Is there a way to stop Vettel? – a status analysis on the 2011 Formula1 championship

Last year, Sebastian Vettel won his title literally at the last possibility: due to a pit stop strategy mishap for Fernando Alonso, Vettel reached his first ever championship leader position only after the last race of the season, making him the youngest champion to date.

With lots of rule changes, the question for 2011 was – how would Vettel and Red Bull Racing compete this season? The first six races or so left only one conclusion: the question was not if, but when Vettel would be crowned champion this year. Not only did he win five of the six races, he also scored second in the sixth one, and in some races his lead over the second-placed driver was so huge that the competition could only scratch their lapped heads.

Things changed around the time of the Canada Grand Prix. With changes in tech regulations, but also with some huge improvements by the teams of McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari relative to Red Bull, it suddenly seemed a possibility for other drivers to fight not only for second, but also for first championship place. Now four races later, Vettel had only won one of those four races, and already publicly launched a wakeup call for his team.

Yet, having a look at the facts – is there a way for Vettel to actually not secure his second championship title in a row?

1. Vettel, the pilot

Since the second half of last year’s season, Vettel has moved from the role of an incredibly talented young driver to that of a very complete driver, who does not only work as a competent tech input and a motivator for his team, but also has gained that maturity so often missing with experienced drivers that will rather let him be content with a second place than engage in a crazy hunt for place one.

This last aspect also makes him more suited to the role of the hunted as he has it in this year’s championship. Vettel knows that if he continues to only score third places for the last eight races, then no driver will be able to take the title from him. If he only scores fourth places, then Hamilton still would need five wins and three second places to take the title. He also knows that his team colleague has, for more than a year now, been consistently slower than him, and that also this very team colleague is his closest competitor with regard to the championship points to date.

On the other hand, ever since his stupid collision with Mark Webber last year, Vettel did never fail to finish a race due to some driving mistake. That also makes Vettel one of those drivers who even if they don’t finish first, will always pickup valuable points.

Vettel has found a serious decline in his point average in the last five races compared to the season start. However, that average is still at 18.2, meaning keeping that average up, the championship is his, no matter what happens.

Add to that the reliability of the Red Bull – the last DNF was last year’s Korea race – and you have a package that simply is good for another championship victory.

2. The Competing Drivers

First of all, who is the competition? If we look at the championship scores so far, it’s theoretically possible even for Nick Heidfeld to win the championship, if Vettel has a DNF in every race and Heidfeld wins every race. The same would be true if Rosberg went on to win every race and Vettel scored no more than 14 points in the remaining 8 races (which would mean finishing always behing position 9). However, speaking realistically, for drivers who are driving a car that has never won a race (although most people, including me, are convinced that Rosberg would be able to easily score a victory in a Red Bull, a McLaren or a Ferrari, not so sure about Heidfeld to this respect), I will not consider that calculation any further.

The remaining five drivers all come from the teams of Red Bull Racing, McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari. In order of championship points to date, we have next to Vettel (RBR, 234)

  • Mark Webber (RBR, 149),
  • Lewis Hamilton (MCL, 146),
  • Fernando Alonso (FER, 145),
  • Jenson Button (MCL, 134)
  • and Felipe Massa (FER, 70)

We already see a huge gap between Button in fifth and Massa in sixth here.

2011 Top Drivers Cumulative Scores

2.1. Red Bull Racing: Mark Webber

The comparison here is easy for one reason: we don’t need to consider the car, because generally speaking if it improves (or fails to improve), both Vettel and Webber are equally affected.

Looking at this season, Webber did finish in front of Vettel exactly once, namely on the Nürburgring German Grand Prix, with Webber placed 3rd and Vettel 4th. This gave him two points more than Vettel. Apart from that, Vettel did always score higher than him in this season. For those last five races, the average score for Webber was 14 points (comparing that to 18.2 points for Vettel as we’ve seen before), with only a small increase from 13.17 for the first six races. However, in theory a Webber keeping up that average for the remaining races would win the title – but only if Vettel does not score at least 27 points in those races, which from his average so far he would easily be able to do in a mere two races.

As we’ve seen, a change in this ranking is not to be expected. At the point in this career, you cannot expect a sudden or gradual increase in driving skill or maturity on the part of Webber. And both being members of the same team, any change (or lack thereof) in the performance of the car affects both pilots almost equally. For that reason, there’s no danger from Vettel’s closest rival with regard to the scoreboard.

2.2. McLaren Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button

The McLaren car seemed to be the one with the biggest improvements in performance compared to the begin of the season by simply looking at the races. Interestingly, this isn’t reflected by the scores: in those last five races (those with only one win by Red Bull), Red Bull has still scored most points (161), followed by Ferrari (122) and then McLaren Mercedes (119). However during that period, Red Bull had no DNF results, Ferrari had one and McLaren three. However, for discussing the drivers’ and the car’s performance (instead of the car’s reliability, which we’ll discuss in chapter 4), we’ll look at the average scores also without the DNF results.

Lewis Hamilton, champion of 2008. Some people actually take him for the best driver currentlly in the field. However, he still sometimes tends towards a gung-ho style, which not only resulted in his only retirement in this season, but also in many penalties which had an effect on his results. This retirement was also to blame for him averaging 12.2 points during the last five races, a decrease from the 14.2 points during the first six. Interestingly, the gap to Vettel’s score total would require him to average 11 points per race if Vettel doesn’t score another point – or if he kept up the momentum of the last five races without his retirement (which means we need to believe he would become a sensible driver overnight), Vettel would still only need to score another 34 points to win the title – again, something which even with those weaker results in the last five races only would take him two races out of eight to accomplish.

Jenson Button – many people had asked if it was a wise choice on Button’s behalf to go to McLaren, where he would compete with Hamilton, who only two years earlier had established the “Formula 1 Bitch Battle” with Alonso. Interestingly, while Button seems to lack that last extra bit Hamilton has, he is still a driver to be reckoned with, and with Hamilton may well form the strongest team after Rosberg and Schumacher, only in a competitive car. Button’s first six races were somewhat weaker than those of his team colleague, resulting in 76 points vs. Hamilton’s 85 (and Vettel’s 143). If we look at his average for the last five races, he’s still behind Hamilton with 11.6 vs. 12.2 points (and again, 18.2 for Vettel). However, if (to get a look at the driver, not at the package of driver and car), we calculate out the DNFs caused by car failure, Button’s average rises to 19.33, making him the most successful driver for the last five races.

Of the three top teams, McLaren is the only one with two drivers on the same level. While being an advantage in the team results, this could also work out as a disadvantage for the coveted driver title: even if the McLaren would steadily continue to improve performance-wise in comparison to the Red Bull (and of course to the Ferrari), a string of number one finishes for either driver could still not be expected. But let’s go crazy for a moment and assume that starting from the next race the McLaren would clearly outperform the Ferrari and Red Bull, and the Ferrari would outperform the Red Bull, with the Red Bull still keeping ahead of other teams. Let’s furthermore assume that then Button and Hamilton do one-two’s in changing order, Alonso scores only third places, and Vettel only fifth places (because he won’t loose to Webber, as we’ve seen above). In that case, Hamilton would win the championship with 318 points (four points over Vettel), with Button in third, Alonso in fourth and Webber in fifth. If Hamilton had one (or more) victories more than Button, his lead would extend by seven points per additional win. A Button, on the other hand, would need at least five wins (and three second places) to win over Vettel in this scenario. Of course, with team order being legalized again, McLaren could change that by starting to implement team order in such a scenario – but in a situation with two equally good drivers, such decisions are usually only made in the last races of the season, where it may be already too late.

2.3. Ferrari: Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa

If we look again at the team points for the last five races, Ferrari is ahead of McLaren with 122 vs. 119 points. This is directly related to Alonso scoring 76 of those points, making him the second-most successful driver of the last five races (second only to Vettel). If, to look at the performance increase compared to the first six races, we look at relative average scores for Alonso and Massa, and calculate out DNFs not caused by technical failure, we get 19 over 11.5 for Alonso and a stunning 9.2 over 4 for Massa. In other words, the point performance per race has almost doubled!

Fernando Alonso, the only driver in the field today who has more than one championship title AND drives a proper car. Alonso’s skill as a driver is undebated, plus, he has both his Spanish temper combined with some maturity, making him something of a best-of-both-McLaren-drivers combo. His average of 15.2 points from the last five races is only second to Vettel, and if we only count in the last four races, it’s a even more impressive 19. A driver who has shown how to win championships, and whose last-minute loss last year may even have made him more complete, is a driver to watch out for, even if his score currently only makes him fourth in the standings.

A different story for Felipe Massa, who still holds that position he used to have when driving for Ferrari alongside Michael Schumacher. Drive behind your team mate, be a rolling roadblock, pickup valuable championship points, but only win if your teammate doesn’t. There is a reason for that, and that’s the 70 points in comparison to Alonso’s 145. Although his average has increased to 9.2 in the last five races, he still would need an average of 20.5 points from the remaining races to win this, or in other words, more than double his average (or more than triple his whole-season average). Changes in his driving are not to be expected at that point in his career – and if the car improved that much, the best he could get would be second places behind Alonso.

Interestingly, although the combo of the two McLaren drivers in sum seems stronger, this also gives a better outlook on Alonso’s chances if the Ferrari will turn out to be the best car for the remaining races. If we take the scenario from the McLaren discussion and swap the roles of Ferrari and McLaren, then Alonso would go on to win all of the races over Massa (if not by proper race result, then by team order). In that case, Alonso would win with 345 points over Vettel’s projected 314. However, that lead of 31 points is not so much in times where a single victory is worth 25 points – in other words, if Alonso would suffer only one DNF and Vettel would move up to fourth consequently, his lead would only be four points, leaving no room for another race lost to a McLaren and Alonso only finishing second. Note that if Ferrari makes that tech leap, but McLaren doesn’t or only halfway, it wouldn’t work out – for Vettel, scoring only third and fourth places for the rest of the season is enough, even if Alonso goes on to win all of the remaining races. All in all, a theoretical possibility, but only that.

4. To Finish First…

…first you have to finish. That old racedriver wisdom still holds true today. Although the reliability of the cars has improved vastly, we still have DNFs – some caused by technical defects, some also by driving accidents.

For this season, Red Bull’s stats are completely untainted here: both drivers did finish (and also score) in all of eleven races.

The stats for the other top teams:

  • McLaren: 3 DNFs, one driver-related (Hamilton), two tech-related (Button)
  • Ferrari: 3 DNFs, two driver-related (Alonso, Massa), one tech-related (Massa)

Although those are relatively small percentages, it still gives us something to look at: there’s a propability for at least 2 further DNFs for both McLaren and Ferrari. Alas, this does help the hunted Vettel rather than his rivals.

Although injuries are far more common in sports like soccer, they also play a role in race driving: as some racing accidents can lead to serious injuries, they can well make an important decision in the championship: the last such example was the 1999 championship, where Schumacher’s Silverstone accident kept him from winning his first title for Ferrari that year, which by any extrapolation he would otherwise have won.

The scenario here would be as follows: how would an injury of Vettel in one of the following races affect the championship (assuming he won’t be able to compete in any other race this season, and the rest would more or less stay the same)? For this, we change our calculation of the last five races point average per driver based on how they would have scored without Vettel.

In the case of that happening right in the following race, Alonso would win the championship just in front of Webber, also with Hamilton still scoring in front of Vettel. The victory of Alonso would also hold true if Vettel only missed the last five races of the season – if Vettel, however, continues to drive the next four races and then stops driving, he would still win.

5. A Comparison to Button’s 2009 Championship Win

I guess it would make sense to look at a comparable situation from recent years – where a driver started dominating the season at will, then considerably dropped back in performance – and see how it worked out for him. Fortunately, this was just the case in 2009: then, Grawn GP’s Jenson Button started to win six out of seven races, and then his results showed a serious drop, not winning another race, but still finishing with a comfortable lead, whereas based on the results of the remaining races alone, he would have been beaten clearly by several other drivers.

To simplify comparison with this year’s results, I have adapted points from 2009 to the 2011 scale (and yes, Button would still win). Then, I also included a gliding average point value which shows the average from the last three races (obviously, only two or one for the second or first race of the season).

First, let’s look at that gliding average for Button 2009 in comparison to his closest rivals, Vettel, Barichello and Webber. Also we’ll take the values so far for 2011 for Vettel.

2009 Top Drivers Gliding Average

Button in 2009 kept on a constantly high gliding average up to race 7, then his scores took a serious dive for the next few races, and he levelled in between an 8 and 9 average for the remainder of the season after race 10.

Interestingly, Vettel’s performance in 2009 took a dive about the same time Button’s did, and he only reached those winning streaks right at the end of the season – too late to change anything in the championship result (converted to the 2011 point system, Button would’ve won with a 46 point lead). Also even more interestingly, looking at that gliding average values, at that time with a +/-1 race deviation, the values for all of the four top-ranked drivers started to drop.

The Vettel of 2011 is very comparable in general. His decline from toplevel happens one race earlier, but (also that is interesting) the decline isn’t nearly as steep. In fact, while for races 1 to 7 Button 2009 and Vettel 2011 are on a comparable level, both then start to drop, but the rate is considerably faster for Button.

Now let’s put the gliding average of the 2011 Vettel into perspective to the performance of his rivals.

2011 Top Drivers Gliding Average

As we’ve seen before, Vettel’s 2011 decrease in average points is much less pronounced than that of Button in 2009. Also, similarily to 2009, Vettel’s decrease doesn’t lead to a big increase for all the other drivers. In fact, the only driver who has shown a constant and pronounced increase of that average for the last few races is Fernando Alonso, who also suffered a slight drop in the last value. This somewhat confirms the earlier speculation that the biggest rival for Vettel is in fact Fernando Alonso.

If we simply take the last three values of that gliding average for the remainder of the season, the result at season end would be as follows: Vettel (330), followed by Alonso (321), Hamilton (291), Webber (261) and Button (238). This calculation would still see Vettel as the new champion, and Alonso as second. However, this completely different calculation approach does focus entirely on the development of the last five races, i.e. it assumes that none of the other effects we’ve considered so far take place.

6. Conclusion

Summing up the discussions above, we can only come to the following conclusion:

Leaving out any rather improbable assumptions (e.g. RBR will only finish every third race from now on, Vettel suddenly forgets how to drive a car etc.) and also leave out the combination of more than one plausible but improbable scenario, Vettel’s only options to not win this year’s Formula 1 Championship title are:

  1. Vettel suffers from a serious injury keeping him from finishing all of the following races, and this happens within the next four races.
  2. Ferrari improves vastly over Red Bull and McLaren, and McLaren improves vastly over Red Bull, so as to guarantee Alonso every victory from now on and depriving Vettel of the possibility to finish better than fifth anytime.
  3. McLaren improves vastly over Ferrari and Red Bull, and Ferrari improves vastly over Red Bull, so as to guarantee the McLaren drivers all the remaining wins and depriving Vettel of the possibility to finish better than fifth anytime, and either Hamilton winning at least four (and finishing second in all remaining) or Button winning at least five (and finishing second in all remaining) races.

I leave it for you to decide how probable or improbable that is.

Even with those conclusions, I still look forward to the rest of the season: with the extremely strong combo of two excellent drivers and an excellent car for McLaren Mercedes, with a genius like Alonso in a competitive car, and finally with the young Vettel in a car which allows him to defend his title, we can look forward to eight more capturing races – and while we may already know the champion, we will not know each race’s individual winner until the race is over.

Yours,

Rainer

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