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. Continue reading “The Importance of Qualifying”