When F1 racing driver Zhou Guanyu’s car skidded upside-down before somersaulting into the catch fence during Britain’s dramatic Grand Prix at Silverstone last weekend, many were quick to praise the car’s design for saving his life. Pivotal kit like the once-opposed halo has greatly improved driver safety, but when it comes to winning an F1 race what has the biggest influence? The driver, or their team and car?
To find out, researchers used statistical modeling to review eight seasons of F1 spanning from 2012-2019, a time when Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were proving to be a near-perfect recipe for winning world championships. Their results are published in the journal Applied Economics and reveal that long-held ideas about the influence of a driver, their team, and their car on F1 racing success aren’t reflected in the data.
“There is a long-held belief, the so-called ‘80-20 rule’, in F1 that the car/team are responsible for 80 percent of race success, while the skill of the driver only accounts for 20 percent,” said lead author Duane Rockerbie from the University of Lethbridge in a statement. “What we find, however, is that the car and team’s input has been greatly overestimated.”
The F1 race team and car were found to influence success by closer to 20 percent, meanwhile, the driver’s influence was around 15 percent. What was found to have the greatest influence over F1 success was actually the way in which a driver interacts with their team, with an influence of around 30 to 40 percent.
The researchers say this demonstrates that drivers’ influence spans beyond the track, and actually contributes towards crafting better race cars and strategy, too.
“More skilled drivers improve the return to team technology and vice-versa,” said Rockerbie. “After all, F1 cars do not drive themselves and drivers cannot ply their trade without an F1 car. The 80-20 rule vastly underestimates the role of the driver, given the critical complementarity between driver and team.”
Money and the millions spent by F1 racing teams was also analyzed in the study, as the authors looked to see if cash really was king when it came to improving rank finishes.
“A team that finishes, on average, 10th place every race would need to spend an additional $164.6 million to finish ninth place consistently,” said Rockerbie. “This would require an increase to both driver salary (which currently averages at $7.86 million per season) and team budget (which averages at $195.86 million).”
However, this amount varies season-on-season dependent on budgets and caps, and the data shows that spending big doesn’t necessarily guarantee success if boosting driver salary means sacrificing elsewhere.
“The return to hiring more driving skill (at an assumedly higher driver salary) is positive, in terms of returning better position finishes, but it diminishes the size of the team budget,” said co-author Professor Stephen Easton from Simon Fraser University.
“The return to spending more on the team budget is positive, for finishes, but diminishing in the size of the driver salary. The team with the largest budget outlay overall, therefore, is most likely in the best position to win each season, as they can afford to not diminish the car’s performance in exchange for a high-quality driver.”
The authors say their conclusions are supported by the lived success of F1 drivers, as drivers, like Hamilton and Max Verstappen, who move early in their career to big-name teams with the best cars, most extensive support, and biggest budgets tend to have a better shot at the world championships.