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Thursday, March 11, 2004
Teams unhappy with qualifying format

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON -- It would be an understatement to say that Formula One's new qualifying format flopped last weekend.

Longer than many feature films, but rather less entertaining, the marathon Saturday session was savaged by the critics at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

'Rubbish', 'stupid' and 'boring' were just some of the words favored.

Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion and former Jaguar team boss, did not beat about the bush when asked what he thought about it.

"It is the worst thing I have ever seen," the Austrian said. "I do not understand how a sport like this with such an audience can make a mistake like this.

"Last year even with just one lap on a Saturday it was less boring ... they should at least bring it back to what it was last year and they must do this before the next race."

It was not hard to find others muttering similar opinions, Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone included.

Supporters were about as rare as a lapped Ferrari, or a competitive McLaren for that matter, in what passed for a race on Sunday.

"It's rubbish," said Renault boss Flavio Briatore. "We have made a mistake and I don't quite know how we have done it. If it is stupid for us then it is stupid for the spectators. It needs to be changed."

The new format sees each driver do a lap on his own in two back-to-back sessions, with the first part determining the running order for the second.

In Australia that meant qualifying lasted for an hour and 52 minutes -- longer than Ferrari's Michael Schumacher took to win the race -- with many drivers playing safe on their first lap knowing that only the second run really mattered.

"I didn't find it boring because I was too busy trying to understand what was going on," joked BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen. "I am not sure if the TV spectator really understands."

The clamor for change could be answered immediately, if all the team bosses agree, but first they have to agree on a solution and that could prove tricky.

The governing International Automobile Federation (FIA), who introduced a raft of largely well-received changes last year, have already ruled out a quick fix while absolving themselves of any blame.

"Just to be clear, this (the qualifying format) was something that the team principals discussed at length in their own meetings and came to us and said this is what we think," added a spokesman.

While officials seek to gain a consensus, the options are limited because Formula One must stick with a single lap format of some sort as cars have to qualify in race trim.

Friday may have become merely a practice day but some lesser teams have now factored in a third car with contractual obligations to those drivers involved.

Others have guaranteed sponsors a certain amount of television air time on Saturday and there are also technical considerations.

"It's difficult to make snap changes because everybody's designed their cars now for a certain fuel capacity and a certain parc ferme rule," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "If you go and change it all again, you throw that out of the door."

Formula One qualifying has had several guises in the past, ranging from average times over two days to a one-hour free-for-all on Saturdays.

If going back to last season's format of an hour on Friday and Saturday is too difficult, then there are alternatives.

One, raised by BAR boss David Richards, would be for drivers to have a half-hour free-for-all to decide the running order in a single-lap qualifying session that follows immediately afterwards.

That would avoid boring the pants off the crowd while also reducing the risk of a session ending in semi-darkness on a wet afternoon at Spa in Belgium, the longest circuit.

Twilight qualifying? Now that would be different.