The past two seasons have seen the gap between the fastest and slowest cars shrink. A fairly basic assessment of the data suggests the F1 field is more closely matched now than it has been at any point in the last ten years.
How has this happened?
To find out how the gap between the fastest and slowest teams had changed over the years I looked at fastest race laps for two circuits over a ten year period. I chose Silverstone and Sepang, two circuits which have changed little in that time.
I also discounted instances where a driver had set a very slow fastest lap because they retired early in a race.
In the days before race fuel qualifying, qualifying times would have been a much easier way of assessing this. However this does give a strong impression of how the variance in lap times have changed:
The difference in laptime between the fastest and slowest cars increased slowly from 1999-2002, then increased rapdily to a peak in 2005/6 of around seven seconds (we can blame about a second of the 2006 Sepang spike on Yuji Ide).
In 2007 and 2008 it fell to less than half of what it was – around three seconds. So why has this happened?
From 1999-2000 Bridgestone were F1′s sole tyre supplier. In 2001 Michelin returned and during the tyre war years the gap between the fastest and slowest cars reached its highest level.
In 2007 Bridgestone became the sole tyre supplier again, and the difference between fastest and slowest fell to less than 1999/2000 levels.
But just because there is a strong correlation does not prove cause an effect. How might the tyre war have increased the gap between leaders and backmarkers?
It’s not necessarily down to one manufacturer providing a ‘slow’ tyre and another bringing a ‘fast’ one. In a tyre war the fastest teams tended to enjoy the closest links with their tyre suppliers, who produce rubber tailored most closesly to what their preferred teams need. For evidence of this, witness how Renault have struggled without Michelin.
Performance of the slowest teams
It’s likely the speed of F1′s slowest teams distorts this data as well. In 2005 the slowest team was Minardi. That in itself was not unusual, but in that season the team was in its death throes and potentially at a nadir of competitiveness.
In a similar vein 2006 saw the arrival of Super Aguri who at both the Sepang and Silverstone round were using a car based on a four year-old Arrows chassis.
When was F1 last as close as it is today?
A more detailed study of the statistics is needed to be certain, but it looks like 2008 is the closest F1 season for some time. Before 1999 there were more years of tyre wars and in the early ’90s there were many extremely uncompetitive teams in Formula 1.
To answer this question the data would need to be expanded to include more circuits and perhaps take pre-2003 qualifying statistics into account. The laptime difference between the cars might be better expressed in percentage terms as well.
If anyone can offer and data to answer this question, or alternative explanations for why F1 has gotten so much closer, I’d be very interested to see it. Over to you…