For the past few weeks, and even more since Keith posted his article on the driver rankings, I have been thinking about what goes into saying “driver X is better than driver Y”. This post is somewhat of an open-ended reflection, so I hope it’s not too heavy :)
In general, when one says “driver X is better than driver Y” or produces a ranking such as Keith’s, there are some aspects that one always takes into account. Some are pretty straightforward: points and wins earned, qualifying and race form (particularly compared to the teammate) and, broadly speaking, a comparison of where you “expect them to be” and where they really are. Some of these aspects are quantitative, some of them are not, but all things considerered, they produce judgements such as ranking Di Resta above Sutil despite the latter having more points, and Petrov being down in 19th place, and all that groovy stuff we love to argue about.
Good. That is all perfectly alright. But in the end, it’s a subjective judgement, because there is no cold, hard number which allows one to say “over the past N races, driver X has shown more skill than driver Y”.
But what if it would be possible to produce such a number?
In the comments section of the rankings article someone (magon4, that is) showed a very interesting rating system based on a weighed average of the grades assigned to each driver after each race weekend. This is similar to what “kicker”, a German magazine, does with football, in that they assign a rating to each player after each match. This is a fine idea, but in the end, each individual rating is also subjective.
Of course, this “issue” is not unique to Formula 1. You could probably argue that all sports are like this, and that the search for “cold, hard numbers” is ultimately futile.
Enter baseball. One interesting aspect about it is that it is a sport which is very heavy on numbers. Statistics are an integral part of the game and of any discussion about it (which many people find boring, though). Anyways, what I want to highlight here is the emergence of a new approach to baseball statistics, which is called “sabermetrics”.
Say you want to determine which one of two players is more productive to a team’s offense. Broadly speaking, what sabermetrics will try to do is to take the data, remove the influence of any outside factors (an important difference compared to “mainstream” baseball statistics) and give you an adjusted index on which these two players can be more fairly compared.
What’s interesting about sabermetrics is that it allows you to compare players who are in wholly different situations (bad teams vs. good teams) and even different eras. Baseball teams now use them even for negotiating contracts and stuff like that.
Now… I consider Formula 1 to be a pretty numbers-heavy sport, too, which then makes me wonder if an approach such as sabermetrics’ could be developed (or if there’s already one in existence). It could be, well, interesting, particularly if one could even objectively compare drivers from different eras of the sport (which is a recurring discussion for all of us Formula 1 fans).
I hope you have not found this too boring! ;)