Holy missing split-times, Batman! The FIA is at it again. No, not the split times – instead, they want to change the system used to determine the running order on gravel events. According to them, current system is flawed because it allows the fastest crews to benefit by picking the favourable starting positions. This issue is not new and basically plagued the qualifying system from the start – the stage used for qualifying is often too short and drivers know it from practice runs, so it does not offer any significant challenge. Besides, who would want to risk too much on the stage that is not even used in the event? Fast factory drivers are fast, slow drivers are slow, and based on their performance, starting order was determined, up to now.
Most fans will remember how things worked before the qualifying system was introduced. In gravel events starting order for each day was determined based on the overall results of the event, so drivers often tricked the system by slowing down intentionally in order to lose time and drop few places. The competition was utterly ruined for everyone and sport look ridiculous in front of the fans and media. FIA reacted by introducing the qualifying system, yet, this is also obviously not good enough because fast guys are still fast and still get to pick the best starting positions. But why is that wrong?
According to FIA’s rally director Jarmo Mahonen, this system is like giving presents to the already fastest guys out there. Perhaps presents is a bit of a stretch, but system is indeed far from perfect. Current championship leaders tackle the qualifying stage first, thus they’re acting as a road sweepers. Or rather, they would if the road was not already sweeped enough from practice runs. The system itself is not completely flawed, but its execution is. Perhaps drivers should not be allowed to race across the qualifying stage several times before it’s used as a starting order decider? How about giving them 2 runs at recce speed and in recce car and then use the stage for qualifying. No shakedown on it, no practice runs. Perhaps even making this stage longer would not hurt. But that again brings us the the issue of “why the hell would I risk too much on a stage that is not even included in the event”? Some can afford to risk, some will risk regardless, and some will calculate and go as fast as they dare. Fifteen kilometer qualifying stage, which drivers were only able to go through in recce conditions, would sound a bit more fair and relevant, but is it asking too much?
Mahonen claims the new system is being worked on and will be revealed when it’s ready. He mentioned that it might involve fastest drivers being put to road sweeping role once again, but needless to say, FIA better have bulletproof solution to the cheating and intentional slowing issues that plagued WRC prior to qualifying.
Article on Autosport also features one rather funny comment made by FIA rally director. He expressed “a bit of a ” disappointment with the WRC organizers’ failure to make the most out of qualifying. Apparently this particular stage could bring more exposure to the event and it’s up to organizers to include that in their programmes more effectively. Nice idea, I concur, but what can you do with just 13 or so cars doing one run across the several kilometers of gravel, when all of this has no real effect on the rally results because times set on this stage are not used in the rally? Perhaps organizers could stretch the qualifying to cover an entire day, so they have time to properly present each crew? Perhaps they should give spectators a chance to give marks for artistic impression for each crew? Maybe even put the qualifying stage on TV for global audience to enjoy? Sky is the limit, even though I think you can only do so much with a dozen of cars and a very short stage, unless you opt for some kind of show, essentially turning this stage into rallycross event.
So, we now know the changes are coming, but we don’t know what the changes will be. Personally, I’d like to see qualifying stage remain but make it more relevant to the actual conditions encountered out on the real stages. No practice runs on it, make it a bit longer, or even include it in the results in some way, so, for example, times set during qualifying are divided by some number and then added to overall results of the event? If that makes sense in the end.
Whatever FIA ends up doing to the starting order system, it better not bring back the intentional slowing down and results tampering.
Original article featuring comments by Jarmo Mahonen can be found on Autosport.com.