Mildly Sour Grapes or Why Alonso Deserved the Title
The Formula One season ended yesterday in heartbreak for me. I’d been rooting for Fernando Alonso and saw him lose by three points to Sebastien Vettel. Final score, 281 to 278.
A dominant theme was the consistency with which Alonso wrestled the Ferrari to podiums. I took this at face value during the season because these things tend to embed in your subconscious over many months. I decided to look up the numbers to confirm this hypothesis and the results are even more heartbreaking.
A few notes:
- I’ve limited the analysis to the top drivers only. This is to control for overtakes or positions gained by passing backmarkers versus fights with legitimate performers.
- I believe the Ferrari was inferior to Red Bull and McLaren this season. I cannot establish this completely because I lack telemetry comparisons but I’ll point to some significant indicators in the post. In any case, there was the well documented Ferrari wind tunnel gaffe where erroneous tests and measurements resulted in a car performing below par on track, contrary to what their simulations predicted. This mess was rectified only halfway through the season.
- The analysis cannot account for pitstops. Mistakes happened, people spent more time in the pit lane than they should’ve and there’s no way to say what the results could’ve been had those not happened.
- Similarly, I’ve left out retirements from this analysis, except only to record their absolute number. Some retirements were the driver’s fault, some because of the car and some because the driver happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The numbers only consider races where the driver was classified with a position.
Here’s a comparison of victories and pole positions. Nothing too surprising. Vettel more or less converted the advantages gained in qualifying, Alonso and Button did a little better. Lewis’ stats are surprising. Most pole positions, four victories and he still ended up fourth in the championship. More on that later.
When you consider podium finishes the story changes remarkably as Alonso trumps Vettel. This is the saddest part because he couldn’t make more of those podium finishes count given the skewed distribution of points. The most remarkable driver here is Kimi. Seven podiums and no retirements. As mihirfadnavis remarked, he may take his car for
a joyride outside the circuit but he will FINISH THE RACE!
Next, I looked at how much the drivers managed to improve their race positions from where they started. I did this because I wanted to normalize for the uneven distribution of points. The numbers below are the difference between final race classification and qualifying position. Note that negative numbers mean the driver improved positions during the race. Since I’m looking at a pool of the top drivers, it’s reasonable to assume the positions they improved were a comparable mix of others retiring, pit-stop strategies, weather and genuine overtaking. Here’s the comparison for Alonso vs Vettel.
On thirteen occasions Alonso has finished better than his starting position compared to nine for Vettel. Two of his three victories were in races where he improved seven and ten positions respectively. Vettel has a stunning Abu Dhabi performance skewing his chart with 21 places. I’ll even grant him the Brazil performance because he was spun around at the start of the race and made back those positions. That said, the real warhorse in this battle is Alonso. Here’s
proof of how he consistently wrestled his car to podium finishes. Mihir questioned how this stat alone can conclusively prove Alonso was the better driver in a car worse than his competitors. It doesn’t, but there are few explanations for how a car that consistently underperformed in qualifying managed to make more podiums than the Red Bull. Practically, qualifying was a situation in which Alonso had 2-3 laps to put his car at the front of the grid, compared to the race where he had more laps to adjust his driving to the car’s strengths and win back positions. Were there qualifying performances where the Ferrari did badly because Alonso drove badly? Sure, but this graph indicates that those cases were few (if any) because it’s improbable a driver would screw up every Saturday and find his mojo only on Sundays.
Here’s what the graph looks like if you add up all the positions made up and lost over the season.
Alonso has made up a stunning 52 positions this season compared to Vettel’s 33 (a chunk of which is driven by his Abu Dhabi performance). Kimi’s is another amazing stat. This is why out of nowhere, the iceman ended up third in the points tally. Look out for his Lotus next season, it’s going to be a stunner.
But wait…what’s that at the bottom? Holey moley look at the McLarens! On an average, they’ve given up their advantages. A clear case of not living up to expectations.
And here are Lewis’ stats by race. Five retirements and only four instances in which he actually made up positions (USA being one where he pulled off a convincing overtaking maneouvre over Vettel and won the race). Will McLaren really miss him? Time will tell.
What a fucking heartbreak of a season. In the end, the difference was only three points, despite Vettel’s four additional poles and two additional victories. It’s remarkable I’ve spent this entire post defending the performance of a single driver. Since 1999, when Michael Schumacher introduced me to the concept of a real team, I’ve been an ardent Ferrari fan. The team has always come first, with individual performances counting for the greater good. This year, that faith has been tested, either by utterly classless and jarring displays of jingoism or through Machiavellian manoeuvrings designed to aid Alonso at the expense of his teammate. Alonso didn’t need the politics off track, he needed a good car on it. I eagerly look forward to 2013 and hope Maranello makes it happen.