The term "pole position", as used in motorsports, comes from the horse racing term where the number one starter starts on the inside next to the inside pole. The term made its way, along with several other customs, to auto racing. In circuit motorsports, a driver has pole position when they start a race at the front of the grid. This driver is referred to as the polesitter. Grid position is usually determined by a separate qualifying session where drivers try to set the fastest lap, or based on their position in the previous race(s). Different motorsports series use different formats for determining which driver has the opportunity to start from pole position.
Through the years, Formula One has used a number of different qualifying systems.
From the incorporation of the championship in 1950 to 1995, there were two hour-long sessions, one on the Friday and the other on the Saturday, with the fastest lap from either session counting towards the grid.
From 1996 to 2002, drivers were permitted twelve laps in a single one hour session on the Saturday. Cars that crossed the line before the end of the session were allowed to complete their laps, even if they completed their lap after the chequered flag was shown. Cars that did not lap within 107% of the pole position time did not qualify for the race, and had to rely on the discretion of the stewards in order to take further part in the race meeting.
From 2003 to 2004, the grid was determined by a single timed lap on Saturday, run using race fuel. This was used to counter the previous system's tendency to have sessions where there were no cars on track for the first 30 minutes, which was not good for TV viewers. In 2005, starting order was determined using the aggregate of two one-lap qualifying sessions, but this was dropped within a few races, and the system returned to the single-lap system of 2004.
Since 2006, Formula One has used a more complicated system. The hour-long qualifying is divided up into three fifteen minute sessions (called Q1, Q2 and Q3), separated by breaks for TV advertisements. In the first 15 minutes, all cars must set a time, with the slowest six cars being "knocked out" and take up the last three rows of the grid, with two cars per row, based on their fastest lap. The fastest 16 cars compete in the second fifteen minutes, after which another six are knocked out, making up rows 6-8. The final ten cars then compete the last session using their race fuel, with "fuel credits" being given to the teams for each lap completed. This usually constitutes five minutes of "fuel burn" (where the cars circulate to burn off less fuel per lap than they receive in fuel credits, giving them a net gain in fuel at the start of the race) followed by frantic pitstops for new tires and two runs at setting a fast time. In all sessions, cars which cross the line before the end of the session were allowed to complete their laps, even if they completed their lap after the chequered flag is shown. The final session was originally twenty minutes, but was shortened to fifteen to remove the boredom of the fuel burn. A similar small adjustment was made to sessions one and two, where originally laps had to be completed before the chequered flag was shown.
For 2008, Q1 was lengthened to 20 minutes and Q3 shortened to 10 minutes. The drivers no longer got their fuel credit back, therefore the fuel-burn phase was eliminated. Also, because in 2008 (after Super Aguri withdrew) and 2009 there were only 20 cars competing in Formula One, in Q1, positions 16th to 20th were eliminated, and in Q2, positions 11th to 15th were knocked out. However, Q3 was the same, the top 10 fighting for pole.
From 2010 seven cars will be eliminated from Q1 and Q2, since there will be 24 cars on the grid. Q3 will be run in low-fuel configuration due to the refueling ban.<ref>http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/77775</ref>
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
The pole position is currently determined by a two-lap time trial (one lap on road courses). The fastest lap time is used. Before 2001, NASCAR used a two-day qualifying format in its national series. Before 2002 only one lap was run on oval tracks except short tracks and restrictor plate tracks.
The pole position for the Indianapolis 500 is determined on the first day (or first full round) of four days of time trials. Cars run 4 consecutive laps (10 miles), and the total time (and indirectly, the overall average speed) for the 4 laps determines the positioning. The fastest car on the first day of time trials wins the pole position. Times recorded in earlier days (rounds) start ahead of subsequent days (rounds). A driver could record a time faster than that of the pole winner on a subsequent day, however it will be required to line up behind the previous day(s)' qualifiers.
Currently, IndyCar uses two formats for qualifying: one for oval tracks, another for road and street circuits. Oval qualifying runs like the Indianapolis 500, with four laps averaged together with one attempt, although with just one session.
On road and street courses, cars are drawn randomly into two qualifying groups. After each group has one twenty minute session, the top six cars from each group qualify for a second session. The cars that finished seventh or worse are lined up by their time, with the best of these times starting 13th. The twelve remaining cars run a 15 minute session, after which the top six cars move on to a final 10 minute session to determine positions one through six on the grid.
Both formats were new for 2008. In prior seasons, oval qualifying ran for two laps with the best lap used for qualification. Street and road circuits used a one qualifying lap (the 2007 season used a ten minute shootout for the top six qualifiers).