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.


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13 responses to “Mildly Sour Grapes or Why Alonso Deserved the Title”

  1. Chandrasekhar Sridhar says :

    There is a technical piece written by Gary Anderson which explains why Alonso is faster in the races than in qualifying and has to do with the diffuser and DRS. While not taking away anything from Alonso and the way he has driven, this piece could explain all the statistics which show that Alonso has made up so many positions. Have a look

    • daddysan says :

      Hmm, so the car is bottoming out in constant-DRS conditions like qualifying!

      Thanks so much for sharing. Insightful indeed.

      • Nikunj Vohra says :

        This guy is a regular on Star Sports and had said the same thing in simpler terms. BTW, for next season – FIA have decided to restrict the use of DRS in practice and quali – so the advantages others had over Ferrari in quali pace this year will largely be neutralized. Also, the rules regarding wings’ flexibility are being tightened for next year – and this is expected to hurt (surprise! surprise!) McLaren and RBR who’d used that to gain cornering performance. So yes, you have every reason to believe things will be better for your chap next year, esp. in quali. Let’s examine the SAME stat at the end of next season :)

  2. Nikunj Vohra says :

    While this is a valiant attempt, and I’m sure you meant to be perfectly objective and unbiased, there are several counter-arguments.

    When it comes to poles or wins – Alonso comes up 3rd best. This is true, without even considering that 2 of his 3 wins were assisted by safety car periods and/or front-runner’s retirements, while Vettel and Hamilton each retired while comfortably leading races on multiple occasions, and each lost one pole due to a fuelling errors.

    The other stat you analyze is ‘points made up vs. quali pos’. Your post suggests that this is the key measure of driver skill – but you’re ignoring other important factors.

    1. It is well known that the Ferrari this year struggled to get heat into its tyres quickly, and did not have a great DRS system – both of which facts hurt them in quali. The McLaren was at the other end of the spectrum – great over a single lap, but ordinary on a full tank over the long run. These are facts that all the experts and commentators on TV and the web seem to agree on. Now, I’m not denying that Alonso drove really well, and the McLarens not so well – but ‘making up places on Sun’ was the combined effect of driver perf and also car characteristics – and it’s impossible to say how much of each. Alonso fans are giving him all the credit, while haters are saying it was all about the cars. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

    2. This stat severely penalizes good qualifiers. E.g., Hamilton had 7 poles and 4 other front row starts. So, he didn’t have the same opportunities as Alonso to gain places. In fact, in many races he could only go backwards. Similarly, Vettel totally dominated many races – for which he gets a ‘0’?!

    3. Sticking with Ham, I’ll quote 3 more examples:
    a) you’ve included a race where he retired (after being hit by Maldonado) and was classified 19th – as a loss of 17 places. Sure, technically it wasn’t a DNF but intuitively this doesn’t sound fair at all
    b) In Spain, he put the car on pole and started 24th coz of a fuelling error. He then worked his way up to 8th – without completely re-configuring his car (like Vet did in USA), and without any help from safety cars etc. His team-mate, a former WDC, failed to make Q3, started 10th and finished 9th – behind Hamilton, and without any ‘incidents’. You’re suggesting McLaren may NOT miss a driver like that. That’s hard to believe.
    c) In Korea, he qualified just behind the RBRs’ while his team-mate again failed to make Q3. He then suffered a mechanical failure, picked up some astro-turf, and still finished 10th. Whitmarsh called it the “hardest-fought and most heroically-earned single point in McLaren’s history” – and theirs is a long and proud history. You’re scoring this as ‘7 places lost on Sunday’

    I think these examples illustrate that this stat doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story. You certainly can’t prove that Alonso was the best driver, or Lewis ordinary this season – based on a stat like this.

    In conclusion, I think comparisons are difficult because the 4 best drivers this year – Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel (this list is in alphabetical order with no hidden implications) – found themselves in very different situations and faced different challenges. Lewis had a fast car, but lack of reliability and team support. Kimi’s car simply didn’t have enough pace. Alonso’s wasn’t great in quali but very competitive in races, and reliable as a rock. Vettel’s car was really quick sometimes, not so quick at other races, and also had reliability issues. Though Vettel probably made a couple more mistakes than the others, I think all of them did really well, given their situations.

    We could all come up with different stats and analyses to favor whichever driver we’re partial to – but in the end, the guy who won the most races and scored the most points took the title fair and square. And that’s exactly how it should be. Let’s just accept it and move on.

    • daddysan says :


      The post is a lament about potential and about highlighting consistency. You and Sumeet make a fair point that the places won stat penalizes folks who started from pole and didn’t have an opportunity to make up positions. I agree, but I’m not implying Vettel deserved to lose. I’m saying Alonso was equally deserving of the title.

      Second, the stat proves Lewis wasn’t consistent and squandered advantages, something Vettel didn’t do.

      There are millions of scenarios in which one can shift the goalposts by analyzing in-race positions and using those as benchmarks, so I decided to cut past this problem by analyzing performance against potential. All the top drivers have displayed great tenacity in overcoming odds, my point is Alonso did more of it and almost made it count. Almost.

      About starting last and finishing tenth, it’s great but expected of a top driver. This is why Massa’s improvements look good in this stat but ignore the fact that as someone driving a Ferrari, I expect him to make short work of the caterhams and marussias and HRTs. The same goes for Lewis.

      We’ve all moved on. There is only one way the FIA looks at drivers and that’s the points tally. I have no debate there.

      This is about reassuring myself that there is a chance next year because the right guy can make it happen if he has the right car. This season Ferrari had only one of those elements.

      • Nikunj Vohra says :

        A bit of disagreement. If you look at poles and wins, Alonso ended up with fewer than Vettel and Hamilton. Perfectly valid stats, but nobody concludes he was slow – everyone says the Ferrari lacked pace and Alonso did the best he could. I don’t even dispute that.

        But when it comes to Lewis, people don’t say ‘the McLaren lacked reliability and he did the best he could’. Somehow mechanical failures on the car, pit stop delays, or getting hit by reckless young drivers all get blamed on the driver and prove that ‘Lewis wasn’t consistent and squandered advantages’. Not McLaren. Lewis.

        In fact, this has been the case for many years now. When a Ferrari driver does well, fans always talk about how great he is. When others do well, it’s the car :)

        BTW – here’s another little fact/stat for those who keep saying things like ‘Newey won the last 3 championships’. Alonso’s two titles also came in cars that won the constructors’ title. As did Jenson’s. The two drivers among the current lot who won titles in cars that were NOT the fastest on the grid that year – Kimi in 2007 and Lewis in 2008.

        • daddysan says :

          Yes, Lewis does get blamed more than the car perhaps because he’s more erratic than the rest. I grant this isn’t fair at all. I watched him pull off a stunning US GP victory live in Austin and was on my feet. That was an incredible drive in which he never let Vettel out of his sight and legitimately overtook him.

          About Ferrari, no one denies Massa wasn’t as good (?) as his car in the first half of the season so Ferrari drivers do get blamed. Just not the stars :)

          • Nikunj Vohra says :

            Lol! I know only too well about Lewis getting blamed a lot, but in past years he has at times been guilty of being too aggressive with passes, and showing poor judgment – esp. in 2011, so I can understand some of that. I thought this year his own performances were near-flawless, and your stat does him no justice.

            While I won’t agree with you about Alonso ‘deserving’ the title more, I acknowledge that his performances were also great, and he was also near-flawless.

            The one guy who did make mistakes among this lot was Vettel – he seemed to get drawn to Narain as if the HRT was magnetic. And smashing your front wing while running behind the safety car can’t be forgiven at that level. But he won the title. That’s just how it goes at times.

            You at least had the consolations of being in the hunt till the end, and being reasonably sure of the same next year. I’m PISSED with McLoser for their shoddy performance as a team this year, and not even sure if/when my fave driver will get the tools to challenge for the title again…

      • Nikunj Vohra says :

        Overtaking backmarkers may be expected of all top drivers, but if you start 14 places behind your team-mate – who’s a former world champion, no less – finishing in front of him in a normal, incident-free race does take something special. For me, that was his best performance all year – also because he did it using 1 less set of tyres than Jenson, and after his team had cost him a pole. Don’t trivialize that.
        And Austin was awesome just coz he managed to beat Vettel after Vettel started on pole. That otherwise never happens unless Vettel’s car dies or something.

  3. sumeet says :

    Great analysis. I think the “regained positions” analysis has two effects though. Notice Vettel started from pole and won thrice while Alonso did so once. If you win from pole, you dont “fight back to regain position”. Hence there is a saturating (and understating) effect on Vettel’s performance.

    However, when I compared the points Alonso would have won had he always finished at his qualifying position, he would have had 180! Vettel would have had nearly the same as the points he actually won. This means Alonso made good on nearly 100 points compared to qualifying!

    This confirms your point that Alonso had to fight adverse conditions (at least as far as qualifying is concerned) while Vettel just did all the right things, qualified on pole often and did not throw away his advantage. Both admirable performances in their own way.

    Coming to Hamilton. This is not just my intense dislike for the guy speaking, these are your numbers- The guy was the opposite of Vettel in every sense. Also, your analysis in Hamilton’s case actually understate his poor performance because by not counting the retirements, you have undercounted the lost points. (This is because of the saturating effect at the other end where coming 11 or 24 gets you the same number of points=0).

    • Nikunj Vohra says :

      Sumeet – as a Hamilton supporter, I simply cannot let that comment pass. What exactly are you calling ‘his poor performance’? Pit stop delays? Maldonado crashing into him? FYI – his five retirements are listed as 1) puncture damage 2) accident (for this, Grosjean was penalized) 3) Gearbox failure 4) Fuel pressure failure 5) accident (for this, Hulk was penalized). Tell me which ONE of these can be termed a driver error.
      As for ‘being the opposite of Vettel in every sense’ – let’s see. They both lost one pole position due to a fueling error. They both retired with dead cars – in races they were leading – on two occasions. Their pole/win stats – 7 (H) vs. 6(V), 5 (V) vs. 4 (H). The difference between them? Vettel had better luck.
      I’m sorry – I don’t know you, but it is obviously nothing BUT your intense dislike for Hamilton speaking there.

      • sumeet says :


        I am sure you are right. I was just fascinated by Oculus Dada’s analysis and made a couple of points about his methodology. I have no problem admitting that it was a cheap shot at Hamilton with no analytical basis to it. Sorry if that offended you.

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