The Developing Saga of Formula 1 Qualifying

After Five Seasons F1 Finds a Winning Formula

Giancarlo Fisichella chases Fernando Alonso during qualifying at the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix. Photo (c) Glenn Dunbar/LAT - RenaulF1 Team

For years Formula 1 qualifying was a one-hour session with all the cars running simultaneously and the fastest driver taking pole position, the second fastest taking second position, etc. But as there was a limit on laps and tires, the fastest cars - like Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari - would not go on the track at all until the last minutes, then take the top positions. It was not much of a spectacle and required a change to the regulations.

From one Shootout to Another

For 2002 the International Automobile Federation, the sport's rules-making body, made qualifying system a two two-hour single-lap shootout, where each driver ran a single timed lap alone. That was eventually reduced to one hour, but still failed to excite, except when the strongest drivers made a mistakes and caused a mixed up grid. Further tweaks were needed but a new idea soon arrived, which changed the format and spiced things up.

A Winning Formula is Finally Found

Finally, in 2006 Formula 1 came up with both the most complicated, yet also the most exciting system so far. It had only one flaw, and that was that the first 10 minutes or so of the last session were spent with cars doing nothing but turn laps to burn off fuel, before the real competition began in the few last minutes. That was fixed in 2008 when the last session was changed to 10 minutes. Here's how it works: At 2:00 on Saturday afternoon the teams have a one-hour qualifying session divided into three parts:

Q1: For the first 20 minutes (Q1), all cars together on the track try to set the fastest time. The slowest seven cars are eliminated, earning the bottom grid positions. Drivers are allowed to complete as many laps as they want during this short space of time.

Q2: From 2:27 to 2:42 the 15 remaining cars do another round, their previous lap times having been cancelled.

The slowest five cars are eliminated and take the grid positions 11 to 15. The remaining drivers progress through to the top 10 shoot-out, where pole position is decided.

Q3: From 2:50 to 3:00 the 10 last cars fight for the pole position, or No. 1 spot on the grid, and qualify no lower than 10th. The cars complete numerous laps of the tracks, usually completing two runs during the 10 minutes, before the final grid is decided.

If a car breaks down and stops on the circuit or is pushed back to the pit lane by track marshals or team members, neither it nor its driver can take further part in the qualifying session and will start the race wherever they end up in the qualifying result, unless penalties are applied afterwards.

A Wild and Crazy Time

This new system made qualifying into three separate, exciting events. It also created more controversy as drivers frequently complained of being blocked by other drivers, due to at times the entire grid being on track. It produce more of a show for spectators, who got to see multiple cars lapping tracks at the same time, but it did also produce quieter moments where no one would be out at all - usually at the start of Q2.

UPDATE - When F1 Tried A Change

F1 attempted to shake things up for the 2016 season, moving away from the much-loved knock-out format discussed above and going for an elimination-style format, where every 90 seconds a driver dropped out.

There were still three sessions, but the timings were changed and only eight drivers made it through to Q3.

It was very unpopular with fans, drivers and teams, who all demanded the old format to be brought back. After two races with the elimination-style format, it was binned and the old system returned. Read more about it here.