Formula 1’s director of data systems Rob Smedley admits that half of the current grid got in touch with him after yesterday’s publication of the sport’s fastest driver rankings.
As part of its partnership with Amazon Web Solutions (AWS), F1 published a list of the top 20 fastest drivers in terms of raw pace based on data from qualifying since 1983. Ayrton Senna topped the list from Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. There were a number of surprise entrants and omissions, and Smedley says it inspired a number of drivers – both past and present – to get in touch.
“I have (had messages). I’m not going to give you any names, but I’d say probably 10 of the current grid and probably 10 of the non-current grid!” Smedley said. “I wouldn’t say I’m the most popular… Well, I’m popular in a few places, but I would say predominantly unpopular with most on the grid (today).”
Although few drivers and fans on social media agreed with all the rankings, F1’s managing director of motor sports, Ross Brawn, says the sharp reaction is one he expected as it’s a topic that can never be truly settled.
“I don’t think they’re laughing at it; I think it’s caused plenty of debate,” Brawn said. “I think once you get the methodology, people will start to understand. What’s the alternative? The alternative is you get everybody to write their own top 10, and I guarantee you there will be differences.
“It is controversial, but once you understand what we do… We look at two teammates on exactly the same day, in the same situation, with the same opportunity; and we get a time (difference) between the two. You build that up over time, see how that’s averaging, and then you need one of them to migrate to another team.
“They go to another team. So Driver A is quicker than Driver B. Driver B goes to another team and he’s quicker than Driver C, so you can say A is quicker than C because A beat B in his own team and B beat C in another team. And then you build that out with (data) and analysis, and you start to understand who are the quick guys and who consistently outperforms his teammate and by how much.”
While conceding that rankings will become more accurate over a longer period of time – with drivers like Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris only judged on relatively short careers so far – Brawn also says some of the surprise names on the list are an accurate reflection of their qualifying potential.
“What we set out to do here was try to identify who we thought was the fastest driver. That’s over one lap, so it’s a driver who has demonstrated his speed over one lap, not necessarily his racing prowess or his results. And of course it’s a big challenge because you’re looking at different eras, different cars and different teams. So it’s a massively complex and multi-faceted problem.
“AWS and our people – especially Rob and his team – set about trying to build an approach that would answer that constant question of who is the fastest driver? As you’ve seen, there’s been one or two surprises; but when you delve into it, (it makes) a certain amount of sense.
“Someone who worked with Jarno (Trulli) who I know very well said if a GP was five laps long he’d win every race because his speed was phenomenal over a very short period. But he didn’t have the ability to maintain that pace over a whole race. If you talk to anybody who worked with him they’ll tell you that he was incredible quick, so when you get into it and start to understand all the aspects of it, it makes sense.
“It will be controversial because there is no absolutely definitive way of comparing someone from the ’80s with someone in the ’90s. They’re not in the same cars and they’re not racing around the same tracks and they’re not the same age when they’re at their fastest. So we’ve extrapolated, and we’re quite proud of it. It withstands scrutiny and it’s controversial. We’ll get lots of debate around it and maybe we’ll refine it.”