Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has outlined the reasons why his team decided to block a plan to shake up Formula One’s qualifying procedure at two races this year.
The F1 season is due to get underway on July 5 in Austria after a three-month break due to the coronavirus pandemic, and for the first time in the sport’s history, it will feature back-to-back races at the same circuit, at both the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone.
In order to boost interest in the second round at each venue, F1 proposed scrapping the normal qualifying procedure and replacing it with a 30-minute qualifying race to determine the grid for the main race on Sunday. The starting order for the qualifying races would have been determined by reverse championship order, meaning the fastest cars would have had to work their way through the field to secure a good grid spot for the grand prix.
Such a radical change to the regulations required unanimous support from the teams, and Mercedes made clear from the outset that it intended to block the plan.
“First of all, there seems to be a common pattern in Formula One, digging out old ideas that had been analysed thoroughly and rejected and then somebody thinks it’s great and it’s back on the agenda,” Wolff said. “Then you need to look at the reasons why we were against it, and there are three fundamental reasons.
“I believe Formula One is a meritocracy, the best man in the best machine wins; we don’t need a gimmick to turn the field around and create more exciting racing.
“Number two, I know it from touring car racing, that strategies become a very useful tool when one race result is basically making up the grid for the next one. Just imagine one of the drivers not running well on the Sunday race of the first Spielberg weekend, you decide to DNF the car and that becomes the car that starts on pole for the qualy race on the second weekend. And if that car starts on pole for the qualy race, among midfielders, then he’ll certainly be on pole for Sunday and win the race. There will be cars in the middle that will defend and block as much as they can and, therefore, for the cars coming from behind, there will be more risk for a DNF and that could influence the championship.
“And then, from a pure performance standpoint, whoever has the faster car, not necessarily us, will be penalized towards the second and third quickest teams, because they will simply start in front. And, as we know, the margins are not very large, so, therefore, it’s a bit of an opportunistic move to give some teams an advantage.
“So, yes, it was us; we said this is not the time to experiment with things that, interestingly, didn’t even have the support of the Formula One fans’ community, because in a survey only 15% expressed an interest in reverse grids.”
Although Mercedes blocked plans to mix up the competitive order with reverse grids, it has supported new aerodynamic testing regulations (ATR) aimed at levelling the competitive playing field. The new rules will see a sliding scale that gives teams finishing lower down the order more wind tunnel time and CFD capability than the world champions.
Asked what the difference was between a regulation aimed at levelling the field with aerodynamic rules and simply mixing up the grid in a qualifying race, Wolff said one was a good adjustment while the other was akin to taking a baseball bat to the DNA of the sport.
“I am a fan of the meritocracy of Formula One: Best man and best machine wins,” he said. “That is how it always was and no gimmicky stuff like in other sports where the show-people have added components that have diluted the sport.
“I hate any kind of balance of performance; it becomes a political game and political world championship and has no place in Formula One. What has been introduced with the new ATR is a possibility for the lower-ranked teams to slowly creep back in terms of development scope to where the leading teams are. It’s tiny percentages each year, so it is not going to make a big difference from one year to the other, but it is going to balance the field out after a few years.
“I believe that if you are not good enough to win anymore, then you have equal opportunity if you are second or third and you have more scope again than the world champions. I think it was done as a fine adjustment, not with a baseball bat. Reverse grids would have been the baseball bat.”