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Why the FIA’s traffic busting stance may prove tricky for cold Las Vegas

The FIA’s push to avoid traffic chaos in Formula 1 qualifying by preventing slow out-laps may have worked so far but could prove troublesome at cold events like Las Vegas.

Las Vegas track action

Las Vegas track action

Liberty Media

Ever since the Italian Grand Prix last month, the FIA has been refining its approach to the inherent difficulties of slow cars in qualifying causing problems for cars on quick laps.

In the past, the only demand placed on drivers was for them to maintain a minimum speed on their lap back to the pits after putting in a hot lap – as this prevented them from dawdling and causing trouble for rivals.

However, from the Italian GP, the FIA started applying a maximum time to any lap in qualifying – which meant drivers could not take things too easy on their out-laps either.

This stance worked in Italy but was then abandoned for Singapore because drivers felt it was better there if they managed things entirely themselves on the tight street circuit before it returned to force for the Japanese GP.

While the need to maintain a minimum speed has made things tricky for drivers who wanted to go slow to prevent tyres from overheating, it has made qualifying easier for teams to handle – because gaps on track are much easier to predict.

Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said: “Everyone's doing the same time [now] and it has tidied up the qualifying session, which is the reason that the FIA have done it.

“There were a few instances where you had either near misses or very high closing speed, so it actually makes it simpler to plan. But the tricky bit is it gets very constrained.

Red Bull Las Vegas demo run

Red Bull Las Vegas demo run

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

“What you end up with is everyone driving around on the delta, because if you decide that you want to do a faster lap, you drive into the gearbox of the car in front, and then you will start your lap with one second [gap to the car in front].”

But while Shovlin thinks the benefits outweigh the downsides for now, he thinks that the system may not work at places where drivers need to go fast to get heat into their tyres.

In Japan, for example, drivers were happy to go as slow as possible on their out-lap because they wanted to keep their tyres as cool as possible prior to their qualifying efforts.

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At venues like Las Vegas, where cold temperatures will make it hard for tyres to get into the right temperature window, drivers will want to be more aggressive on their out-laps – so the minimum speed requirement may not be ideal.

Shovlin added: “What the FIA have said is we will see how it works [for now], but they know that this is probably not the lasting solution.  There will be places that they need to adjust it.

“As it happens [in Japan], you wanted to go as slow as you possibly can. Therefore everyone does the same thing.

“When you get a track like Las Vegas, where you might need to put a lot of energy in the tyres, suddenly you are going to find that people are pushing at different levels.

Las Vegas GP pit complex

Las Vegas GP pit complex

Photo by: Las Vegas GP

“That is perhaps where the lap time is going to get a bit trickier if you can't find the gap you need on the way out.”

While the FIA is likely to continue tweaking the arrangement to help improve traffic concerns, not all drivers are happy about the development.

Fernando Alonso was critical of the free-for-all in Singapore and said the policing in Japan further embellished his view that the whole qualifying format needs to change.

“The [maximum] time didn’t work,” he said. “I think it was just a good spread in terms of cars and the circuit is long enough, but we’re still waiting a lot in the pit exit to create a gap.

“As I said in Singapore, there is no easy solution with the hybrid engines and the problems on the tyres, where they do only one lap and they overheat. This qualifying is obsolete for these types of regulations.”

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