We've reached the end of the season, and its time for the post-season revues. Very few argue about the actual results, but most fans have definite and differing opinions on the relative merit of their handfull of favourite drivers. In the majority of sports everything is done to have an even competition so that the best player/team wins. Fans can argue about who will win, but after the match/race everyone has to agree about who was better on the day. The great advantage of F1 as a spectator sport is that the competition is anything but even, given the different cars and motors, and the designated first and second drivers within the teams. Even knowing the whole season's results doesn't settle the many friendly arguments on which driver is better than which other.
Given the difficulty of comparisions, the use of detailed statistics is increasingly popular when trying to justify a given driver ranking. The most convincing of these cases is comparing the qualification results of teammates driving the same car. Comparing such similar situations seems logical on the surface, but the logic is seriously flawed.
In high school physics we were taught that taking the difference of two similar measurements can give a very large error. The example I always remember is trying to calculate the width of the line across the goal on a football field by taking a ruler and measuring the distance from each side of the line to the goal at the other end. The two quantities measured are so similar that taking the difference of the two will leave a result so error prone that you may even end up with a negative result! Doing the same experiment by measuring from a point right next to the line will be much more accurate, as the two measurements are nowhere near as similar as before.
Thus to get a low error, we need to compare quantities that are very different. Following this logic, the performance of two teammates during qualification are similar quantities, so subject to high measurement error. We can only really be certain of relative performances by comparing vastly different quantities.
To illustrate this point, I've chosen to compare Schumacher and Inoue, who are in my opinion the best and worst drivers on the grid. Schumacher started with the relatively new team Jordan, a team now known for spotting talent and one of the very few new teams to be doing well. Inoue started with the relatively new team Simtek, a team now known for now not existing, and one of the many new teams to have done poorly. Schumacher soon moved to Benetton, a team with the money to offer itself a rising star. Inoue soon moved to Arrows, a driver with the money to offer himself a rising team, or a least a team that will be around longer than Simtek. As Schumacher's experience in F1 accumulated, his obvious talents brought him growing attention. As Inoue's experience in F1 accumulated, his obviously powerful sponsors brought him growing attention. Schumacher's performances saw the FIA award him the world championship. Inoue's performances saw the FIA introduce the 107% rule. From this comparison we can deduce that Schumacher is a better driver than Inoue. The certainty of the decision that this theory provides is startling.
The theory can be extended to compare drivers with other large differences, such as distance. We can compare the two sons of former greats that are separated by the the Atlantic, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. Their names would have opened lots of doors for them, but now that they're at the peak of the competition in their resective continents they can no longer rely on their names. At this level, only money and driving skills count. Villeneuve is very young (24), the youngest Indy car champion ever. This shows that his raw talent has carried him up very quickly from the lower grades of competition. Hill, who's just turned 33, has taken somewhat longer to progress to the front of the pack. This shows a longer learning curve, so experience has played a greater part in his rise, and as a consequence talent has played a lesser part. Villeneuve earned the title of "Rookie of the Year" for his first year of Indy competition. Hill didn't earn a whole lot of qualifications in his first year of F1. Villeneuve won the championship this year, in a car that was not seen as one of the top last year. Hill has the car that most agree is the best of the field, but still lost the championship. With the distance between the measurements in this example, we can confidently assert that Villeneuve is a better driver than Hill. Of course next year they will be teammates, a few metres away from each other, thus any comparison would be too error prone to take seriously. Even if Hill beats the pants off Villeneuve we know that the measurements taken many thousands of kilometres apart show the true picture.
Another possibility of a large difference is to compare the first and last drivers when listed alphabetically. We find Alesi first in the list and Wendlinger last. This is a very interesting case, as it goes against appearances. Alesi, with his bright red car and latin blood in his veins, seems to always be driving at 110%. He is often very well placed after the first qualifying session, but loses places on the Saturday - as the other drivers were tuning their cars on Friday rather than pushing each lap to the limit, so they ended up with better cars on Saturday. Wendlinger, on the other hand, followed pretty much the same training as Schumacher before coming to F1. While Wendlinger attracted much less of my attention than Alesi or Schumacher, I expect the same cool, calm and calculating approach as Schumacher appears to have. So based on these observations, I'd expect Alesi to be the hare that is fast but unreliable, while Wendlinger would be the tortoise, that plods along but picks up the points. However looking at the stats, Alesi comes out on top of the reliability comparison. Both drivers had accidents last year, Alesi missed a couple of races with a sore back, Wendlinger missed a couple of races in a coma fighting for his life. Alesi finished 53% of the races he entered this year, compared to Wendlinger's 33% (Frentzen managed 70% in his Sauber!). Even though Alesi drives harder than Wendlinger, the fact that Wendlinger crashes harder and reaches the end of the race less frequenctly means that Wendlinger is actually driver past his personal limit. The conclusion is that Wendlinger's limit is much lower than Alesi's, and thus Alesi is the better driver of the two.
The only negative aspect of this method of comparison is that it would need a lot of data in order to compare all of the drivers. While similar (and therefore error-prone) statistics can cover the whole grid, large differences generally involve only a couple of drivers. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to investigate other aspects that will lead to valid comparisons. An easy beginning would be based on car colour (difference across the spectrum), a more challenging approach would be to try to find out each driver's shoe size.
Michael Whitfield is a 184 cm tall Australian who prefers Winter to Summer; partly because he is a keen skier but mainly because his '75 2002 has serious overheating problems during Summer. He is horrified at the thought that he's picking up a British accent from the Poms he works with - hopefully it is just another unfounded theory.