The first Formula One race of the season gets underway with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne at 4pm today. Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton from Mercedes will start in pole position with a new lap record, breaking Schumacher’s 2004 time by 0.088 seconds – with teammate Nico Rosberg in second and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel third.
But rather than being focused on the race today, everyone’s talking about Saturday’s qualifying session, which has been labelled a farce and already had the drivers, teams, F1 experts and fans calling for the new rules to be scrapped before the next race in Bahrain in a fortnight.
Under the changes introduced for the 2016 season, the slowest drivers are eliminated every 90 seconds as the qualifying session wears on.
It appeared to work fine in the first two qualifiers, but when Hamilton set his record time of 1 min 23.837 sec with four minutes to go and the top eight already decided, the chequered flag was waved a minute later with no cars on the track for the final three minutes of Q3.
Despite grabbing the front of the grid, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called the new qualifying rules “rubbish”.
“I think we got it wrong,” he said, with other team chiefs and drivers in agreement that while it worked for the first two qualifiers, Q3 was a disaster.
The teams are meeting today to discuss whether to push F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA to return to reinstate the old rules.
Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg said “we should go back to the old system, for the fans”.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel said “it’s the wrong way to go”.
“I don’t see why everybody’s surprised now. We all said what’s going to happen, it happened so obviously we were told to wait and see but now we saw and I don’t think it was very exciting,” he said.
Local hero Daniel Ricciardo, lead driver for Red Bull, qualified in eighth and team boss Christian Horner slammed the system, saying the F1 owed fans an apology.
“I think firstly we should apologise to the fans and the viewers because that’s not what qualifying should be, it should crescendo into something,” Horner said.
“My personal view is that we should go back to what we had in time for the next race, because what we saw today is not good for F1.
“I think we have to hold our hands up and say we got it absolutely wrong. It was done for the promoters, to try to give them a better show, and I can’t see that we’ve done that.”
Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul said people should not overreact.
“I am sure that everyone will agree to change Q3, but I don’t think we should immediately go back to the old system,” he said.
Lewis Hamilton is the favourite to win his third Australian F1 GP win today.