FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting has confirmed the changes made to qualifying after the incident that occurred at the Malaysian Grand Prix. In Sepang two weeks ago, Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen had completed their hot laps before the end of the third qualifying session and cruised slowly back to the pitlane to save fuel and tyres. However, Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso were still completing fast laps and the closing speed between the two parties could potentially have led to a horrifying accident.
Now though, the FIA have tweaked the rules to hopefully prevent this from happening again.
In order to avoid the possibility of an incident caused by the speed differential of cars on out laps and in laps during Q3, in addition to reconnaissance laps whilst the pit lane is open for the race, any driver deemed to be driving unnecessarily slowly during these laps, or in a manner which might endanger other drivers, will be reported to the stewards.
Cars leaving the pits will be timed between SC [safety car] line 2 (50 metres before turn 1) and SC line 1 (after turn 15), any car exceeding a time of 1.39.0s between these points will be deemed to have been driven unnecessarily slowly. Charlie Whiting.
Essentially this means that any driver completing a lap in a time more than 1 minute 39 seconds will be penalised for driving dangerously slow. The reason for the Safety Car line coming into the equation is to ensure the cars lap time is measured, even if the driver enters the pitlane, thus not necessarily crossing the start/finish timing beacon.
One has to ask though, will the time vary between circuits? Last years pole position lap time at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain was only 1m21.421s. This gives the drivers approximately 18.5s of cruising time. In Bahrain, with a pole time expected to be around the 1m30s mark, they have just 9 seconds of cruising time. I discounted the fact that the time of 1m39s isn’t a complete lap, but as I discounted in both examples the difference between circuits remains.
Edit: Just to clarify that rather confusing point, I’m essentially saying that lap times vary from circuit to circuit, and therefore so should the ultimate lap time set by the FIA, currently 1m39s. If the 1m39s remains at all circuits, then tracks with a quicker lap time will allow drivers to cruise for longer on the slow lap, thus negating the point of this rule. The statement doesn’t indicate any adjusting from race to race regarding the ultimate time allowed for a slow lap.
As per the norm, the FIA aren’t 100% clear with their intentions.