – with a very modern touch.

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