Why Formula E’s qualifying system must change

qualifying

With controversy surrounding the qualifying format used by Formula E in season five, we take a look at how the system has affected the championship and explain why the drivers’ complaints about qualifying are valid and should be taken more seriously.

“Now hold on a second!” some of you might well be saying. “Isn’t Formula E’s qualifying system creating an ultra-competitive championship that could give us six to eight title challengers when we arrive at the season finale in New York?” Well, yes it is, and that is part of the problem; the system must be changed for season six because it’s too artificial.

By definition, qualifying is about finding the fastest driver and team over the course of one lap, while giving the drivers an equal chance to do so. That is not currently happening very often in Formula E. However, given the nature of Formula E tracks, the group system and Super Pole is a suitable format and has worked effectively for four seasons.

Formula E adjusted the format for season five by ensuring the top five drivers in the championship start from group one, theoretically giving them the worst of the track conditions at every race. Therefore, drivers lower down the championship that are in groups two, three, and four have better track conditions as the circuit gets cleaner.

This gives drivers in the later groups better track conditions and a chance to set a faster lap time, creating a mixed-up grid, which you could argue is a situation being contrived to spice up the championship.

Those mixed grids have given us some action-packed and memorable races and have seen the championship leaders have to muscle there way through the field to finish in the points. Championship leader Jerome D’Ambrosio has started the last three races from 19th in Rome, 8th in Sanya and 22nd in Hong Kong. But should the qualifying system be the reason to why the championship leaders have to fight there way through the field?

In Rome, D’Ambrosio was able to fight through the field and finish in 8th, in Sanya he secured 6th place, but in Hong Kong, he failed to finish after being caught up in Felipe Nasr’s crash on the opening lap of the race. This is one of the problems with artificially mixing up the grid.

Considering that Formula E race on street-tracks, it is more likely that drivers who have a poor qualifying session will get caught up in midfield squabbles, causing them to fail to score points, and lets them watch their championship lead crumble in front of their eyes.

Understandably, the Belgian is growing ever frustrated by the qualifying format after being in the opening group in every race this season, feeling that it has been unfair on him and his team.

“We have a great car, but I’ve been in that position on the grid because of the qualifying groups, and I have been in the first group every race, and it’s now really frustrating to do a good job. We have a car that can fight for podiums and wins, but we are having to regroup every race, because of our starting position caused by the unfair qualifying groups.  

“But it’s entertaining for everyone, as this qualifying system creates a mess, which makes the races more entertaining, but it makes our lives so much more difficult. To show that I can start from P15 to P20 in the races and still score points is good, but it’s not enjoyable to do it every race when you know others are benefiting from qualifying.” 

“Last season, we had a qualifying lottery where you were with the guys around (you) in the championship, but instead of starting in group one every race, you were sometimes in group three, four and even one, but at least it changed from race to race, which was far more fairer than the current system,” explained D’Ambrosio.

D’Ambrosio hasn’t been the only driver who has failed to finish a race due to an accident caused by the group qualifying system. Sam Bird was affected in Sanya as he qualified in 16th on the grid but got caught out in an opening lap crash in the midfield. The Brit feels the mixed up grids are making it more likely that the early championship protagonists will have a higher chance of not being the champion at the end of the season.

“We had a good start to the season, but this qualifying system had put us in a position where we might not win the championship as we are constantly coming through the field. This championship is so tight with the cars being fairly level on performance, there are excellent drivers who haven’t had a good start to the season.

“They are now back in contention for the title, as they have had better conditions to set a faster qualifying lap. So the qualifying system is having a massive impact on the championship, rather than the actual racing.”

Bird also believes the sport should move back to a lottery system as the championship shouldn’t be affected by qualifying groups. The 32-year old also argues that the manufacturers are spending a lot of money to prove that they have the best cars and qualifying is a chance to prove that.

“In season four, the championship leaders were grouped together, but you won’t be in the same group number every race; it allowed us actually to do well in qualifying. When you’re in group one, you have a tough ask, especially the first two drivers that cross the line in group one. 

“Manufacturers are spending money to prove that their cars are the fastest, and us as drivers are also doing the same to prove we are the fastest drivers. So when you do a good job and stick it at the front of the championship, and then the series says “right, we’re going to penalise you for this by giving you the worst track conditions every time”, it becomes challenging to show (that) you are the fastest,” the English driver elaborated.

Bird picks up on an important point about manufacturers spending money to prove they have the fastest car. Due to the qualifying system, it is tough to pinpoint who has the fastest car in Formula E, because the qualifying system is not showing us an entirely accurate reflection of who has the quickest car and who is the fastest driver in Formula E’s Gen 2 era.

In addition, Bird’s point of the early championship protagonists, and those who have been in group one the longest this season not being the champion is starting to come to fruition.

Drivers such as reigning champion Jean-Eric Vergne,  and former championship leader Sam Bird and Robin Frijns who have been in group one in the opening rounds of the season, have now fallen out of down the drivers’ standings. Simply because they struggled to get through the field to recover from the low qualifying positions through no fault of their own.

Now the drivers who have been qualifying in group two and three are now coming to the top of the championship, due to having better conditions to set a lap time in qualifying, meaning they start towards the top. Drivers such as Mitch Evans, Lucas Di Grassi and Andre Lotterer have all benefited from the qualifying system and have revitalised their championship challenge despite having a slow start to the season.

The consensus from the drivers is that they seem to think that it’s good for the show, despite how much they seem to despise the system. Drivers like Lucas Di Grassi and Antonio Felix Da Costa admit that they do not like the qualifying system, but are willing to abide by it due to the entertainment factor it provides for fans.

“Personally, for me, It’s not good to me,” says Di Grassi. “But it’s good for the show and the championship. If you have some bad races, you drop down the groups, and that allows you to recover. This system will ensure that we arrive in New York with six to eight drivers competing for the championship, where normally we have two or three.”

“You are always in damage limitation mode,” says Da Costa. ” You have to be clever about it and try and limit its effects. I’m still second in the championship, one point behind and it is going to be like this until the end. The media seem to love it though and so do the fans it seems, but I don’t like it. 

“What is the point of being so fast in free practice? I have a car that can be on pole position in normal conditions, (when) I have been group one, five out of seven times this year

“It shows that we are one of the fastest cars in this championship, but you can only do what you can do when you start in group one most of the time,” explained the Portuguese driver.

On the other hand, some drivers enjoy the qualifying system, such as Daniel Abt who think it gives drivers a chance to recover from a bad race and provides the championship with leaders an opportunity to earn their title by fighting through the field.

The qualifying system is the perfect system to have,” says Abt. ” It makes sure that people who are fighting for the championship are always in the same group. It gives those at the back a chance to get back in the championship hunt. This is the best way to keep the championship entertaining. So for me, this is the best solution and is fair for everybody.”

What Abt says is true. It does make the racing less predictable, and looking at the Rome E-Prix, we probably wouldn’t have seen Mitch Evans take his first win for Jaguar, and we may not have had seven different winners from seven races.

However, a qualifying system should not dictate the outcome of a championship more than the race. As Di Grassi said, Formula E has put themselves into a position where it’s possible for six to eight drivers to go into the New York finale in contention for the driver’s title, but at the same time the champion may not be the driver who has the outright quickest car, or the driver who has done the best job over the course of the season.

As Jerome D’Ambrosio fears: “The guy that’s gonna come in (at) P6 in the championship in New York might have a massive advantage in qualifying.” This serious flaw in the qualifying system really needs to be addressed for the 2019/2020 season to prevent an absurd scenario playing out.

Imagine the top five championship leaders in New York all starting outside the top ten, and a driver who is between sixth and tenth in the standings going into the final race wins the championship because they had better track conditions to set their lap time, while the original top five struggle to make their way through the field.

It would no doubt make for a very exciting race, but it would be extremely controversial and could very well lead to increased criticism from the teams and drivers. Manufacturers might also start to wonder why they’re pumping so much money into building a car good enough to win the Formula E championship when they see how badly affected the top scoring drivers are by the qualifying group they’re condemned to.

Is the lottery system from season four the best option? Should Formula E go back to drivers picking their groups from a hat as they did from seasons one to three? Or is an entirely new group system required? We just think that for season six there must be a fundamental change in the qualifying format.

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