Reverse Grid Qualifying Race: Brain or Brawn?
In a bid to increase overtaking and unpredictability in F1, reverse grid qualifying has once again been proposed. But would it work?
Grand Prix naming convention has always been a moot point. Whether it was the Luxembourg Grand Prix held at the Nurburgring in the nineties or the European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan in 2016; F1 fans recognise they serve as a vehicle for the promoter or the sport to boost the publicity or circumvent the 'One GP per country' rule. However in the past 6 weeks the sport has tried to use the titles of the races at Silverstone and Mugello to encourage fans to think about the sport's illustrious past. The 70th Anniversary event was followed but 'Ferrari's 1000th GP' race at Mugello. Like the 1000th GP itself, held in Shanghai in 2019, the number is not an accurate reflection of every GP contested by the Scuderia, but it showcases Liberty's desire to respect the heritage of F1.
Given this, it is surprising to see someone as ingrained in the history and the current hierarchy of the sport as Ross Brawn calling for reverse qualification races. From the outset I should make it clear that I abhor this idea however, having seen support from fairly senior F1 journalists and prominent twitter influencers, I would like to outline why I find it so damaging.
Firstly, it is necessary to assess why this idea has been proposed now. F1 is enduring it's 3rd period of dominance this century. Ferrari's superiority in the early 00's can be attributed to cost control, Red Bull's due to tight aero regs and Mercedes' with complex engine rules. All three teams are rightly heralded as all-time greats, who obliterated the competition on all fronts even in spite of these advantages. That said, it has become clear that the sport is merely segueing from one record breaker to the next and that if you ace the first season of the rules, it is increasing difficult to be overthrown. With the next iteration of the formula being delayed until 2022, some fans are finding Hamilton's march to 7 titles predicable and irksome.
The most obvious way inject some drama into the sport in the meantime is to hamper those with the best cars. A reverse grid satisfies this agenda by forcing the fastest driver to, in theory, overtake 19 others. This leads to the fastest driver having to negotiate several risky overtakes and will likely lead to a race winning move in the dying embers of the weekend. However, how do you determine this reverse grid race? Using practice or qualifying times would naturally lead to politicking to manufacture the worst result on the Saturday for the best possible starting place on the Sunday. No one in their right mind would suggest this and in fairness this is not the proposal offered by Brawn.
His plan is to replace the traditional Saturday qualifying with a 30 minute reverse Championship order Sprint race, with the result determining the grid for the main event. So the fastest driver effectively has 33% longer than the average race now, with a minimum of 2 grids starts, to pass the field. Brawn speculates that teams would then engineer their set up differently to aid their car following another. Whilst that is a likely outcome, it relies on a very primitive logic that less downforce means less drag and therefore it is easier to follow. But there must be a crossover point between lap time and ease in following another car, for example if the likelihood of overtaking the field requires downforce levels costing 5 seconds of lap time, no team will make that sacrifice. 2020 spec cars have a turbulent wake of up to 7 seconds behind them, so set up changes will have negligible impact on following another car, simply because the floor size of the cars is so great that the whole formula itself would need an overhaul. We therefore find ourselves in a chicken and egg scenario; the only way reverse grids could have a degree of fairness is by making the change it is designed to be used as a stop gap to.
Pierre Gasly, winner of the 2020 Italian GP. Copyright : Getty Images.
At Monza 2 weeks ago, Pierre Gasly scored a universally popular win, in what many fans would consider to be an exciting Grand Prix. The red flag gave us the best practical example of a mixed up grid. There were 6 different teams in the top 7 placings following Hamilton's penalty, with the 2 of the lowest ranked teams in Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo at the sharp end. From lap 28 to 53, other than Raikkonen's fall from P2 to P13, there were no overtakes between the final top 6 finishers. In other words, in perfect conditions, with DRS on a track comprising mostly of straights with midfield cars promoted to the front, there was no further excitement. With that said, Hamilton's drive from P17 to P7 was outstanding - although his performance that weekend was so convincing it's difficult to say if he was an accurate outlier. His first overtakes were on cars significantly slower and in a reverse grid scenario the delta between cars would be much smaller. Rivals would also defend much more fiercely in the qualifying race than for P13 with 10 laps of the main event to go.
Rather similar to DRS, reverse grids appear to be a one size fits all solution to a very complex issue. The likelihood of a driver making 15 overtakes at Monaco, for instance, is far far less likely than in Monza. At Monaco, where track position is king, the Championship's bottom team will simply employ a blocker tactic of sacrificing one car in the early stages to hold the rest of the field up in the first couple of laps. To me that is anti-competition and is a reward for doing a poor job. Indeed if I were Williams I would engineer my results in the first few races to guarantee I was at the back for the Jewel in the Crown event. To take this Machivellian thinking further, Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo are directly backed by 2 of the richest teams in Red Bull and Ferrari. Were either of those 2 teams caught acting inappropriately, like with Nolberto Fontana in Jerez 1997 for Sauber holding up Villeneuve to aid Schumacher's Ferrari, the sport would be asked why it engineered this in the first instance. No true fan want to see other teams politicking to benefit those at the top table, but stranger things have happened in the Piranha Club.
There would also be a large number of question marks over how to determine the order at the first race of the season and whether penalties from previous rounds would be applicable to the qualifying race or the main event. If the Championship leader gets a 15 place drop and can only serve it in the main event, would they bother to participate in the qualifying race? We saw in 2012, where Q3 qualifiers had to race on the tyre they set their fastest Q3 time on, sitting out of the final session as it wasn't deemed beneficial. These are unnecessary potholes that are created by rewarding failure.
I also think there is an elephant in the room that no one seems to be addressing - losing qualifying in it's current guise. For most of 2018 and 2019 the most exciting part of the weekend came on Saturday. Q3 was always closely contested and usually between 3 teams. A vital part of the picture has always been one lap performance. Who is willing to give it everything for 90 seconds, all out, no fuel or tyre or power unit saving, just unbridled commitment? To remove that and take away the great Rosberg lap of Silverstone 1985, or Senna Monaco 1988 or Hamilton Signapore 2018 deprives fans of the emotion and elation of a completely different element of motor racing.
Keke Rosberg, Silverstone 1985 Copyright: Formula 1
I believe that maintaining the integrity of the competition is paramount here. For too long F1 has tried to shoehorn in gimmicks designed to create exciting racing only for it to fail as the excitement was artificial. Would 100 DRS passes, similar to those made during the 2011 Turkish GP be well received after a few races? I suspect not. The red flag excitement of Monza already felt tired by the second red flag in Mugello. My fear is that the sport is confusing flash points, exciting finishes to races or unexpected results with good motor racing. I'm concerned that the sport is looking at the highlights reel rather than the whole spectacle; however I am in favour of the 2022 regulation changes. The sport needs closer competition throughout the field and I think the new rules will provide this. But is important that the sport preserve the product, respect the community they serve and honour the history of F1 - then they can call the races whatever they like.