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F1: Qualifying in Russia turns into a farce for some and a headache for others

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

The 2018 Russian Grand Prix got off to a farcical start minutes before qualifying began. Five cars parked in the pit lane, engines off, drivers in, waiting to restart the cars shortly before the session started. Why, who gained and who lost out?

The picture of five Formula One cars parked in the pit lane long before qualifying started was puzzling but, once the rules are analysed, made some kind of sense. But the end result was that the grid was distorted to the detriment of several of the other drivers.

This, in simple terms, is what the rules say about penalties arising from changes in regulated components.

Each car has a limited number of certain regulated components. Once its allocation is used up, it can exceed the limit but penalties are applied. Those penalties take the form of "grid penalties" under which a car is demoted from whatever position it achieves in qualifying. Last year, some teams racked up grid penalties of dozens of places, which is a bit stupid when there are only twenty cars in the first place. How, for example, do you start 35th out of twenty?

There is a supplemental rule: penalties are applied in the order in which teams notify the FIA of the changes. So, when notifications are received by the FIA, they are time-stamped and if there is more than one car in a grid slot, it's first come-first served. The idea is, in effect, penalty for late notification. But it still didn't address the problem of what to do with those cars with dozens of places.

So the rule was modified. Now, if a car makes changes that impose penalties of more than 15 grid places they simply go to the back of the grid.

That's fine, unless more than one car goes to the back of the grid. They can't all start in P20.

A further modification: in the event that more than one car is sent to the back of the grid under the 15+ place rule, their position on the grid is determined according to the order "in which the offence is committed." The offence is committed when the cars start the race weekend and that is defined as entering the track for the first official part of proceedings i.e. free practice one (FP1).

And so, with five cars taking penalties exceeding 15 places, even if one of them qualified on pole, they would all fill the last five places on the grid. Where they were in that group would be defined not by qualifying performance but by the order in which they went out for their first FP1 lap. Therefore, within perhaps 20 seconds of the start of FP1 on Friday morning, the last five places on the grid were allocated, provided no one else took even more penalties before the race. So far as I can tell, the rules don't provide for what would happen in that case.

And so to qualifying. The five cars that would start at the back included the McClaren of Alonso, the two Williams and the two Red Bulls. As qualifying wore on, the Red Bulls, in particular, made their pace felt and forced their way up to the top ten. Others just surrendered to the obvious, did a bit of a run around and parked.

It was the pace of the Red Bulls that caused disruption. Two cars which would start in the top ten did not get the chance to run in Q3 because the Red Bulls were there. That means that their grid positions were determined by factors outside their control.

Red Bull needed the running: they have had so many problems recently that any track time is good track time. They can't be blamed for a stupid system. But it all turned out rather poorly for those who should have had a Q3 run.

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