BUDAPEST, Hungary -- As a sport, Formula One has many strengths. Sadly, one of the biggest is our occasional tendency to take a few grains of sand and turn them into the Himalayas, as happened on Saturday night in Budapest.
Hours after qualifying ended, news started to spread that up to eleven of the 22 drivers to have taken part in Saturday's session might find themselves disqualified and/or suffer back-of-the-grid drops because they had failed to set Q1 times within the required 107 percent margin of the leader's pace.
In the end, the FIA stewards made the only logical decision they could -- a chaotic and rain-soaked session meant that cars fully capable of setting suitable track times simply hadn't had the opportunity to do so in a qualifying session that saw as many red flags as it did drops (buckets?) of rain. As a consequence, the provisional grid was allowed to stand, and the official qualifying results were published six hours after the chequered flag had fallen.
It was a mess, even if the right outcome was achieved in the end.
The latest iteration of the 107 percent rule (first seen in 1996 and dropped in 2002) came into force for the 2011 season, one year after the arrival of three new teams in the form of Campos Meta/HRT, Team Lotus/Caterham, and Virgin/Marussia/Manor led to endless complaints about borderline-dangerous mobile chicanes causing problems for those cars that were on the pace.
In 2011, reviving the 107 percent rule made perfect sense. The 2010 incomers had been consistently five seconds off the pace of the Q1 frontrunners, and up to 10 seconds or more slower at the longer and more power-hungry circuits. Team radio was filled with frontrunners moaning about the mobile chicanes causing problems in qualifying, and in a year where the Q1 dropouts were all but a given, the reintroduction of the rule and speculation over who would or wouldn't make the grade each weekend was the only point of interest in the opening session.
Now, however, we have eleven teams who only miss out on the 107 percent margin in highly unusual circumstances, as is reflected in the gaps from top to bottom of the post-qualy classifications in 2016: 105% from fastest to slowest in Q1 in Melbourne, 103% in Bahrain, 103% in Russia...
The only races so far this season (barring this weekend in Hungary) that have seen violations of the 107 percent rule have been those where -- usually due to an early crash or technical problems -- drivers have been unable to set any time at all in the opening session, or whose time has not been reflective of their car's proven pace: Lewis Hamilton and Pascal Wehrlein in China, Max Verstappen and Felipe Nasr in Monaco, Kevin Magnussen in Canada, and Marcus Ericsson in Silverstone.
Even the arrival of American newbies Haas F1 didn't bring about a return of 2010's lumpen backmarkers. Haas came in determined to do it their way, and the combination of a new form of technical partnership with Ferrari plus effective and ballsy team strategy at the first three races of the season meant that the incomers were Q2-ready from the very off.
The rule changes coming in 2017 could well split the pack in the early phase of next season, but even that is not reason enough to keep the 107 percent cut-off. We are very fortunate to be in a position where the grid is filled with experienced teams who -- despite periods of domination from one outfit or another -- have proved themselves to be more than capable of reducing gaps to a level where the slower cars are not dangerous to the front-runners, however frustrating they might be to lap.
As it stands, the 107 percent rule is subject to the discretion of the stewards, who are able to waive it if they feel that the car in question is capable of racing at acceptable speeds. Why not flip that on its head, and allow stewards to use their discretion to exclude those cars they feel to be unsafe? Our regulations are already complex enough -- a little simplicity is no bad thing, especially if its application prevents us from climbing yet another Everest made from a few small grains of sand.