Which qualifying format is the best in motorsport? · RaceFans

For a session that is simply designed to set the grid order for the race, qualifying in motorsport is often a spectacle in itself.

But while the concept of ‘the fastest car and driver starts the race on pole position’ may be a simple and universal one, there are many different methods to determine the grid order – some more successful than others.

So out of all the major motorsport series and the various qualifying formats they use, which is the best and most entertaining method?

Open timed session (F2, F3, WEC, etc.)

The traditional qualifying format. One or more timed practice session of a specified length (often 15, 30 minutes or an hour) in which all cars are free to venture out and set a time at will. Total attempts may either be capped with a maximum number of laps or teams may be permitted to run constantly throughout the entire session if they wish.

This was the primary format used in Formula 1 for decades, with multiple qualifying sessions run and the grid order set using each driver’s overall fastest times across the sessions. In 1996, F1 moved to a one hour single session with each car limited to 12 laps. It remained that way until 2003, but the open session system is still used across many junior series today.

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One-shot qualifying (F1 2003-2005)

In the first major effort to shake up qualifying and add more excitement to Formula 1 during the days of Ferrari domination, F1 introduced one-shot qualifying for the start of the 2003. This allowed each driver just a single flying lap in which to set their qualifying time, with any mistake going heavily punished.

Formula 1 held two sessions across Friday and Saturday, with cars being sent out in drivers’ championship order on Friday and the results inverted to set the running order for Saturday’s session, which decided the grid order. F1 introduced an aggregate format in 2005 in which both sessions’ laps were added together to decide the order, but that was dropped mid-season and the previous single lap format returned.

Multi-stage knockout (F1 2006-present, IndyCar, Moto GP, etc.)

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Suzuka, 2022

Formula 1’s next qualifying experiment was an entirely original format. Returning to the open session format with a fresh twist, three short and intense sessions are held back-to-back, with the slowest drivers eliminated over both of the opening two sessions, leaving just ten drivers to fight for pole position in the final phase.

While modified in minor ways over the years, knockout qualifying has proven popular enough that many other international motorsport series have adopted it, or at least an amended version – including IndyCar, MotoGP and even NASCAR’s Cup series. It continues to be used in Formula 1 today.

Elimination qualifying (F1-2016)

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2016

In another experiment, Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management and the FIA decided to radically change the qualifying system for 2016. Known as elimination qualifying, the system retained the three-stage format, but eliminated the slowest driver at set intervals. Drivers ‘on the bubble’ had to improve their personal best time before the countdown reached zero, otherwise they would be eliminated from the session.

The system proved unpopular with fans, teams and drivers alike and was dropped after just the opening two rounds of the 2016 season.

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Multi-stage knockout with superpole (Bathurst 1000, etc.)

Combining the open session format with one-shot qualifying, the system popularly known as ‘superpole’ typically uses an open session to determine a set number of drivers who qualify for a shootout for pole position. Then, the drivers who successfully reach superpole get one flying lap each to determine their final starting order, with the fastest time taking pole position.

This system has proven popular, being used in various formats in NASCAR, the Australian Supercars Bathurst 1000 event and others. It has also been used in many GT and touring car championships.

Duels (Formula E 2022-present)

One of the newest and most innovative qualifying formats is also a hybrid system. Formula E’s duels format has been one of the all-electric series’ biggest talking points over the last two seasons with no other major motorsport series having adopted it to date.

Starting off with the field split into half, two open sessions are held with the top four drivers of each progressing to the duels. The eight drivers then compete head-to-head over a single lap at the same time, with the fastest driver progressing to the next round. The third round featuring the final two drivers is a battle for pole position, with the grid order set based on which round the drivers reached and sorted by fastest times in those rounds.

I say

There are many valid criticisms to make about Formula E and its slightly haphazard approach to motorsport at times, but it’s hard to argue that the duels qualifying system is not one of its best innovations from a sporting perspective.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Silverstone, 2022
F1’s current system is hard to beat

Head-to-head duels manages to combine the best of the presser cooker, one-shot format while providing constant tension by tracking the two drivers in real time. It has produced some genuinely thrilling battles in its year of use so far and it would not be surprising to see other series adopt the format.

However, that adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ rings painfully true when it comes to motorsport. No better example exists of this than F1’s three-stage knockout system, which has continued to provide entertaining action, rewarding driving skill and punishing mistakes, shaking up the order in a way that feels fair and organic. The disastrous elimination format in 2016 only succeeded in proving that there was nothing wrong with the knockout format to start with.

Other formats definitely have their merits, but when it comes to overall entertainment, it’s hard to beat Formula 1’s current system.

You say

Which qualifying format do you think is the best in motorsport?

  • One-shot qualifying (F1 2003-2005) (50%)
  • Open timed session (F2, F3, WEC, etc.) (50%)
  • Duels (Formula E) (0%)
  • Elimination (F1 2016) (0%)
  • Multi-stage knockout (F1 2006-present, IndyCar, Moto GP, etc.) (0%)
  • Multi-stage knockout with superpole (Bathurst 1000, etc.) (0%)
  • Other (specify in comments) (0%)

Total Voters: 2

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