How did 2017 compare to the Best Seasons in F1 History?

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The 2017 Formula 1 season was notable for a number of reasons. The rule changes introduced by the FIA prior to the season commencing were fairly dramatic: wider tyres, wider chassis, larger spoilers, more downforce, more powerful engines…the cars were going to be quick and look great. In fact the cars were around 3 seconds a lap quicker on average as we discussed recently in Why F1’s Pursuit if Speed in 2017 had a Dark Side.

Sure, T-wings and Shark Fins detracted somewhat from otherwise fantastic retro looking cars but thankfully these elements have likely been given the boot for 2018.

Quick, good looking cars – what more could we want? Well, some good wheel to wheel racing and a closely contested championship would be nice! Is that what we got? And just how well did 2017 measure up compared to some of the best seasons the sport has ever seen?

HISTORY’S BEST SEASONS

Early last year F1 Bytes conducted a detailed analysis of every Formula 1 season right back to the very first season in 1950. We measured each season across eight different quality factors, applied a scoring system and then tallied up the results.

If you haven’t yet seen the analysis check out The Best Season in Formula 1 History to see which seasons came out on top. The results may surprise you!

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With the 2017 season now completed it seems only fair that we measure it on exactly the same basis to see how it compares. What follows is a detailed look at the 2017 season through the lens of our eight season quality factors. We then calculate the total factor score and see how well it ranks against history’s top seasons.

See here to recap on our factor choices, definitions and factor results from the Best Season in Formula 1 History analysis. As we mentioned at the time, overtake analysis is a notable omission from our factor model. Expect to see more from F1 Bytes on overtaking in 2018.

FACTOR 1: Highest number of winning drivers in a season

Five drivers won Grand Prix in 2017: Lewis Hamilton, Valterri Bottas, Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. All exceptional drivers and well deserved victories. Unfortunately five winners was not quite enough to put 2017 in the points for this factor. 1982 managed a stunning 11 unique winners and points were award to seasons with at least six unique winners.

Original Factor 1 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 1 Score: 0 points

FACTOR 2: Highest number of drivers to lead the World Drivers Championship during a season

Only two drivers were ever leading the Championship in 2017: Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Once again this puts 2017 out of the points on this factor. 2010 was top of the pops for Championship leaders with six different leaders during the season. Points were awarded down to 3.

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Original Factor 2 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 2 Score: 0 points

FACTOR 3: Most changes in championship leader during a season

So we know there were two championship leaders in 2017. How many times did the lead actually switch over the course of the season? Only twice – and note that we count the first leader following the first race as a lead change.

Seb Vettel came out of the blocks strongly and held the lead right through to the mid-season break. We analysed the German’s chances of winning the championship at that time here. The stats were in his favour to win the championship but Hamilton managed to steal the lead at the Italian Grand Prix and never looked back.

This puts 2017 in the bottom 25% of seasons for championship lead changes – no points.

Original Factor 3 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 3 Score: 0 points

FACTOR 4: Highest number of marques to win a race in a season

Mercedes, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari each won races in 2017. This compares to the top score of 7 unique winning marques in 1982 (the year Keke Rosberg won the title). Points were awarded down to 4 so once again, 2017 doesn’t trouble the scorers.

Original Factor 4 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 4 Score: 0 points

Factor 5: Smallest average delta in top 10 qualifying times

This is the only factor where data limitations constrained the analysis. Only seasons from 1994 onwards were analysed. How did 2017 compare?

The new 2017 regulations certainly made the cars quicker and we saw a number of new qualifying records set. But raw pace does not necessarily translate to good competition. Especially if the better funded teams are able to disproportionately harness the opportunities presented by new regulations.

As it turns out 2017 ranked only 17th out of 24 seasons when looking at the gap in qualifying time between the first and tenth cars. The average gap of 2.33 seconds compares to just 1.1 seconds in 2001. 2017 is way out of the points on this factor.

Original Factor 5 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 5 Score: 0 points

FACTOR 6: Smallest average delta in race time for the podium places

While the cars may have been spread out in qualifying they were relatively close at the front of the pack. The gap between 1st and 3rd over race distance averaged 22.2 seconds in 2017. Far larger than the 13.5 seconds recorded in 2012 but enough to put 2017 in 10th place overall for this factor. 2017 scores its first factor point!

Original Factor 6 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 6 Score: 1 point

FACTOR 7: Highest number of drivers to get a podium in a season

Our five winning drivers from Factor 1 are joined by Kimi Raikkonen and Lance Stroll to make up the list of drivers to score at least one podium in 2017. Stroll memorably became the youngest driver to make the podium in their rookie year and the second youngest ever behind Max Verstappen.

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Heart-warming stuff but was it enough? In a word, no. 2017 joins four other seasons on the bottom of the ladder for number of drivers to score a podium in a season. This compares to 1982 where 18 drivers managed to climb the podium steps over the course of the season. 2017 – no points.

Original Factor 7 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 7 Score: 0 points

FACTOR 8: Highest number of drivers who could have won the Championship in the last race

This is perhaps our favourite factor. To have intense competition right to the final chequered flag of the season makes for great sport. In fact we like it so much we decided to give it double points in our scoring system.

Unfortunately 2017 didn’t deliver on this factor. Lewis Hamilton won the championship in Mexico making both Brazil and Abu Dhabi effectively dead rubbers. Contrast this to 2010 when Vettel, Webber, Alonso and Hamilton each had a shot at the title as they lined up on the grid for the final race of the season in Brazil.

Original Factor 8 Historical Analysis

2017 Factor 8 Score: 0 points

 

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2017 TOTAL FACTOR SCORE: 1 POINT

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

2017 was objectively not a spectacular season by historical standards – but we enjoyed it. Who are we kidding, we loved it! We always enjoy F1 and overall there was a lot to like about the 2017 season.

But there are a range of ongoing issues that continue to challenge minds at the FIA and Liberty media in trying to develop a set of rules that promotes close racing. To some extent these issues have been borne out in our analysis.

The 2017 season earned a paltry single point on our scoring system compared to 53 points for the overall winner: 2012. On the other hand 2017’s poor showing highlights just how great the top seasons really were.

WILL 2018 PROVIDE BETTER RACING?

So should we be expecting more of the same in 2018? Or can Formula 1 get back to the glory days? Well, consider these points for a moment:

    • Since the inception of the current hybrid era Mercedes have been totally dominant…until 2017. Ferrari broke the drought last year and seriously challenged Mercedes for the Championship. They will have learned from their mistakes and continued their development over the winter. We expect them to be very competitive again this year.
    • Mercedes is …well…Mercedes. They’ll definitely be up the pointy end again and Lewis Hamilton will be gunning for a raft of new world records. But his Finnish teammate won the last two grand prix of the 2017 season and will be working very hard to prove he’s not simply the “Number 2 Driver”.
    • Red Bull Racing were plagued with reliability problems in 2017 but still managed to put both their drivers on the winner’s podium. The Renault works team are taking engine development very seriously and with a reliable power train, RBR may just find themselves within striking distance of the Championship in 2018
    • McLaren. Ah McLaren. It’s been a (very!) tough few years with the disastrous Honda partnership but a new age is dawning. Despite being woefully underpowered McLaren appeared to have a very competitive chassis last year. With the new Renault partnership they will effectively be on a level playing field with Red Bull Racing. Like RBR they may actually be a chance to take the title this year – now wouldn’t that be something! And with Fernando Alonso, perhaps one of the greatest drivers of the modern era, anything could happen.
    • Renault have been rebuilding their works team over the past few years and should now be in a position to start moving toward the sharp end of the field. While we wouldn’t expect them to have quite matched RBR this year in terms of overall package development they may just surprise us and start really bringing the fight to the lead teams. With the Hulk and Chili Sainz pushing each other the Renault works team could just be the dark horse of 2018.

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Of course there are many other great stories and rivalries unfolding amongst the remaining teams too. But what we are really talking about here is the degree of genuine competition for the Drivers and Constructors championships. The signs look positive for 2018.

While some positive steps were taken last year 2017 did not rank highly in our factor model. Will 2018 bring improved racing and challenge the Best Seasons of F1 History?

Why F1’s Pursuit of Speed in 2017 had a Dark Side

Formula 1 is a perpetual engineering and technological arms race. The teams continually strive to improve the performance of their cars subject to the constraints dictated by the existing rule regime. As a result, in the absence of rule changes speeds tend to creep up and lap times reduce year by year.

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Greater speeds are certainly thrilling for fans watching their heroes do battle. But there is a price to pay. Increased speeds inevitably also increase the risks faced by drivers in the event of an accident. For this reason the FIA has on many occasions introduced rule changes designed to counter the inexorable rise in speed.

2017 was different…

THE 2017 RULE CHANGES

The rule changes for the 2017 season were designed very much with the fans in mind. They came amid growing dissatisfaction among viewers with the direction F1 was taking in the hybrid era, while also acknowledging the significant improvements in driver safety that have been achieved over the years.

More powerful engines, fatter tyres, wider chassis, lower and larger rear wings – the cars re-acquired many of the characteristics associated with Formula 1 in the late ’70s and ’80s – the “Golden Era” of F1 as we discussed in The Best Season in Formula 1 History.

One overriding goal of these changes was to improve lap times by a full 5 seconds a lap. The pole time for the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix was nominated as a specific target reference.

It is debatable whether faster lap times alone actually improve the F1 spectacle or the quality of wheel to wheel racing. But it was commonly agreed that the pinnacle of motorsport needed to be significantly quicker than other categories. A change was required – there was a need for speed.

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SO JUST HOW FAST WERE THE 2017 CARS?

In order to assess the speed improvement achieved in 2017 we’ve chosen three different measures of lap time: fastest qualifying time, fastest lap time during a race, and the median lap time of the winning driver. We compare the times for 2017 with those achieved on the same tracks in 2016.

For each metric we exclude tracks where wet conditions in either or both years prevented a reasonable like for like comparison.

Average Improvement: 2.5 seconds per lap

 

Average improvement: 2.7 seconds per lap

 

Average improvement: 3.1 seconds per lap

 

So while they may not have achieved a full five seconds per lap improvement on average, the 2017 cars were certainly quicker. Out of the 20 races held over the course of 2017 there were 11 new lap records set. The cars looked spectacularly quick through the corners; Motorsport.com confirmed that F1’s top corners were taken at 30kmh faster in 2017 compared to 2016!

As a consequence the G-forces experienced by the drivers have also increased significantly requiring the drivers to work extra hard in the gym pre-season to beef up their neck muscles.

HOW TO IMPROVE LAP TIMES FURTHER – A WEIGHTY ISSUE…

An unfortunate side effect of the new technologically advanced hybrid power trains is weight. The 2017 cars tipped the scales at 728kg (minimum weight including driver). For comparison this is almost 35% heavier than the iconic 1988 McLaren MP4/4.

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So while the overall power generated by a 2017 Mercedes powertrain is 12% higher than the MP4/4 – 750kW compared to 670kW respectively – the power to weight ratio is actually 17% lower than what was achieved nearly 30 years ago.

The power to weight ratio is a key factor in the performance of a racecar. But clearly it’s not the only thing that counts. Somehow the drivers managed to drag those weighty 2017 beasts around the racetrack in record times last year.

How? In a word – aero. Cornering speed is critical to lap time and this is significantly enhanced by aerodynamic downforce, in addition to mechanical grip.

One way to get a feel for the impact of aero on an F1 car is to compare them to a MotoGP bike, which has very little in the way of aerodynamic downforce.

VELOCITY V DOWNFORCE – MOTOGP & FORMULA 1 COMPARED

A MotoGP bike is an impressive machine – in 2017 the bikes produced 170kW with a minimum weight of 157kg (without rider). Add seven time MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi to the mix at 67kg and the 2017 Yamaha tipped the scales at 224kg. That gave a power to weight ratio of 0.85kW/kg.

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Impressive yes, but still 17% lower than the 2017 F1. And yet if we compare their top speeds the bike is at least equivalent if not faster than the car in a straight line.

Why? Let’s do a quick comparison of performance at a few of the circuits where both categories competed in 2017 and see what it tells us.

CIRCUIT OF THE AMERICAS – 2017
Category Top Speed Pole Lap Time
MotoGP 344km/h (Pedrosa) 2:02.7 (Marquez)
Formula 1 331km/h (Hamilton) 1:33.1 (Hamilton)

MotoGP was 7% faster in a straight line but a massive 32% slower in overall lap time.

 

SILVERSTONE – 2017
Category Top Speed Pole Lap Time
MotoGP 327km/h (Dovizioso) 1:59.9 (Marquez)
Formula 1 325km/h (Massa) 1:26.6 (Hamilton)

Top speed nearly identical but F1 pole was 38.5% faster than MotoGP

 

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The combination of aerodynamic downforce in addition to significantly more mechanical grip (consider those fat 2017 F1 slicks compared to the tiny contact patch on a MotoGP bike) means the F1 cars can carry far greater speed through the corners and this translates into much faster lap times.

But as we can see from the difference in top speeds achieved aerodynamic downforce is no free lunch. The aero package puts a limit on top speed via increased drag. It enhances average speed at the cost of top speed.

This raises an interesting question: how fast could an F1 car go in a straight line without all that aerodynamic downforce limiting its terminal velocity?

Well, luckily for us this experiment has been done. The Honda squad put this to the test in 2006 at Bonneville salt flats, setting a record of 413kph for the fastest F1 car in a straight line.

What would Honda give for some of that pace right now…..?

2017. QUICK, PRETTY CARS, BUT….

Thumbs up to the FIA for delivering fantastic looking cars that were extremely quick and a big step up on 2016.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to all of that sophisticated aerodynamic downforce  – turbulence. The 2017 cars were very hard to follow, and hence pass, due to the turbulent air they left in their wake.

It’s true that as fans of F1 we love to see racing cars going VERY fast.  But there is more to racing than just lap time. The on-track battles and heroic overtakes are a big part of what draws fans to the sport, and these have been somewhat compromised by the current design rules.

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On the topic of overtakes, this is something we will be looking at much more closely in 2018 so stay tuned for further overtake analysis from F1 Bytes.

For those interested in technical details, the issue of turbulence and some potential solutions was addressed beautifully by Craig Scarborough here.

MOVING ON TO 2018…

The stats presented here show very clearly that in 2017 the FIA delivered on the need for speed – although perhaps not quite to the level they’d hoped. We have also alluded to a few of the ongoing issues faced by the sport – problems whose solutions are not necessarily consistent with the goal of a faster lap time.

We hope that the future development of the sporting regulations carefully balance both the need for close wheel-to-wheel racing and the ultimate need for speed.