Why Ferrari would do better with “two roosters”

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Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Hockenheim, 2012Ferrari ended speculation over their 2013 driver line-up one week ago when they announced Felipe Massa would keep his seat for another season.

The team’s president Luca di Montezemolo indicated the move was coming 24 hours earlier when he scotched rumours Sebastian Vettel would join Fernando Alonso at the team, saying: “I don?t want to have two roosters in the same hen house”.

Ferrari’s resistance to having two ‘number one’ drivers in the same team is not new. It’s a contentious talking point, and the arguments for and against their position are well-worn.

But recent changes in the sport should lead Ferrari to consider whether the policy is still in their best interests.

Finding a hen that will fly

Ferrari’s driver hiring policy would work perfectly if they could sign the two best drivers in F1 and one was always content to finish behind the other.

But racing drivers are competitive beasts – and the best of them do not want to spend year after year being ordered to finish second behind their team mates.

The best Ferrari can realistically expect from a number two is someone who is reasonably competitive, unlikely to end up in front of their lead driver, and prepared to pull over on the rare occasions that they do.

Go back ten years and this was the situation Ferrari had with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. The F2002 was the class of the field, Schumacher racked up the wins and Barrichello played the dutiful number two.

Ferrari no longer have a car advantage that allows them to win races by half a minute or more. But nor does any other team and, with the technical regulations becoming ever tighter, nor are they likely to.

This has made it more important for Ferrari to maximise the points haul they get with both their cars. And changes to the points system have made that even more crucial.

Why two numbers ones is horse sense

Ten years ago points were only awarded to the top six finishers and were heavily weighted in favour of the winning driver.

That began to change when a new points system appeared in 2003. With the latest points system, introduced in 2010, the pendulum swung even further towards spreading points out more evenly between finishers.

This table shows what proportion of the total points available each weekend were awarded to the top ten finishing positions in 2002 and 2012:

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th
2002 38.46% (10) 23.08% (6) 15.38% (4) 11.54% (3) 7.69% (2) 3.85% (1) 0% (0) 0% (0) 0% (0) 0% (0)
2012 24.75% (25) 17.82% (18) 14.85% (15) 11.88% (12) 9.9% (10) 7.92% (8) 5.94% (6) 3.96% (4) 1.98% (2) 0.99% (1)

The value of finishing in the top three has been reduced compared to finishing elsewhere in the top ten. Ten years ago a one-two finish gave a team 62.4% of the available points, 35.6% more than anyone else could score in the same race. Today a one two is worth 42.5% of the available points and just 15.9% more than the next-best team can score.

For Ferrari, as with any team, their chance of scoring a one-two finish is higher if they have the best two drivers available. If they don’t, and another team’s drivers beat Ferrari’s number two, then a one-four finish is worth little more than a two-three (37 points versus 33).

This shows how an under-performing number two driver will hurt a team like Ferrari much more now than it did ten years ago. When we look at Massa’s performance over the last three seasons, it’s clear that’s exactly what’s happening.

Snail’s pace

The top four teams in F1 at the moment have had the same driver line-ups for the last three years. Out of those, Ferrari’s second driver has performed the least well compared to his team mate:

2010 2011 2012*
Felipe Massa’s points as a % of Fernando Alonso’s 57.1% 45.9% 38.7%
Mark Webber’s points as a % of Sebastian Vettel’s 94.5% 65.8% 70.7%
Jenson Button’s points as a % of Lewis Hamilton’s 89.1% 118.9% 85.6%
Michael Schumacher’s points as a % of Nico Rosberg’s 50.7% 85.3% 46.2%

*Up to and including the Korean Grand Prix

Ferrari have re-signed Massa for another year despite his contribution to the team’s points tally being in steady decline over the past three seasons.

There are several reasons why this is the case, but a key one is that Massa has been more slow compared to Alonso than other drivers compared to their team mates.

The same lap time data gathered for the car performance analysis published here yesterday was used to work out how far each driver has been from the quickest lap time at each race weekend, and the gaps between them and their team mates:

Average gap to best lap time Average gap to team mate
Felipe Massa 1.31% 0.56%
Jenson Button 0.67% 0.31%
Mark Webber 0.77% 0.20%
Nico Rosberg 1.05% 0.09%

The three charts above spell out why Ferrari’s driver hiring policy is increasingly holding them back: it forces them to hire a driver who is slower relative to his team mate than their rivals have, who then fails to score as high a percentage of the available points as he should.

Ten years ago this might not have affected them so badly. But points are shared much more evenly between the teams now. What more, the performance difference between the top teams has shrunk, making it even more important for teams to get the most out of their cars by hiring the best available drivers.

The elephant in the room

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Korea International Circuit, 2012The assumption behind this is that Ferrari are equally interested in championship success as the other teams are. Which is to say, all the teams want to win the constructors’ championship and want one of their drivers to win the drivers’ championship.

However everything about Ferrari’s approach indicates they prize the drivers’ championship far above the constructors’ championship.

This is not entirely surprising. Mention the ‘F1 championship’ to an average fan and it will be taken for granted this means the drivers’ title, not the teams’.

In Ferrari’s case, this view may be a product of history: they are the only active team whose have been continuously involved in Formula One since before the constructors’ championship was created in 1958.

But perhaps there is a more mundane reason why the constructors’ championship simply doesn’t matter to Ferrari. For their rivals, constructors’ championship success alone determines how big a slice of F1’s vast prize fund they receive.

That is a less pressing concern for Ferrari because they automatically receive a special payment from the prize fund. This can be worth more than the different between two places in the constructors’ championship, as was the case last year.

But as we’ve seen, things change in Formula One. The distribution of F1’s prize money is likely a key point in the ongoing debate over the new Concorde Agreement which governs the sport.

Perhaps this is the final thing that needs to change before the Prancing Horse gets itself a pair of roosters.

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Image ?? Red Bull/Getty images, Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo

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