As the summer break is upon us I thought it would be a good time to look at how three of F1’s main up and coming young drivers that are linked to each of the top three teams are doing in a slightly different way than is usually done.
All three were funded through the lower formula’s by one of the three main teams. The drivers I’ll be looking at are Esteban Ocon of Force India, and believed to be being groomed for a seat at Mercedes, Pierre Gasly of Toro Rosso, and the number one choice to move to Red Bull in the future, And Charles Leclerc of Sauber, who the English F1 press corps already have decided to be the replacement of Kimi Räikkönen at Ferrari next year, though a lot of them are now back-tracking on that belief.
Pundits like to say that the cardinal rule in every form of motor racing is that one of the best benchmarks for driver assessment is how well you do against your team-mate. We as fans are constantly bombarded by F1 journalists and TV commentators with the out-qualifying ratio of one driver to another. Does it really tell us anything more than one driver is better than another over one lap? Does it really conclusively determine who is a better race driver? There have been many great drivers who were poor qualifiers and great qualifiers who weren’t great race drivers. An example that I like to use when involved in a debate about how the qualifying ratio is the best way to determine the better driver in a team is to use the 1984 F1 season.
In 1984 at McLaren, Alain Prost out-qualified Niki Lauda 16 – 1. Prost took pole position three times, while Lauda never took a single one. Lauda however, won the drivers world championship. You may say that 1984 was an aberration, but it leads me into what I consider to be a more important statistic and that is passing for position and without question Lauda was much better than Prost at doing that. And isn’t being able to pass for position what really determines how good a driver is? I think it does.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that the qualifying ratio metric is valuable for the top teams at the front, as where you qualify is a large factor in winning a race. However, it isn’t as valuable a statistical tool once you move into the mid-field and the tail-enders. The F1 press like to incessantly tell us that Leclerc has out-qualified Ericsson 9 – 3 this year at Sauber as one of their justifications why Leclerc should be in a Ferrari next season. They conveniently omit to mention that Pascal Wehrlein in his first 12 races of 2017 out-qualified Ericsson 8-4. I don’t remember any of them suggesting that Wehrlein should be at a top team because of his qualifying record against Marcus Ericsson.
Nor does Gasly’s qualifying record against Hartley mean much to me, which is 9 – 3 in favour of Gasly. It was evident from the onset that Hartley, who hadn’t raced a single-seater since 2012, was clearly out of is depth in F1 and was only at Toro Rosso since they didn’t have a junior driver ready to put into the seat.
It’s interesting that the third driver I’ll look at, Ocon, has also out-qualified his teammate 9 – 3. I never rated Perez as anything more than a mid-field driver with a lot of Mexican cash. And he demonstrated that when he had the opportunity to show what he could do at McLaren, where he was comprehensibly out-qualified and outscored by Button. In 2015 / 2016 he was out-qualified 24 – 16 by Hulkenberg, another driver I believe to be over-rated. That Ocon should be out-qualifying Perez is no surprise.
That all three of the drivers I’ll look at are conclusively out-qualifying their teammates is of no surprise. But what I want to know is how well each one does during a race. And that means passing cars and gaining positions.
One of the traps that many F1 journo’s fall into when assessing the race performance of a driver is to simply look at where he started on the grid and where he finished. For example. Driver A starts from 15th position and finishes 8th and the F1 press corps can’t stop telling us what a great drive it was. But what happens if there are seven DNF’s from drivers that started ahead of driver A? In reality driver A never gained any places, he moved up simply because others fell out.
And that is where my analysis differs from simply looking at start and finishing positions. I’ll remove the bias created by drivers who started ahead of our three up and comers and had DNF’s. This I believe gives us a much more realistic assessment as to what Ocon, Gasly and Leclerc are doing in the race.
Here is how it works. If a driver qualifies in say 15th and three drivers who qualified ahead of him had DNF’s, I’ll adjust his grid position to reflect his real starting position against the drivers who did finish. In this example the driver, because of the three drivers ahead who DNF’d, actually starts in 12th. Then I’ll show his finishing position, which we’ll say was 10th. That means he actually overtook 2 cars, and not 5 if you simply look at start and finish positions.
The chart(s) will include the following: the races, grid positions, drivers that qualified ahead but had DNF’s, the revised grids which eliminates those drivers, race results and true positions gained.
DNF’s from Ocon, Gasly, or Leclerc will not be counted and get a N/A (not applicable) and so will races where no driver ahead had a DNF.
WE’LL START WITH LECLERC.
Of our three drivers, Leclerc starts the furthest back with an average qualifying position of 14.1. This is actually a big advantage for Leclerc as the further back you start the more likely it is a driver ahead of you will have a DNF. When you correct his grid position for the drivers ahead that DNF’d he really has a starting position of 11.7. That means that Leclerc is over the first 12 races on average, gaining 2.4 grid places a race simply from drivers ahead of him getting DNF’s. What is really interesting is Leclerc, from his adjusted grid position of 11.7, is finishing on average at 11.5, a mere 0.2 places ahead of where he started. In fact Leclerc has, over this season, only gained 2 places overall. It’s also worth noting that in the 9 races he finished, 3 times he actually lost places.
NEXT UP: GASLY.
His starting grid position is on average 13.9. When adjusted it averages 11.1, which at 2.8 is slightly more than Leclerc. But Gasly is gaining on average half a position from his adjusted grid position to his finish result. Gasly, like Lelerc, lost positions on three races out of the nine he finished.
FINALLY WE LOOK AT OCON.
Ocon has an average grid position of 11. When adjusted it moves him to 10th. Clearly the closer to the front that you start the less impact drivers having DNF’s will affect your adjusted grid position. But what clearly separates Ocon from Leclerc and Gasly, is that he is gaining almost a full position in every race. And only twice out of nine races did Ocon lose positions.
When I started this article I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought that Ocon might come out on top but I figured Leclerc would be second and Gasly third. As it turned out I was right about Ocon but wrong about the other two. Using my data analysis it’s clear that at this stage in his career that Leclerc is a good qualifier but lacking race skill. He is, once you adjust his grid position, essentially finishing a race at the same place he started. Gasly is marginally better but more or less at the same level. Ocon (at the moment) is clearly the better of the three. While he is starting much farther forward on the grid and having less opportunity to gain positions, he conclusively beats both Leclerc and Gasly in positions gained. I believe that Ocon probably would have been ready to join M-B in 2019 had they not signed Bottas.
However, when it comes to Leclerc and Gasly, I rate them at basically the same level now, maybe with Gasly having a slight edge. Both have tremendous potential, but it’s pretty clear to me that neither one would be ready to move to the big team. And after doing this analysis, which I pretty sure both Ferrari and Red Bull also do (or something similar), Gasly moving to Red Bull to replace Ricciardo and Leclerc moving to Ferrari to replace Räikkönen next year is something I wouldn’t consider a smart move. At all…
Written by Cavallino Rampante @CavallinoRampa2
Edited by @bruznic