The constantly changing rules of Formula One racing is something that all fans have become used to, but this year’s attempt by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, to tinker with the qualifying system appears to have been a change too far.
The changes created major ructions in the sport, and led to an embarrassing climb-down by the FIA, who shifted into reverse by re-adopting 2015’s qualifying rules.
So what was all the fuss about and what does the FIA climb-down tell us about the current state of Formula One?
One month before the start of the season, the teams voted on and unanimously approved a new qualifying system, under which a driver would be eliminated from qualifying every 90 seconds; the idea being that this would make the starting grid more unpredictable and lead to more excitement in the race itself.
It’s not entirely clear where the original idea came from, but it was reported on the motorsport.co.uk website that it was pushed through by Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s commercial rights holder, who was under pressure from race promoters to break up Mercedes’ dominance of the sport.
They might have got away with it had the changes been properly ironed out but instead, they were rushed through ahead of the opening Grand Prix in Australia. The result was a farce, not least because it led to long periods of qualifying in which no driver was prepared to risk going out on to the track.
The teams seem to have cottoned on fairly soon to the fact that this idea was a dud, and reportedly wanted to abandon it after the Australian experience, but this was blocked by Ecclestone and FIA President Jean Todt, so the shambles continued in Bahrain, until common sense finally prevailed and the previous three-period qualifying system that had run since 2006 was reintroduced.
This sorry saga is another reminder of Formula One’s dysfunctional governance, and the ongoing power struggle between Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA, and the teams themselves, all of whom are pulling in different directions.
What it also reminds us is that, in an era of social media, it’s harder than it used to be for a sport’s governing body to make a mistake and carry on regardless. As Formula One expert James Allen pointed out, this isn’t the latest bad idea to emerge from the top of the FIA, but its demise shows how much the sport has changed.
“What has made the difference is the constant social media commentary, which has given the fans a voice and made the rule makers and teams immediately aware of what fans think. When you have an overwhelmingly negative response, you need to change the product.”
There is some hope that fan pressure could be a positive influence in future and help to curb the worst excesses of the FIA’s tinkering, but until the power struggle at the top of the sport is resolved, this kind of shambles is likely to recur.