Monday, November 5, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Qualifying on Aggregate

The Supercars championship has been fierce and will go to the wire. Teammates kept running into one another in Texas. A teenager ran out of fuel. The Doctor had a fall. A pair of championships were decided in Malaysia, where rains sped up the proceedings. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Qualifying on Aggregate
Something came to me when Formula One was talking about shaking its qualifying format to a four-round knockout format. Formula One tweaked the qualifying format a few years ago with cars being eliminated one by one as the session went on and that was met with much anger and resistance. The change was dropped after two races and the three-round knockout format was re-adopted.

Formula One wants to tweak qualifying because it is easier to fix than a race. A grand prix is dogma. It has been one way for over a century. The race starts with the green flag, it goes on for a distance and the checkered flag signals the end with the top three finishers standing on a podium with flags, anthems and champagne.

It would be damaging to change a grand prix. People know what to expect and for over century it has been the same. It is like a soccer match, 90 minutes split into two 45-minute halves or a baseball game, nine innings with each team getting to bat until they commit three outs with the visiting team batting first. A sporting event should have a familiar feel to it. It is the common ground for the average person coming in. It shouldn't be complicated to them. A grand prix is the same way.

A person with the least amount of knowledge of a race should at least know how it works. The lights go out or the green flag is waved and the race goes on to a set distance. It is simple. You can tune in and even if you are not an expert if you listen and pay attention you should understand. Tinker with that and people will tune out because it would no longer be familiar.

The race doesn't need to be split into two. The race shouldn't be some schoolyard fluid format with bells and whistles and be different for the sake of being different. People think changing the race will change what happens on track and could make what has been a bit of a difficult era for Formula One into something better but the problem is not the race itself but the race cars and the regulations, two things that cannot be changed at the drop of a hat and changes that are not easily noticeable.

That brings us to qualifying. If the race format cannot change and the racecars and regulations cannot change, there is always qualifying. Qualifying is not as set in stone as the race itself. Qualifying is for the hardened followers of not just Formula One but any series. Most will show up on Sunday but Saturday is for those with a bit more zeal. It isn't as large of a crowd but it is the crowd that will follow and they are more adaptable when it comes to change. They might not like it but they give the time to learn and understand.

When it is all said and done we will forget how the grid is set. The race is what we remember. The race is what is celebrated and because of that qualifying is a bit of a playground where risks can be taken. There is a bit of leeway. As long as the process is not a farce, people will live with whatever qualifying format is decided.

There is not one format people are tied to. Every session used to count toward setting the grid. Then it changed to one qualifying session. There was the time of single-car runs for a while in Formula One and for over a decade we have had the knockout format. The knockout format has stuck and I don't know why. It allows for a bit of drama and tension and it allows a driver to answer another driver's lap. One second someone is safe and the next that driver will be starting 17th on the grid after six cars completed a lap.

But what is wrong with trying something different? Plenty ideas have been floated out over what qualifying format should be used in Formula One. The goal seems to be to mix up the grid. In the last five seasons it seems set the Mercedes will start on the front row and pull away. The most memorable races, apart from when the Mercedes take each other out, have been when Lewis Hamilton has started at the back of the grid and had to make up positions. There is more drama in watching someone work from 16th or 19th to the front than say starting on pole position, clearing the field before turn one and only having to deal with back markers on the way to the finish.

How do you create more of those races? You create a more random system in determining the grid. Though the latest proposed qualifying alteration doesn't really do that, one popular idea is a reverse grid qualifying race where the fastest car starts last and at the end of each lap the last car is running and that will set the grid. The first car out starts 20th; the next starts 19th and so on with the winner of the qualifying race getting pole position.

The appeal to that system is not only would it put the Mercedes, Ferraris and Red Bulls to the back but it would pit each team against one another with the immediate determination to overtake other cars. The last place car would be forced to do all it can to get off the bottom, otherwise it would be doomed come the start of the race.

It is an intriguing possibility. After all, while the Mercedes, Ferraris and Red Bulls are head and shoulders clear of the rest of the field, how likely is it that they would all work their way into the top six positions on the grid? There would likely be a session where a Mercedes gets bogged down in traffic, can't make a pass and gets stuck in a 16th place position. It would spread the grid out. You could have a Ferrari and a Renault start on the front row with the top Mercedes in P5, a Haas and a Toro Rosso on row two, the other Ferrari on row four with a Red Bull, a Mercedes in P13 next to a McLaren and the other Red Bull in P15 next to a Williams.

Who knows how that race would play out and that is the appeal to that system, though it is not in consideration for the new Formula One qualifying format. It does have its proponents.

I would like to see it and one problem is we do not get to see how these formats play out. Don't get me wrong; every race shouldn't have a different qualifying format. That would be a problem. There needs to be some consistency in the process but it would be nice to see something different tried every now and then.

Part of the audience would be concerned that having the fastest car would no longer matter and I understand that concern. The last thing we should want is any sanctioning body making rules to hinder the fastest car and de-incentivizing the hard work it takes to be the best on the grid. The best car shouldn't necessarily get its wings clipped.

Here is my suggestion:

Knockout qualifying is popular, not just in Formula One but in the originator of the format, IndyCar. Why couldn't we have both? After all, the reverse grid for the qualifying race has to be set someway.

Knockout qualifying would be used to set the grid for the qualifying race. Fastest qualifier after three rounds starts last and the slowest qualifier starts first. I know what you are thinking. If that is the case, what is the incentive to participate in the knockout session? If you don't go out, you will start further up the grid or the qualifying race and that will take out the intended drama.

Not so fast my friend; this is where you force their hand.

The grid is not set by the qualifying race. The grid is set by an aggregate of the knockout qualifying results and qualifying race result with the lowest score starting on pole position.

For example: If you are the fastest in the knockout session, you get one point. If you win the qualifying race, you get one point. A team could decide to skip the knockout session and start on pole position for the qualifying race but that team would be starting with 20 points and its lowest possible score would be 21 points. It is unlikely 21 points would be the lowest score. I am not sure where 21 points would put someone on the grid but the incentive would be to try and get the lowest score possible, in this case a two. Even if you are not quick enough to be fastest in the knockout round, qualifying third and starting 18th in the qualifying race is more advantageous. You would be starting with three points and if you work your way back to third in the qualifying race, you get six. If you end up winning the qualifying race you get four. Both results are much better than 21.

And I want the qualifying race to be a single-file, Gran Turismo-like start. I want each position earned.

I want to see some series try this. I want a series to go out of the box. In the case of Formula One, maybe the knockout format has to be adjusted a bit just so everything could fit into one time window. Maybe the three rounds of knockout qualifying would have to be shortened to eight minutes apiece and it would force everyone on track immediately. The knockout portion could be completed in a half-hour and after a five or ten-minute break the reverse grid could be set and the qualifying race could take place.

I want IndyCar to try it. What does IndyCar have to lose? I want IndyCar to have something exciting with its new television deal and I want people to have a reason to tune into qualifying. IndyCar's road/street course format would also have to be tinkered with but why not do it at all the ovals besides the Indianapolis 500? IndyCar qualifying at Iowa, Gateway and Texas takes a half-hour. Why not have a second act to the action and get cars on track running together after having after a half-hour of single-car qualifying runs?

The NASCAR roval race at Charlotte got the attention of people because it had never been done before. You run the risk of thinking constant reinvention is the answer but something new once in a while is the answer. I would love NASCAR to try this format, especially on an oval. How many times have we seen Kyle Busch or Martin Truex, Jr. or Kyle Larson to Kevin Harvick be forced to the back and go from 40th to 15th in ten or 12 laps? Obviously a place like Bristol would be chaos and the restrictor plate tracks would be a disaster waiting to happen but it would liven up a session at Michigan or Texas to Kansas or Fontana.

There are hurdles, especially when it comes to IndyCar. A few of the street courses are rather tight and the nature of the IndyCar, even in the universal aero kit design, makes passing difficult. When a second and a half covers the entire field passing will be difficult for even the fastest cars. Formula One doesn't have as great of a problem with this and in some cases the top cars are almost three seconds faster than the tail of the grid.

On top of that, on road and street courses the sessions would have to be shortened to squeeze the qualifying race into the existing time slot. The final round of IndyCar qualifying is six minutes. The series could make each first round group and the second round six minutes but that is very little time with close to a dozen cars on track each time. It could get the knockout portion completed in a half-hour but it would make for hair-raising and frustrating sessions where drivers would definitely complain of experiencing interference on qualifying laps all the time.

There are issues and there would be things we have to decide whether or not to stand. There might be tracks where the fastest cars can work there way into the top five and there might be some tracks where the fastest cars are trapped at the rear and can only make up a few positions. That might just the nature of some circuits and the challenge might make it more impressive if a drive can make up eight or nine spots. What would people be more angry about, the fastest driver always making it to the front and making the exercise seem moot or the fastest driver always stuck at the back, not making up a lot of spots and then starting in eighth position while someone who qualified tenth ends up starting on row two because that driver was able to pick off more slower cars? What does that say about us when decisions are made over what makes us less angry? What does it say that anger is our driving emotion? That is a conversation for another time and day.

People will cry gimmick. People will scream impurity. But why can't we have a bit of fun? Why can't something new be tried? If it doesn't work or has too many issues then it could be scraped but maybe  it is given a few chances and after a handful attempts maybe it works. Maybe it gets more people to tune in. Maybe it gets people excited and maybe it makes the races better. Why not give something different a shot for those reasons alone? If it doesn't work then fine but let's at least give something a chance with the best intentions in mind.

Champions From the Weekend
Francesco Bagnaia clinched the Moto2 championship with a third place finish at Sepang.

Jorge Martín clinched the Moto3 championship after he won at Sepang, his seventh victory of the season.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Francesco Bagnaia and Jorge Martín but did you know...

Marc Márquez won the Malaysian Grand Prix, his ninth victory of the season. Luca Marini won the Moto2 race, his first grand prix victory in his 53rd start.

Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Cup race from Texas. Cole Custer won the Grand National Series race, his second career victory in his 69th start in the series. Justin Haley won the Truck race.

Shane van Gisbergen and Scott McLaughlin split the Supercars races from Pukekohe in what was a sweep for New Zealand drivers.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR has reached its penultimate round at Phoenix.
Formula One has reached its penultimate round at Interlagos.
Super GT will decide two championships at Motegi.
IMSA runs an exhibition race at Sebring on Michelin tires.