Will Gray

Tech Talk: The end of F1 qualifying as we know it?

Will Gray

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Paddock insiders admitted that F1 qualifying
is becoming less important after many top drivers put fresh tyres ahead of grid
positions in Turkey - but is this trend set to continue and is it a problem?

Istanbul saw front row qualifiers
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber choose not to do a second run in the final
session after Red Bull concluded the top spots were in the bag.

That kind of situation is not
particularly unusual when one team is in a reasonably dominant position - in
general every unnecessary run is avoided to limit car usage and potential
damage - but the fact that six of the drivers in the top ten shoot-out also
chose not to do second runs proved a little concerning for some.

Third-placed Nico Rosberg, of Mercedes,
did only one run in Q3 before apparently deciding third place, which put him on
the better side of the grid on row two, was better than a worn set of tyres and
a possible but unlikely second place on the grid. Further back, his team-mate
Michael Schumacher and Renault's Nick Heidfeld also did just one Q3 run while
Ferrari driver Massa didn't even manage that, making a mistake on his first lap
and aborting it then choosing not to set a time later in the session because it
would have meant using up a set of fresh tyres.

With the degradation levels of the
Pirelli tyres this year, every lap on a set of tyres counts - so the theory
goes that the more that can be saved, the better the performance (and the
strategy flexibility) in the race itself.

In Istanbul, teams went into the race
again with a variety of strategy plans and, as has panned out so far this year,
the lead competitors tend to copy or cover each other after the first one makes
the first move. That resulted in the top five each doing four stops - so using
five sets of tyres (some new, some used) - in the race.

Of the three who did just one qualifying
shoot-out run, Vettel used two new sets in the race (both hard) while Webber
and Rosberg had three new sets (two hard, one soft). Hamilton and Alonso, who
both did two Q3 runs, had two new sets (both hard) and just one new set (hard)

In the end, while the Red Bulls secured
a one-two as expected, Webber's extra set of new hard tyres in the final stint
was crucial in getting him past Alonso for second, as the Ferrari driver had to
make do with the tyres he had used in qualifying.

Rosberg's potential tyre advantage,
meanwhile, was ruined by the fact his first set unexpectedly blistered due to a
heavy fuel load, causing him to drop from third to fifth in that first stint.
Without that issue, it could have been far more successful - but the extra new
tyres still came in handy to help him past Button for fifth place just five
laps from the end, when he benefited from a fresh set of soft tyres compared
to Button's new hard tyres.

After the race, Rosberg's team boss Ross
Brawn insisted they had chosen the right qualifying tactics by prioritising on
tyre availability over grid position but admitted they now need to optimise
that by focusing more on race preparations in practice.

"What's clear in this racing is that
qualifying is probably the least critical thing now," said Brawn. "Having a
good race set-up with the correct number of tyres is the most important

But while this could indeed be a concern
for the qualifying spectacle, those worries could still be a little

Pirelli acknowledged that the Turkish
track is the toughest on tyres of them all, so if there were anywhere this
tyre-saving strategy would be used it was in Turkey, where an extra few laps of
performance on a set of race tyres could make all the difference.

Turkey has a reasonable record of
overtaking and the teams will also have clearly understood that the position of
the DRS zone in Istanbul would make overtaking easier during the race - in fact
the new regulations mix turned the average of 20 overtaking moves on this track
into 113 moves this year! At tracks like Barcelona and Monaco, which are coming
next, overtaking is traditionally much more difficult so even with the new
regulations the balance between positional advantage on the grid and tyre wear
management will likely be much closer.

Indeed, even in the races so far the
advantage of running in clean air has proven to be as significant as saving
tyres in the race. Vettel has won from pole three times this year not only
because he is super fast but because he has been able to quickly build an
advantage then control his race and manage his tyre usage better than his

The balance between tyre wear and grid
position is still developing and with Pirelli introducing a new hard tyre for
Spain that balance could well change once again.

And once teams get closer to Vettel in
qualifying, then the advantage of pole position will surely become more
important again...

Race finishers, grid position, stops and
tyre usage

1. Vettel       1     4
Stops - sU sU sU hN hN (2 new sets)

2. Webber    2     4 Stops - sU sU
sN hN hN (3 new sets)

3. Alonso     5     4
Stops - sU sU sU hN hU (1 new set)

4. Hamilton   4     4
Stops - sU sU sU hN hN (2 new sets)

5. Rosberg    3     4 Stops - sU hN hN
sU sN (3 new sets)

6. Button      6     3 Stops - sU sU
sU hN (1 new set)

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