When the FIA announced the wholesale changes that were being made to the regulations for the 2003 season, there was an outcry that it amounted to a bastardisation of a tried and tested format, that it would inevitably cheapen the sport. There have been some clear problems with Formula One racing of late, most of them as a result of the best driver being in the best car - inevitably leading to a string of boring races. But clearly there were a number of other inherent problems needing to be addressed. On the evidence of the Australian Grand Prix last weekend, a number of these problems have been rectified.
The changes in qualifying for this season mean that instead of running for a total of twelve laps over a one hour period on Saturday, the drivers now record one fast lap each (with the track to themselves) on Friday to establish the order for repeating the process, in reverse order, on Saturday. The Saturday session has to be run with the fuel loads that the drivers will start the race with onboard, and immediately after running the fast lap the cars are impounded in parc ferme, where the teams are only allowed to preserve the cars to the extent that they can run again on Sunday. The only subsequent work the teams can carry out on the cars is during a fifteen minute shake out session prior to the race, and whatever they can manage on the grid.
I love the new qualifying arrangement, because it raises as many questions as answers. The teams get to show their outright pace on Friday and their race pace on Saturday, with the varying fuel loads in the latter session getting everyone guessing about the various team strategies before the race even begins. Previously, qualifying times signified who was fastest, but now there are so many other elements that go into that one timed lap on a Saturday that each driver's time could be a reflection of strategy, fuel load, set up or even the amount that a driver is prepared to risk to put in a fast lap.
The Friday session seems to be designed to show the relative pace of the teams, an echo of the former qualifying format compressed into one lap. The teams run as light as possible in order to get up the classifications for Saturday, so that they can run later in the session when there is more grip on the track. Some wondered whether the teams would run deliberately slower if they knew there was rain forecast for later in the Saturday session, but weather prediction is an inexact science - there is no way that they can accurately forecast for a particular hour the day before.
With the drivers only getting one hot lap there is plenty of scope for a mistake, which makes qualifying great to watch. It has you wondering who can keep it all together and post a good time; who will run at 100% and who will drive within themselves to keep it on the island. Because there is only one chance at a hot lap some of the drivers will inevitably pull back from their fastest possible time so as to ensure a lap time (much as they used to put in a 'banker' lap to guarantee a spot on the grid before pushing harder for a faster time over the remaining laps). This will change qualifying as it will be more of a gamble, with some drivers betting their shirts and others being more conservative.
As it turned out there was only one significant off track excursion (Kimi Raikkonen on Saturday), although a number of the new drivers were very ragged (notably Ralph Firman and Antonio Pizzonia); it is still not clear if that is due to lack of running (or ability), nerves, or another reason entirely. The majority of the seasoned drivers ran very clean laps, and again it's not clear whether this was due to experience or conservatism. This will be something that becomes clearer over the season, and it will become another skill for the spectators to admire or decry in the various drivers. It will certainly become another talking point; Jarno Trulli, for example, has always been considered a qualifying specialist, and it will be interesting to see who comes to grips with the new format most effectively.
One of the best byproducts of the new qualifying regulations is that you get to see a complete lap driven in anger by every driver on the grid, and you can compare and contrast. Previously the television coverage of qualifying and the race tended to focus almost exclusively on the front runners (which was why Minardi used to put in the first qualifying lap of each session - when there was no one else on track their car would be shown on television), and now every driver gets his moment in the sun. Everyone is familiar with the driving styles of the Schumachers, Juan Pablo Montoya and the others at the sharp end, but now we can do a comparison between the styles of, say, Mark Webber and Heinz Harald Frentzen. Pizzonia in particular was great to watch, even if it was just to see if he would actually make it to the next corner.
The prospect of different fuel loads on Saturday makes it difficult to establish who are the fastest drivers, but it also adds interest to the session (and the race), with some teams running light to gain a better grid position and subsequently more running at the sharp end, albeit at the expense of an extra pitstop in the race. It certainly means there is more to argue about when discussing the merits of each driver, although it also means that pole will have less meaning when discussing a driver's outright speed from now on.
The Sauber drivers were the most obvious drivers on a light fuel load in Melbourne, although Fernando Alonso also seemed to be running lighter than his teammate Jarno Trulli. Renault were clearly trying to hedge their bets, and given the lack of knowledge about how the new qualifying would shake out that makes sense; it was strange that more teams didn't try this tactic. The biggest surprise, however, was that there weren't more teams willing to run light in qualifying, but we'll see what they come up with over the next few races. Saturday was certainly one of the most interesting qualifying sessions I can remember for a long time.
In fact, Saturday didn't throw up too many surprises compared to the pace shown on Friday; one of the strangest results was that the BAR team seemed much faster than anyone would have expected, and Jacques Villeneuve's fans must have been squealing in their seats at the prospect that he was possibly going to run at the sharp end of the pack for effectively the first time in five years.
Honda is undoubtedly looking for results after their poor showing in the last few years, and their decision to stop supplying engines to Jordan indicates their new focus. It seems that they are looking for outright speed in the qualifying sessions before downtuning the engines so they survive the race, which could be a smart way to establish speed and still maintain reliability. Combined with a lower fuel load it seemed effective, and this will be something to watch in qualifying as the season progresses.
The biggest shock on Saturday was the decision made by Minardi to pull their cars in on their hot lap without recording a time. Paul Stoddart revealed that he had found a loophole in the qualifying regulations that would allow him to keep the cars out of parc ferme so that the team could work on them for longer, and everyone went running to the regulations to see what the hell he was talking about. He was right, and who would have thought that Minardi would be the first team to find loopholes in the new regulations?
Nevertheless, it made no real difference to the show, as Minardi usually start at the back anyway (and as usual they needed as much time as possible to improve their cars, given their lack of testing) so it all turned out to be a storm in a tea cup. But don't be surprised if, as a result, the FIA tighten up the regulations in a hurry.
On the evidence of the two qualifying sessions in Melbourne, it seems that the FIA have got the balance right in the regulations, and they certainly provided more entertainment for the spectators than the previous qualifying regime. The FIA have maintained the right to amend the regulations "in light of experience," but so far they seem to have worked out well, adding interest to the race.
It will be fascinating to see what happens when there is a wet Saturday session, or more of the front runners amend their strategies and/or have a poor timed lap, and this has made qualifying a more interesting part of the show. In fact, I now look forward to qualifying sessions more than ever before, and I'm sure I'm not alone.