Sunday, 13 October 2013

Criminal records? Why just about all F1 records are problematic

The Japanese Grand Prix of 2013 was an important one. Or at least it was for the statisticians, as an all-time F1 record dropped. One that for much of history has been considered a highly valued mark.

Fernando Alonso, as has been anticipated for a while, beat the haughty Michael Schumacher's record for most points scored in F1 ever, now having a total of 1,571 compared with Schumi's 1,566. And yet with it has come a conspicuous round of guffawing. The points total doesn't mean anything, they said; the systems have changed so much over time so as to make comparisons meaningless. Alonso himself however - albeit with something of a glint in his eye - declared it 'great' to set the new mark.

Fernando Alonso claimed F1's
all-time points record in Japan
Photo: Octane Photography
But really, is it so unreasonable for Alonso to be pleased with this one? Or, to flip the question around, could such charges of non-comparability be laid before just about any F1 record? Don't they all at least somewhere involve imperfect comparisons? Is it not the case that they all require qualification?

All sports evolve over time of course, so just about any sporting record necessarily involves an element of imperfect comparison. But I struggle to think of another activity that has changed as much as F1 has from generation to generation, and therefore is so apt for the numbers and historical marks to be taken with not so much a pinch of salt but rather a trailer-load of it.

The points records we know about, with the points system tweaked at various stages of F1 history, and then having a grand departure in 2010 when the points for a win rocketed from 10 to 25, other points increased pretty much in turn and points were awarded all the way down to tenth place for the first time. It's therefore not for nothing that the sport's all-time top points scorer list (as outlined by Edd Straw at Autosport recently) is dominated by current drivers: seven of the top ten still race, and two of the remaining three stopped within the last two years.

More generally we all know about the much-mooted limitations of comparing different drivers in very different circumstances in very different eras. It's therefore unsurprising that when assessing the greatest ever F1 drivers raw stats are relied upon less than, say, is the case when making the same judgement of cricketers or baseball players (two sports that followers of really love their numbers).

Yet even F1 records that strike as more immune to all of this are, on closer inspection, more problematic than you might think.

How many races would Jim Clark have
won with modern-day reliability?
Credit: Rtsanderson / CC
Take race wins. Can't argue with those totals? Well, yes you can. On one hand cars are much more reliable than once was the case. If you don't believe me you only need to compare results from history. Time was you could reasonably except that around half the pack (if not more) would break down per race; even a car considered ultra-reliable would let its driver down a couple of times in a campaign at least. By contrast, in today's Japanese race for example only three cars didn't finish and in none of those cases was it down to a mechanical failure. To take another example, Fernando Alonso is pushing almost four years since his last technical stoppage in a race. It doesn't feel like exaggeration to say that with cars as reliable as today's you could likely add about ten wins - perhaps more - to Prost's and Senna's totals, maybe even more to Clark's.

And then there's the fact that there are many more races in a season. We've had it as high as 20 races in 2012; the current calendar for next year has it at 22 (though few expect it to stay that high). By contrast in 1950 - the first year of the world championship - there was just six Grandes Épreuves if we don't include the Indy 500. Even 21 years later in 1971 there was just 11, barely half of what he have now. And to illustrate further, Jackie Stewart had what seemed to be a long F1 career stretching from the start of 1965 to the end of 1973, and yet he didn't even reach 100 Grand Prix starts. The ever-youthful Sebastian Vettel cruised past that mark last season.

Riccardo Patrese -
the first to reach 200 Grands Prix
Credit: Stuart Seeger / CC
As an extension to both of these, incrementally F1 careers are made up of more and more races than was the norm beforehand. I'm old enough to remember that when Riccardo Patrese reached the milestone of 200 Grand Prix starts it was thought of as a genuinely remarkable feat of longevity. Now contemporary drivers sail past it almost as a matter of custom: Button, Alonso and Webber all have in recent times. Kimi will reach it early next season too (despite a break). Heck, even Nico Rosberg - who is not thought by anyone as long in the tooth - is pushing 150.

It stands to reason that the more races you do, in combination with the more races that you finish, the more races you'll win (if you're quick enough).

Similar imperfect comparisons over time apply to the number of world championships to your name, as F1 careers are in most cases much longer in terms of seasons than was once the case. In the sport's much more dangerous eras past many great careers were cut short by death (e.g. Ascari, Clark, Senna) or by injury (e.g. Moss). And in a similar sense, even if you were fortunate enough to avoid these drivers would often make a conscious decision not to push their luck and therefore stop out of self-preservation. This was part of Stewart's considerations when quitting racing at the age of just 34; the same with James Hunt who jacked it in when he was 31. Such things hardly enter into career decisions now it seems.

Taking such records as percentages (e.g. points or wins per race, championships per season) can alleviate some of this, but isn't perfect by any means, mainly in that percentages will by their nature benefit those with fewer seasons or races to divide by. Remember that if you divide something by zero you get infinity...

There's also the skew of when the F1 world championship started - and when points first started to be awarded at all - in 1950, which has had the effect of excluding some careers from consideration, shortening others, even effectively helping those who were reaching their peak at that very point. And to take an extreme outlying example, Juan Manuel Fangio didn't even arrive in Europe until he was the ripe old age of 37.

And this is all before we get into the matter of the competitiveness of the car you're in, as well as the quality of your contemporaries. On top of those are the differences of the eras and of the regulations, such as that - as an example - debutant drivers now don't get the thousands of testing miles before their first race that they used to get. Accounting for all of this is when things get really messy...

The Japanese Grand Prix weekend was one for records indeed. In addition to Alonso's claimed in the race another fell in qualifying, when Renault beat Ferrari's total for most pole positions for an engine manufacturer: 209 vs. 208. And this passed pretty much without objection - indeed it was considered to be a particular achievement given that the usurped Italian marque had a 27 year head start (as well as that Renault's been out of the sport for a couple of spells since). A fine success by any stretch therefore.

Renault benefitted from Ayrton Senna's
prodigious single lap abilities
Credit: Peterhanna / CC
But even there the comparison isn't perfect. Bear in mind that for most of Renault's time in the sport it's supplied engines to more than one outfit: only in its early days, from 1977-1982, as well as 1989-1991 and 2002-2006 has Renault has supplied only one team; for the rest of the time it's supplied more than one, often well more than one (in 1985 it supplied four, as it does now). This compares with Ferrari which for most of its history has supplied only itself. And it stands to reason that the more cars you supply engines to the better your chances are of taking pole.

And then there are the differences in the teams supplied to themselves. While we need to be wary of confusing cause and effect, it's tended to be the case Renault's supplied more competitive teams than Ferrari has. Indeed you could argue that Renault has to a large extent been in a position to select teams on the grounds of competitiveness, whereas Ferrari has been stuck with Ferrari. In 1985 and 1986 Renault benefitted from Senna in the Lotus and his prodigious qualifying ability, while in the 1990s it was able to cherry-pick Williams and Benetton at the peak of their respective powers as its partners. Now of course it has both Red Bull and Lotus using its units at the competitive cutting edge. And even when Ferrari has supplied engines to other teams, possibly cautious of creating rivals for itself it's tended not to be to front-runners: instead it's been Sauber, Minardi, Dallara, Marussia - a motley crew of midfielders and tail-enders

And to return to Alonso's new badge of honour as F1's top points scorer, Andrew Benson put a slightly different spin on matters, which may make Alonso's glee at it seem more justified. As mentioned it was Michael Schumacher that Alonso claimed the record from (just as Schumi holds most of the 'F1 driver with most of X' records), but Alonso's career has lasted 12 years while Schumi's lasted 18. Moreover, Alonso has raced for eight years with the old points system three and three-quarters with the new; Schumi's equivalent time spells are 15 and three years respectively. All of a sudden, from this angle Alonso's mark seems a bit more impressive. The worst he can be accused of is making hay while the sun shone in a way that Schumi didn't.

But Benson went on to say something even closer to the mark, maintaining his 'general belief that raw numbers only have limited meaning when assessing an F1 driver's "greatness"'. Wise words: after all we all know the one about lies, damned lies and statistics. And further, given everything outlined above perhaps when assessing greatness we shouldn't rely on numbers; to take one case, remember that had Stirling Moss won the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix in a vastly superior car rather than the outdated and underpowered Lotus that he did win it in, the record books would have treated it exactly the same.

We should instead talk about the times drivers and teams did something that took our breath away, or that they stayed at the top, or punched above their weight, for what seemed an interminable time. We should think of qualities, not quantities, in other words. And, you know what? It's a lot more fun that way too.


  1. I think for the points to be comparable, they should apply the new points system to old results. That way, it is completely fair.

    1. Edd Straw did just that in the article I linked to above. Doing that puts Schumacher on top, and Alonso third. Still, the top of the list remains massively skewed towards modern drivers (David Coulthard's seventh...), I'd imagine for the reasons I give in this article. In other words - to take us back to the crux of my argument - no F1 record is perfect comparison-wise.

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