Monday, March 21, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Line Them Up

Spring began and Romain Grosjean finished sixth on Haas F1's debut. Oh, and Nico Rosberg won the Australian Grand Prix. We will get to the qualifying in a moment. A flat tire ruined one driver's day on the final lap. Ignoring marshals ruined another's. The MotoGP season started and I bet you missed it if you live in the United States because the beIN Sport picked up the rights for 2016 and not Fox Sports making grand prix motorcycle racing all but nonexistent in the United States. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Line Them Up
Formula One modified its qualifying format as the series tries to spice up its races. The qualifying session itself was a met with a large majority of negativity about the lack of cars on track opposed to the previous format. The goal was for a mixed up grid and we ended up with another all Mercedes front row, Lewis Hamilton scoring his 50th pole position and Nico Rosberg once again in second. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen started on row two. Max Verstappen might have been the one surprise in the session, as he started fifth ahead of Felipe Massa, Carlos Sainz, Jr. and Daniel Ricciardo.

A mixed up grid normally means a more intriguing race. A race with Lewis Hamilton start 12th and Nico Rosberg starting sixth and Sebastian Vettel starting eighth with Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo on the front row on paper is a lot more intriguing than if Hamilton and Rosberg were on the front row again with Vettel starting third with Bottas fourth and Ricciardo back on row four.

Formula One is trying to shed its predictability but its chase for excitement could end up being just as harmful as another race with the Mercedes on the front row. A series should never make the competition too complicated, the simpler the better. People want an easy and quick explanation. If you can't explain it in ten to thirty seconds than people will give up on it. In this high pace world, people don't have time to spend five minutes trying to learn something as inconsequential as how the grid for any motorsport series is set.

Why are grids set the way they are today? There isn't a decree from above saying all races must be set by a qualifying session with the fastest starting first and the slowest starting last. That is how it is because that is the simplest way to do it. It's not contrived. It's easy for everyone to understand. Time ballast is an interesting concept but it is contrived and it can be difficult for people to understand. One race, a driver could get a half-second penalty and dropping from fourth to ninth on the grid. A race later, they could be getting no time ballast at all.

If series do not want to use a single qualifying session to set the grid, it should use something that is quick to explain and easy to understand. Series could go IROC style where the starting gird was the inverted results from the previous race. Last became first and first became last. It is easy to explain and it is easy to understand, however, the IROC format would introduce a whole new set of predictable outcomes to Formula One: The Manors being overwhelmed at the start and dropping to sixth and seventh before turn one and it would also probably increase the amount of accidents as you risk faster cars running over back markers. The other problem with the IROC format is it encourages poor finishes. If a team isn't have a great race, it could choose to retire its cars to set them up better for the next race and no one wants to see that.

During the IndyCar opening weekend from St. Petersburg, I wondered if you could set the grid based on the results of all sessions. Instead of using one session to set the grid, have the Friday practices and the Saturday morning session factor into the process. The results from each session could be averaged and the lowest average would start on pole position with the highest starting last.

For example, using the results from the two Friday practice, Saturday practice and qualifying from St. Petersburg, Simon Pagenaud had the lowest average across the four sessions with a 3.25 followed by Hélio Castroneves and Will Power tied a 5.0 and Jack Hawksworth at 5.5. How would ties be broken? I think who every had the best result in any of the sessions would be a sensible tiebreaker and Power was fastest in three of the four session so he would get the outside of row one and Oriol Servià would still have to drop to the back.

The front row would have flipped, Castroneves would still be third and Hawksworth would jump from tenth to fourth. The rest of the grid would have been as follows:

Scott Dixon (No change from actual grid position).
Juan Pablo Montoya (-2).
Takuma Sato (+4).
Graham Rahal (-1).
Ryan Hunter-Reay (-3).
James Hinchcliffe (-1).
Sébastien Bourdais (-3).
Carlos Muñoz (+1).
Josef Newgarden (-1).
Marco Andretti (+1).
Charlie Kimball (-1).
Tony Kanaan (+4).
Mikhail Aleshin (+1).
Alexander Rossi (+1).
Luca Filippi (-3).
Max Chilton (-3).
Spencer Pigot (+1).
Conor Daly (-1).

Looking at how the IndyCar grid would have lined-up, its not as drastic of a change as I thought it would be. If anything it confirms that qualifying is a true representation of who is fastest and who isn't. However, these Friday sessions would now matter and cars would force to take to the track even if it rained. One poor session, could hold a driver back while consistent speed throughout a weekend, like Hawksworth would be rewarded. A team couldn't choose to sit out a session because it would negatively affect its grid position.

Lets look at what the Formula One grid would have looked like with this format:

Lewis Hamilton (No Change. 1)
Daniel Ricciardo (+6. 5.75)
Nico Rosberg (-1. 6.25)
Kimi Räikkönen (No Change. 7.25)
Nico Hülkenberg (+5. 8)
Sebastian Vettel (-3. 8.75)
Max Verstappen (-2. 9)
Fernando Alonso (+4. 9)
Sergio Pérez (No Change. 9.25)
Carlos Sainz, Jr. (-2. 9.5)
Jenson Button (+2. 10)
Daniil Kvyat (+6. 10.75)
Felipe Massa (-7. 11.25)
Valtteri Bottas (-3. 12)
Kevin Magnussen (No Change. 14)
Jolyon Palmer (-2. 15.5)
Esteban Gutiérrez (+2. 16.75)
Marcus Ericsson (-2. 16.75)
Pascal Wehrlein (+2. 17.75)
Felipe Nasr (-3. 17.75)
Romain Grosjean (-2. 17.75)
Rio Haryanto (No Change (after the grid penalty). 19)

There would have been a lot of change because some drivers choose not to participate in Friday practices because of the wet weather but with this format drivers would have to go out otherwise they would end up hurting their average. Vettel was eighth, third and third in free practice two, free practice three and qualifying but since he never did a timed lap in free practice one, he was credited with 21st as he ran eight out laps but never did a timed one. Had Vettel even did a lap that was 11th, his average would have improved from 8.75 to 6.25, the same as Rosberg.

All this talk about qualifying format and after looking at the actual results from Formula One qualifying I thought to myself, "what's the big deal?" Hamilton was always going to end up on top. The Mercedes were always going to sweep the front row. The search for a system that punishes the mighty is a futile effort. How much different would the results have been if the previous format been retain? Maybe a Red Bull cracks the top three rows? Maybe Valtteri Bottas cracks the top ten? Maybe Daniil Kvyat starts ninth instead of on row nine? Maybe the Haas cars would have jumped the Saubers?

People cried about the lost of track time but what's the point of all that track time if the results would have been near identical? If anything, the new format is the most honest of them all. No more wasting our time, filling us with hope only to get the same predictable results. It gets right to the point: Mercedes is the fastest and everyone else is chasing them. Did anyone really expect the Mercedes to be caught out by this season and both end up starting outside the top eight? Did anyone really expect a Manor to end up 13th ahead of a Williams, Red Bull and Toro Rosso?

Qualifying isn't supposed to be entertaining. It is suppose to set the field. No more. No less. The increased television coverage of motorsports made qualifying into another one-hour programming and race directors and television executives have been looking for a way to make it must-see programming. It has made qualifying something it was never suppose to be. It is like batting practice. Go to a batting practice before a Major League Baseball game. You will see dozens and dozens of home runs. You will see excited children chasing down what their idols have smashed into the bleachers. Other than that, it is nothing more than players stretching, jogging in the outfield and shagging those balls that don't end up in the seats. It's not exciting and it doesn't matter. The game matters. What happens between the first pitch and the 27th out is what matters.

The same is true for a race. Think of all the great races. Think of all the great battle. When has a great qualifying session been brought up? Other than the new track records and the bump days of yonder in preparation for the Indianapolis 500 and the famous 1997 European Grand Prix session when Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen all ran the identical lap time, qualifying sessions don't stand out and they shouldn't. Once Sebastian Vettel split the Mercedes on the start of the race and Kimi Räikkönen followed, notice how the qualms were silenced and forgotten.

This issue about the lack of excitement in a qualifying session is a 21st century issue that should only bothers television executives because they need justification as to why it should be shown and needs ratings to prove why it should be shown over another sports competition. Beyond that, it should bother no one. We will only remember the race anyway.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Nico Rosberg's victory and Romain Grosjean's sixth but did you know...

The #2 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier-HPD of Pipo Derani, Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek and Ed Brown won the 12 Hours of Sebring. The #54 CORE Autosport Oreca of Colin Braun, John Bennett and Mark Wilkins won in Prototype Challenge. Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin and Marcel Fässler won in the GTLM class in the #4 Corvette. Alessandro Balzan, Christina Nielsen and Jeff Segal won in GTD driving the #63 Scuderia Corsa.

Defending champion Jorge Lorenzo won the MotoGP season opener, the Grand Prix of Qatar. Thomas Lüthi won the Moto2 race. Niccolò Antonelli won in Moto3.

Jimmie Johnson surpassed Dale Earnhardt for seventh all-time in NASCAR Cup Series victories as Johnson scored his 77th career victory at Fontana.

Jason Anderson won the AMA Supercross race from Detroit after Ryan Dungey was penalized two positions after Dungey failed to adhered to the red cross flag for a down rider.

Austin Dillon won the NASCAR Grand National race from Fontana after Kyle Busch had a flat tire and Daniel Suárez ran out of fuel on the final lap.

Shane Van Gisbergen won three of four V8 Supercars exhibition races from Melbourne. His Red Bull Racing Australia teammate Jaime Whincup won the other exhibition race.

Coming Up This Weekend
Easter weekend and it appears every major series is taking the holiday off. The only events I can find next week are the Toyota Finance 86 Championship at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupo, New Zealand and the FIM Motocross World Championship, which will race on Easter Monday in Valkenswaard, Netherlands.