Monday, November 27, 2006

Why I'm a motorsports fan - The second in an occasional series

(The first part can be found here)

Sport, on the whole, do not change over time. Football is essentially the same game that it was thirty years ago. Tennis might have changed with the advent of carbon, rather than wooden rackets, but in terms of innovations, that's about it. Cricket takes an almost perverse pride in its traditions, while rugby has seen only relatively minor tweaks to its rules over the years.

Motor racing, on the other hand, evolves and changes every year, to the point where it would be all but unrecognisable to someone looking forward from fifty years ago. In the 1950s, cars were almost all front engined, racing on skinny little hard tyres, with minimal crash protection, on long open road circuits (though there were always exceptions to this, such as Monza and Silverstone). The favoured technique of the time was that of 'four wheel drift' - a cornering technique which took account of the relative lack of grip that such cars had, and was all about balancing a sliding car so that all four wheels were breaking traction in much the same way. Its a long way from the present day, where the difference between the good and the great is all about the ability to carry speed into corners - and what happens once you're at the apex is decided more by downforce than ability.

In the intervening years have come slicks, wings, traction control, semi-automatic gearshifts, cornering speeds capable of generating 4-5gs, a brief period in the 1980s where turbo engines designed to run just a few qualifying laps could generate in excess of 1200BHP, a similarly brief flirtation with active suspension in the early 1990s. Not to mention sponsorship, the appearance of the major motor manufacturers, ground-effect, 6 wheel F1 cars, four wheel steering and regenerative braking.

While most sportsmen will not find that the nature of the game they compete changes during their career, the same cannot be said of F1 drivers. Take Riccardo Patrese. When he began his career at Shadow in 1977, he was racing in the 70s kit car Hewland box+DFV era - wings and slicks were each less than a decade old at the time. By the early eighties, the ground effect era had begun and cornering speeds went through the roof - suspension became rock hard, and the art of going quickly had fundamentally changed. By mid-1982, driving at Brabham, he was racing in a 1.5ltr turbo engine, with all the problems of throttle lag that this entailed - not to mention at least 50% more horsepower than he would have had with the old Cosworth. After a two year hiatus with the disintegrating EuroRacing Alfa Romeo team, he was back to Brabham where he was one of the first drivers to sample the lowline chassis concept now ubiquitous in F1 (qwerty wrote on this recently over at Motor Racing Journal). When he wasn't distracted by the awful lack of traction, he could enjoy the delights of BMW's 1300BHP qualifying engines too - getting on for three times as powerful as the DFVs he had been racing with a decade earlier.) Two years later, he was back in a normally aspirated car over at Williams - where he had to learn to get to grips with their primitive active suspension system - yet another new challenge. Towards the end of his time at Williams, in 1992, he spent a season with what just might, in some ways, have been the most technically advanced F1 car ever made, with a by now very effective active suspension system, an early form of traction control and all kinds of other electronic trickery.

To survive for a serious length of time in F1, a driver must quickly adapt to all these changes. Indeed it is interesting to note how many drivers, especially those towards the end of their careers, found themselves struggling with technological changes. Rene Arnoux, who had been a regular race winner with Renault and Ferrari in the turbo days, found he was never really at home in a normally aspirated Ligier. Riccardo Patrese gave Nigel Mansell a serious run for his money in the passively sprung 1991 Williams, but could get nowhere near him in the active-ride 1992 car. The active car robbed Patrese of the 'feel' that he so much needed to drive the car quickly, and by increasing the ultimate cornering potential of the car, played to Mansell's strength - literally - as he was physically more able to hold the car through long fast corners at increased speeds. A few years later, Damon Hill found he couldn't adapt to the less progressive grooved tyres that replaced the slicks used prior to the beginning of 1998. He was never really the same driver after that, and sloped out of the sport almost unnoticed at the end of the following season.
So far, I've only mentioned only the huge changes that have taken place within the world of Formula 1 over the years. In reality, few drivers' professional careers take in only Formula 1. In the eighties, out of work F1 drivers were often to be found taking rides where they could find them in the World Sports Car championship. There they had to nurse powerful, complex cars over 1000km races, often with one eye on the fuel gauge, and the other on the wayward gentleman amateurs making up the numbers at the back. In the 1990s, it was the rather more sedate, but in some ways equally challenging world of 2 litre touring car racing that took on the role of playground for retired F1 drivers. Gabriele Tarquini and Nicola Larini, in particular, made a very good living there, as indeed they continue to do, every bit as much at home in front wheel drive saloon cars as they were in F1 cars. More recently, the altogether more exciting world of the DTM, with its 500BHP silhouette tin-tops has provided work for Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Some drivers take a particular pleasure in proving themselves in as many disciplines as possible. Jim Clark was famously quick in just about everything he tried his hand at - a Lotus Cortina saloon car, NASCAR, the Indy 500 and even a rally car. Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya went from winning the Champ Car series to meet similar success in Formula 1, while Nigel Mansell did it the other way round - leaving F1 in a huff at the end of 1992, and winning the Indycar Series at his first attempt.

The common thread is that, if F1 cars change over time, then that is as nothing compared with the differences between, say, an 800BHP F1 car, a NASCAR stocker, a 250BHP touring car and a high tech diesel sports car. And the skills required to survive a 24 hour sports car race are decidely different from those which are needed to get to the front of a 10 lap WTCC race.

In the end, no other sporting arena, save perhaps the decathlon, offers the same sheer variety of challenge as motor racing.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Go East, Young Man

Back in the not so distant past, before Sheikh Maktoum and his cronies gave the world the mixed blessing that is A1GP, the Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix used to signal the end of the single seater racing calendar each year. In years past, Macau was a decidedly odd place to stage a race - a small down at heel Portuguese colony on China's East coast which must have felt like it was on the edge of the world. Certainly it was far from Formula 3's natural home of western Europe. Nonetheless, along with the sadly defunct Monaco GP F3 race and the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort, it has long been one of the big races to win. A sure-fire way for an ambitious young driver to draw attention to himself.

Perhaps its the fact that it comes right at the end of the season. Thus, for many drivers, it is one last chance to make an impression on the movers and shakers in motorsport, particularly after a bad season. Equally, it is a chance to underline a year of remarkable achievement - to go out on a high. The list of previous winners doesn't do the event any harm either. Ayrton Senna won the event in 1983 and he was followed seven years later, and in typically controversial circumstances, by one Michael Schumacher. David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Martin Donnelly and Takuma Sato weren't bad either, come to that, and if you include drivers who finished second, you can add Jenson Button, Robert Kubica and Jacques Villeneuve to the list of famous names who found success at Macau.

The track itself plays a part. Imagine Monaco with a long flat out section thrown in, just to confuse everyone and make car set up a nightmare. The place is very unforgiving, but the area between Fisherman's Bend and Lisbon corner is so quick that, unlike Monaco, a low-downforce set-up is a must. Thus drivers must quickly master an unfamiliar, and in places very narrow street circuit and get used to driving the slow stuff with far less grip than they would have available at, say Pau. Just to make their lives more difficult, the unique format of the weekend means that to win, they must survive a qualification race before they even get to the start of the Final. Which means that to win, one has to get round the ultra-tight first corner twice in a weekend. This time, all three of the front-runners from the first race failed to do this, after Euroseries champion Paul Di Resta screwed up his braking and eliminated himself, the inexplicably rapid Kobayashi and the similarly surprisingly fast Marko Asmer in one fell swoop. All of which handed British F3 champion, Mike Conway what he needed to come back from a rather unpromising 11th slot on the grid for the qualifier to win the event. For a full report on this year's race, check out Stella Thomas' report on, Stewart Bell at Pitpass or Qwerty at Motor Racing Journal.

Strangely though, as motor racing has spread east, with Grands Prix in China and Malaysia, an A1GP race in Indonesia and talk of a race in India in the near future, the significance of the annual Macau race seems to have declined. All the more odd for the fact that where once Macau looked and felt like a forgotten, down at heel little place, surviving only as a place where the Chinese could go to gamble, these days the place seems to be booming (though the seedy feel hasn't entirely vanished - someone who was out there for the race this year remarked that the local Spas really ought to be labelled as either "brothel" or "not brothel" to save embarrassment for non-locals). Strange it may be, but it seems no less true for that. Kubica may have helped make a name for himself there last year, but the same can hardly be said of Lucas DiGrassi. A look through the list of recent winners scans like a list of almost-wases and nearly-rans - Alexandre Premat, Tristan Gommendy, Nicolas LaPierre, Darren Manning, Peter Dumbreck and Soheil Ayari, to name but a few. The really big F3 names seem to have taken to giving the race a miss of late. Last year, Lewis Hamilton dominated utterly the Euroseries, but feeling he had nothing further to prove, skipped the Macau race. Alvaro Parente, the British Champion had more straightforward budget problems and was also a no-show.

This year, though, had the strongest line up for some years. Perhaps because none of the major F3 champions yet have GP2 seats sorted out, even they felt that the race provided them with an opportunity to impress team bosses and potential backers. So Euroseries champion Paul Di Resta and much-feted runner up Sebastien Vettel were there. British series winner Mike Conway and runner up Oliver Jarvis were there, as was Japanese F3 champion and Euroseries refugee Adrian Sutil. Even Asian F3 champion Jamie Winslow put in an appearance. About the only significant absences were British F3 frontrunner Bruno Senna and Esteban Guerreri from over in the Euroseries. While Di Resta's appearance in the final was rather brief, Mike Conway's win just might help ease his path into GP2 next year. Kobayashi is probably thought of a lot more highly than he was at the beginning of the weekend too.

As Richard Asher points out in this week's Autosport though, what is really needed is a really serious international F3 race in Europe. The Monaco GP race has disappeared, and the fact that the Zandvoort Marlboro Masters runs on Kumho rubber puts non-Euroseries runners at a distinct disadvantage. What is needed is a race on neutral tyres to allow the best from Britain, the Euroseries, and the fast improving Spanish and German series to come together on equal terms. Somewhere a little closer to home and less expensive than Macau, fine race though it may be.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Easily Bourdais - Champ Car in Review

I really want to like the Champ Car World Series. On paper, it looks like a proper single seater series. Big fat-tyred 800BHP cars with no traction control, automatic gearboxes, or any of the other paraphenalia which so detracts from the driver's art in Formula One. In years past, there was a very interesting, challenging mixture of circuits too. To master Champ Car meant mastering road courses of both the twisty modern flavour and the balls-out frightening old fashioned variety, street circuits, airport courses and ovals. No other series required proficiency in such a variety of disciplines - and if the drivers weren't always of the same quality as in F1, the series certainly had little competition as the second best single seater championship in the world. The thing is, I really want to like it, but it keeps letting me down.

In the ten years since the IRL/Champ Car split, the series has fallen a long, long way. At the opening round in Long Beach this year, there were just 18 cars on the grid and sometimes that number would fall as low as 16 or 17 as the season progressed. More seriously, a lot of those cars were doing little more than making up the numbers. There were a few really good, serious drivers at the top, including 3 former F3000 champions, rising US star AJ Allmendinger and former champion Paul Tracy. Unfortunately. of those, Junquiera and Tracy showed a distinct loss of form this year. Worse still, while journeymen like Zwolsman, Kasemets, Pastorelli and Legge took up seats, serious racers like Ryan Briscoe, Giorgio Pantano and Franck Montagny couldn't find a drive. Money talks, evidently.

Nonetheless, though there was much to be downbeat about, some of the individual races were very good indeed. The last round at Mexico, with its Bourdais/Wilson showdown stands out in particular, but others were pretty interesting too. Road America saw a pretty interesting scrap between Allmendinger, Bourdais and Junquiera, and Cleveland stood out for the performance of underdogs Clarke and Dominguez - who but for last minute silliness of Clarke's part, would have both finished on the podium.

Still, there was no getting away from the fact that Bourdais never really had any true competition this year. He won 7 of the season's 14 races - but had it not been for Champ Cars over-liberal use of safety cars with its attendant tendency to mix up the order, it might well have been more. He may have had to wait until the penultimate race to secure the title, but that owed more to Champ Car's rather eccentric, "all shall have prizes" points system than anything else. Under an F1 style scoring system he would have won the series rather earlier (and pedants might like to note that Allmendinger would have beaten Wilson to second by a single point).

What, though, were the stories of the year? Well, for one, there was the emergence of AJ Allmendinger as a regular winner. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that it took his mysterious sacking from RuSport mid-season to make it happen. This left the way clear for Forsythe Racing to swoop in. He duly repaid them by winning 5 races, only to decide at the end of the season that he'd rather take more money to drive round in circles in the NASCAR series next year. A disappointment for a series which has been really struggling of late and looked to have discovered an American star among its number.

Allmendinger's performance begged questions of others - most notably Paul Tracy, who, despite his years of experience, much of it at Forsythe, was comprehensively outpaced by the young newcomer. It also left us wondering whether RuSport was really all it was cracked up to be. They had been talked of as the second best team behind Newman Haas before the beginning of the year, but that really has to be open to question. After all, Allmendinger was never quite a match for Justin Wilson there, and yet at Forsythe he won a good number of races. I should imagine there will be a number of Champ Car teams sniffing around Wilson this Winter to see how watertight his RuSport contract his.

Will Power was the best of the rookies, by some distance, but Dan Clarke certainly caught peoples attention from time to time. The HVM-CTE driver didn't come into the sport with the greatest track record having finished 5th last year in a rather weak British F3 field. Initially he was quick but frighteningly inconsistent - crashing twice at the opening race in Long Beach, and then doing much the same at the second round in Houston, going ten laps down after a brush with the wall then running Katherine Legge off the road once back on track. Sixth in qualifying at Portland showed that he had potential, and this time he kept in on the island to finish there too. At Cleveland he was at his best and worse - on the final lap, a podium was on the cards, but a moment of stupidity eliminated both himself and Mario Dominguez, who had been running second. His pole at Road America owed more than a little to luck on a drying track, but he was a regular top ten qualifier in the second half of the season and he looks like someone to watch out for in the future.

Nelson Philippe came of age, helped no doubt by an upturn in form for Bill Wiggins' HVM-CTE team. He deserved his win in Surfers Paradise, and another couple of podiums showed that it was no mere flash in the pan. Perhaps equally significantly, he ended up ahead of Newman Haas' de facto Number 2, Junquiera.

Of those not so far mentioned, Jan Heylen's potential was difficult to judge in the woefully unreliable Dale Coyne entry. Cristiano Da Matta achieved the odd surprise result with the same team and earned a RuSport drive. Sadly, this ended early with a horrific accident in testing at Elkhart Lake which left him in a coma for several weeks. Joao Cacaras, Antonio Pizzonia, Jimmy Vasser, Andreas Wirth and Buddy Rice all put in fleeting appearances but failed to make any impact. David Martinez and Ryan Briscoe looked a little more promising with their one-off drives at Mexico for Forsythe and RuSport respectively.

Next year, there'll be a new, cheaper chassis, and a better TV package in place. Together these might help both the existing small teams to build up their resources, and new teams who might want to come into the series. One can't help but feel that until IRL and Champ Car sort out their differences and arrange a merger, the prospects of both series will remain questionable. All the same, there is a sense in which the worst of it may be over for Champ Car. Lets hope so, anyway.

Motorsports Ramblings' Top Ten Drivers - 2006

1. - Sebastien Bourdais
- Who else could it be, really? 7 wins from 14 races, and his third champ car title on the trot. He must be wondering just what else he can do to bring himself to the attention of the F1 team bosses.

2. - Justin Wilson - I know, you're thinking - he only won one race. Allmendinger won 5. Yes, but when they were team mates, Wilson was clearly quicker. Allmendinger didn't start winning 'til he went to Forsythe, mid-season.

3. - AJ Allmendinger - He wasn't half quick when he got there, wasn't he. Perhaps he would have given Bourdais something to think about had he started the year with Forsythe. A real shame he's gone off to drive stock cars round and round in circles.

4. - Nelson Philippe - A good year for the French. Promoted too soon to Champ Car, Philippe really came of age this year and did well to finish the championship ahead of Newman Haas' Number 2.

5. - Will Power - Far and away the most experienced of this year's crop of rookies and it showed. Looked rather more promising than he ever did in British F3 and outpaced and outscored experienced team mate Tagliani

6. - Paul Tracy - Not the best of years for the Canadian veteran, and probably only so high up the list owing to a lack of competition. Still one of Champ Car's big draws though.

7. - Mario Dominguez - An on/off kind of year for the Mexican. Pole in Houston aside, didn't achieve much with Forsythe. But later in the year was far and away the quickest guy over at Dale Coyne, and should have got a podium in Cleveland...

8. - Dan Clarke - An up and down kind of year for the inexperienced Englishman. Made a lot of mistakes but in between those he was impressively quick. And as Mario Andretti said, its easier to tidy up speed than speed up tidiness.

9. Bruno Junquiera- A decidedly anonymous comeback year. With the best car, he picked up just one pole and no wins. Showed enough consistency to end up fifth in the overall standings though.

10. Andrew Ranger - Not brilliant - outside of the top three or four, few were this year, but decently quick. And much better than his team mate too. Showed much less of a propensity to fall off the road than in previous years.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Better than they appeared?

Talk about motor racing to an outsider, and sooner or later, he or she can almost be guaranteed to comment "But surely its all about the cars isn't it? How do you know who the best drivers are when you need the best car to win." For me, this additional complexity - the way that the abilities of the driver and the speed of the car can be so hard to disentangle - is one of the things that fascinates me about motorsport where most other sports leave me cold.

Such a discussion normally leads to another question: Of all the drivers you've seen, which would have proven to be really first-rate had they been given the opportunity in a front-running team? My own answer to this question is unusual - but I stand by it. In the time I've been following Formula 1, I really don't think that any driver who had a career of any length - let's say a whole season - was an undiscovered superstar. The obvious possible exception was Stefan Bellof - the young German who drove for Tyrrell in 1984 and 1985 before dying in a sportscar race at Spa. He might have had what it took to mix it with Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet and Berger in the late eighties. But really, he's the exception that proves the rule. Even in the desperately uncompetitive atmo-Tyrrell, he'd done enough to catch the attention of the big team bosses - and had he lived, he would have been in a Ferrari in 1986. The 1986 Ferrari was not exactly the finest piece of kit ever to come out of Maranello, but it would have been enough for Bellof to show whether he had it what it took.

Is there anyone, though, who might have been overlooked through their whole career? Not really. A case can perhaps be made for Bernd Schneider, whose 2 years in Erich Zakowski's awful Zakspeed cars never really gave him a chance to shine. His subsequent long and highly successful career in the DTM against pretty classy opposition suggest he may have been rather better than he appeared in F1.

There have been plenty of drivers who could have won races in the right car. People like Derek Warwick, Martin Brundle, Eddie Cheever, Pierluigi Martini and Nicola Larini. None of these, though, were true greats, and they got just enough chances, that had they been something really special, they would have been able to show it. They were, if you like, the Felipe Massas and Giancarlo Fisichellas of their day.

If anything, the strongest cases are probably those who, for whatever reason, never got to F1 in the first place. Tom Kristensen and Sebastien Bourdais just might have been very quick indeed - although I still hold out the hope that Sea-Bass at least might yet be given an F1 chance. The question of drivers who never got the opportunity to race in F1 in the first place, though, is not quite the same - and perhaps I'll return to it some other time.

To return to our argumentative man in the pub, it is interesting that he never puts his argument the other way round. Never says "I don't understand Formula 1, you never get to find out who's really built the best car because it all depends on who has the best drivers." Now, that's perhaps understandable. People are more interested in superstars than in teams of anonymous boffins. But it goes beyond the casual fans - even on the motorsport talkboards, I struggle to recall a single thread about cars whose potential was frustrated for want of a quick driver. Which is odd really, because I think there have been a few...

Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1988. In a year utterly dominated by Mclaren, just three teams actually led a lap of a Grand Prix. Mclaren - of course, for they won 15 of them, and Ferrari, who occasionally turned up the boost and disappeared into the distance until they ran out of fuel... and, though many fewer will remember, the beautiful aqua-marine March that was Adrian Newey's first racing car. It may only have led a single lap - in the hands of Ivan Capelli at the Japanese Grand Prix - but it was a rather better car than the statistics suggest. The bare facts are that their best result was an impressive second place in the Portuguese Grand Prix, pushing Prost's Mclaren all the way to the line, and that they scored 20 points, placing them equal 5th in the constructor's championship. What that doesn't tell you is that, towards the end of the year, they were, on occasion, Mclaren's closest rivals.

At the time, a large part of this was put down to the talents of Messrs Capelli and Gugelmin - seen as hard young chargers taking the new March team much further up the grid than it had any right to be. Team manager Ian Phillips, later of Jordan and Midland/Spyker, remarked that he had "the best two 25 year old drivers in the business." But did he? Capelli would come close to winning again with March (or Leyton House as they were known by that time) in 1990 at Paul Ricard, but neither Capelli nor Gugelmin ever achieved much in their post-March careers. Capelli was destroyed by Alesi in the admittedly awful Ferrari F92A before disappearing altogether, tail between his legs, after a couple of races with Jordan in 1993. Gugelmin was equally anonymous in the, to be fair, rather hopeless Jordan Yamaha in 1992, and following the end of the season would never be seen in F1 again. He spent nearly ten years in Champ Cars after that, but won just one race in that time - suggesting he was competent, but hardly special.

In retrospect, it appears to me that the March 881, and its later derivatives, were much quicker than we realised - and let down, at least in the final part of 1988, by a very average driver pairing. Perhaps this is no surprise, given that they were the early works of Adrian Newey, a man whose creations would dominate F1 through much of the following decade. Later, he would comment that while the Mclaren MP4/4 was clearly the class of the field that year, when it came to aerodynamic performance, he was convinced the March was superior. That's not to say the March was actually a better car. It manifestly was not. It really didn't like bumps, it was at least arguably too small and cramped to be driven to its full potential, and it was very fragile. It did, on the other hand, seem to cope with the cooling requirements of John Judd's early V8 F1 engine rather better than the Williams managed. What it does suggest, though is that the March was a better car than its results indicated.

Sometimes, its not so much that a car doesn't reach its full potential because of its drivers, as that a driver gets more credit than they are due for what they achieve with a car that is better than anyone realises. In 1988, Tyrrell got it horribly wrong with their understeery 017. The following year, they bounced back in style. The Tyrrell 018 was a very effective device indeed - quite possibly the best handling car on the grid. In the hands of Michele Alboreto and Jonathan Palmer, it was decently, rather than exceptionally quick. Palmer, though was no more than a journeyman, and Alboreto never really recovered from the bruising he took at Ferrari through the mid-eighties. When Jean Alesi stepped into the car at the French Grand Prix that year, after Alboreto had fallen out with Tyrrell over a sponsorship clash, he made an instant impact, running as high as second, and finishing fourth.

He would continue to race part-time in the Tyrrell through the rest of the season, as and when his F3000 commitments allowed. Despite competing in only half of the season's 16 races, he finished up 9th in the drivers championship that year. The best result for the 018 though, came in the first race of 1990, where Alesi led Senna in the early stages round the streets of Phoenix (a place where handling was always going to count for more than outright power). In the event, he would finish up second, sealing his reputation as an up and coming talent. He would move to Ferrari the following year, but through a further decade in the sport, never really lived up to that initial promise. All of which inevitably leads towards the conclusion that his apparent brilliance was an illusion - he was a good, rather than a great driver, in a car that was much better than anyone realised.

The Tyrrell 018 and the March 881, good as they were though, were never going to be regular race winners. If, for instance, Senna and Prost had been driving the March, and Gugelmin and Capelli the Mclaren, then March might have picked up a race win or three, but Capelli or Gugelmin would undoubtedly have ended up world champion. This begs an interesting question - was there ever a car that was not merely better than it appeared, but might have been a championship contended had the driving line up been right?

One has to be careful here. The 1995 Williams might have been the best car in the field, but nobody can pretend that this was something the average race fan was entirely unaware of. To my mind, a much better case can be made for the 1990 Williams. OK, so Adrian Newey hadn't yet sprinkled his magic fairy dust at the Grove factory. On the other hand, the Renault V10s were, in retrospect, probably already at least the equal of, and perhaps better than, the lumps produced by Honda and Ferrari, which certainly had power, but were thirsty and heavy. With Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese, the team won 2 races that year - level pegging with Benetton and well behind Mclaren and Ferrari. But who could honestly say that either driver was on the same kind of level as Prost, Senna or even Piquet. It is hard to know for sure what the ultimate potential of the Williams FW13B was, but one this is for sure - when Mansell joined the team the following year, they became a force to be reckoned with. Coincidence?

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Doing The Maths - A Reprise

Earlier in the year, I posted an analysis of F1 drivers' average fastest laps over the course of the season. My point was that, unlike final qualifying, where drivers' pace is to some extent dictated by fuel loads, fastest race laps can give a more honest impression of who is fastest.

Of course, its not perfect. In modern F1, where overtaking is seriously difficult on many tracks, a driver may never be able to run as fast as his car or his talents might allow - for the sake of traffic. And fuel loads can affect fastest lap pace too. A driver on a one-stop strategy should not be able to run at the same kind of pace as a driver on a three-stop strategy. The driver on the three stop strategy, though, loses their advantage by having to spend longer in the pits. The figures can be skewed, too, by what statisticians call 'out-liers' . In this context, the out-liers, were the Super Aguris. Their times were so far from the pace, particularly at the beginning of the year, that they artificially dragged the average lap-speed down such that the vast majority of the field posted better-than-average lap times.

A couple more points to bear in mind. I've included some drivers who only completed part-seasons, but I'd take their numbers with a pinch of salt. By comparison to their team mates, they might simply have driven for the team at a point when their team was stronger, or weaker. A case in point being Yamamoto, who was slower than Sato almost everywhere, but who came out ahead because his average times were not dragged down by driving the awful early-season Super Aguri SA05. But anyway, with the relevant caveats now in place, here are the numbers:

1. Michael Schumacher +1.42s
2. Fernando Alonso +1.38s
3. Kimi Raikkonen +1.17s
4. Felipe Massa +1.01s
5. Giancarlo Fisichella + 0.88s
6. Juan-Pablo Montoya + 0.87s
7. Jenson Button + 0.57s
8. Robert Kubica +0.51s
9. Pedro De La Rosa + 0.45s
10. Rubens Barrichello + 0.28s
11. Ralf Schumacher + 0.25s
12. Mark Webber + 0.22s
13. Nick Heidfeld +0.18s
14. Jarno Trulli + 0.13s
15. Nico Rosberg + 0.09s
16. Jacques Villeneuve +0.08s
17. Vitantonio Liuzzi -0.22s
18. Scott Speed -0.25s
19. Christian Klien -0.35s
20. David Coulthard -0.41s
21. Christijan Albers -0.96s
22. Tiago Monteiro -1.27s
23. Takuma Sato -2.43s
24. Franck Montagny -2.87s

Data excludes wet races, Indianapolis, owing to low number of drivers who set a representative time, and, in the case of individual drivers, any race where they retired before being able to set a worthwhile time (this last one being a bit subjective).

It is said that you can prove anything with statistics, and perhaps you can. This week, in Autosport, Mark Hughes made the point that , while most would instinctively think that Massa did a better job than Fisichella, the raw numbers from qualifying show that while Massa was, on average, 0.4s off his team mate, Fisichella was within 0.1s of Alonso. Counter-intuitive? Certainly. But then, until he went to Renault and found himself up against Alonso, Fisichella had a reputation as a demon-qualifier. It was his race pace that was considered suspect. And here, the numbers show that on race pace, Massa was closer to Schumacher than Fisichella was to Alonso. Does this show that Hughes was wrong about Massa? Maybe, but you could make a case for using either set of data really.

Perhaps most strikingly, it is the real superstars, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, and Kimi Raikkonen who have the largest margins of superiority over their team mates. The data perhaps makes a case for Jenson Button's inclusion in this group - as his margin of superiority over Rubens Barrichello was almost as great. Even in these cases though, the average difference is never more than 0.5s. These guys, after all, are all professional racing drivers. None of them are slow.

There's an embarrassing statistic in there for Red Bull too. The raw numbers suggest that they were in fact slower than their junior team, Toro Rosso, in race trim. Now to some extent, that might be because Coulthard, in particular, tended to run very fuel-heavy strategies but that can't be all there is in it. There can be little doubting that, while they may have beaten Williams in the constructors championship, this year's Red Bull was a bit of a lemon.

The numbers also tend to bear out the claim I made last week that ditching Montoya for De La Rosa was probably not a smart thing for McLaren to have done. While Montoya was few tenths slower than Raikkonen, De La Rosa was almost a second slower. Now, undoubtedly, this is a dangerous comparison to draw, as De La Rosa didn't compete in all that many races, especially once one eliminates Hungary (wet), China (wet), and Germany (car failed in opening laps). All the same, it accords with a general impression that De La Rosa was really rather anonymous in the second Mclaren this year.

Anything else? I thought it interesting that Ralf Schumacher turned out to be faster over the season than Trulli, for one thing. The sheer similarity of pace of the two Toro Rosso drivers also came as something of a surprise. I'd had the impression that Liuzzi was comfortably quicker than Speed, but the more I look at the numbers (and not just these ones) the less certain I am that this was really the case.

Lies, damned lies and statistics, eh?