What is a pole position and what does it mean? Formula 1 drivers have repeatedly expressed their incomprehension this season about what a pole position now means and when they will get one on their record. Certainly with the addition of the new sprint race format it has not become clearer.
The battle is fierce in qualifying these days and it’s no surprise that the best driver of the bunch wants to be appreciated. In Turkey, for example, Lewis Hamilton was disappointed that his fastest lap in Q3 was not appreciated by a grid penalty due to a new engine. “Well, I still get pole position, right?” he asked in the press conference. “No, that sucks.” The reigning world champion signed the Pirelli pole position award handed to team-mate Valtteri Bottas: “For Valtteri, enjoy my trophy. It was a nice round. 102.”
It is not new that pole positions are lost due to grid penalties. In 2005 Kimi Raikkonen lost pole in the Italian Grand Prix after receiving a 10-place penalty for an engine change. Still, the implications of the sprint races on the record books are reason to debate the topic. For the first time in Formula 1 history, the test of the sprint qualifications is tinkering with the familiar Grand Prix format. Regular qualifying is now held on Friday afternoon with a short 100km race on Saturday.
Initially, the intention was to hand out the official pole position to the driver who was fastest in regular qualifying on Friday afternoon. However, that was not possible because they were in trouble with the FIA regulations. According to the sporting regulations, a pole is for the driver who is allowed to start from the first place on the grid. So it is now the case that the winner of the sprint race also receives an official pole position.
Mercedes driver Bottas has his doubts about this. During the sprint format at Monza on Friday, he scored ‘pole’ in regular qualifying, then was fastest in the sprint race and still failed to secure pole position as the team performed an engine change. “During the sprint weekends, the fastest man in qualifying should receive an official pole award and that should also be included in the statistics, in the opinion of the Finn. “Also in the case of Turkey, Lewis had the fastest lap. He was technically in pole position, but with the penalty he was put back… I don’t think it’s fair.”
The Formula 1 bosses are now looking at the possibilities to adjust the regulations and the way of handing out pole positions in the race weekends with the sprint format. Also during the regular Grand Prix weekends there is often an intense debate about the value of pole positions, people believe that poles should simply go to the fastest man in qualifying.
However, there are two standout Michael Schumacher moments in Monaco that prove it can also have a different effect on qualifying results. The positive example was the qualification that could have given Schumacher the record in 2012. The German finally made a breakthrough after a mostly frustrating period of his return to Formula 1. That afternoon in Monaco, Schumacher managed to produce a lap that could officially have been his last pole position. The fact that the last pole was not made had to do with the fact that the then Rekordmeister had been given a five-place grid penalty in the previous race after an incident with Bruno Senna. He thus started the race from P6 with Red Bull driver Mark Webber who took the first place on the grid. Very few people would have objected if Schumacher had taken pole that afternoon.
Six years earlier, the same Schumacher showed the disadvantages of the automatic pole position for the fastest man in qualifying. At the time, Schumacher was battling Fernando Alonso for pole in the final phase of qualifying. The man from Kerpen ‘lost’ control of his car in Rascasse and parked his car against the crash barriers. Alonso was therefore unable to complete the lap he needed for pole. The session was over and Schumacher was the fastest man to take pole position. However, he was accused of having caused the crash on purpose, the stewards came to the same conclusion and stripped him of his pole. Schumacher had to start from the very last starting spot on Sunday.
If Schumacher had taken pole on that day, it would have encouraged more questionable practices. What Schumacher’s individual incidents show is that there is no hard and fast rule that will satisfy everyone regarding the designation of pole positions. Many are in favor of the system in which the fastest man in qualifying on Friday (in the sprint format) also gets the pole. Shouldn’t installing a new power source affect the result? And should the fastest men in qualifying keep their pole regardless?
If sporting regulations are ignored, would Schumacher have held both pole positions from 2006 and 2012? Or should sanctions apply for offenses in qualifying sessions (such as Schumacher’s intentional crash or ignoring yellow flags) while non-qualifying matters (an engine change and grid penalties) should not count? The latter would probably be the best option, but in Formula 1 it is not easy to change things like this. So it will take some time before anything will happen.