Formula 1 Qualifying: What the Hell Are They Doing?

Kimi Raikkonen: "People from the outside must look at us and think 'What stupid people. What are they doing?'"
Kimi Raikkonen: “People from the outside must look at us and think ‘What stupid people. What are they doing?'”

So Formula 1 has got itself into a right mess — over qualifying! One of the few basic elements of the ‘show’ that most insiders agreed was not broken. But that’s what they tried to fix. Not surprisingly, they broke it. And now they’re struggling to fix it.

“F1 is crazy sometimes,” said Kimi Raikkonen in Bahrain. The Finn doesn’t say much, but when he does, you can be sure he doesn’t care who he bothers. “People from the outside must look at us and think ‘What stupid people. What are they doing?'”

He’s right. What on earth are they doing?

Heading into last winter, it was clear many elements of F1 were broken. Respectable, historic, well-oiled teams like Sauber are now on the brink of collapse, and yet their sponsorship dollars plus the official Bernie Ecclestone-divvied income is not enough to keep food on the tables of its 300 Swiss staff.

And that’s not all. F1 is bleeding audiences as TV viewers tune out the incomprehensible and ever-changing rules and technology, while even the boss was telling families in Bahrain – probably more concerned about the Kingdom’s ongoing political problems anyway – to not bother spending two weeks’ wage on a sport thrust upon them by ruling Sheikhs desperate for some good PR. “What am I going to sit in the bloody grandstand for, with my wife and two kids?” Ecclestone said in Bahrain last weekend. “To see what?”

He likens F1 at the moment to the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger’s moves, so that’s why the popular knockout qualifying system of 2015 had to go. The real goal, of course, was to introduce something that forces the two Mercedes to start the race from somewhere other than first and second. First and second-to-last would apparently be Ecclestone’s preference.

Mick Jagger grinding away.
Mick Jagger grinding away.

The farcical qualifying saga of the moment, however, demonstrates F1’s utter lack of direction in the first quarter of the 21st century. This is a sport built on its purity. Golf is about hitting the little white ball into a hole in the ground with a metal stick. Football is about green grass and wooden posts. And F1 used to be about strapping a gladiator into a death machine and saying ‘Go!’

That has changed. As a seven year old, I stood, mouth open, amid the painful howling of a V12 engine as it furiously swallowed gallons of high octane fuel before spewing its molten metal pieces into the sky in a failed bid for a few more revs, asking my dad if there really was a guy strapped into that thing. Today, the trendy thing is to tune into social media to the launch of the Tesla Model 3. Whatever that is.

F1, of course, has sped off in the same direction with the incredible technology of its tiny and quiet 1.6 litre ‘power units’, which in Bahrain demonstrated their ability to match the performance of those awesome gas-guzzling V10s of old. But that’s just not quite the same, is it?

And so we find a Formula 1 in crisis, with Mercedes’ rivals now in their third year of head-scratching when it comes to the mysteries of that German ‘power unit’, and Bernie desperate to fix the problem by throwing away the old idea about the fastest guy starting on pole. Lewis Hamilton’s lap on Saturday was nothing short of awesome, but if the newly-proposed ‘aggregate’ format had been in place, it would actually be the more careful and consistent Nico Rosberg who would have started from the front. And that’s not quite as simple as hitting a little white ball into a hole with a stick, is it? It is, as Sebastian Vettel so eloquently put it, “sh–“.

The fundamental disconnect between what F1 should be – gladiators racing death machines until they see either a hospital bed or a silly black and white flag – and whatever it is today, explains why the decision-making teams, FIA and Ecclestone are so painfully locked in dispute over an issue like qualifying. It’s no surprise that a fundamentally-directionless sport has no idea what the audience wants or which next turn is the right one. Do we want eardrum-perforating death machines or corporate slogan-decreeing gladiators wrapped in cotton wool? Do we want white balls chipped into little holes or Lewis Hamilton shunted out of pole position because of some aggregate nonsense sh–? I know the answer, but it appears that “F1” – whatever that is – does not.

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