Head bemoans the lost Fridays

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The Independent Online

In the end, a remarkable Formula One season ended on a remarkable note, with the onset of poor weather shuffling the grid so that the title contenders started eighth (Kimi Raikkonen) and 14th (Michael Schumacher).

For good measure, the two fastest men from Friday's qualifying session, Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli, ran when the challenging Suzuka track was at its wettest yesterday, and thus started the race from the back of the grid. Such fortunes are part of the game as it is now played. But things are about to change again.

A year ago there was general panic in the air at Suzuka. Formula One audiences were up in arms at the way Ferrari and their drivers played with race results, dominating and handing victory to one another. There was also general concern about saving money and improving the show. A year on, the signs are that the movers and shakers now believe that recession is a thing of the past.

Under new rules, which are likely to be ratified, the two-hour private testing session on a Friday morning at races, held in conjunction with agreement from the participating teams to limit their testing away from races in order to save money, will be a thing of the past. The so-called Heathrow Agreement, which saw it first proposed, has been scrapped. So has qualifying on a Friday afternoon, one of the few things that have made Fridays worthwhile this season.

Back in the early Nineties there used to be two qualifying sessions, and a driver's fastest time from either counted for his grid position. Then, some teams, notably McLaren on one wet occasion at Silverstone in 1993, simply did not go out at all on a Friday. Eventually the idea of a qualifying session that day was scrapped, so we ended up with a silly situation where the day was nothing more than a glorified test.

Last year somebody came up with the brilliant idea of making the afternoon practice session on a Friday an official qualifying session that would decide the running order for the Saturday session, which would determine the grid. This year that has given fresh meaning to the Friday sessions, so guess what happened next? It was scrapped. Sometimes the logic in this sport can be hard to fathom. But it seems some of the bigger teams - those who have decided they do not need to be worried any more about their budgets - objected to it.

"It isn't something in which we've had much of an input," admitted Patrick Head, the technical director of the BMW Williams team locked in battle with Ferrari this weekend for the constructors' world championship. "There were a couple of meetings at Indianapolis, but I think the agenda was being set elsewhere by people who have maybe more direct interests in what they can sell on Friday or what they can sell on Saturday.

"In a way, I certainly didn't like the two different testing agreements, but I can readily see why, for the less strongly budgeted teams, being able to test for two hours on the Friday morning was extremely helpful.

"We, Williams, were in support of Friday being a test day of, say, four or four- and-a-half hours, and restricted testing, but there were other people with different interests. But just as for this year, we really didn't have any say in the changes, but we got out there and the teams have done a very good job of adapting to race preparation in two-and-a-half hours. And we'll adapt again for next year."

That is when single-lap qualifying will be crammed into 90 minutes on a Saturday, separated by a "half-time" interval. The running order for the second half will be determined by times set in the first, run in reverse. This has upset the smaller teams, who will have less time for preparation if anything goes wrong between the halves. "But nobody seems too concerned about us right now," said a glum Eddie Jordan.

There was one fine example of a sense of humour in the paddock, however. The Minardis' aerodynamic barge-boards appeared bearing sponsor identification for a company called Stayer, overprinted with the words "not paid".

"It's a bit of a sad story, actually," admitted the team's owner Paul Stoddart. "Many of you know that we had a problem with our main sponsor at the start of the year and lost 40 per cent of our budget through no fault of our own, and we have had problems during the year with one or two others.

"With this particular one, despite repeated warnings and bounced cheques and, God knows, every other problem, I took the decision to put that on there more or less just to send the message out that really you ought not to sign contracts if you don't intend to honour them."