How much does qualifying affect the actual race in Formula 1?
By: Ishika Sanghi and Jed Miguel
While Formula 1 is relatively unknown in the United States, F1 possesses a small but dedicated following. Newcomers to the sport, especially those with previous racing knowledge, often compare NASCAR to F1. At their core, both are very similar sports, but they do have their differences. One of the biggest differences between the two actually doesn’t occur during the race, rather it occurs before the race. For qualifying, NASCAR drivers go all out and perform one “flying lap” in order to set the grid for the upcoming race. For F1, qualifying is split into three parts. During Q1, the first part, drivers have 20 minutes on the track to set a fast lap time. The interesting part of qualifying is that every driver shares their 20 minutes with everyone, so there could be zero drivers or twenty drivers on the track at one time. The five slowest drivers are eliminated and make up the last five places on the grid. Q2 comes after, determining the eleventh through sixteenth places on the grid. Finally, Q3 determines the rest of the grids over a 10-minute period.
Today we are analyzing F1 qualifying by asking how much impact qualifying has on the outcome of the race. For our data, we are using the 2021 Formula One World Championship, as this is the most recently completed season and because this is the season before the new regulation changes in F1.
For this piece of data, we took every driver's starting position on the grid as a result of qualifying and subtracted that from their final position after the race had ended. We see that the average position difference is negative, meaning that, on average, every driver drops by 0.8734 places after each place. We can also see that the graph is slightly right-skewed, meaning that drivers are more likely to lose places than to gain places. Both of these observations make sense as drivers tend to do better during qualifying than during the actual race. This could be explained by the fact that drivers drive using the fastest yet most fragile tyres during qualifying but, during the actual race, some drivers tend to use slow yet durable tyres as certain racing strategies require tyres that are durable so a car will take fewer pit stops. Looking at the bar graph, we also see that the center of the graph is from the -1 to 0 mark. This makes sense as when some drivers make up a lot of ground, say a driver gains five places, four drivers tend to lose one place. This observation could also be explained by the fact that drivers are risky enough to always go for the overtake, but when they falter and get overtaken, drivers tend to play it safe so as to not lose a lot of places. We also see that the median (in the graph) and the mean are both close to zero. This can be explained by the fact that the top teams, Red Bull and Mercedes, often placed in the top four during qualifying and often ended in those same places at the end of the race. This same logic also applies to the bottom of the grid, with Haas, Alfa Romeo, and Williams consistently finishing towards the back of the pack during qualifying and finishing in the same spots during the race. We can also see some outliers in the graph, with some people finishing upwards of 15 places behind their qualifying place. This could be explained through DNFs (Did Not Finish), where a driver could not finish the race due to a crash or a power failure. On the other side of the spectrum, we also see that surging runs from the middle of the grid are rare, which highlights how homogenous F1 was during the 2021 championship.
Mercedes vs Redbull
During the 2021 championship, two teams took the headlines: Mercedes and Red Bull. Mercedes, led by Lewis Hamilton, were the dominant team for the past seven years, with both Mercedes winning the Constructors Championship and Mercedes drivers winning the Drivers’ Championship seven years in a row, with Lewis Hamilton winning six drivers championships in seven years. The team closest to Mercedes was Red Bull, led by Max Verstappen, a driver who is seen as the future of F1 and expected to take the mantle of F1 from Hamilton. During the 2021 Championship, Mercedes won the Constructors Championship while Verstappen took the Drivers’ Championship from Hamilton in the last race of the year. Taking a look at the differences between the starting and ending positions of the two teams, the result of the championship is clear. We notice that Mercedes (in blue) is more consistent, often losing one place from qualifying, while Red Bull is more erratic, losing places as much as gaining places from qualifying. This can be explained by the fact that both of Mercedes’ drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas, are fairly consistent drivers that are good at defending against overtakes, while the Red Bull drivers have a difference in abilities, with Max Verstappen being the type of driver to make a push for places after placing far from the front during qualifying while Sergio Perez is seen as the driver who drops places after qualifying.
Haas vs Williams
Next, we have the bottom of the grid, Williams and Haas. Williams was led by driver George Russell while Haas was led by Mick Schumacher. From the graph, one would see that Haas is the better team as Haas is more consistent, however, this is far from the truth. Williams and Haas placed 8th and 10th on the grid respectively, with Williams earning 23 points while Haas struggled to take any points during the 2021 championship. Haas are more consistent than Williams because Haas drivers tend to finish in the last two places on the grid and, more often than not, both Haas drivers end up staying in their original place throughout the whole race. Williams seem more erratic, with the graph showcasing that they lose places easily, and this analysis is right. George Russell is a driver that is known for doing well in qualifying but he is known to drop down during the actual race due to the Williams car being less reliable over a long period of time during the race.
Ferrari vs Alpine
Next, we are analyzing two teams who were in the middle of the pack during the 2021 championship: Ferrari and Alpine. Ferrari is a team with a rich history of racing, being the most successful F1 team in history, and is a company that is synonymous with speed. Similarly, Alpine, known in the past as Renault, is a very old and very successful team in F1, with esteemed drivers Fernando Alonso and Alain Prost driving for this prestigious team.
Observing the graph, we notice that while both Ferrari and Alpine are erratic, we see that Alpine has faltered more than Ferrari. This is due to the Alpine being less reliable during the race and this is also due to the fact that Ferrari led the middle of the pack during the 2021 championship. We also notice that Alpine has more surging runs from qualifying, which can be explained by Alpine’s Fernando Alonso using his experience to push Alpine’s car to the limits during the race.
Looking at the data, we see that the effect of qualifying is very dependent on several factors, most notably the teams and their drivers. We see that the team itself matters as some teams are more reliable than others, making the reliable teams consistent in terms of the difference in positions as opposed to the less reliable teams being erratic. We also notice that drivers have a big impact on the data too, with some drivers doing better during qualifying due to being able to use fast tyres as opposed to some drivers doing better during the race because of their experience with defending leads and overtaking other cars. All in all, the effect on qualifying depends on a team-by-team and on a driver-by-driver basis.