Plotting the rise of predictability in F1 history


Motor sport fans often bemoan the loss of the spirit of Formula One. The heroic ideals of death or glory, sportsmanship over winning and David beating Goliath appear to have disappeared in the mists of time; and the reality is no amount of fiddling with regulations that fix the wheel rim sizes, create bigger diffusers, make engines louder and offer a wider range of tyre selections will return F1 to the rose tinted notions of yesteryear.

Having been introduced to Formula One during the seventies, I remember well the days before professionalism ruled the drivers’ roost. ‘Hunt the Shunt’ was frequently reported to be ‘off his face’ when arriving at a race circuit. I also remember the days before scientific pragmatism became the philosophy behind the lexicon for motor racing engineers and I erupted with joy watching a pesky ‘foreigner’ Ferrari’s burst into flames again and again. The 1980’s were about pushing the envelope, whatever the cost, the motto appeared to be ‘win or bust’.

From 1970 to 1980, 8 different drivers won the F1 championship. That number fell to 6 from 1980 to 1990 though improved marginally to 7 from 1990-2000. This was an F1 era where for the drivers, little appeared to be certain. Britain’s beloved Damon Hill finally won a his world title in 1996 in a dominant Williams, but was unceremoniously pitched over board by team owner Frank Williams for the following season – which by the way was won by another Williams’ driver, Jacques Villeneuve.

The 16 years since the turn of the millennium has yielded just 6 different Formula One champion drivers and given the best predictions for 2017, by the end of the season this may well be 6 drivers in 17 years. This is just one indicator of the predictability that has over time increasingly crept into the sport, something which frustrates the fans. Interestingly during these era’s, the constructors’ championship has offered up far less variety. Between 1970-80 there were five different winners; 1980-90 – 3; 1990-2000 – 4; 2000-2015 – 5. It’s probable that most non-Italian F1 fans care less about winning constructors than winning drivers.

One of the reasons for this decline in the variety of F1 driver champions is undeniably due to winning teams retaining drivers for longer in the modern era. During the 80’s and 90’s world champions were more frequently ditched and sometimes the very season following their victorious year. This is something that now is almost unthinkable.

The list of F1 statistics over the decades provides a plethora of examples to plot the ever-increasing predictability in Formula One, which maybe the readers would like to explore in the comments section.

Whilst the number of different driver champions has fallen, a glance at the constructors’ table of historical winners would suggest otherwise.

From 1970-1980 there were five different constructor winners, including one time champions Tyrell. From 1980 to 1990 this number was just 3 and from 1990-2000 there were four different winning constructors. Over the past 15 years, one time winners Brawn mean that in fact 5 different teams have won the constructors title.

The rise in F1’s predictability is blamed by many observers on the explosion in spending, though a glance at the variety of wining constructors since 1970 probably suggests this is too simplistic an explanation.

It does seem that expectations in F1 have changed, win or bust is no longer an acceptable attitude and the sight of a flaming Ferrari is now most rare indeed. It may be that the engineers are responsible for the philosophy of expedience and the endless pursuit of reliability – and Pat Symonds did recently confess that Williams may have won more races in 2014-15 had they been prepared to turn up, and possibly blow up their engines.

Yet it’s not just the engineers who have participated in the changing of the spirit of Formula One, the modern driver embodies this mentality too. Sebastian Vettel is today quoted by Bild as being optimistic for 2016 because, “No one expected three victories [in 2015]. Almost more important is the consistency that we had. This shows that we are on the right track.”

Really? So consistency is better than winning Seb? The mantra of the pragmatist appears to reign supreme.

Yet all is not lost. In terms of reliability, the MacHonda of 2015 was in fact a modern day representation of the ‘blazing inferno’s’ that were the Ferrari’s of the 1980’s. Part way through the season the Woking team and their Japanese engine partners decided they had nothing to lose and repeatedly upgraded the power unit in attempts to find the desperately needed solutions. Granted, this was no ‘win or bust’ mentality, rather more of a ‘finish or bust’ act of desperation.

Long in the tooth fans of Formula One may view the past decades through rose tinted spectacles but the death or glory mentality, which typified F1 in its early years, is for many thankfully consigned to the pages of history. If Formula One is to reinvent itself, of course the issues of despots, corporate bankers greed, weak leadership from the FIA, nepotism – and just about any other negative connotation we can lay at the feet of F1- should be resolved.

But despite all that, fundamentally, the sport needs to address the issue of predictability; most fans don’t want a Lewis’ Hamilton victory parade week in week out – neither one for Sebastian Vettel. So unpredictability needs to return to Formula One and in the modern world this can only happen if it is actively engineered somehow into the sport. Of course any solution must be explainable to the supporters as being fair and not purely contrived.

The new Pirelli tyre regulations may offer up some unpredictability for the first third of 2016. Though many F1 commentators believe this is at best a temporary solution in providing some unpredictability and the teams will quickly get on top of these regulations – and soon all be doing the same thing again.

Until predictability in Formula One is properly addressed, attendances and viewing numbers will in all likelihood continue on their downward spiral.

“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity” – Gilda Radner

18 responses to “Plotting the rise of predictability in F1 history

  1. Isn’t it 6 WDC winners since 2000, not 5:
    (7 if you add Hamilton in a different team as a unique winner)

  2. Very well put. When I look at my two favourite sports and their respective leagues namely the NFL and F1, it is obvious that one was a local sport but is branching out overseas and is in general on very successful trajectory while the other one has been on a steady decline. Of course many reasons have been given. Some more ridiculous than others (noise, lack of social media exposure, too few historic tracks). In the end it all boils down to a succinct lack of excitement, which I believe is a lack of competition and has led to predictability. Ultimately this is due to a lack of desire to create parity. Why not force the world champion winning engine manufacturer to supply this engine to a specific number of teams to increase/decrease by one for every title it wins/loses. By doing this you strengthen the rest of the field while weakening the reigning champion.

  3. a lot of what you have said makes sense and i was particularly upset that red bull was forced to make a compromise when all they wanted to do was at least have an engine that made them competitive. maybe win a few but at least they could compete. all the hoo har about red bull ‘whining’ is just too tiresome for words. they were shafted by renault who promised a winning/competitive engine and they delivered a dud not just in the first year but also the second!! in fact they went backwards. quel horreur. we now face another year of predictability. i would be very surprised if mercedes did not win. they may lose a few races to create an imaginary fight but they will win. i have always resisted making any forecasts until after the first three races but this year, like the last, i think i know the outcome. bring on an independent engine and take some of the control out of mercedes/ferrari’s hands.

  4. As I have noted before. One sure fire way to decrease predictability is finding an alternative method for establishing the starting grid. Combining the current system of lining the cars up from fastest to slowest, with high reliability and difficult overtaking pretty much guarantees a predictable result.

    Starting cars in order that buts faster cars behind slower cars (e.g. reverse championship order) would dramatically increase the amount of on track action, and from that the unpredictability.

    • That comes up quite often and, I think, would certainly produce some interesting racing. However it would also eliminate qualifying entirely, wouldn’t it? I can’t imagine a fierce competition in qualifying in order to be last on the grid. Unless there was also going to be some points allocation in a sort of “pre-race” race.

      • I agree that is an issue. I have discussed this before. One thing you could do is have a qualifying session where each driver gets a time “handicap” (as sometimes used in golf the level the playing field between two unequal opponents) based on their championship position. The person with the lowest qualifying time+handicap starts on pole. That way drivers are still stimulated to clock a fast as possible qualifying time.

        By tweaking the amount of handicap you can control how much the grid gets mixed up. For example, you could give each driver a penalty of (22-(cham. pos.))/22*(difference between last years fastest and slowest qualifying time). Such a penalty should approximately nullify the difference in performance level of the cars, and the line up would be determined by the form of the day more or less. By making the handicap very large you end up with reverse championship order. If you make it very small you end up with the current system. or you can get anything in between.

    • What about returning to the single lap qualifying format? Right now, with the unlimited number of laps the top teams can get their setup very close to being just right. With single lap, the qualifying sessions should be less predictable.

      • Did you ever watch the qualifying in those days ? If the weather remained constant throughout, it was merely tedious. If the weather changed during the session, was blatantly unfair.

        IMHO, the one thing that ISN’T broken about F1 at the moment is qualifying. Leave well alone, please.

    • I disagree things like reverse order will add interesting racing because a number of times a year we see a very competitive driver starting from near the back of the grid, and each time they make easy work of their climb back to the front. While these drive from the backs are interesting story lines, they don’t produce much on track spectacle. It isn’t going to take long for a Williams/Ferrari/Mercedes to pass a Sauber/Manor/McLaren. It isn’t like we see them battling it out.

  5. Does anyone here truly believe that Ferrari is going to be the team to beat in Australia?
    I’de be more than happy if they were, but I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid yet.

  6. I think it is the tracks themselves to blame – Once Hermann Tilke designed tracks arrived, along with paved run offs instead of gravel traps, the reliability and hence predictability has increased.

    • along with anti-stall software… I find it interesting that as a fan since 1962, I hated that a driver could make a tiny mistake such as a little spin and find himself stuck in the mud or with no starter to get going again. I have seen the error of my desires and long for those days once again…

  7. As acuraf12 says, paved run offs do have a lot to do with the increased predictability. Also this idea of limiting the number of engines per season. I preferred the days of the qualifying engines and the race day engines turned up so they would barely make the finish. It also should be noted that the more restricted the rulebook is, the more this promotes reliable cars rather than those pushing the envelope with some radical design.

  8. We can also place some responsibility on the points and money distribution. As the points range was increased to artificially keep one driver from dominating a season, we also indirectly casued the teams and drivers to push reliability as there were now points and dollars to be won. In NASCAR, this same points allocation has resulted in drivers being able to comeback after a wreck and run non-competitive laps in the back of the field. In both series, points equal dollars and dollars keep the team alive.

    If money was allocated in a different manner and the points system was returned to the previous 8 point range, we would risk having a driver lock up the championship earlier in the season, but we would also have drivers and teams taking more risk to collect fewer points.

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