How Formula One Teams' Performances Change Over Time
Formula One teams rarely have the fastest car for long. Rule changes shake up the order. Sometimes a team will make a technological breakthrough that gives them an advantage.
It can be very interesting to look at how the established order changes across different seasons. To take an extreme example, in 2008 Red Bull's average qualifying position was 10th, but in 2009 this had jumped to fifth. In such a competitive sport, that is an enormous leap in performance.
The following graphs show how each of the current teams have moved up and down the grid over the past decade. It is frequently clear to see how the advent of a new engine supplier, or an injection of cash, has boosted their performance.
There are a number of ways that this information could have been presented, but the method I have used is to take the highest qualifying position of each team in each race and then work out a five-race moving average.
This is to smooth the curve slightly and make the graphs clearer to read. It gives a stronger impression of each team’s changing fortunes.
I have left out the second car in each team because it is surprising how frequently teams have problems in qualifying, which leaves one car out of position or at the back of the grid. Remember, the point of this is to look at the absolute pace of the team, so the fastest qualifying car is an ideal barometer.
The graph shows the average qualifying position on the right (the vertical axis) and the races from 2003 to Sunday's European Grand Prix along the bottom (horizontal axis).
Jaguar is included in the Red Bull figures as Red Bull purchased the Jaguar team at the end of 2003. We can see that initially, Red Bull didn't make a huge amount of progress; instead they fluctuated up and down the grid before making a big step in 2007.
It’s no surprise that this was the first year with an Adrian Newey car. They also started using the Renault engine in ‘07.
But they made an even bigger step from '08 to '09. The graph clearly drops down from an average of ninth to well below third. The peak towards the end of 2009 reflects the team’s poor qualifying in Italy and Belgium that year.
This vast improvement came after the regulations changed and Newey was able to unleash his design genius on a blank canvass. The team hasn't looked back since.
McLaren spent the early part of the 2000s moving up and down the grid. In 2003, they won two races, in ’04 they won one but in ’05, they won 10. This pattern continued, with no wins in 2006 and eight in ’07.
This pattern is visible in the qualifying analysis presented here. The graph is particularly peaky. It flattens out between 2007 and 2008, illustrating the team’s strong qualifying performances across those seasons. But in 2009 another regulation change, this time affecting the aerodynamics of the car, meant the team dropped right off the pace.
The astonishing rate of improvement in the latter half of 2009 is clearly visible, but the team has stagnated since then and hasn’t been on pole position for a year.
The Ferrari graph is interesting because it highlights the dominance the team had through 2003 and 2004 but then shows a big drop in performance in 2005. This was caused by a regulation change.
The FIA stipulated that Formula One tyres should last for the whole Grand Prix and Ferrari's tyre supplier, Bridgestone, wasn’t able to make tyres that were as good as Michelin's.
The team were championship contenders in 2007 and 2008, before dropping back in 2009 as a result of the new regulations, in much the same way as McLaren. Remember the graph shows the fastest car only, and still the average position is around sixth or seventh.
The trend through 2010 is one of improvement as the line clearly drops closer toward one (i.e. pole position).
This graph is fascinating to see because the team had a relatively positive 2003, and in 2004, they had the second fastest car behind Ferrari. Jenson Button memorably put the car on pole for that year’s San Marino Grand Prix.
But it all faded away, and in 2007 and 2008 the Honda, as the team was then called, wasn’t competitive. The saviour was Ross Brawn, who had no influence on the 2008 car but helped the team to build, in Button’s words, "a monster of a car" for 2009.
Brawn GP dominated the early season and the graph drops like a stone, almost achieving a five-race average of "one."
Since then the team, now Mercedes GP, has dropped back and has appeared unable to break the strangle hold the top three teams enjoy.
Making the step up is very hard, but as the graph shows, the team did it in 2004 and again in 2009. Can they do it for a third time?
Renault won the world championship with Fernando Alonso in 2005 and 2006, and the graph shows their success across those two seasons. But it also shows them dropping back through 2007 and 2008.
However, toward the end of 2008, they had a resurgence in pace due to some successful development on their car. Alonso was able to qualify in the top four in China and Japan.
In 2009, the team lost its principle, Flavio Briatore, and its technical director, Pat Symonds, as a result of the Crashgate saga and the team appears to have been relatively stagnant since.
They have failed to compete with Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari. A big push is required for them to move back up the grid.
The Williams team have struggled to recover from the loss of BMW as a partner. They haven’t had a title sponsor in the traditional sense, and they are currently undergoing some significant structural changes across the technical set up and in the ownership of the team.
The graph shows why these changes are necessary. From a position of scoring pole positions in 2003, they have moved into a lower-midfield position and simply don’t seem to be making any progress.
When they do make a step in the right direction, it doesn’t take them long to fall back again. The big changes they are affecting now will hopefully change this trend.
Each of these versions of the team are included here and it is easy to see how the lack of investment dropped the team down the grid, before Dr Vijay Mallya’s restructuring and finance paid dividends in 2009.
The team achieved a staggering pole position in Belgium that year, although as this graph is based on a five-race average it doesn’t get right down to "one."
Unfortunately for the team, many staff members then went to Lotus, and other teams, and in 2010 they began to drop back towards the tail of the field.
However, 2011 is clearly an improvement over the latter half of 2010.
In 2003, Sauber were bought by BMW. The new owners increased the level of investment in the team, improving the technical side as well as the infrastructure.
As a result, they won a race, but were then been sold by BMW. The graph shows this journey quite effectively, and it illustrates how hard it is to stay at the front in F1.
Like McLaren and Ferrari, Sauber lost out in the 2009 technical regulation changes. They dropped back into the midfield and have so far failed to recover. Their situation is similar to that of Renault in that the team will need some inspirational leadership and some engineering genius if they are to get back to the front of the grid.
This is a classic example of how an injection of money can change the fortunes of a team. As Minardi, they were rarely inside the top 15 on the grid, but with Red Bull cash and technology, the team made huge strides in 2007 and 2008, culminating in an astonishing victory in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix—from pole position!
Since then the team has failed to make progress and it has dropped firmly back into the midfield. The drop in average grid position towards the end of 2010 is the result of Jaime Alguersuari qualifying an impressive 11th in Singapore, and the improvement in 2011 is partly the result of Sébastien Buemi’s seventh place in China.
HRT, Lotus and Virgin
There’s not much to show for HRT, but the team isn’t consistently qualifying in 23rd and 24th as you might assume. A few 20th and 21st places have lifted the team’s average quite comfortably in both 2010 and 2011, most recently in Canada when Liuzzi out-qualified both Virgin cars.
However, many of these 21st places are a result of other cars having technical problems.
Lotus haven’t improved in 2011 as they had hoped, or even expected, but their 15th place in Spain has lifted their average, and they are pulling well clear of Virgin.
As these figures are based on a five-race moving average, the movement away from Virgin seen on the graph above represents a strong and long term trend.
Virgin are visibly slipping away from Lotus and towards HRT at an alarming rate. It will take a big effort to change the team’s fortunes.