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What brings victory in F1: Driver vs car

The two prevailing variables in what it takes to win Formula One, namely the driver performance and car technology that the team has to offer, are both overestimated when regarded separately, shows a study published in the Journal of Applied Economics.

In 2016, F1 champion Nico Rosberg had suggested that bagging a trophy at the races depended much more on the superiority of the car and the team, and allocated a very little part of the win to the driver.

To be precise, the percentiles stood at 80 percent for the car and team, against a mere 20 percent for driver performance when it came to determining race results.

This is called the 80-20 rule, and has become a general assumption in the F1 scene.

However, based on a scientific analysis of racing results between the 2012–19 F1 seasons, that assessment is largely at fault, and there is a third variable that “distorts the rule”.

The key: Complementarity

The very first F1 season was in 1950 when the technology in constructing race cars was not yet refined, so malfunctions and accidents were recurrent on the tracks. 

The cars were far from safe, and success depended heavily on the driver, who had to rely “mostly on his skill and bravery”, write the study’s authors.

Nowadays, however, F1 racers have the privilege to drive some of the most technologically advanced cars in the world. These cars are designed for their safety with minimum compromise from speed potential.

Under these conditions, the research shows that driver skill alone does not even account for 20 percent of the race result. Slightly overestimated by Rosberg, the driver appears to be only responsible for 15 percent of the odds of winning.

Rosberg’s 80 percent, however, is found to be completely overrated, as the study shows that the car performance and team support alone only accounts for around 20 percent.

On the other hand, the newly-proposed variable—which accounts for around 30 to 40 percent of what it takes to win F1—is the interaction between the driver and the car.

Much more nuanced than evaluating the driver and car as separate from each other, this new variable actually recompenses the drivers.

“To say that drivers contribute only 20% is a vast underestimate given the critical complementarity between driver and team,” write the researchers.

By acknowledging the complementarity of the two initial variables, the new variable shows that the drivers are valuable not only for the act of driving, but also as an independent agent in the process of improving the cars, owing to their feedback on the car’s performance.

With around 75 percent of the odds of winning accounted for, researchers say the remaining quarter is attributed to random factors that occur unpredictably during the race.

Arranging finances

Aside from estimating the components of what it takes for a team to perform well on the track, the researchers also estimated the average financing required to improve performance.

They found that if a team averages 10th place at the races, they would need an additional funding of $164.6 million to go up by one rank, although financing would have to vary each season.

The authors also looked into how teams should arrange their financing for maximum performance.

They found that investing in driver skill or team budget had positive returns for improved performance on the tarmac, but choosing one or the other meant less resources went to the second complement.

Since such a strategy would improve only 15 or 20 percent of the odds of winning, it proves to be less effective than a strategy of developing both the car technology and driving skill, which accounts for up to 40 percent.

That gives the upper hand to the team with the largest budget outlay, as it would have the capacity to adopt a holistic strategy without compromising from either complement.

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