Op-Ed: Are reverse starting grids the answer to F1 ‘show’ problem?

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The Malaysian Grand Prix was terrific.

I think we all agree on that point. Exactly why and whether it has any relevance for the rest of the 2010 season might be the debate.

From my perspective, the excitement resulted largely, if not entirely, from the fact that many of the faster cars were toward the back of the grid. As I watched Lewis Hamilton move his way up through the field, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were witnessing the answer to Formula 1’s “show” problem.

Put the fast cars at the back of every starting gird.

First off, I absolutely hate the idea. I’m one who likes being able to compare eras and drivers (this holds true for any sport), and such an upset would make this year’s 25-point first-place points haul seem minor.

Plus, I love qualifying, sometimes more than the race itself, especially on tracks where gird position is important. (Plain and simple, qualifying at Monaco is my favorite moment of the season.)

You obviously couldn’t have qualifying if running fast meant your in the worst spot on the track. Talk about an opportunity to sandbag!

But would it be worth all the upset and stepping away from tradition? I don’t know. But here’s how I can see it playing out.

The grid would be ordered in reverse of the standings. In China, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso would start on the back row. Kamui Kobayashi and Vitaly Petrov would be on row 1. (And, just so I will have had the change to write this, Adrian Sutil would be starting one spot behind Michael Schumacher because, following Sutil’s fifth-place finish in Malaysia, he’s got 10 points to Schumacher’s nine.)

The reason, I think — of course, such “thinking” is what’s behind the current F1 rules, its aero allowances, engine specs, etc. … meaning, no good thinking goes unpunished! — that this system might work is that if the slower drivers in front were able to hold off those behind them, they’d start scoring points and would find themselves moving farther back on the starting grid. Heikki Kovalainen and Karun Chandhok, who now are 17th and 18th, might be the ones starting out front in Barcelona.

It should, theoretically, cycle the slowest/least-scoring drivers out front. And at some point, the two Ferrari drivers wouldn’t be starting from the back and would have a better chance at more points. (And that, of course, would then push them down the next race’s grid.)

I’m sure you get the idea.

Question is: Does it make sense?

First thing we’d obviously lose is qualifying, which is a big part of the weekend. How could F1 handle that? Would there be some reward? What? If you finish with the fastest time, do you get to move up, say, four places on the grid? Should there be championship points awarded?

I’d be tempted to say that with the testing ban, the teams would be happy to have the extra time to run. But practice, for the fans, isn’t the same as qualifying.

(One quick note on qualifying. As much as I love it, in general we already have lost nearly half of the interesting time this season, with one big caveat. Essentially, the first 20 minutes are a race not to be that one driver who joins the six guys from the new teams. Q1 almost has no suspense, because that one driver seemingly is a mix of the Toro Rosso, Renault and maybe Williams teams. The big caveat is this weekend’s Q1, which just made this whole paragraph sort of stupid — for now.)

But if there were a way to make a revamped qualifying interesting, maybe by awarding points to fastest laps (maybe the top three or five laps, with points going from 3,2 to 1 or 5,4 3, 2 to 1?), would a reverse grid then by worth trying?

Maybe here’s an even more important question: Is this idea what’s behind Bernie Ecclestone’s weekend comments and could it be coming, so we better get prepared?


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