Six crazy ways of setting the grid

H​ow touring car racing has the widest mix of ways of setting the grid in motorsport

6d ago

Touring car racing’s mixer-in-chief has been variations of reversed grids for over twenty years. Some touring car series held out for a while, but most have eventually introduced them in order to spruce up the racing.

And the truth is - they work well in touring cars. That doesn’t mean they’re for everyone though. Part of why they work so well in touring cars is unlike other series, where the aerodynamics, the similarity of the cars, or the general format (for example endurance) may make overtaking harder, or a risk not worth taking; touring car racing doesn’t have that problem.

Generally, if you’ve got a faster driver and car combination, you can make your way forwards in a touring car.

So, are reversed grids really a bad thing? When I first got into motor racing, I remember when I first was told how the grids for the races were set - “What? The fastest guy starts first? Isn’t that the wrong way around?” I can remember my junior brain thinking - certainly believing that surely the fastest guy should start from the back, that’d be way more fun?

Thankfully, as it turns out I wasn’t completely crazy. Reversed grids very quickly became a thing at the turn of the millennium. Up until then, touring car races could be quite a static affair, with either separate qualifying sessions, or the driver who won the first race just going on to start from pole for the next.

While reversed grids are the bulk of what’s been used in tin-tops in the 2000s, there’s been a few other grid-setting systems tried. Also how many to reverse can also vary across both championships and years.

Some systems have certainly needed a bit of tweaking and trial-and-error to get right.

Here’s a rundown of six of the wackiest ways to set the grid in the European touring car scene, from best to worst.

#6 - Top ten of Qualifying 2 get reversed

First up is the system which is currently used in the WTCR - FIA World Touring Car Cup, and a majority of the TCR championships.

First introduced in 2012 in the FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC), this has been the least problematic implementation of a reversed grid system; although it’s not easy to explain in a pinch, and does have its detractors.

The system is a welcome revision on the one introduced in the 2011 WTCC (more on that later).

It’s usually a two-part qualifying system, where the whole field will head out for around 20-30 minutes, with the top twelve only progressing through to ‘Q2’ (this has been scaled down for championships with smaller grids). So 13th onwards is locked in for the two races, while the top twelve go on to do battle for pole position in a second, shorter session - which is around 10 to 15 minutes.

The fastest driver gets pole position for one of the races (WTCR has opted to reverse the grid of the first race in recent years in order to add more value to having won the ‘last’ race of the day, while most other championships have stuck with reversing the second race).

For this reversed grid race, only the top ten from that second qualifying session will be reversed, the eleventh and twelfth fastest drivers will be locked into those positions for the races.

So the driver tenth fastest gets to a race from pole, while in that race the driver we know has the best pace will have to fight his way forwards from tenth on the grid.

The reason why the top ten are reversed isto prevent drivers who know they don’t have the pace for an outright pole from trying driving slowly to get pole for the reversed grid race - as to gauge your pace to make sure you’re tenth and not eleventh onwards is nearly impossible.

There, simple, right?

This system works quite well, and in practice isn’t as complicated as it reads. The WTCR (WTCC before it) did bolt on a Q3 top-five shootout on top to add to the drama on Saturdays, but in essence, it still works the same way in terms of the reversing element.

Of course, if you mess up your qualifying session, this means you’ve got to do all the work in the each of the races to get back up front; there’s no driving through the field and snatching the reversed grid pole for Race 2 like days of old.

Also, there have been occasional occurrences where two cars might run into trouble early in qualifying; break a driveshaft, clout a wall - in which case, the “who’s slowest gets pole” scenario applies, but that’s certainly a rarity.

#5 - Partially reverse the race result

In the world championships, before reversed grids applied to qualifying, they applied to the race result. And in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), they still do.

The FIA European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) was launched in 2002 and brought in this new system which would be used for nine years without change if you count the championship’s successor, the WTCC.

The grid for Race 1 would be set in a qualifying session, and then the grid for Race 2 would take the points-finishing positions from Race 1 and flip them; initially the top eight, and later the top ten when the FIA World Championship points system changed.

The system worked well; its main feature was if you had a dull fight up front, the TV director could focus on who was battling for the reversed grid pole position for the second race.

The system was used up until 2011, when after a year of a few abuses, it was replaced.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the BTCC introduced reversed grids in 2004 for the first time.

The BTCC needed something new to spice up the action. It’s weekend finale, the feature race, with its mandatory pit stop, had to be phased out due to a technical limitation. Alan Gow had returned to rescue the dwindling championship, and his first act was to introduce the FIA Super 2000 (S2000) technical regulations into the championship, allowing the fast-propagating cars to join the limited ranks of what are retrospectively titled “BTC-spec” cars.

While the performance of the two classifications were relatively similar and easy to balance, there was one major difference between the two cars. The BTC-spec cars had centrelock wheels, while the S2000 cars had the more typical multiple nuts which you find on road cars. This meant changing tyres would take a lot longer for the S2000 cars; and would certainly be an unreasonable handicap.

So out went the sprint race/feature race model - and in came the three-race format. It’s still around now.

In its first year, there was a bit of a flaw - the reversed grid was applied to the points-paying positions (ten at this point), from the second race, using the result of the first race.

This worked out very well for the all-new SEAT Sport squad, and the returning Jason Plato - who found himself able to score heavily despite the fact the Triple Eight Race Engineering-run factory Vauxhall team had more experience and pace with its Astra Coupes, and its five-star driver line-up of Yvan Muller and James Thompson.

Thompson won the title, but the British driver was vocal about the unfairness of the system in his last full BTCC year, which had seen that even if he was fastest in qualifying and picked up a Race 1 win, a SEAT cruising to tenth in Race 1 could easily find itself right at the front of the grid for the other two-thirds of the weekend’s races and outscore him.

It was a simple error that was easily fixed. As from 2005, the reversed grid was moved to the third race. Unfortunately, Thompson himself didn’t get to see the benefit, as he’d moved on to race in the WTCC with Alfa Romeo.

The next problem was that common slow-down effect; and after a few too many occasions where drivers were throwing away their eighth-place finishes to try and drop behind the two cars behind and finish tenth, netting pole for Race 3, the lottery system came in from 2007. This meant the number of positions to be reversed now randomised by a draw; which eliminated this behaviour which just looked odd to explain, as cars would battle on the brakes to be last across the finish line.

While some argue a random draw is a gimmick too far, it’s stuck, and also been adopted in China. It’s generally worked, although there was an infamous occasion in 2015 at Brands Hatch, when tenth-place finisher Rob Austin was invited to perform the draw, and he clearly ensured he picked his own number and gave himself pole for Race 3. Austin apologised for his behaviour, and the grid was redrawn by championship director Alan Gow, coincidentally still pulling out the ten ball.

#4 - All finishers reverse

OK, now let’s get crazy.

Up to the final year of the 2001 FIA European Super Touring Championship (Euro STC), the final year of international racing run to Super Touring regulations, all of the cars which were classified in the first race were flipped for Race 2.

How amazing is that? That was usually about 20+ cars.

The depth of the field was pretty ‘wide’ - the top cars were the N Technology Alfa Romeo 156s and the JAS Motorsport Honda Accords, all of which had far more pace than the assembled privateer Audis and BMWs, so they still managed to blast their way through. There was one exception, when future British Touring Car triple champion Matt Neal made the most of the reversed grid at the season finale at Estoril to win in his Nissan Primera GT.

The second races were exciting, but it was the worst-positioned Honda or Alfa Romeo from the first race that would effectively prevail in the second race, while the others spent the whole race fighting their way back to where they should be. On some circuits, overtaking and getting back to where you started was easy; on others, not so much.

The system was refined for the 2002 ETCC which replaced the Euro STC, but one championship still wanted to have a go at it.

In 2006, the Australian V8 Supercars Championship introduced the exact same system with some modifications.

Recognising a reversed grid race was less ‘valuable’ than a conventional grid, the race only awarded half-points. The Australians used it as their second race of the weekend, which allowed the result of the race to set the grid for the weekend’s crescendo.

As you can imagine, a grid of 30 Australian V8 monsters being flipped resulted in some pretty dramatic races. The system was dropped mid-year due to the sensational damage costs the teams were racking up, which was proving to be unsustainable.

#3 - Fastest laps set the grid

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is the mantra for the BTCC…

In 2015, the BTCC “trialled” something new. Up to this point, the way the grid was set for Race 2 was based on the result of Race 1, only that the drivers at the front had been handed a chunk of ballast to carry around as well.

The new system was based on the British Superbike system, where the fastest laps were used to set the grid for the second race.

This immediately led to odd behaviour and abuse. Cars who were out of place in qualifying dropping back and getting some clear air just to get themselves up front in Race 2, instead of powering their way through “Ashley Sutton-style” as we can probably call it right now.

It wasn’t cheating. It’s using the rules as they’re written. It also meant it wasn’t particularly easy to follow what was happening in terms of the grid for the second race, and the effect was only marginally randomising.

The system was dropped after the end of the first year, with the championship promoter confirming there was already enough excitement driven through the existing success ballast and option tyre systems.

#2 - Reverse the first qualifying segment

Due to the “Menu effect”, with drivers having dropped to tenth position in the first race in order to be well-placed with pole position for the second race (namely Alain Menu, twice), the Race 1-result-sets-Race 2 grid system was dropped - and replaced with something truly horrific in 2011.

It actually wasn’t too far for what we’ve now had in the last ten years, but there were some key refinements that would be needed.

Out of the window was setting the grid based on the first race result. Both races’ grids were now set on qualifying.

Qualifying would be split into two parts. Q1, the top ten fastest cars would go through, while eleventh onwards would be set for both of Sunday’s races.

Q2, the fastest drivers would go on to fight for pole position for Race 1.

The grid for Race 2 would be set by taking the results of Q1, and reversing the top ten.

Just in case you missed it, that’s Q1 - not Q2 as we have now.

What this meant was the ideal qualifying strategy would be to qualify in tenth for Q1, thereby getting a pass to go into Q2 and simultaneously secure pole for Race 2, and then go on to be fastest in Q2 and then score pole for Race 1 as well.

So, with the ultimate qualifying result in Q1 to be tenth, that’s what happened.

In Q1, the teams would try and calculate what the fastest time would be and then make sure they were far enough off that time to get tenth position, or at least just a few above it.

In particular it was the Chevrolets, which already had so much pace on the field they could be a bit play around a bit more than the others, who would try this out - but there was many a driver who would tell me before qualifying “I’m just going to push as hard as I can and not play those games” who was soon creeping around trying to get the reversed grid pole.

It was a risky game. ‘Overshoot’ and end up eleventh, and that’s where you’ll start both races.

While it was evident early-on the system wasn’t really working, it’s not that easy to change regulations mid-season in FIA championships, and the system stayed for the full season - to be replaced by the much improved system we have now from 2012.

Of course no one would be so crazy to implement this system by choice, right?

Wrong. In 2016, the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship (STCC) introduced the exact same system, with a significant tweak to ensure the go-slow effect was eliminated.

The Qualifying 1 result would be awarded full championship points. Not some points - FULL points - so being fastest in Q1 and therefore locking yourself into tenth place for the reversed grid race, this meant you scored 25 points. So no one messed around; but that meant of the 75 points available each weekend, a third came from Q1, and the rest came from the races.

It was a bizarre fix. It certainly worked; why slow down for a better grid position when you could score even more points before anyone else’s car got anywhere near you on track?

The STCC dropped the system when it switched to TCR regulations in 2017, and went to a three-race format, using a three-part qualifying system with no reversed grids.

#1 - Fan vote

The worst is absolutely last. I have much love for the TCR Benelux championship - the series which lasted for two years from 2016 and 2017.

Despite small grids, it had some incredible teams taking part, with WRT, Boutsen Ginion Racing, Delahaye Racing, DG Sport Competition - as well as a unique two-driver per car format which led to some high-profile starters; including Tiago Monteiro, Norbert Michelisz, Tom Coronel, Stefano Comini, Rob Huff, Jean-Karl Vernay, Sheldon van der Linde, and Vincent Radermecker.

While it had these strong teams and guest stars - and with it some great racing, it didn’t exactly have a big profile. The previous Belgian Touring Car Series had died off quietly four years earlier, and touring car racing has never been as big as sports car racing in the region, which is where the Belgians are somewhat masters.

With a limited fan following, and not even any television or live streaming coverage, for all its best intentions, it was a series for drivers, rather than a spectator or fan-focussed championship.

For that reason it beggars belief that the series opted to introduce a fan-voted grid system for its first season.

The weekend’s format was completely built around giving drivers as much racing time as possible. There was a 45-minute practice session; and then everything else was racing!

There was a one-hour “qualifying race”, where the fastest times would set the grids for two of the following FOUR sprint races of 20-minute heats. Two of which would be split by a short safety car intervention to save time (the cars would form up again and restart on the same tyres as the first race); before the drivers swapped over for the second pair of sprint races.

The qualifying race would be run much like a typical sports car race - one hour of racing, with a driver change between 25-35 minutes. Each drivers’ fastest laps would set his grid position for his sprint heat.

However, the grid for the qualifying race itself was completely down to a vote on a Facebook app.

This was of course instantly manipulated and abused. It was soon changed so that the Facebook vote would only ‘contribute’ to the grid position, scoring points to setting the grid, with times set in the last fifteen minutes of the practice session also establishing the other ‘points’.

The system didn’t last into 2017, with a 30-minute qualifying session introduced in its place, with the average of both drivers’ fastest times used to establish the starting grid. Much more ordinary.

It was fun to try, but an experiment in letting the public decide the starting order; or in reality, the drivers’ being placed in order of who had the most technically astute mates, thankfully didn’t last too long.

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