F1 under the spotlight as qualifying rejig reminds fans of Bernie Ecclestone mistake

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F1’s decision to trail a sprint qualifying race format at this weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix has brought back painful memories of Bernie Ecclestone’s attempt to introduce a new format. Instead of three ‘shootouts’ with five drivers eliminated at the end of each, teams will take part in a 100km race to decide the starting grid for Sunday’s grand prix.

The announcement has met with a mixed reaction from fans, who remember all too well the last time a major change was made to the qualifying format.

It came in 2016, the final year of Ecclestone running the sport, and was described by former world champion Niki Lauda as “the worst decision ever made in Formula 1”.

Just two weeks before the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, it was announced that instead of five drivers being eliminated at the end of each ‘shootout’, drivers eliminated one by one, leading to a toptwo shootout for pole.

But instead of spicing up the grid, there were immediate problems with drivers unable to complete their final quick laps in time in the first session.

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The problems continued in Q2, with the time that was taken to change tyres and refuel seeing the slower cars again unable to undertake their quick laps.

But worse was yet to come when in the final shootout for pole, only two of the eight drivers chose to set more than one time, instead saving their tyres for Sunday’s race.

It meant the track was quiet for long periods, with many drivers eliminated while sat in the pits, leaving fans, drivers and teams furious with the new format.

Four-time world champions Sebastian Vettel, who will drive for Aston Martin this weekend, was one of the most vocal opponents following the session.

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“I don’t know why everyone is surprised. We had to wait and see and now we have seen and it isn’t very exciting,” he said.

“It is a bit crazy at the beginning with everyone pushing and trying to get a lap in. It is busy, but for no reason.

“But for the people in the grandstands, it is not the right way when there are no cars to see and you want to see people pushing to the limit for pole position.”

Ecclestone was also left to criticise the new format, describing it as “pretty c***”, before a meeting was called between the teams and F1 management.

At that meeting, they decided to revert to the old qualifying system, which has been used up until this weekend.

It took just 25 minutes for them to come to that decision, with the team unanimously agreeing to revert back to the old system for the next race in Bahrain.

There is hope that the sprint qualifying system will prove to be far better than 2016’s infamous format, with sprint races producing plenty of action in the feeder categories, F2 and F3.

But many will be wary that the sprint race system will not work on tracks that usually see limited overtakes.

The teams and organisers of F1 will hope then that their idea will not prove to be the disaster that was Ecclestone’s.
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