Monday, May 22, 2006

Doing The Maths

This week, I'm going to play true to my reputation as a bit of a statistics anorak and do a bit of simple analysis to work out a couple of things about the pattern of this year's Formula One championship. Things which might not necessarily be entirely clear from the simple headline figures of who has scored the most points.

What I have done is calculated the extent to which, over the season, each driver has been faster or slower than the average fastest lap for the series. There are a number of limitations to this as an analytical tool. For one, it tells you only how teams and drivers are going when their cars are at their fastest. If they have a particular problem on worn tyres, or with heavy fuel, then these figures will not show it. Secondly, it is systematically biased in favour of those drivers who have tended to run shorter fuel stints, as their best laps will tend to be quicker, all else being equal. Thirdly, I have had to remove from consideration times set at races where, due to early retirement, the driver never really got in a representative laptime. There is a subjective element to this. Few would disagree with removing Klien's times from Australia (where his best lap was ten seconds or more off the pace) or Albers' time from Bahrain (he went just two laps before retiring), but what about Webber at Malaysia? Well, I took him out - he never got as far as the first fuel stops. And what about Fisichella at San Marino - did he ever get a clear lap in? Well, I kept him in - removing drivers' times on the grounds they spent most of the race being baulked by slower cars takes subjectivity to whole new levels - especially given that I didn't have the chance to see the whole race from his cockpit.

So here, without further ado - are the results:

1. Fernando Alonso +1.61s
2. Michael Schumacher+ 1.34s
3. Kimi Raikkonen + 1.27s
4. Giancarlo Fisichella + 1.00s
5. Felipe Massa + 0.96s
6. Juan Montoya + 0.91s
7. Jenson Button + 0.70s
8. Mark Webber + 0.54s
9. Nico Rosberg + 0.38s
10. Nick Heidfeld + 0.32s
11. Ralf Schumacher + 0.32s
12. Rubens Barrichello + 0.21s
13. Jacques Villeneuve + 0.25s
14. Vitantonio Liuzzi - 0.01s
15. David Coulthard - 0.08s
16. Scott Speed - 0.10s
17. Jarno Trulli -0.20s
18. Christian Klien - 0.23s
19. Christijan Albers -1.26s
20. Tiago Monteiro - 1.59s
21. Takuma Sato -2.84s
22. Franck Montagny -3.13s
23. Yuji Ide +5.28s

One of the most striking things is how the top three exactly reflects the top three in the current drivers championship. Further down though, there are odd surprises. The Williams turn out to be a good deal quicker than their qualifying performances or their points tally suggests, with Webber rated 8th overall, ahead of Barrichello and both Toyotas and Sauber BMWs. The Toro Rossos are in fact marginally quicker in race trim than the Red Bulls, and within a few tenths of the BMWs and the faster Toyota, suggesting perhaps that the Cosworth V10 remains an unfair advantage.

The comparisons between team mates are instructive too. The biggest differential was of course between Sato and Ide, but the 0.6s difference between Alonso and Fisichella would make grim reading for the Italian, and rather serves to underline the feeling that he has underperformed in the Renault this year. Ralf Schumacher appears to be doing well in the Toyota too, in an unobtrusive kind of way, comfortably faster than team mate Trulli. By contrast. there is almost nothing to separate the BMW drivers (0.07s between them) or the Toro Rosso newcomers, who are separated by just 0.1s, despite Liuzzi having appeared to have the edge over Speed for much of the season so far.

Some of the backmarker teams might find it useful for working out just how much more pace they've got to find. For instance, Super Aguri have got about 4.5s to find (less than I might have thought, although tyre degradation etc is doubtless worse on the old Arrows-hack) while Midland need about 3s, and Williams would be right in the hunt if they could find about 1s.

So, the definitive answer to who is quick in 2006? Nah, you need to read the season as a whole for that, but an interesting way of looking at it? Well, I hope so, my eyes have gone all screwy from mucking around with the Excel spreadsheet this evening, and I hope it wasn't entirely a wasted effort.

[NB - Anyone who wants a copy of the raw data from which this has been calculated (you can error-check it if you like) simply leave a comment below with your email address, and I'll send it on to you]

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Old Guard's Last Stand?

Joe Saward, writing under the guise of The Mole, was ruminating recently on the current collection of F1 drivers. Specifically, on how many of them might soon be picking up their P45s and heading off to play golf, or whatever it is that retired racing drivers do. His key point was that there are quite a few who have had their chances with a top line team and failed to make much of them, and it's time that they got out of the way and gave the younger generation a chance to prove their worth.

That last point, of course, plainly does not apply to Michael Schumacher, who has made a career out of seizing every chance he's had, but all the same, speculation has been rife over the last 12 months that the 7 times world champion is finally considering hanging up his helmet. My own hunch, for what it is worth, is that he will go the minute he wins another title, and not later than 2008 regardless.

Nonetheless, when the German retires, its going to create a vacancy in one of the big three drives in F1 - the number one seats at Renault, McLaren and Ferrari. (And yes, I know that only Ferrari has an official policy of having a number one and number two driver, but anyone who thinks that Fisichella and Alonso, to pick the more clear-cut case, are truly considered equals at Renault is living in cloud-cuckoo land).

So who to fill it? To be brutally honest, I don't think any of the established big names are really quite up to the job of taking on Alonso and Raikkonen. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good drivers in F1 just now - and for the first time in a long time, now that Yuji Ide has been shown the door at Super Aguri, there are none that really don't belong there. Other than the big three, though, I'm not convinced there are any truly great ones. The jury could fairly be said still to be out on Nico Rosberg, perhaps on Tonio Liuzzi and, even at a push, Mark Webber, but to my mind, none of the rest quite have what it takes.

There are some good second division drivers in F1 - whether they be mercurial and intermittently incredibly fast guys like Jarno Trulli and Juan Pablo Montoya, or solid professional performers who lack a little spark, like Ralf Schumacher or Nick Heidfeld. To be honest, if I was Flavio Briatore, Ron Dennis or Jean Todt, I'd feel these guys were poor substitutes for Schumacher, Alonso or Raikkonen though.

That said, they're pretty much all that is on offer just now. A team could instead decide to take a risk on a Rosberg, a Kovalainen or a Hamilton but the last two in particular, are somewhat unknown quantities. So why are so many drivers hanging around in the midfield for so long, when there are at least a dozen or so really promising young talents outside of Formula 1?

The answer is that, quite simply, Toyota or BMW don't see their role as being to bring on talented youngsters for the benefit of the likes of Mclaren and Ferrari two or three years down the line. They might agree that Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Sebastien Bourdais or Nelson Piquet Jr are more likely to have the ultimate potential to go head to head with Alonso or Raikkonen than do Heidfeld or Ralf Schumacher. But any of those men would represent a substantial gamble.

Take Sebastien Bourdais for example. Sure, he's looked incredible in Champ Car, but couldn't exactly the same have been said for Michael Andretti or Alex Zanardi? And isn't that why Mclaren and Williams, respectively, hired them? It could be argued that even Montoya and Villeneuve didn't fully live up to the promise they showed in Champ Cars, and without wishing to criticise Bourdais, the Champ Car series is not at its strongest, driver talent wise, just now. That's not to say he wouldn't be any good in an F1 car, but its an open question. The same must surely apply twice over to that other darling of the US open wheel scene, Britain's Dan Wheldon. He's been very quick in IRL, but then IRL is mostly an oval racing series, and pace there doesn't necessarily translate. A few years ago, New Zealander Scott Dixon got a Williams test after winning the IRL title. He didn't particularly impress and the Grove squad went with Heidfeld in the end.

What's true of American open wheel racers goes just the same for the young guns coming up through the European junior series. Both Jan Magnussen and Antonio Pizzonia were talked of as if they were the second coming in their F3 days and were quickly promoted into F1. Neither made much impression in a Grand Prix car though. Magnussen now plys his trade in sports cars, while Pizzonia, after dropping out of the Williams testing role, is currently sniffing around for work in the US.

Another problem is that the best young prospects increasingly get tied up to a particular team from a very early age. Heikki Kovalainen is signed up with Renault, and Lewis Hamilton with Mclaren. Plenty of other teams have driver development programmes too - most notably Red Bull, who appear desperate to find another first rate North American. If you are Toyota or BMW, why take a risk on Hamilton when, if he proves as good as his GP2 performances suggest, he would soon be called back to Mclaren to partner Alonso?

An experienced pair of hands gives a team like BMW a useful yardstick by which to measure their progress. They may be well aware that Heidfeld is not truly from the top drawer, but they know that if he says the handling of the car is wrong, then there's something wrong. And if he's 2 seconds off the pace, its because the car needs work, not because the driver is out of his depth. With a youngster, you can never be sure. And in any case, even the best young charger takes time to learn his trade. That will more than likely mean trashed monocoques and weekends lost chasing setup problems that a more experienced driver could easily resolve. All this makes the solid, professional 'nearly man' the better bet for many a team - although it can't really begin to explain Ralf Schumacher's salary.

Another nagging question is whether the current format of Grand Prix weekends works against new drivers. When Michael Andretti came into F1, one of the things which it was said worked against him was the limit of 12 laps per qualifying session (a rule brought in for the 1993 season). Now though, the new driver has to learn each new circuit with minimal running in practice, thanks to the two-races-per-engine rule. Qualifying has been cut back from 2 hour long sessions to a single session which, for the slowest 6 drivers, lasts just 15 minutes and, to cap it all, the parc ferme regulations have led to the abandoning of the Sunday morning warm-up. No wonder, perhaps, that in the past four seasons, of the newcomers, only Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg have really made their mark.

But could change finally be on the horizon? Perhaps. Its hard to imagine that, 2 years hence, Coulthard, Barrichello and Villeneuve will still be plying their trade in Formula 1. Michael Schumacher will almost certainly be gone and its more than likely that his brother, Fisichella and Trulli will be in the twilight of their careers. That's going to be an awful lot of open doors for young talent to be knocking on.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Can Anyone Catch Alonso?

Four races in, and already this season is beginning to look more than a little like the one that preceded it. With three winners from the first four races, it might appear to the casual observer that this has been a close-fought and remarkably open start to the season. The reality though, is that Fernando Alonso's two wins and two second places puts him a long way ahead in the driver's championship, and he's not going to be easy to catch.

Who, then can beat Alonso? In individual races, there are a few candidates. Schumacher and Fisichella have both already shown that they can, given the right circumstances. Both, though, relied on a touch of luck to get the better of the young Spaniard. Would Fisichella have gotten the better of Alonso in Malaysia had not the Renault team fouled up their refuelling of Alonso in qualifying and forced him onto a decidedly suboptimal race strategy? We'll never know, but personally, I rather doubt it. And Schumacher's win the other weekend in Imola? A great drive from the old master in the autumn of his career, even if one now feels we won't see many more days like it, but if Renault had not allowed themselves to be pressured into pitting early, would we have been looking at win number 3 for Alonso?

In short, but for small errors on the part of his team, Alonso might well have won all four of the opening race. And if Fisichella simply isn't truly of the same class as his team mate, and the Schumacher/Brawn/Todt/Byrne axis at Ferrari is past its creative peak, then what of the rest?

Ron Dennis has said in the past that he finds losing physically painful. Unless he's mellowed considerably over the years, then this year must feel like something of a running sore. These past few years it has always seemed that Mclaren begin the season looking like serious contenders (except perhaps in 2003, where they were running a year old car - and yet as it turned out they came closer to claiming the driver's title that year than at any time since 1999). Every time though, it doesn't quite happen for them. At Bahrain, Mclaren, or at least Raikkonen, looked like he had race winning pace, and but for starting at the back of the field, he might have converted it into a good result. Since then, though, they've simply not quite been on the pace. If Ferrari's Imola resurgence proves to be more than a flash in the pan, then it may be they are not even Renault's closest rivals any more.

Worse, underneath the smoothly corporate exterior, things look decidedly wobbly at Woking. A number of high profile engineers and designers have followed Adrian Newey out of the door in recent months (web whisperings would have it that they are not happy with the team's 'matrix management' system, whereby nobody is in charge of any particular project). Whatever gloss the team put on it, this must be having some degree of destabilising effect. Add to that two drivers whose future in the team remains unclear and there is an awful lot of scope for different factions to pull in different directions. They should be glad that Montoya and Raikkonen have at least not yet clashed on the track.

Then there's Honda. They certainly won't be threatening Renault for either the drivers or constructors titles, but can they win a race? They think they can, but from where I'm standing, I'd rate their chances rather more highly if the races were held on a Saturday. One hell of a qualifying package (Jenson Button has barely been off the front row all season), they just don't quite seem to have the pace come race day. The other mystery has been the lack of form shown by Rubens Barrichello. Other than Yuji Ide, no other driver has been so consistently so far away from the pace of their team mate, and Ide at least has the excuse of inexperience. Doubtless sometimes drivers Tactical blunders haven't helped - the pitstop farrago in Imola doutless cost the team points - and rather served to negate any advantage that might have been gained from retiring Button's car yards from the line in Australia. Perhaps if the team can pull a fast one in qualifying at Monaco, and then just make everyone queue up behind them.....

Have Williams already blown their best chance of picking up a surprise win? Nico Rosberg was the sensation of the opening two races - the fastest guy on the track in Bahrain and third on the grid in Malaysia, but a startline clash with Heidfeld at Manama and an engine failure early on Malaysia prevented him from converting this form into any kind of meaningful result. Since then, he's been off the boil a little, but thankfully, Mark Webber has been on it. Had a gearbox failure not put him out of his home race, a podium was certainly in the offing, and given the way the safety car situations played out, a race win might not have been out of the question. However, without the backing of a major motor manufacturer, one can't help but feel that Williams will only go backward as the season progresses, and we may already have seen the best of them. The fact that Cosworth are still having to chase reliability problems, rather than boost performance, is hardly going to help matters. On the bright side, they certainly seem a more settled, cheerful team since they waved goodbye to Mario Thiessen and the men from Munich.....

.....Who themselves aren't doing a bad job with the old Sauber team. Perhaps its a cultural thing - the Swiss German Sauber guys understanding BMW and the all English Cosworth and WIlliams being on the same wavelength. Whatever, BMW have been unexpectedly competitive this year, and, after doing their best to persuade him he wasn't welcome before the season began, they now seem to be extracting decent performances from Jacques Villeneuve too. They won't threaten Renault, Ferrari, Honda or Mclaren for race wins, but they should continue to be regular points scorers.

Toyota, I've already said all I have to say about, and Red Bull seem to be more concerned with their absurd motorhome than with keeping up the momentum from last year (perhaps the delayed effect of sacking the two guys who turned Jaguar around into a sensible race team, just as it was about to be killed off, and replacing them with Gunther Steiner, under whose watch the team floundered so badly in the early noughties. Maybe Adrian Newey can do something in the long term, or maybe not. Toro Rosso, Super Aguri and Midland are not going to threaten anyone in any great hurry, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if Alex Shnaider, who has never really seemed too clear in his own mind why he's in F1, sells out to Alfonso de Orleans, Jean Alesi, or whoever else is knocking at the door wanting in.

All of which leads me to the perhaps dangerously premature conclusion that nobody can beat Renault and Alonso this year.....except perhaps themselves. With their working relationship coming to an end in the autumn, might tempers begin to fray? especially when things don't go to plan? Maybe I'm reading too much into too little, but with Alonso having to 'explain' before the San Marino Grand Prix that his quotes about Renault were taken out of context, might the cracks be beginning to appear.......