Italian Grand Prix qualifying sessions are usually a spectacle of incredible speed but in recent seasons have often descended into farce.
Usually Formula 1 drivers do not want to be anywhere near to a rival due to the effect of the ‘dirty air’ that robs them of front-end grip as they try and tackle corners.
But at Monza the low downforce set-ups and reliance on top speeds means everyone wants a tow. And no-one wants to be at the front of the queue.
This year’s qualifying session was nowhere near as bad as the Q3 embarrassment of 12 months ago when several drivers slowed and meant eight of the 10 participants missed out on a second push lap.
Part of the cleaner 2020 situation was assisted by Mercedes going early for its second Q3 runs, bolting, and then effectively prompting its opponents into action.
But Q1 was not so clean. None of the backmarkers improved their times as they all tripped over each other, with the eliminated Sebastian Vettel labelling it a “mess.”
As a TV spectacle it was not as bad as the 2019 embarrassment but it hardly promoted Formula 1 as the pinnacle of motorsport.
“We need to review at the next drivers meeting what we can do better,” accepted Renault’s Esteban Ocon.
“Obviously it was to intend of not having those issues, people slowing down for no reason. But we have to make a gap at some point to make the lap. And we did not have the chance to do that because we cannot slow down. So it made it a bit tricky for everyone. That is why a lot of cars were racing.”
But a bigger concern is the safety element, particularly on occasions where some drivers are on hot laps while others are backing off in order to get themselves a space.
This isn’t just a Formula 1 problem; in Formula 3 nine of the 30 drivers were penalised for their behaviour and there were a couple of moments where accidents were only narrowly avoided.
“I watched the F3 qualifying and it was a mess,” said Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo. “I was even just watching with some rage, it was a bit of a mess.”
In Formula 1 Lewis Hamilton dipped two wheels on the grass at the end of FP3 to avoid slow rivals, who were eventually all cleared of wrongdoing as stewards accepted that no-one was predominantly to blame.
Racer-turned-pundit David Coulthard chimed in on the situation, imploring the FIA to “do the right thing and regulate properly against this qualifying madness, risk versus return is going to see a serious accident.”
Williams’ George Russell was most vocal about the situation.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on to be honest, why everybody sends their cars all at the exact same time, it’s inevitable what’s going to happen. There is going to be a crash.
“People are trying to overtake, defend, people are going slow ahead to try and mess it up for everybody behind. It was just ridiculous. It’s very circuit specific because everyone is looking for that slipstream. What they’ll do, I don’t really know. They put a minimum time we could drive on the out laps, but that probably made it worse as everyone was worried about exceeding that. You went into the last corner, it was like we had an Indy 500 restart on our hands.”
As Russell points out it is circuit specific due to the tow but there is also a likelihood that the situation will arise at the one-off second Bahrain event due to the layout of that venue.
It is not only an unedifying spectacle but brings a danger that can be easily avoided.
Formula 1 has run the same qualifying format since 2006 – aside from the brief and unloved elimination style in early 2016 – but is a change needed for some events?
IndyCar runs different qualifying formats depending on the type of circuit that is being used while after a complete mess several years ago Formula 2 has a split session for Monaco, meaning there are 10 rather than 20 cars on track. Might it not be time for Formula 1 to consider altering its structure as a one-off for Italy? It would not only be safer, and avoid the farce, but also provide something different for a format that at times can feel stale.