Thursday, March 10, 2016

Formula One comes to the Tempo-Free Gridiron

I grew up in a Formula One household.

This isn't something that's common to people in America. I work with many people who are originally from Europe and Asia, and most of them are surprised to find an American who's familiar with not just Prost and Senna, but Mansell, Lauda, Berger, Patrese, Alesi, Schumacher, Hill, Villeneuve, Hakkinen, Coulthard, and Barrichello.

My dad has been a Formula One fan since before I was around, taking my mom to the 1975 British Grand Prix (Fittipaldi! Lauda! Andretti! Hunt!) during their post-college tour of Europe. When I was a kid, the fledgling sports network ESPN would show whatever programming they could get their hands on, including Formula One. Saturday mornings were qualifying and then cartoons, followed by race day on Sunday mornings. I remember watching Nigel Mansell's tire explode at the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, costing him a world championship that would elude him until his legendarily dominant 1992 season. I remember watching the controversial ending to the 1989 season, in which Prost appears to have chopped in front of Senna, taking both drivers out, thereby securing himself a world title. I remember watching Senna return the favor a year later.


Eventually the combined forces of broadcast rights squabbles and my becoming a teenager and not wanting to get up at 6am for some of these races caused me to drift from the sport. The late 90s were seen as a bit of a downturn in the sport: Mansell retired, and Prost retired the following season.

However I did continue watching for one more season. I remember sitting down the morning of May 1, 1994, to watch the Grand Prix of San Marino. I remember watching a safety car that dragged on in the opening laps. I remember race leader Senna fending off a indescribably talented young German driver named Michael Schumacher, piloting a inexplicably quick Benetton that many (including Senna) suspected was using an illegal traction control system. A Benetton team that had modified their refueling rigs to have an illegally high flow rate (a choice that would backfire most spectacularly three months later when their custom rig didn't clamp down properly and enveloped a whole car in a massive fireball).


I watched the race restart.

I watched Senna wrestle the car around the corner, desperate to stay in front of Schumacher.

I watched it straightline a turn at 190mph, straight into a concrete barrier.

Over thirty years later, Senna's fatal accident still echoes throughout the world of Formula One. An estimated three million people lined the streets of Sao Paolo for his funeral.

I took a hiatus from Formula One for nearly a decade. During that time Michael Schumacher became a five-time world champion, besting Senna by two titles and Prost by one. Damon Hill, Jacque Villeneuve, and Mika Hakkinen were able to give Schumacher a challenge, but only for a while.

By the time I returned to the sport in 2003, Schumacher had won three titles in a row (2000 - 2002), including winning 11 of 17 races in 2002, finishing on the podium in every race.

The 2003 season, however, was a sign of things to come. Schumacher eeked out the title by a mere two points, taking the season down to the final race. Twenty-four year-old Kimi Raikkonen and former Indy 500 Champion Juan Pablo Montoya gave Schumacher his biggest challenge in years, only losing out in the final two races. While 2004 was a step backwards -- Schumacher again steamrolled the opposition -- 2005 ended his era of dominance.

The 2005 season saw the ascent of a new class of drivers who had come of age during the eras of Senna and Schumacher. Spanish driver Fernando Alonso won back-to-back titles, prompting Schumacher's retirement at the end of 2006. In 2007, rookie British driver Lewis Hamilton missed the title by one point, finishing just behind Raikkonen and tying his double-world-champion teammate Alonso. The following year Hamilton would not be denied, pipping Felipe Massa by a single point in a dramatic last-lap, last-corner pass that gave him the point he needed. The 2009 season was an aberration thanks to the Brawn (formerly Honda) team using some clever engineering to give themselves an insurmountable lead early in the season.

The 2010 season was the beginning of the rise of "baby Schumi", Sebastian Vettel. The last race of the saw four drivers with a chance to win the title: Alonso out front, with veteran Mark Webber eight points adrift, and Vettel another seven behind him; Hamilton was all but eliminated, needing to win and not have any other top driver score in the top five. Unfortunately for Alonso and Webber, they got stuck in traffic all race, handing Vettel his first title.

Alonso expressing his opinion of the driver behind whom he was stuck
and cost him his third world title.

Vettel never lead in the points until he won the final race.

He would go on to win the next three titles.

The last six years of Formula One have seen a dramatic split between years of utter domination -- Vettel in 2011 and 2013, and Hamilton in 2015 -- and years of nail-biting battles that went to the final race -- Vettel in 2010 and 2012, and Hamilton in 2014.

As a fan and an analytics person, Formula One is fascinating in that the differences between the cars (e.g., Ferrari vs McLaren vs Mercedes) is often a much bigger contributor to the race outcome than the differences between the drivers. On top of that, the top teams (who already have the fastest cars) often have their pick of the top drivers, creating further difficulties in isolating driver talent.

Today I'll be introducing my new F1 Elo Ratings, going back to the 1980 season. I'll discuss the basis for the system, how it works, and what it has to say about the top drivers and rivalries over the last 36 years. We'll explore the highest ratings, the best sustained career peaks, and the top drivers during five sub-eras during that time period. During the season we'll be posting current ratings after the completion of qualifying and the race each race weekend, and discuss who's over- and under-performing.

The Formula One era has come to the Tempo-Free Gridiron.