Photo: Ng Han Guan (AP)
In the mad dash to make Formula One a more exciting sport, everyone has their ideas that they think will be the biggest factor in crafting a consistently good race product. Now, even Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton is pitching his ideas into the mix: hell yeah, he says, we should have Super Weekends.
There’s already been talk lately that The Powers That Be in F1 are looking to change up the qualifying format. Instead of having three qualifying sessions, they’re looking to get pretty radical and add a fourth session. The idea here is that the front-runners will have to be consistently fast during three whole entire sessions just to make it into the final one, which will determine the top eight grid positions.
Yeah. That’s really what they came up with. It’s supposed to make things more exciting, but if you’re predicting that we’re just going to continue seeing Mercedes be really good at everything even more now, you’re probably right.
Now, Lewis Hamilton has popped into the mix. He’s pitching super weekends, which is arguably a more radical idea, but not necessarily one that would really… do anything.
As per Motorsport.com, the idea here is that the reason F1 is boring is due to just doing the same thing over and over and over. The race weekend format is always the same for twenty-one weekends per year. So, when we go off to some of the more ‘boring’ tracks, why don’t we spice it up? Let’s introduce a reverse grid!
Folks: this is not a great idea!
I can see where Hamilton is coming from on this one. A reverse grid necessitates, at the very least, some overtaking action to see a front-running car make it to that front-running position. The first few laps would definitely be chaos, and we’d have the manufactured excitement of seeing a ton of slick passing maneuvers.
Let’s take a look at last week’s Japanese Grand Prix. The Red Bull Racing cars are not exactly front-runners in the sense of Mercedes and Ferrari this year, but they’re still pretty quick cars. They’re definitely not, y’know, a Sauber. So when Daniel Ricciardo started at the back of the grid, he was able to move up to finish in fourth without much of a hassle. Yeah, he definitely raced harder than he would have if he’d qualified and then finished in fourth, but the point is: the results aren’t going to be different because the format of the starting grid is not the problem.
F1 has a habit of messing around with the superficial aspects of a race weekend without ever figuring out how to solve the real problems. Different qualifying formats and reverse grids could make things more interesting, but at the end of the day, we’re still dealing with some wildly stratified starting grid. A backmarker starting from pole position does not necessarily mean that we’ll have Saubers winning races. A Sauber and a Mercedes are on such different levels of performance that, at best, we’ll just watch a Mercedes overtake for the lead within the first few laps of the race, when the slower cars filter back to the rear of the field.
If all you wanted was the superficial impression of a competitive race for the lead, then yes, a reverse grid would definitely give it to you. But I like to think that we all want something a little more meaningful than that.
(And that’s not even considering, y’know, the strategies involved here. If your qualifying position determined your reverse-position on the grid, what’s the incentive to drive fast? If I’m Sebastian Vettel looking to get an edge on Lewis Hamilton, who has just set a quick quali time, why would I try to better him? Why not just cruise around the circuit real slow and careful?)
Let’s take a look at NASCAR. They’ve messed around with their rules so much in the past few years that even long-time fans still shrug their shoulders at the playoffs when someone asks them how they work. I’ll admit that the playoffs introduce an interesting element to the race experience—but it still annoys me that consistent performance doesn’t mean all that much. If you win a race and secure your place in the next round of playoff eliminations, there’s no incentive to race hard until the next round. You could theoretically just sit back and preserve your equipment, and that’s totally fine.
The problem is, it’s not a meaningful measuring stick of who’s had consistently performed the best in the fastest car.
It’s a trap that F1 could potentially fall into if they start messing around with their format to make things more interesting. We’re just getting an illusion of competition, but the very basis of the sport hasn’t changed at all. The teams who can drop hundreds of millions of dollars in the blink of an eye are still going to have the upper hand against teams that are functioning on whatever funds their drivers can bring them.
If we want to make the racing meaningfully competitive, it’s not going to come through artificial means, like reverse-grid starts or altered qualifying formats. We need to be looking at restructuring the very foundation of the sport, because that’s the only way a real change will take place.