What’s the best way to set the grid for a race? It’s a question that several series are grappling with at present and cuts to the heart of the debate over whether motorsport is a sporting contest or entertainment product.
In Formula 1, there’s much debate over the new Sprint qualifying races, and it’s a talking point in Formula E, which uses a much-criticised multi-session format that handicaps the front-runners by forcing them to run when track conditions are least favourable.
There’s an unresolvable tension to qualifying, especially in an age that calls for the session to be compelling viewing. Putting the fastest driver at the front is the best way to reward performance but generally comes at the expense of entertainment for the race: imagine giving the fastest qualifier for the Olympic 100 Metres final a headstart. But what are the alternatives?
You could scrap qualifying entirely. In grand prix racing’s early days, grids were drawn at random. It wasn’t until 1933 when the grid was first set by lap times in practice. A lottery would be democratic but unfair: imagine if two drivers were locked in a title battle at the season finale, then one was drawn on pole, the other 20th.
What about the system that Nascar has adopted since the start of the pandemic? At all but a handful of key races, the grid is set by a formula that incorporates championship positions, results and lap times from the previous race. While it means the in-form drivers tend to start near the front, the lack of practice means there’s often early shuffling. But then qualifying is a key TV event, which is important for teams, sponsors and broadcasters...
Frankly, I don’t think there’s much wrong with F1’s current system, with the exception of the bodged ways F1 bosses have tried to mix up the starting order through the liberal use of grid penalties for incidents or part changes. It’s stupid when the starting grid so often differs from the qualifying order due simply to a bunch of tedious penalties.