The new Superpole format introduced in World Superbikes - three sessions of 12 minutes, with 12 riders eliminated during the first two of those sessions - has generally been met with much enthusiasm. The sessions are much more exciting than the former single-fast-lap format, and have thrown up several surprises. Most of those surprises have been caused by the tire rules: In a twist to the format, the riders are only allowed to use two super-soft qualifying tires. With two tires to spread over three sessions, qualifying has been a bit of a gamble, with riders as prominent as Max Biaggi and Max Neukirchner finding themselves knocked out of the first session, and forced to start from the fifth row of the grid.
The qualifying tire rule has come in for a lot of criticism, from fans, teams and journalists alike, who point to the fact that slower riders have been able to get through the early superpole sessions by throwing in a qualifier at the start, while nominally faster riders who choose to save their qualifiers for an attempt at the front row are being knocked out.
As manager of the Alstare Brux Suzuki team, the flamboyant Francis Batta has also railed against the qualifying tire rule, and according to Motorsport Aktuell, he will be tabling a proposal to change this at Monza. "Superpole has been a lottery," Batta told MSA, who has also complained of the top riders being knocked out. "My proposal is this: the soft qualifying tires will only be given to the last eight riders in the third Superpole session. That way, the top riders will be able to fight with equal equipment."
Although Batta's proposal would save money - at least for Pirelli - it begs the question of why a qualifying tire should be used at all. If the riders are to be on equal tires in each of the sessions, then why not just scrap the qualifiers altogether?
Others have proposed that the riders should be given three qualifiers, to use as they see fit over the three Superpole sessions. The brave could save two tires for the final session, while those who are less sure of their times could attempt to use a qualifier to get them through the first knockout phase.
But all this begs the question of exactly what the qualifying sessions are meant to achieve. If the point is merely to reward the fastest riders, then the grid would look eerily similar at every race - as it has in MotoGP, since the qualifying tires have been scrapped. The top riders are the top riders, and without the breathtaking grip of a super-sticky qualifier and the mixture of foolhardiness and bravery required to get the most out of it, no qualifying specialists have been able to break their hegemony.
The beauty of World Superbike's knockout Superpole system - at least in this commentator's opinion - is precisely that it provides an element of chance into the proceedings. From a simple question of who can put in the fastest lap, the two-qualifiers-for-three-sessions rule turns the early sessions into a game of poker. If you know you're fast enough - Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga come to mind - then you don't need to use up your qualifiers to make it through the first cut from 20 riders down to 16. Only the riders who qualified in the bottom half in practice need to use a qualifier, which in turn forces the riders in 7th and 8th place to gamble on being fast enough on race tires, and save their qualifiers, or use up the first of the super-soft tires to ensure they get through to the second Superpole session.
This pattern is repeated in the second Superpole session, but the cut is much harsher, with half of the remaining 16 riders being excluded from the final 12 minute session. Again, the really fast guys will usually make it without using a qualifier, but the guys in 4th and 5th spot have to think twice about whether to gamble or to play it safe.
For the riders using qualifiers early to get through the first knockout sessions, they know their choices will leave with little chance of taking pole, but starting from the second row on the grid must surely be better than starting from the fourth or fifth row on the grid.
So the teams and riders are forced to work out how much extra time they believe the riders will get from a qualifier, and where that will leave them in the knockout sessions. It is not exactly rocket science, but it does need careful deliberation, and makes it impossible for the teams to exclude chance altogether. As the season progresses, they will get a better feel for the process, and understand when they should gamble and when to play it safe. By the end of the year, there should be fewer major shocks, but still a few surprises.
Only four rounds in is perhaps a little early to be drawing conclusions about the new Superpole format, but personally, I think it's a success. Complaints that it is a lottery should be taken for what they are, complaints by team bosses who want to ensure that their riders are on the front of the grid. After all, with Ben Spies taking pole position at all four race weekends so far, it's a pretty strange lottery that sees the same winner every week.