Formula One has been looking for ways to bulk up its COVID-shortened schedule, and one of the coolest has been the addition of the never-before-used Bahrain short course. Without the inner series of tight turns, lap times have been estimated to be around 55-seconds during qualifying. While some drivers are worried about the impact of qualifying, there’s a very simple solution to the problem: single car qualifying.
On a normal weekend, F1's qualifying is completed in three stages. In the first, all cars go out and run. The slowest drivers will have their starting position determined by the times of the first session and are not able to go out for the second session. A similar process is enacted in the second session, but with all but the top 10 drivers. Finally, those top 10 drivers head out for the third and final session.
And, on a normal weekend, it’s not a big deal. Throwing 20-odd cars out onto a track at the same time to set their fast laps is totally doable, and F1 teams are great at calculating the exact amount of time they’ll need to send a car out and not catch someone else’s dirty air. On a shorter, faster track, that’s not possible.
We made a calculation – if you want to evenly space every car on track it’s 175 metres between each car. It’s not going to work. We need four seconds for a good tow but not dirty air. So first of all I don’t know how quali is going to turn out, it could be tricky.
If you are last and you get the blue flags for the Mercedes then you’re going to have 18 blue flags [for the rest of the cars] coming in, and by the time you have the last blue flag you’re going to have blue flags for [Lewis] Hamilton again. It could be a bit of a nightmare.
Grosjean’s solution is just simply not racing on the shortened course. Instead, he proposed that F1 compete on the normal Bahrain layout twice: once during the day and once at night.
But it’s totally possible to have the race on the shortened course and solve the qualifying problem with single car qualifying.
Single car qualifying is normally used by series like NASCAR or IndyCar on oval tracks to solve exactly this problem: one car has one opportunity to set one fast lap. That car isn’t impacted by dirty air, and it can’t take advantage of the tow from a different car. You don’t have to worry about a fast car running up on a slow car. Each car gets to participate in its own little session and set its own time. Easy.
There’s no reason why this wouldn’t work at the short Bahrain circuit. The qualifying session would likely last around the same amount of time as a normal qualifying session would, and it would be a refreshing change of pace for the staid F1 drivers. Why make it harder than it needs to be?
At the same time, F1 could also implement several mini-sessions in a style akin to Formula E. Group together four or five drivers in relatively similar cars and send them out for a five minute qualifying session. Repeat as needed. Each driver has the space he would need to set a strong qualifying time. But I maintain that the single car method would be a hell of a lot more fun, and it would give viewers a chance to watch the fast laps of drivers we don’t normally see.
Yes, it can be a pain to convince F1 to try something different. The series very much likes to do the exact same thing over and over (which is likely why Grosjean and several other drivers aren’t a fan of Bahrain’s outer loop), but 2020 is the ideal time to try something new. The whole schedule has been thrown out the window—why not toss out a few pages of the rulebook as well?