Schumacher: Qualifying king?

After qualifying in Bahrain, all the talk was of Michael Schumacher equalling Ayrton Senna’s twelve-year-old record for most pole positions – 65. So does this make Schumacher the all-time premier pole-sitter?

It’s no secret that, if you look at the figures in full, the statistics still favour Senna. He racked up 65 poles in 161 races – a 40% hit-rate. Schumacher took 232 races to achieve the same – that’s just 28% of starts from pole position.

To put that into perspective, consider this: to equal Senna’s 40% record in the shortest possible time, Schumacher would need to claim the next 51 consecutive pole positions, giving him 116 from 283 starts. Assuming the current 18 race calendar continues, it would take until the first round of the 2009 season.

But even Senna did not have the greatest hit-rate of pole positions: Jim Clark (33 poles, 46%) and Juan Manuel Fangio (29 poles, 57%) had better averages.

There are those, too, who suggest the recent changes to qualifying favour Schumacher’s approach. Since 2003, drivers have qualified with their race fuel loads on board, meaning a light-fuelled car can more easily claim first on the grid – as Ralf Schumacher did in Japan last year.

This argument implies that Schumacher has taken pole positions more frequently since the start of 2003 – but this is clearly not so. Prior to ’03 he had 51 poles from 179 races – 28.4%. Since then, 14 poles from 53 races – 26%.

What impresses most about Schumacher’s qualifying record is how it relates to his racing record: specifically, that he has still won more races than he has taken pole positions. While Senna’s 65 poles ‘only’ led to 41 wins, Schumacher currently has 84.

Schumacher, atypically for a Formula One driver, scored his first wins before he took his first pole which, tellingly, did not come until after Senna died. Nor, of course, do mere statistics tell us much about the circumstances in which the pole positions were achieved. Senna regularly out qualified his first-rate team mate Alain Prost by entire seconds.

The conclusion, then, is quite clear. Schumacher’s rate of race victories is quite unparalleled, but in modern times Senna was the master of qualifying. Of course, there are those who point out that Schumacher has had faster and more reliable machinery, more race starts, inferior opponents and other advantages – but that’s an entirely different debate!

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