Atlas F1   Where did the
Winners Start From

  by David Wright, Australia

In modern day Formula One, it seems as though a car passing another is as rare as hen's teeth, so for a driver to be on pole or leading at the end of the first lap after making a good start would seem to be how most Grands Prix are won. Or is it?

How often does the driver on pole go on to win the race? I have chosen the period 1994 to the present day (a total of 98 races), as during this time the rules have been relatively stable, with pit stops for fuel and tyres, and none of the previously allowed driver aids.

So just how many times has the pole sitter won? More than half? Exactly half? In fact, only 34 times, or just over one in three times! It seems that despite what many people think (including myself) the driver on pole position doesn't win the race that often.

However, if you consider the front row of the grid, then the figure almost doubles to 67 times, and if you look even further down the grid you discover that only four times in those 98 races (Belgium 1995, Italy 1995, Monaco 1996, Europe 1999) has the winner not qualified in the top six places on the grid. Which should make you feel slightly better, even if it does suggest that there is not much passing happening in Formula One these days - note that three of the four races that the winner qualified out of the top six were run in wet/dry conditions, which may be why we now have the British Grand Prix being held in April, during the middle of spring instead of the middle of summer - Bernie and Max hoping for rain perhaps?

Table 1: Wins from Grid Position
Grid position Pole Position Front Row Top 3 Top 6
No. of Times 34 (35%) 67 (68%) 85 (87%) 94 (96%)

Looking deeper into the statistics, the 1994 and 1998 season averages of where the winner started on the grid were fairly close to pole, suggesting a season where the races were fairly predictable - no driver who qualified outside the top three won a race in either year. In 1995 and 1999 the averages were further away, suggesting more excitement or at least unpredictability - well, 1999 was like that - how many people would have foreseen a last race fight between Irvine and Hakkinen for the title?

Table 2: The Winner's Grid Position
Year 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
Average Grid Position 1.8 3.5 2.8 2.1 1.9 3.4

Another point to consider is how well the pole man finished if they didn't win the race, which happened quite often. Quite often they didn't finish - 34 times, exactly the same number of times as they won, of which 18 of these were spins, collisions with other car(s) or crashes. Not a very good record at all...

Table 3: How the Pole Sitter Finished the Race
Result Win Podium Finish Points Finish DNF DQ
No. of Times 34 (35%) 56 (57%) 62 (63%) 34 (35%) 1 (1%)

Finally, there are some tracks that often seem to have winners from pole, Hungary and Monaco being two where many people think pole position means a guaranteed win. In fact, Interlagos, Barcelona and Hockenheim (four pole position winners out of six races) are the tracks that seem to most strongly favour the driver on pole, with Nurburgring and Spa-Francorchamps favouring the other drivers the most.

Now let us consider a similar but slightly different situation, the case of leading the race at the end of the first lap. Quite often this is the pole sitter, but sometimes someone else makes a great start to lead into the first corner, and even more infrequently there is actually a pass for the lead on the first lap. Again the 1994 to present day period will be considered. There is of course the saying "the race cannot be won at the start, but it can be lost"; however some people would say this is not as true as it used to be. We'll see if this is true.

It seems it is more important to be leading at the end of the first lap then being on pole, as 43 times the winner has been leading at the end of the first lap. This increases to 63 if you include second as well, although only three times (Belgium 1995, Monaco 1996, Europe 1999) has the winner not been placed in the top six at the end of the first lap, again reinforcing a feeling of lack of passing.

Table 4: Winners' Track Position at the End of the First Lap
Track position First Second Third Top 6
No. of Times 43 (44%) 20 (20%) 17 (17%) 95 (97%)

Looking at the season averages of where the winner was at the end of the first lap, the 1998 season average was closest to leading the race, while 1995 was furthest away, supporting the figures relating to pole position (well, only so much can happen in one lap, you know!) However, the first lap leader fared better than the pole sitter when considering retirements - only 27 times (much less than the number of times the pole sitters failed to finish), of which thirteen of these were spins, collisions with other car(s) or crashes. Still a little bit clumsy it seems...

Table 5: The Winners' Average Track Position at the End of the First Lap
Year 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
Average Track Position 2.1 3.3 2.9 2.1 1.7 2.9

Table 6: Result of Those Leading at the End of Lap 1
Result Wins Podium Finishes Points Finishes DNFs DQs
No. of Times 43 (44%) 60 (61%) 66 (67%) 27 (28%) 2 (2%)

There are similar results when looking at it from a track by track perspective, Interlagos (five out of six races) favouring the first lap leader winning the race the most, while Nurburgring and Monza favouring the other drivers the most.

Looking at these figures from a drivers' perspective, some interesting statistics come to light. 28 times a driver has been dominant, taking pole, leading the first lap and winning the race - some people would tell you this is how every race runs. Also, some drivers have been on pole, but not won a race - Barrichello twice and Fisichella once; while other drivers have won a race or races without being on pole - Panis once and Irvine four times, equalling Bruce McLaren's record.

For those drivers who have scored a significant number of poles (Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve), I looked at two statistics. The first one was how often they won the race after qualifying on pole or led the first lap; the second one was how many of their wins have come from qualifying on pole or leading the first lap.

All four of these drivers have averaged about two wins out of every five times they have been on pole - not that often, and despite what it seemed at the time, Hakkinen's lack of wins last year from pole are what these statistics would have predicted. These same drivers have won about every second race they have led the first lap of, whether they have been on pole or not, which is an impressive achievement.

Table 7 Hakkinen Hill Schumacher Villeneuve
Total* wins 14 19 33 11
Total* poles 21 18 23 13
Total* first lap led 20 16 25 12

Table 8 Hakkinen Hill Schumacher Villeneuve
Wins from pole position 8 (38%) 7 (39%) 9 (39%) 5 (38%)
Wins from leading lap 1 11 (55%) 8 (50%) 13 (52%) 6 (50%)
Wins from pole
relative to total* wins
57% (8/14) 37% (7/19) 27% (9/33) 45% (5/11)
Wins from leading first lap
relative to total* wins
79% (11/14) 42% (8/19) 39% (13/33) 55% (6/11)

(* "Total" means during the period 1994 to present day.)

However, when things are looked at from a slightly different perspective, then things change quite markedly. When you look at where on the grid the driver has won his races, and how many of these wins have come from pole position, then these drivers' statistics vary quite a lot. Michael Schumacher has scored nine of his 33 wins from pole position; Mika Hakkinen has scored eleven of his fourteen wins this way - only three from any other grid position. What does this mean - Michael is lousy at winning from pole, or that most of his wins come from further down the grid, having to fight his way through for the win? Mika almost always has the best car?

These statements may have some truth to them, but it would be wrong to say that all of Mika or Michael's wins can be explained in this way. An interesting statistic here is that Ayrton Senna scored 29 of his 41 wins (71%) from pole position, while Alain Prost's scored 18 of his 51 wins (35%) this way, yet both drivers were extremely successful - it suggests that although they achieved their wins in different ways, that this statistic isn't necessarily a good guide to a driver's success.

Finally, when you look at how many of a driver's wins come from leading the first lap, you see that Michael Schumacher has scored thirteen of his 33 wins from leading the first lap, with Damon Hill scoring a similar percentage of wins this way, while Mika Hakkinen has scored eleven of his fourteen wins this way. Again this seems to be no guide, unless you wish to suggest either Michael Schumacher or Mika Hakkinen are unsuccessful…

So what has all this shown? Don't give up if your favourite driver is not on pole position, he still has a good chance of winning… on the other hand, if your favourite driver is on pole, start worrying! Well, maybe not, but the lead at the first lap is more important than being on pole, even if neither is quite as strong a predictor of the winner as you (or I) expected. So forget your preconceived ideas about the guy on pole winning every race, because it just doesn't happen - don't give up like I have in recent years when the first race seems to have been won before it has started, because it just might not turn out how you expect it to…

David Wright© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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