x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Qualifying now a tired proposition in Formula One

The set-up for Sunday's main event came at the expense of a qualifying session that was punctuated by large periods of not very much going on at all.

Lewis Hamilton climbs out of his Mercedes after taking the pole for the Chinese Grand Prix in qualifying, which was a relatively boring affair until the final moments.
Lewis Hamilton climbs out of his Mercedes after taking the pole for the Chinese Grand Prix in qualifying, which was a relatively boring affair until the final moments.

Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix is likely to be a thriller with a number of the key protagonists on different strategies, and it unclear just who has the upper hand ahead of the third round of the championship.

But the set-up for the main event came at the expense of Saturday's qualifying session that was punctuated by large periods of not very much going on at all.

Spectators in Shanghai who had paid for expensive tickets for qualifying had to find other forms of entertainment in the final part of the session, the 10-minute period where the top 10 gun for pole position.

For the first nine minutes their sole entertainment was watching world championship leader Sebastian Vettel do a slow out-lap before returning to the pits in his Red Bull Racing car.

It was only in the final seconds that Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and four other drivers finally set about showing what their machines could do as they pushed for the highest grid spots they could muster.

Jenson Button, Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg all chose not to set a lap time, thus consigning themselves to eighth, ninth and 10th on the grid respectively.

So why did this play out the way it did?

Vettel is a man who clearly loves taking pole positions - he had secured the first two this season before this weekend and holds the record for most achieved in one season (15 in 2011.)

Yet he and Red Bull showed no interest in trying to challenge Hamilton which surely, deep down, had to rankle with the German, who had demonstrated just what a competitive chap he is by his reaction three weeks ago to being told to sit behind his teammate in Malaysia.

The fragile nature of the Pirelli tyres was to blame for the cautious approach of teams up and down the paddock, as, just like the final leg, the first 20-minute part of qualifying was nine minutes old before one of the 22 cars finally ordained the spectators and television viewers with their presence on track.

The soft tyre is not expected to last more than three or four laps in the race, meaning the front seven, who all qualified on it, are likely to be heading to the pits very early on for a change to the harder medium compound.

Vettel sacrificed his ambitions for another pole to qualify on the medium, as did Button, and barring first corner dramas it is likely one of those two will be in the lead at some point around lap 10.

They will still have to run the soft tyre at some point in the race as part of the regulations, thus setting up an unpredictable race as fortunes are likely to ebb and flow.

However, the dramatic degradation we see in the Pirellis this year is in danger of ruining the spectacle of qualifying being hurt.

Since Pirelli ramped up their highly degradable tyres last year it has improved the spectacle on the track.

It is a fine line that Pirelli are treading, however.

Make the tyres too easy and you get processions like we saw in South Korea and India late last season when Vettel cruised away from the pack, needing to make only one pit stop and barely any racing with most cars on the same strategy.

At present the teams are obsessed with tyre conservation and having enough sets of fresh rubber (each driver has access to six sets of hard tyres and five sets of softs over a race weekend) to finish the race on Sunday.

Spectators do not turn up to watch an empty track and television companies do not pay Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights owner, huge amounts of money to screen drivers sat in their garages twiddling their thumbs and looking bored.

It was a similar situation initially last year, most notably in Spain when Vettel again was among the protagonists not to set a time.

The problem eased as teams got to grips with the Pirellis and it is likely to be a similar scenario this year as we tick off more races.

But until then there is a strong possibility, given the searing heat in Sakhir, where temperatures average around 41°C, that next weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix will be more of the same in qualifying.

Yes, it is good that F1 has evolved from the past where the fight for pole position was the most crucial element of a weekend, given how difficult overtaking was.

"Start at the front and you are half way there" used to be the attitude given to track position.

The increased competitiveness of the field, DRS (Drag Reduction System) and the tyres have all helped the Sunday spectacle, but qualifying has been hurt in the process.

Many of the races in the F1 calendar sell three-day ticket packages, obliging people to attend Friday's practice, Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race to get their money's worth.

The only problem is the people in Shanghai did not get their money's worth and spectators at future races are likely to feel the same way when they leave the track on a Saturday night.

F1 has worked hard in the past to improve its qualifying show, changing formats five times in the last 10 years, but at present it is the victim of the tyre regulations designed to make Sunday's more entertaining.

Sunday is what matters.

That is where the points are handed out.

But it does F1 no good at all, especially at a venue like Shanghai where they have pushed so hard to garner even a semblance of interest, to have days like yesterday and empty track time as the dominant theme.

 

gcaygill@thenational.ae

 

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE