The Importance of Qualifying

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Intra-team qualifying statistics have become the new measuring stick of evaluating Formula 1 talent beyond the basic statistics many racing fans are used to – wins, points, podiums, etc. And the basic stat of how many times a driver has qualified ahead of their teammate over the course of a season is actually pretty easy for the average fan to understand.

Sure, there are no points to be paid on Saturday qualifying sessions. And, yes, there are renowned and respected World Champion drivers in the history of Formula 1 who have a reputation of being much better racers than qualifiers. Alain Prost is the best-known example of such a driver, even though he was by absolutely no stretch of the imagination a sub-par qualifier over the course of his career. So is Jenson Button, who has not won a season-long qualifying battle versus a teammate since 2009, but has put himself well clear of his younger teammates in the championship the last two seasons. And to be honest, the importance of how many times one driver qualifies ahead of their teammate is greatly reduced the farther up the running order you go. At the end of the day, the only battle between Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton that’ll amount to much this year is the one they’re having for the 2014 World Championship. But not every team in Formula 1 can compete for the championship (certainly not in a Mercedes-dominated season such as this). And below those teams, there are the teams that won’t compete for race wins or podium finishes. And below them, are the teams that need a miracle to finish in the points any given week.

From the infrequent-scoring mid-grid all the way to the very back of the running order is where head-to-head qualifying metrics have the most weight. Because they are the most consistent and reliable method of determining a driver’s pace compared to a teammate in the exact same equipment. Race sessions are affected by so many variables including mechanical attrition, accidents, pit strategy, changing weather conditions, safety car periods, team tactics, lunatics running on track to cause a disruption – that they can produce results that can distort the perception of which driver is truly the more capable of the two over the course of a season. If Driver A of a team outqualifies their teammate Driver B every race but fails to score a point, while in just one of the races Driver B records a points-scoring finish in an attrition-filled race, it is a memorable, gutsy, determined, and hard-fought result…just not a result that truly reflects the difference in pace between Driver A and Driver B.

This is where the head-to-head qualifying results come in. Measuring a driver’s qualifying success rate versus their teammates is a much better method for evaluating the potential and ability of a driver at a team ranked lower than the top handful of teams in the sport. And in most cases, these drivers turn out to go on to great things when a young mid-field driver earns a promotion to a front-running team, or when a young driver at a backmarker team earns a promotion to a mid-field team or even up to a front-runner. It’s also a great tool for evaluating established talent at a team that has dramatically slid down the order over the course of a season.

For the baseball fans who read this, think of a driver’s head-to-head qualifying scores as being similar to a batter’s OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage), which has become a more effective method of measuring a batter’s effectiveness at the plate instead of just going by batting average or total hits in a season. Think of it as the equivalent to a hockey player’s individual Corsi rating, the accumulation of every attempted shot for and against a player while they’re on the ice, which has become a better tool to measure offensive and defensive effectiveness over the heavily team-dependent plus/minus stat.

BRIEF EXPLANATION

In a 19 race season such as this, there are a maximum of 19 qualifying sessions that can be used to determine the score in head-to-head qualifying records over the course of a season. This is simply a running tally of how many times one driver qualifies ahead of their teammate in a qualifying session where both drivers are able to set a time. From 2006-present, this can be decided from any one of the three stages of knockout qualifying.

If Lewis Hamilton, for instance, compiles a 12-7 record against Nico Rosberg in qualifying this season, this means that Hamilton has outqualified Rosberg twelve times in nineteen races this season. Sometimes this record is expressed as a percentage. A 12-for-19 record would be expressed, percentage-wise, as a 63.16% success rate in qualifying. Generally speaking, a success rate from around 50-60% is considered an even match, a 60-75% success rate indicates a significant advantage in pace from one driver to another, and anything higher than 75% is something you would see out of a clear-cut number one driver dominating their lesser teammate. 100% records are very rare, and in most cases are the product of significantly decreased sample sizes as small as one Grand Prix, or an extreme mismatch in the capability of both drivers. In this article, I’ll interchange between expressing a driver’s head-to-head qualifying records as a decimal-based score and as a percentage.

In the case of one or both drivers failing to set a representative lap time due to a mechanical failure or an accident, the result from that qualifying session is rendered null, and therefore not counted toward’s a driver’s qualifying score over the course of a season. Instances where one driver sets a representative lap time that fails to meet the FIA’s 107% threshhold and results in a DNQ, however, are counted. Very rarely in the modern era has a constructor allotted two entirely different chassis to each of its drivers, as a result this statistic is considered to be almost entirely equipment-independent.

In particular, there are five active drivers in 2014 who serve as a testament to the use of intra-team qualifying metrics as a predictor of future success.

DANIEL RICCIARDO

Man, Daniel Ricciardo has been pretty awesome this year, hasn’t he? The 25-year-old Australian sits 3rd in the championship in his first season for Infiniti Red Bull Racing, with three victories (Canada, Hungary, Belgium) and seven total podium finishes on the season. In his first season, he’s made Sebastian Vettel look awfully ordinary for a reigning four-time champion, even when Vettel hasn’t been hit with mechanical bugs. Next year, Ricciardo will fully inherit the lead driver role at Red Bull as Vettel departs the Red Bull Racing organization – his home for over a decade – to presumably join Ferrari.

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When Mark Webber retired at the end of the 2013 season, Red Bull had a choice of available drivers to choose from, not just Ricciardo, who was then racing alongside fellow candidate Jean-Eric Vergne at Scuderia Toro Rosso, but also veterans like Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, and Nico Hulkenberg were at least wildly rumored for the vacant seat at some point. In the end, Red Bull disregarded the more “established” talents and chose Ricciardo over Vergne despite the fact that in their two seasons together at Toro Rosso, Ricciardo had only scored one more championship point than Vergne – 30 points to Ricciardo in 39 races, 29 to Vergne in the same timeframe. Vergne also had the better highest finish between the two – 6th at Canada in 2013 for Vergne was the best result for Toro Rosso in the post-Vettel era, conversely, Ricciardo could only muster two best finishes of 7th in China and Italy.

But in qualifying sessions, Daniel Ricciardo outqualified Jean-Eric Vergne a whopping 30 times in 39 races from the start of 2012 to the end of 2013. That’s a success rate of over 75% in two seasons. Add to that the widely-circulated disparity between the two drivers when it comes to technical feedback and car development, and the manner in which Ricciardo has performed in 2014 – and the Perth native has proven to be much more than a mere Toro Rosso qualifying specialist or an inexpensive in-house stop-gap to replace Webber, but a bona fide candidate to become a future World Champion. As for the qualifying numbers this year? Ted Kravitz of Sky Sports boldly predicted before the start of the season that Ricciardo would only outqualify Vettel once in 19 races in 2014. Ricciardo is now up 10-6 over Vettel in head-to-head qualifying scenarios, meaning that he’s clinched a season victory over Vettel, who is already third on the all-time F1 pole positions list, in qualifying with three races in hand. These three races include the USGP at Circuit of the Americas, which Ricciardo has said is his most anticipated race of the season.

We’re a long way removed from predicting that Ricciardo would be mediocre at Red Bull, and we’re certainly lightyears removed from the heavy-handed criticism Franz Tost and Helmut Marko faced when Ricciardo and Vergne replaced Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari in 2012.

VALTTERI BOTTAS

Before the USGP of last year, Finnish rookie Valtteri Bottas had not a single point to his name in his rookie season of Formula 1. Williams Renault’s only tally came from Pastor Maldonado‘s 10th place finish in Hungary. But Bottas was a standout in the GP3 Series in 2011, and in 2012 he was regularly posting times comparable to Maldonado’s as the team’s designated Free Practice 1 driver. And this was in a year where the Williams FW34 had genuine race-winning pace in the hands of the quick, but erratic Venezuelan.

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That raw pace carried into 2013, with Bottas holding a 10-7 advantage over Maldonado in qualifying after the first seventeen races, highlighted by a stunning 3rd place effort in mixed conditions in Montreal – but still no strong results to show for it because the FW35 was, generally speaking, utter crap. But in Austin, Bottas once again made it to Q3 – and in a dry qualifying session no less – while Maldonado, already with one foot out the door at Williams, had a meltdown of tremendous proportions in Q1. That Sunday, Bottas converted his 9th place starting position into a superb 8th place finish to put him ahead of Maldonado 4-1 in the Championship, justifying his final qualifying score of 12-7 and the praise he’d received over the course of the season as one of the standout rookies of 2013, alongside Jules Bianchi.

This year, Bottas has a car that’s slightly better than a useless lump of carbon fiber, and a new teammate in Felipe Massa who has been within an eyelash of being a World Champion and is much higher-rated up and down the paddock than Maldonado was. In a year that was hyped up as the rebirth of Massa’s career with Williams in the pre-season, it turned out that – surprise! Bottas has taken control of the team, and is actually better than he was last year. He’s up 11-5 in qualifying going into Austin against a much more experienced teammate, and he’s converted that into five podium finishes and 145 points, outperforming Massa on an almost regular basis even when the Brazilian hasn’t been shaken by awful first-lap luck. In Bottas, Williams have found another great young talent, and Finnish fans have found an heir to the throne of Kimi Raikkonen when the Iceman steps down. It’d be an absolute shame at this point if he finishes 2014 without a race win, but he is returning to one of his favorite tracks this weekend.

FERNANDO ALONSO

For this case study, we’re not going to look at the ludicrous 14-2 qualifying advantage Alonso has over Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen, the other half what was billed in the winter as the next Ferrari “dream team”. Instead, we’re going to go way, waaaaay back to 2001, when Alonso was much younger, and driving for another Italian team that stood no chance of winning on Sunday.

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The 2001 Championship Standings have Alonso, the 19-year-old rookie for European Minardi F1 Team, ranked 23rd of 25 drivers, with a best result of 10th at the final German Grand Prix at the old Hockenheimring. Finishing ahead of him in 22nd was his teammate for the first fourteen races of 2001, 25-year-old Brazilian Tarso Marques. A driver I liked for his cool helmet, cool-sounding name, and expertly-highlighted hair. Marques recorded two 9th-placed finishes – once in the Brazilian Grand Prix where he was used as a pick to help David Coulthard pass Michael Schumacher for the eventual race victory, and the other time in Canada as the final driver to finish the race. If you only looked at these numbers, you’d assume that Minardi were blithering idiots to drop Marques with three races remaining (in fact, he voluntarily stood down to make way for a better-funded driver in Alex Yoong).

But there was a staggering difference between Alonso and Marques in qualifying, in fact, it was a 13-1 thrashing over fourteen races. Marques’ only qualifying victory came at Malaysia in just Alonso’s second career Grand Prix. But over the entire season, it was clear that Alonso was far and away a more superior talent. In the hands of Marques, the Minardi PS01 looked like a hastily-made car that was engineered on a pauper’s budget – highlighted by an embarassing DNQ in Silverstone and what probably should have been a DNQ in Melbourne when he missed 107% by three-tenths of a second, and even then, he was still over two and a half seconds slower than a 19-year-old rookie with just 26 career single-seater races to his name before that Sunday. In Alonso’s hands, he was able to regularly outqualify not only his more experienced Minardi teammate in the same under-equipped chassis, but also drivers for much better-equipped teams such as Arrows, Prost, Jaguar, and even Benetton and BAR Honda. The 3-0 advantage over the less-capable Yoong in Monza, Indianapolis, and Suzuka to bring him to an overall record of 16-1 or  94.11% was pretty much a gimme. Two years later, Alonso was promoted at Renault from primary tester to regular driver alongside fellow Minardi alumni Jarno Trulli, and as the old cliche goes – the rest is history.

The 33-year-old Spaniard’s uncanny ability to perform well and above the limits of his machinery were cultivated as a 19-year-old rookie for Minardi, and he will go down as the only Formula 1 World Champion to have driven for Minardi in their 21 years of existence.

Just have a look-see at some of Alonso’s better qualifying performances during the season, including this sensational lap at Indianapolis to take provisional pole and qualify ahead of former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve:

…and then at Suzuka Circuit, setting an early provisional pole time 1.5 seconds better than Yoong’s best:

NICO HULKENBERG

The hype around Hulkenberg can almost reach dizzying proportions at times. But his pedigree is undeniable – championships and countless race victories in Formula 3 and GP2 parlayed into a Formula 1 drive for Williams in 2010. He took pole as a rookie for Williams in the Brazilian Grand Prix, then damn near won that race two years later driving for Force India. He’s been considered as the trick that everybody’s missing for years now – primarily linked to Ferrari, where he can take his number 27 back to the team that made it famous through drivers Gilles Villeneuve and Jean Alesi, and also linked to McLaren, where he can take his number 27 back to a team that actually won a World Championship with the number in 1990.

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What has made Hulkenberg such a highly-rated commodity in the paddock by fans and journalists alike? Besides those giant-slaying performances in Interlagos, and an uncanny knack for surging in the second half of a season every single year, it’s a very favorable qualifying record – he’s won every matchup since returning from a hiatus in 2011, and that excellent qualifying form peaked in 2013, during his one season with Sauber – with a stunning 18-1 pummelling of rookie teammate Esteban Gutierrez. It should be pointed out however, that in addition to Gutierrez being a rookie last season, his stock as an F1-level talent has plummeted every year since winning the first GP3 Series title in 2010, and he’s arrived in Formula 1 looking less like the next Pedro Rodriguez and more like the next Hector Rebaque with every passing race. However, with a 10-9 victory over Paul di Resta (now appearing at a DTM event near you) in 2012, and a current 11-5 record over new teammate Sergio Perez, whom the German has also outscored 76-47 over the balance of the season, Hulkenberg has proven that he can regularly run quicker against higher-rated talent.

Many will continue to lament that Hulkenberg is not already with an established powerhouse. I feel that’s a bit insulting to the progress Force India have made whilst building around him and Perez. But if he continues to outpace his teammates in every season he spends in the midfield, a promotion up the grid is almost certain in the near future.

Here’s an onboard lap from last season driving the Sauber C32 at Monza, a track that highlighted the chassis’ lone significant strength – in its superior straight-line speed. While teammate Gutierrez was eliminated in Q1 in the same chassis, Hulkenberg qualified 3rd for the race with this lap:

JULES BIANCHI

It’s awful that I’m starting to adjust to writing about Bianchi’s career in the past tense.

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But before all that though, Bianchi, the 25-year-old top prospect of the Ferrari Driver Academy and the lead driver at Marussia F1 Team, was regularly demonstrating the difference between a pretty decent junior formula driver in GP2 Series graduate Max Chilton, and a bonafide, top-level F1 prospect with genuine credentials worthy of a drive for the Scuderia. It’s not very well known that Chilton had a very good intra-team qualifying record in GP2, but he did indeed post a 64.52% success rate against his teammates in his GP2 career from 2010-12. It’s a respectable mark in a second-tier championship. By the way, Bianchi’s record in three seasons between GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 was a smidge better – only 83.33%. Oh, and he was a genuine championship contender or regular front-runner in all three of those seasons.

Indeed, it was clear over the last 34 races up to the Japanese Grand Prix that Bianchi was a future star in the making. The Frenchman outqualified his teammate 29 times from 33 qualifying sessions where both drivers set a time, and by an average margin of well over a half-second. Translated into a percentage, it’s an 87.88% mark that’s actually 4.55% better than what Bianchi accomplished in GP2 and FR3.5 Indeed, that’s comparable to the numbers Alonso was posting against his teammates at Minardi thirteen years ago. The two crucial points scored in Monaco this May justified Bianchi’s regular pace advantage over Chilton on Sundays, but also in addition to strong testing results at the wheel of Ferrari’s F14T, helped install the hope that he could one day become the centerpiece of a youth movement at Ferrari in the future the way that he had already become the centerpiece of Marussia’s valiant attempt to move up to the mid-field.

There are many other factors that go into the scouting, development, and promotion of rising talent in Formula 1, but a driver that is strong in intra-team qualifying scenarios driving for lower-ranked constructors is usually a driver that is destined for stardom in the future, and definitely worth the praise they receive up and down the paddock.

The hot laps set on Saturdays now can go a big way to determine who picks up the points on Sundays in the years to come.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Qualifying”

  1. Great article! It’s worth pointing out that Prost’s reputation as a so-so qualifier who excelled in racers is not really fair. This of course stems from the fact that he was beaten 28-4 in qualifying by Senna. However, Senna was arguably the best qualifier *ever* and Prost seemingly took the view that he had little chance of beating Senna in qualifying anyway so it was more pragmatic to settle for 2nd (given the dominant car) and focus on race set-up.

    If you consider Prost’s qualifying record against all his other teammates, he was actually supremely quick. He beat Lauda 29-2, beat Rosberg 12-4, beat Hill 14-2, beat Alesi 13-2, beat Johansson 16-0, beat Cheever 13-2, beat Arnoux 17-13, beat Watson 8-5 as a rookie, and tied Mansell 7-7.

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