F1 qualifying changes ‘a mistake,’ says U.S. racing legend Mario Andretti

Story highlights

U.S. race legend adds to chorus of discontent

Qualifying rules changed for 2016 season

"It's made things worse," Andretti tells CNN

Andretti won F1 world title in 1978

CNN  — 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

American motor racing legend Mario Andretti is the latest name to speak out against this season’s controversial rule changes in Formula One.

Desperate to spice up the sport, new rules on qualifying were introduced by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in March.

The new format was widely panned, especially when there were no cars on track for the final three minutes of Saturday’s qualifying session in Melbourne.

But despite discussion between F1’s teams about going back to the old style of qualifying, the new knockout format, which pits drivers against the clock, will controversially stay in place for this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

“I seem to agree with everyone else in the paddock that it’s not made things better, it’s made things worse and things were good before,” Andretti, the sport’s 1978 world champion, told CNN.

“The qualifying format last year, and the years before, has been brilliant. The change was a mistake and they should revert back to what it was, but it looks like in Bahrain it will continue.”

The previous system to decide grid position for grands prix was introduced in 2006 with some minor modifications.

Future of F1

In the aftermath of the Australian Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, of which many but not all F1 drivers are members, issued a statement on the future direction of the sport.

Addressing the sport’s “stakeholders, followers and fans” it was signed by GPDA directors, and F1 world champions Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel.

“We feel that some recent rule changes – on both the sporting and technical side – are disruptive, do not address the bigger issues our sport is facing and, in some cases, could jeopardize its future success,” said the statement.

“We would like to request and urge the owners and all stakeholders of Formula 1 to consider restructuring its own governance.

“We need to ensure that F1 remains a sport, a closely-fought competition between the best drivers in extraordinary machines on the coolest race tracks.”

Andretti, who raced in F1 between 1968 and 1982, agrees that the drivers’ should have more influence in the sport’s decision-making process.

“My take is that they should listen to the drivers a little bit more,” Andretti added. “The drivers are more interested in the spectacle and they know what they’re talking about.

MORE: F1 World Championship standings

“The paddock, the teams, the drivers should have more say in some of these rule changes.

“You are inevitably going to have these rules changes, that always happens in F1. But we know so much today that it’s hard to make things better by making revolutionary changes, we should make just small tweaks.”

Driving safety forward

Andretti was among a generation of drivers who were incredibly influential in changing the face of F1.

Racing in an era that has come to be known as “F1’s killer years,” drivers in the 1960s and 1970s regularly lost their lives while others, like three-time F1 champion Niki Lauda, were lucky to escape with life-changing injuries.

Niki Lauda (left) suffered terrible injuries at 1976 German GP but returned to action weeks later at Monza, Italy.

The drivers took it upon themselves to push for safety improvements.

“Our argument was if we’re smart enough to make the cars faster why can’t we be smart enough to make them safer so the drivers have a chance to race another day?” Andretti explained.

“As drivers we had to organize, to make certain demands because nobody would volunteer a safety feature on a racing car because almost every safety feature was a performance penalty.”

In Australia, McLaren star Fernando Alonso was able to walk away from spectacular crash, which left his car and engine a complete write-off.

“Look at the accident to Alonso in Melbourne. Look at the car,” Andretti added. “He came away to race another day.

MORE: Alonso out of Bahrain GP

“That’s the bright side of our sport. We’re very responsible about it and learn from every incident – from that standpoint the sport is in very good hands.”

With each subsequent fatality – like the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in 1994 – the sport has responded.

Jules Bianchi was the last F1 driver to die in 2015, following head injuries he sustained at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014.

The sport’s governing body is considering introducing a ‘Halo’ cockpit protection device from 2017 to prevent similar injury.

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen trialed the new safety halo at winter testing in Barcelona.

“If I was driving any more I would not be voting for that,” commented Andretti. “I’m more of a purist, the characteristic of our car is open wheel, open cockpit.

“But I know there were incidents where the halo could have helped for sure. Today’s drivers need to be the voice for that.”

The drivers will do their talking on track in Bahrain, but maybe having a say off it too will help them follow Andretti in driving forward the sport.

Should F1 scrap the new qualifying rules? Should the drivers have a say in governing the sport? Tell us on CNN Sport’s Facebook page.

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02:59 - Source: CNN