The age old question in Formula One has been which is more important to race success, the driver or the car? A new 8 season long study out today suggests for big spending teams the driver is way less relevant than the previous rule of thumb which suggests the car is 80% and the driver is 20% of a winning formula.
The findings of the study were analysed by Rockerbie and co-author Stephen Easton, Professor of Economics, at Simon Fraser University. They used statistical modelling, and data from the 2012-2019 F1 seasons, to determine finishing positions.
The study compared season-by-season analysis including the variation of driver skill to the outlay of team spend on the car. From the data assessed, the results showed that 2012 was the season most reliant on driver skill for a race win: The metric was16.7% and probably due to the regulation changes that “emphasised greater driving skill and strategy on the track.”
The study looks at funding provided by the teams and researcher Lockerbie concludes, ”A team that finishes, on average, tenth place every race would need to spend an additional $164.6 million to finish ninth place consistently. This would require an increase to both driver salary (which currently averages at $7.86 million per season) and team budget (which averages at $195.86 million).”
Interestingly the research demonstrates an experienced driver in a team with a smaller budget can have a significant impact because of their contribution to car development.
In this situation “The biggest factor is more nuanced and it’s the interaction between the driver and team which accounts for 30-40%. Random factors that occur during the race make up the rest.”
However the argument that a driver like Hamilton is worth his huge wage is dismissed by the survey as the bigger the team budget, the less influence the driver has.
“The return to hiring more driving skill (at an assumedly higher driver salary) is positive, in terms of returning better position finishes, but it diminishes the size of the team budget,” says Professor Easton.
“The return to spending more on the team budget is positive for finishes, but diminishing in the size of the driver salary. The team with the largest budget outlay overall, therefore, is most likely in the best position to win each season, as they can afford to not diminish the car’s performance in exchange for a high-quality driver.”
Hence the argument that Lewis Hamilton is the reason for Mercedes record 8 consecutive constructor titles is debunked. The budget of Mercedes F1 here was clearly the most significant factor
The study concludes, “Drivers who move to teams with superior cars, and team support, or who are lucky enough to begin their F1 career with these teams, achieve superior results and possibly world championships.”
This is clearly good news for George Russell, but only because he is consistently beating Mercedes champion driver. Valterri Bottas did not get this boost because he was unable to consistently challenge the best car, best driver combination Mercedes had in Hamilton.
Further, the reason Alfa Romeo want Bottas, Aston Martin recruited Vettel and Alpine signed Alonso is because that 30-40% input improvement they receive from an experienced driver on a team limited team budget makes a huge difference to their performance progression.
The unknown from this study is how the 2022 regulation changes will impact on the driver/car equation.
Adrian Newey’s previous knowledge of ground effect car design may prove for Red Bull Racing to be all consuming in the race for the 2022 title, and Max Verstappen will be merely a beneficiary of that 30 year F1 car design knowledge.
New regulations which limit the title leading teams to less wind tunnel time are again a new unknown. Mercedes Benz domination was during an era when unlimited send delivered the best car.
Now there is a cost cap and restrictions on the leading teams wind tunnel and CFD amounts of times, so in another 10 years we may see the tables swing where the driver is more important than at present.