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Qualifying - To run or not to run, that is the Q3 - The solution to Formula One's problems could lie in mathematics

Published by Will Davies

Spending more time out of the car than in it at Force India
Credit: Sahara Force India Formula One Team

A current theme in F1 circles is all about giving fans value for money (especially as they spend so much following the sport). The current racing is action packed, and the restriction on testing means that the Free Practice sessions are often well used – although the issue of extra sets of wets / inters for wet sessions is a discussion for another day.

The only part of the weekend left is Qualifying, and it is this that I feel needs looking at, because to have the final part (that is supposed to be the most exciting bit) with only a handful of drivers setting times is somewhat ridiculous.

We have all heard all the arguments for the reasons that teams now don’t want to go out and set times in the final session. Whether it’s because they have been forced to use too many sets of options to get into the top-10 shootout, and so are now compromised on running; they have focussed on a strategy that requires an extra set of the option tyres; or if they are a team that feels they can’t compete for a higher grid position and so save tyres as an insurance for the Sunday afternoon.

As far as I can see, the whole reason that the 3-part Quali sessions were introduced was to spice up the action. This was an improvement over the hour-long sessions of old, where the action could end up occurring in the final minutes & seconds before the flag dropped, when the state of the track was usually at its best (assuming it was dry running).

Now I’ve done my research, and lots of us have had lots of ideas that might go some way to making Quali the spectacle it should be – both for the TV audiences and for the fans at the circuits. I feel that the FIA needs to either force the teams to set times, incentivise them to run, or they can design another new format to make things increasingly interesting as the hour ticks down.

Easily implementable changes

The easiest step that could be taken by the FIA would be to force teams to send their drivers out in Q3 to set times. Using grid penalties for slow & uncompetitive times (>107% of the fastest session time sounds good) and harsher sanctions for non-running would be one way of enforcing this – emphasis on the forcing. However, I can see a few issues with this scenario. There can be a whole host of (legitimate) reasons why a team might not run and so feel unfairly penalised. For example technical problems, or changing weather conditions – neither of which I feel should impact any more negatively than they do anyway. (As an aside, I think that making the drivers in Q3 set times on both compounds and averaging the times could be a ‘fun’ way to improve the amount of action even more.)

One rule that I feel could be altered or done away with the requirement for cars in Q3 to start on the tyres that set their best time. It is my impression, by listening to people more experienced that I, that once harder compound tyres have been brought up to operating temperature, and then are allowed to cool back to ambient temperature, the compound changes its state. (However, that is not the real issue – I mention it because I feel that JB has been a victim of something that looked very similar in a few races.) My real concern is that teams are choosing not to run because they want to leave themselves open to choose which tyres they start on till Sunday lunchtime. Ending this would mean that teams would be free to run, and also open to choose the strategy to suit them best. (Not to mention that the mixture of strategies at the top might even liven up the racing a little).

A possibility here would be to make the top-10 run a Single-lap Qualifying session, but this still means teams use more tyres than they’d like, and let’s face it doesn’t put much action on the track. (This is more than likely the reason that this idea isn’t used for the whole field either – imagine Quali being 24 lots of out-lap, hot-lap, in-lap, and that being it, yawn.)

Skill, precision, and accuracy are rewarded as well as pure speed

The extension to this idea is to reintroduce Qualifying-tyres, so that drivers have a very narrow window before they reach the cliff – meaning that skill, precision, and accuracy are rewarded as well as pure speed. Giving a set of these tyres to all the Q3 competitors would enable teams to run without ‘using up’ a set of tyres that they would otherwise try to save.

If the FIA wanted to put their foot down and keep the car starting on a set of tyres that had been used in Quali rule, then one way to do this is to give the top-10 a free set of tyres to use during that 10 minutes (be they special Quali-tyres or options, it doesn’t matter), and make them start on their Q2 set instead – as none of them can sit out Q2 in order to save tyres – unless they are in a suicidal / self destructive mood. I feel this is a nice compromise, and one that keeps the current status quo.

Thinking smarter, not harder

My next couple of options are somewhat trickier to implement, not only because they are not based on or are closely related to the current system, but because I have started to use some maths (I’m sorry to those who are already tuning out …).

One format that would give fans the most to watch (credit Mr C for mentioning this to me), would be an enforced, hour-long session, where cars set times as per usual, but aren’t allowed to park the car. All pit-stops would have to happen at racing speed, and stopping the car would bring your session to an end. This would give drivers plenty of opportunity to improve, and would definitely come down the last throw of the dice (omitting any weather concerns).

However, because the best times are most likely to come at the death, the preceding ~50 minutes might seem a little redundant. This is where I bring in maths – my idea to keep the whole session alive would be for the times for the final grid positions to be taken from a 5 lap consecutive stretch. The easiest way to show this is using a table.

Lap #TimeLaps that CountCombined TimeAverage

So the lap, and 4 before it are added up to create a total, which can be averaged to make a more recognisable lap-time, and drivers will know that if their next lap is faster than their average, then they’d be bettering their overall time. This method for analysing times would be a way to reward consistency as well as skill and speed (etc).

As you can see from the table the fastest individual lap is #10, however, as that is counted with the slowest lap, #8 (possibly mistake or traffic), the best average time comes after lap 6. For the full hour, drivers would be having to concentrate and really try to eliminate mistakes from their driving in order to post the best 5-lap moving-average time – moving average is the maths-y name for this calculation. Despite fuel loads coming off and individual lap times getting faster, it would be up to the individual driver to post back-to-back accurate times. Mistakes would count against drivers more than extra fuel that is begin carried, so you can’t just post a time and relax, but have to keep your head and eliminate errors.

107 and beyond

My second complicated method for Qualifying is an advanced version of the 107% elimination for the slowest drivers. The first 10 minutes of the hour session would require all drivers to post a time. Then at the end of that, any driver who is outside of 112% of the lead would be eliminated and must sit out. In the next 10 minutes, all the drivers must now be within 110% of the best time from that part of the session.

Time (t mins)Drivers must be within
0 ≤ t ≤ 10112%
10 ≤ t ≤ 20110%
20 ≤ t ≤ 30108%
30 ≤ t ≤ 40106%
40 ≤ t ≤ 50104%
50 ≤ t ≤ 60102%

As the table suggests, the field would be whittled down until only the fastest drivers are left (in a similar way in which it is currently) – the difference being that it’s not done on an arbitrary number of drivers, but on speed. To liken it to how things are now, if the top 15 are fast enough for Q3, then they are all put through. This can only go to keep things competitive, and is possibly my favourite solution (not just because it’s the most convoluted). However, I’m not so confident on it to suggest that it won’t need tweaking – the timings and percentages could be looked at and altered, much like the DRS zones are changed to suit.

These are by no means the only solutions that are out there (I mean it only took me an evening to pull these ideas together – I could go on and on, getting more and more complicated, and inventing more uses for trickier and trickier maths). But if Bernie, or Bernie’s people, reads this I am more than available for a consultant role to try to improve this aspect of the sport.