Last weekend, sport resumed. Sort of. In a normal world, March 22 was when the second Formula 1 race of this season would have been held, in Bahrain. It was cancelled due to Covid-19. But that day saw the start of a virtual race series to fill the void left by F1. It featured 19 race drivers of different pedigrees logging in from across the world to race each other on simulators that replicate actual tracks. They raced in the colours of current F1 teams. It was meant to mirror the real thing.
Engaging as the racing was, it couldn’t mirror the real thing. The touch and feel of motor racing is something else. The risk is palpable. It’s felt in two drivers dueling each other for many corners at high speeds. It’s felt in mechanics trying to change four tyres in under three seconds. The virtual race did, however, have one thing that F1 has aspired—and failed—for the longest time: closeness of competition.
All the virtual cars on Sunday were identical in their setup, which bunched them up. It was an equal-opportunity sport. This was a contrast to F1, which tends to differentiate teams by how much money they have to develop a car and how well they do that. Thus, technology and the car play an outsized role relative to driver skills.
One measure of the importance of the car is to look at how teams fare at the beginning of the season, when they show their technological hand for the season. If technology is playing an outsized role, chances are, the driver and team that starts strong will also go on to win.
In order to assess if that was happening, we looked at data from the last 70 years on how drivers/teams were placed at the end of five races (which is, today, about a quarter of season) and at the end of the season. In the last three decades, in 70-80% of seasons, the driver leading after five races has also gone on to win the title. In the team championship, that number increases to 80-90%.
Similar numbers, underscoring a dominance at the top, was seen when Formula 1 was taking shape in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the 1970s and 1980s, success in the sport became less predictable. In both those decades, only 30% of drivers went from leading after five races to winning a title.
The last three decades in F1 have been characterized by hegemony. One to three teams, out of the 10 that are typically there, have tended to be many cuts above the rest. Today, these are Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Mercedes, for example, has won all its seven titles while leading after five races.
Of the 10 drivers who have won more than three titles apiece, there’s a dominant streak of them leading after five races. Of the 42 titles between these 10 drivers, 26 were won while leading after the first five races of the season. Michael Schumacher won six of his seven titles, and Lewis Hamilton four of his six titles, while leading after the first five races.
The one exception in this set is Niki Lauda, the feisty and much-loved Austrian who passed away last year. All his three driver titles came despite not leading after the first five races, in 1975, 1977 and 1984.
He raced in the decades when F1 was more open, allowing both manufacturers and independent teams to co-exist and compete. In the way the sport has evolved since, a gap has opened up, and created a financial hierarchy of haves and have-nots.
Even at the top, the performance gap can be sizeable. In F1, point gaps above 25% are substantial and take some doing to bridge. In the 1990s and 2000s, the average lead a driver/team was opening after five races exceeded 25% by some margin. In the last decade, this gap has been much closer, which suggests teams at the top rung are getting closer to each other.
But it’s still not quite where a premier racing series ought to be.
The year 2021 is tipped to be a seminal one for F1, as it aims for greater parity between teams. This has two aspects. The first aspect is financial, with a spending cap being imposed on teams to reduce the variance between budgets of the top 3-4 teams and those below. The second aspect is racing: an overhaul in car design and specifications to increase racing. For now, gap or not, it would just be good to get back to racing in a safe environment.
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