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Frontrunners caught up in qualifying chaos
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Frontrunners caught up in qualifying chaos
Posted By:   |  26 Apr 2009   |  6:47 am GMT  |  32 comments

Spare a thought for Mark Webber. He is sitting in a car capable of winning this weekend and yet he starts the race from 18th on the grid because another driver, Adrian Sutil, blocked him on his hot lap in the first qualifying session. Not his fault and yet he loses out massively and the feeling here in Bahrain is that this is turning into a real problem, which could easily affect the world championship.

Last night the stewards penalised Sutil, who had weaved in front of Webber while warming his tyres for his own hot lap. He was dropped three places on the grid. But there is no mechanism for giving Webber back what he has lost. This is clearly unfair and needs to be addressed, because it’s going to happen more and more this season.

The reason is because Q1 is no longer a cruise for the fast cars. Everyone is on the limit to get through and almost everyone is having to use two sets of soft tyres just to be sure to get through. They are having to do two runs, so the track is very busy. And complicating things even more, because of the difference between the two types of tyre, which forces everyone to use the soft tyre for qualifying, we are seeing a variation in how it’s used, some drivers doing only one timed lap, some doing two. So drivers getting blocked is becoming more common.

It’s a bit like the safety car rules last year which unfairly penalised drivers forced to pit under a safety car caused by someone else’s accident. That rule was changed and something needs to be done to restore drivers who lose out in qualifying.

Fernando Alonso predicts that this is going to become a real talking point as the season goes on.
“It’s [getting through to Q2] more luck than anything else,” he says. “Traffic will always be a problem and you need to be lucky. Here especially we had some drivers doing two timed laps, some were doing only one timed lap and so you had a difference between them and you never knew what they were going to do until they come into the pits. It happened in China it happened here and I think it will happen a lot more in short circuits like Barcelona and Monaco. It will get very difficult in Q1.”

Webber was pretty sanguine about it. He hadn’t been having the best of days anyway and didn’t expect to match team mate Vettel,
“That’s motorsport, mate. It can happen, ” he said. “The good thing is we can bounce back from this, it;s a blip over the course of a long season, but these days it can happen. His [Sutil's] team did a poor job for him, he thought I was on an out lap and he tried to block me, but I’d been coming for 40 seconds.”

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32 Comments
  1. JonnyP says:

    Please could someone explain the rules this season for pit stops when the safety car is out?- I have missed that one amongst all the other regs. changes this year!

    Thanks!

  2. rpaco says:

    Shirley (dont call me surely) had the stewards been informed immediately the person blocked could have been added to Q2 or Q1 and plus 1 (or plus 2 more, if 2 were blocked etc) then dropped at the end of that stage.

    However against this is the current vast variation in the stewards reaction time. At the moment they have to consider a suitable penalty but if it were predefined with no argument then it could be imposed in a couple of minutes after the replay.
    Oh of course the blocker also goes back 3 places too. And the team is penalised 1 point or $10000 if they have no points. This because they should have been on the ball and told their driver to move over.

  3. Paul says:

    I don’t agree that it is as random as the safety car rules from last year. The onus is on the drivers and the team to position themselves so that they are out of the way of traffic. Ultimately the qualifying system is the best it ever has been, and the potential of big names dropping out in Q1 and Q2 for whatever reason is what adds to the show.

    However, if we have 3 extra teams next year, I agree that blocking could be even more of a problem.

  4. Liam says:

    Sutil wasn’t weaving to warm his tyres, he said that he was protecting his position as he thought Webber was on an out lap as well and didn’t want him to get in front. As Webber said, it’s Sutil’s team that should have alerted him.

    James, if you were given a blank piece of paper, how would you like the qualifying session to be? I personally think that this years setup is close to perfect, apart from the afore mentioned issue.

  5. knoxploration says:

    Frankly, while I feel sorry for Webber I can’t say that I agree this is “a real problem” that “needs to be addressed”.

    Why? Because it is the same for everybody. You make your own opportunities because you choose when you come out on track. You are, effectively, the author of your own destiny. Webber simply chose the wrong moment, and ended up in traffic that he wouldn’t have been in had he chosen to come out at a different time. Yes, Sutil should’ve been paying attention, and he wasn’t – so he is fairly penalised for that.

    My point is that there really isn’t a way to fix this. What other alternatives are there? You can’t force drivers not to touch the racing line apart from when they’re on a timed lap because they need to stay on that line to retain tires in a suitable shape to start their own laps.

    As long as drivers can be on the racing line when they’re not on a hot lap though, they are going to continue to have comings-together with those who are – and occasionally they’re not going to notice, or they’re going to fail to allow a clean pass. There is already something in place that tries to reduce the likelihood of that happening, because the driver who blocks is penalized – so it is already in his own team’s interest to make sure he knows when he needs to let somebody by. It will always happen occasionally though – it is a simple fact of life in multi-car qualifying. You can’t later guess where the blocked driver might have qualified had he not been blocked though, so you can’t give the place back.

    There simply *is* no alternative but single-lap qualifying. We tried that, and frankly it was dire. It robbed us of the suspense that we’ve seen over and over at the end of recent qualifying sessions, it was vastly more unfair to the drivers because they were no longer the authors of their own destiny (track conditions could and did change between runs), and it robbed fans at the track of seeing as many laps turned.

    So I’m going to have to disagree here, James. There is no real problem that needs to be addressed here, just an inherent difficulty of the qualifying format that is equally present for all drivers. It is no more or less likely to happen to any particular driver, barring their own poor choices as to when they should be on track in the first place, and it is a darned sight better than the alternatives.

  6. Nick Caulfield says:

    I’m still tempted to say that the best method was that a team got to do 12 laps over an hour and the fastest lap of any of these counted. Most teams did up to 4 runs of out/fast/in although some would do fewer runs of out/fast/fast/in.

    All laps would be on low fuel and whatever tyres the team chose

    Traffic could still be a problem sometimes but not to the extent that a spoiled lap would exclude a driver from later laps.

    In fact the only people who ever had any sort of issue with this situation were broadcasters who sometimes found they had nothing to say for the first 20 minutes.

  7. Red Andy says:

    I concur with some of the above comments – it is the responsibility of the driver behind to find enough space for a clear lap. If they have to pass some traffic on the way, that’s too bad. Better luck next time.

    The whole point of not having the single-lap qualifying system we were bored with from 2003 until 2005 was that drivers would have additional challenges, such as traffic, to deal with when setting a qualifying lap.

    Sutil has basically been punished because his Force India is a slower car than Webber’s Red Bull.

  8. kenny says:

    The fairest way to qualify that I know of is the way the IRL does it on ovals. Each driver has a clear track and all have the same opportunity. Unfortunately, from a spectator’s point of view its about as interesting as watching paint dry.

    The next best way, I think, is the way they do it now. There really is nothing you can do for the fellow who gets balked, but if penalties are severe enough, the teams will start paying attention to what is going on out there, and instances like the Sutil-Webber one will occur less and less frequently.

    Yet another argument for a permanent, qualified, competent team of stewards.

  9. Neil says:

    I have a brilliant idea – 1 hour, minimum fuel, qualy tires and engines – fastest driver gets pole…

  10. Sam P says:

    knoxploration:

    I agree with the fact that this is the best format anyone can come up with. At this point in F1, everyone is watching each other (with GPS-based telemetry) and each team have plenty of software to predict the future track position of opponents during qualifying. If anything, Mark should have been warned by his engineers that he was coming up on a slow car, and that he needed to find a way around him.

  11. Tom says:

    Hi:
    I have to agree with James on this one. I am biased as I’m a Webber fan, but you can’t say it’s his (or Red Bull’s) fault given the stewards have in effect said Sutil was in the wrong.

    Imagine the outcry if Hamilton or Massa got rear-ended in Q1 in Brazil last year and it decided the World Title. I think it would have been deemed a “real problem” that “needs to be addressed”. I think this is the test you need to apply when evaluating these things.

    Anyway that’s my 2 cents worth.

    Hopefully Mark can make up a few places during the race and nick a point or 2.

  12. Chris says:

    I have to agree with the other posters. All the teams know that there is about a 5% chance of being blocked on the lap. It’s their responsibility to minimise this risk, and to decide whether it’s worth putting a solid banker lap in, or going out 2 minutes earlier with 2 laps worth of fuel.

    Also, considering Vettel went out midway through Q2 and only needed to do 1 lap to get through comfortably, there is enough speed in Webbers car that he should have been able to get through in the middle of the session without breaking a sweat.

  13. Patrice Ici says:

    Call me old fashioned if you will, but I loved the old, old qualifying whereby there was an hour on the clock and each car had 12 laps in which to do whatever they wanted.
    Them’s were the days – quite often the qualifying battles were just as exciting, if not more so, than the races.

  14. Sandam says:

    Qualifying should always be fair. there should be no place for luck in it. saying that its same for everybody does not make it fair. in old qualifying there was 20 cars to make 12 laps in one hour now we have 20 cars making 6-12 laps in 20 minutes. that makes a lot of traffic in last minutes, doesn’t it? imagine 6 more cars there… that would be a lot of chaos… there is need for a change. maybe pre-qualifying in morning test session? then by its results let only slowest 12-16 cars be on track for Q1 and add others to the next session. that would make less chaos on track. and best will allways be on top anyway.

  15. Sinker says:

    Here’s a random, not thought out much, possibility:
    How about randomly splitting the field in two then have two independent initial qualifying rounds feeding into a single Q2, and remove the slowest 3 or 4 cars from each (with their respective time dictating their position on the grid)? Actually, it doesn’t have to be random, could just be one car from each team.

  16. Dave H says:

    Personally i think the blocking rule is ridiculous for the reasons mentioned that you cannot give back a driver what was taken from him.
    So what’s the point?
    I’d far rather have it said that if a driver gets caught up behind someone else on a fast run, then tough luck. Come out earlier if you want a clear track, if you come out when everyone else does then you take the risk of having traffic, and don’t moan about it when you do.
    Nothing against Mark, just against the stupid blocking penalty itself.

  17. Ian says:

    I completley agree that the penalty to the car that blocked is only half the story. I think the blocked car should be allowed a ‘bye’ into the next qualifying session to allow the driver a 2nd opportunity to show their real form.

  18. GG says:

    This is all part & parcel of racing. We all know that it’s best to try and leave the qualifying lap to the last possible second, but this is hat can happen.

    Look at Vettel last week, any problems or traffic and he wouldn’t of made quali 2 or 3.

    Sutil’s team were at fault for not telling him about Webber.

    One problem with frontrunners ending up down the grid is that some are quite happy to sit back and see what happens in the race. Hopefully Webber will make up a few places and get in the thick of things.

  19. JB-F1 says:

    I think the problem isn’t necessarily the fact that drivers are out there together with the potential of getting blocked. It’s the fact that with the knockout format, you’ve only got 1 real chance at setting a lap, because the track gets gradually quicker, so if you’re blocked it destroys your weekend. You need to be out at the end to set the best time. Mark wouldn’t have been down in 18th/19th had he been similarly blocked at the end of a 60 minute session because he’d have had a banker lap or 2 already in. As it was, the only banker lap he had was early in the session on the hards and that was nowhere near enough because it’s so close.

    Ever since the FIA started messing around with quali in 2003, nothing has ever really worked. The only system with any longevity is this knockout system and that’s been refined quite a bit over the past 3 years. It’s quite exciting but it’s very much an artificial excitement, partly because of the fuel and partly because of the knockout nature of it. It just doesn’t seem like qualifying. Plus it would be very difficult to get a really mixed up grid like Austria 98 or Japan 05.

    If anyone has any real sense over at the FIA (unlikely) and FOTA (maybe), they’d propose just going to a 60 minute free-for-all session, whilst getting rid of FP3 so they have to go out there to get some data in order to prevent half the session being wasted. But I see FOTA is busy chasing up more artificial nonsense with this proposed system where one driver gets knocked out after every lap.

    The only “fair” system was one shot but that was only exciting for about the first 5 minutes after it was brought in. And even then Mark still ended up getting blocked! The previous system was better, although the restriction to just 12 laps stifled it a bit. Quali should be to set the order of the drivers in order of their best time over one lap – no race fuel, no gimmicks, no knockout. Just a plain, simple format the fans can understand that can get a bit of excitement going.

  20. MS says:

    I’ve gotta say, love the drivers’ attitudes here. Sutil was very quick to apologise and totally held his hands up to the misunderstanding during his BBC interview. Good on him. These things happen, and I agree with Mark Webber it’s his team’s fault for not telling him MW was on a flyer.

    And good on MW for not tearing into Sutil, and for highlighting that the team were more to blame than Sutil.

    And good on Alonso too for highlighting the problem. I couldn’t understand why it was such a problem this season compared to last (especially as there are two less cars this year), but what JA says about tyres, more front runners etc makes sense.

  21. rpaco says:

    The old (before you were born) quali over 2 days was best.

  22. Dominic J says:

    I have to disagree with your assesment that something has to be done about this.
    Traffic dodging has long been a skill in F1. It is the same for everyone and there is NO objective way of assesing how he would have done.
    Should Rubens have been compensated because his outlap was compromised by drivers running too slowly for him to heat his tyres? No. The same applies to Webber (as it did to Heidfeld about 6 times last season).

  23. Phil says:

    Maybe we should allow the wronged party through to the next round and add another minute to the running time to compensate the others for the added traffic.

  24. Kevin M says:

    I think maybe the teams need to take a little responsibility here. Their cars sit in the garage for half a qualifying session while they wait for the optimum period to get the best time. That’s fair enough, but you have to be realistic that something may not go to plan when everyone is out on the track aiming for one hot lap. It’s a simple case of putting all your eggs in one basket.

    Red Bull did the same thing with Vettel in Shanghai and it luckily worked out ok. It’s not always going to work. You can penalise Sutil as many grid places as you want because his car isn’t much chance to make it past Q1 anyways.

    I’m lucky enough now that the coverage has been improved in Australia that I can watch qualifying. Aside from the final lap, it’s not all that entertaining though.

    It’s interesting to think that this is an issue now. Imagine what an issue it might become if there are more teams added next season!

  25. kenneth mulvaney says:

    Mark Webber got in Barhain what has being coming for to him.

    Red Bull have played a dangerous game, of waiting until the last
    minute and trying to get in 1 quick lap.

    It cannot work every time.

    Why didnt he set a time earlier?

    Did they have the car so light that he couldnt try a second lap
    – instead he let the Force India ahead (in frustration?) on the
    start/finish straight.

    As everyone knows, qualifying is divided into 3 sections, starting
    with 20 cars on track for 20 minutes.. the idea here is that any driver
    has enough time to do another lap if they get blocked….

    If any driver wants to leave there fast lap until the last minute
    (without a “banker”), then they must be prepaired for the consequences
    and they whining must not be tolerated.

    In any case, Mark Webber has been around too long without
    doing ANYTHING. F1 should be about survival of the fittest
    and its about time MW was moved onto a retirement formula.

    –back to the qualifying:

    Remember the legend that was Micheal Schumacher.
    When he went to qualify , they had a fixed routine – which
    they went through every qualifying session, regardless of
    what time anyone had done… Getting in “banker laps”
    when required – It worked !!

  26. knoxploration says:

    Sounds great… until you consider that maybe the impeded driver would’ve failed to qualify well for some other reason had he not been impeded.

    Taking this latest instance as an example, maybe Webber would have been on pole – but it is equally possible that he might’ve messed up and gone off-track on his one lap had Sutil not been there to balk him. By making an assumption about the outcome that might have been, and adding the balked car to the next qualifying session, we might just as easily be unfairly punishing another driver (or drivers) who would otherwise have qualified ahead of the balked driver, but who now might be outqualified by him.

    The point is, we don’t know – and can’t fairly guess – what would have happened had a driver not been balked. Even if a usual front runner who is balked might usually have been at the front, how do you apply this assumption rule fairly to other drivers. What about a driver who usually qualifies either 9th or 10th? What if he’s balked and ends up 20th? Do we say he gets 10th place, or do we say he might’ve gotten 9th and put him through to second qualy?

    Interfering in this manner simply wouldn’t work, and wouldn’t be remotely fair. It wouldn’t fix the problem we now have, it would just add unfairness to unfairness.

    The fact is, the situation we have now – while occasionally cruel – IS completely fair. Everybody makes their own decisions, and if somebody is blocked, the driver responsible is punished. Luck will occasionally not smile on an innocent driver, but that is a part of all racing, and indeed of all sports in general. We can’t regulate bad luck out of existence.

  27. Richard says:

    As I understand it, as soon as the safety car is deployed all drivers are sent a “minimum time” before which they cannot get back to the pits, to stop them speeding past the scene of the accident. Provided they stick to that they can pit when they want.

    My view is that the safety car deployments in Australia were laughable in that – at least in the Nakajima incident – they didn’t sort out the “train” until the car was practically on the plane home. I think this is because of the need to pick up the leader – surely the SC should just pick up the first car it comes across, then sort out the order after the incident is clear.

  28. MS says:

    The pit lane doesn’t shut, but I believe drivers have to keep under a certain sector time through yellow flag areas to limit their speed. I’m sure someone cleverer than me will explain better or correct :)

  29. F1 fan says:

    Back to the 60mins or whatever it was. Go out when you want for as many runs as you want. Just make one change, start on race fuel.

    So stratagy plays a part, but you have enough time to do a perfect lap.

  30. martin says:

    I must agree. Although there will be some quick guys who lose out because of blocking, it also makes racing much more interesting as they’ll claw back to the front.

  31. rpaco says:

    You seem to misunderstand , I did not say put him up front just let him have his chance. Yes he may have screwed it up had he not been blocked, but my suggestion would give Webber another chance to spin off under his own auspices (or not).

  32. Martin says:

    The IRL does it now for road course events.

    Blocking should be considered in the context of Monaco 2006 where drivers do things intentionally (or a judged to have done so).

    The race clearly showed that following costs a lot of time and passing wastes time.

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