Sunday, 8 June 2014

Analysis: What ingredients make up an underdog F1 victory?

Panis' victory lap at Monaco in 1996. Photo: Jack Nicholls blog

Eighteen years ago last month, a flying Olivier Panis charged through from 14th on the grid to take victory in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix. Panis' victory was the first (and only) win of his F1 career, and was his Ligier team's first win since they were title contenders back in 1981, when Panis' compatriot Jacques Laffite was at the wheel. It was the sort of unlikely success in the sort of strange race (only three drivers completed the final running lap, and only seven were classified, in a wet-dry affair) that is a small but equally crucial part of sport's compelling narrative. Developments in technology, sports science, psychology and, in some cases, timetabling make such events even more rare these days (though they have never been, and never should be, a common occurrence). However, as the anniversary of Panis' incredible feat came and passed, it focused my mind on some of the elements which help bring out "underdog victories" in Formula 1 particularly - and some other examples of underdog victories within the sport.

This is the big one on this list. Wet weather, or wet-dry weather, is very good, relative to other factors, at shaking up the world order in F1. In my view, there are three key components to this:
  • The first is random variability. Wet weather, or wet-dry weather, invariably introduces an element of randomness to the event which can catch out anybody. At the 1972 Monaco GP, Jean-Pierre Beltoise was the surprise winner, dominating for the uncompetitive BRM team in what were truly atrocious conditions. More recently, even some of the best wet-weather drivers of all time have sometimes been caught out, sometimes through no fault of their own, by the sheer randomness related to aquaplaning and very low visibility. Thierry Boutsen won in Australia in 1989 when leader Ayrton Senna crashed, unsighted, into Martin Brundle's Brabham (fortunately no-one was hurt). And Damon Hill won for Jordan at Spa 1998 after leader Michael Schumacher crashed into the back of David Coulthard's McLaren after the Scot, struggling with his car, unexpectedly slowed.
  • The second is set-up. Weather forecasting is inherently uncertain (though huge developments have been made in this field by technological developments which allow meteorologists to precisely simulate  and evaluate a range of possible outcomes). So should you set the car up for a wet race, or a dry race? Sometimes, going against the grain in this respect can work wonders for a team. Panis' win at Monaco was bolstered by his Ligier team's decision to go for a dry set up. Having pitted for dry tyres at the right time, he leapt up the field and, on the dry tyres, was absolutely flying - often being the fastest on the track.
  • The final component is strategy. One example is switching from wets to dries (or vice versa). At the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, James Hunt and the Hesketh team changed from wet to dry tyres at precisely the right moment; Hunt then held off Niki Lauda's Ferrari to score a famous win for a small and somewhat rebellious outfit. There is also the need to factor in likely Safety Car interventions and whether or not the race will run its full allocation of laps, or be terminated at the two hour time limit. At Brazil in 2003, both Giancarlo Fisichella (driving a Jordan) and Jos Verstappen (Minardi) filled the fuel tanks heavy and ran an ambitious one-stop strategy, which their respective teams hoped would yield big points in a chaotic race packed with incident. Verstappen crashed in the atrocious conditions but Giancarlo executed Jordan's plan to perfection - taking the victory, albeit on videotape after he was initially declared 2nd in error. The Irish outfit in particular revelled in the opportunities wet weather offered; they did a similar thing (heavy-fuelled one-stopper) in 1999 to win the French Grand Prix with Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Jordan liked the wet. Here's Eddie
with HH Frentzen after winning in
France in 1999. Photo: Getty Images


Although there will always be an element of different circuits favouring different cars, this general trend tends to be exacerbated by tyre performance. It is always a huge challenge for the teams, who are unable to control this variable as well as their aerodynamic solutions, for example. However, it must be said that tyre variability has caused a lot more "near-misses" than genuine underdog victory successes.
  • The first set of examples are when there is a tyre war; that is, two or more different tyre suppliers competing against each other. One may be bigger than the other but, usually, the law of comparative advantages can allow the tables to turn. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, Goodyear were generally the team to beat. However, that did not stop Pirelli from having their days in the sun (usually by being gentler on their tyres in extreme conditions I believe). Five of the Top 10 on the grid of the season-opening 1990 US Grand Prix, and Pirelli-clad Tyrrell driver Jean Alesi nearly won the race the following day. Tyrrell were the biggest threat during this period (at least until Benetton became Pirelli-shod in 1991), with Alesi also bagging a podium in Monaco '90 and Stefano Modena having his moments in 1991.
  • More recently, under a single supplier, Pirelli have been given an explicit remit to spice up the racing by making the tyres as awkward to understand as possible. This has tapered a bit this year, after the approach raised genuine safety concerns during 2013. However, the halcyon days of this era was 2012, when seven different winners won the first seven different races of the season. The pick of the bunch? Often inconsistent Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado driving a race of brilliant control and speed to win the Spanish GP; a first win for his Williams team since 2004!
Williams team celebrates Maldonado getting to the end of
a Grand Prix. And winning it! Photo: Sky Sports

This is correlated with wet weather, it must be said. The inherently random element of wet races, as mentioned earlier, tends to increase attrition rates. Moreover, attrition rates are generally much lower these days than they have been for most of F1's history. These days, it is common that three-quarters of the starters finish the race; even with the huge upheaval of the new-for-2014 rules, one has tended to get around 13 finishers minimum for all races. Thus even events which are hard on engines (e.g. Monza, Sepang, Spa) don't tend to lead to a flurry of retirements, or an underdog victory. Neither do season-openers (traditionally high attrition - particularly in the 1970s but even before and since - due to new cars being debuted).
  • However, there is still an example when this can give us an underdog victory (outside of wet races). This happens when one team is particularly dominant. Thus, if that team hits problems (e.g. one mechanical failure and one accident), it opens the door for others. We saw this during the domination of McLaren in the late 1980s - for example when Gerhard Berger won the 1988 Italian GP, or when Alessandro Nannini won the hugely controversial 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. Moreover, during a dominant 2004 for Ferrari, Schumacher's retirement and an off weekend for team-mate Rubens Barrichello helped Jarno Trulli deliver an immaculate maiden (and sole) victory at Monaco. The question is, with Mercedes dominant thus far, will we see a repeat in 2014? 
Berger leads home Alboreto for an emotional Ferrari 1-2 at
Monza in '88, a year McLaren dominated. Photo: LAT Archive

Developments within F1 have helped teams try to control some of the variables which have helped give us underdog victories in the past. Additionally, I sometimes feel that, because the teams can now simulate situations so accurately so as to quantify, with a certain degree of confidence, what the 'best' outcome is, they are more likely to follow that path. Thus, maybe this engenders an environment where one is less likely to see a relative minnow like Jordan 'lean against the wind' to pull off an unlikely success.

Having said that, though, you only need to watch the pack shuffle during a wet race (or even a wet qualifying session), or to remember the huge variability we saw in many teams' performances during the early part of 2012, to remember that the teams still can't control everything. In such a context, I am therefore optimistic that - as illustrated by Maldonado two years ago - underdog victories are still with us and that we will continue to see them in the future. And if they are becoming more rare, then maybe we will appreciate them just that little bit more when they come around.

Here's a little bit more about some of the underdog victories I've mentioned earlier in this post - including links to highlights of the races (where applicable). I've tightened up my definition a bit here to focus on cases where both driver and team are (or were) considered underdogs, rather than just one or the other.

-2012 Spanish Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton secured a runaway pole but was sent to the back of the grid for running out of fuel on his in-lap (his team hadn't put enough in). This left Pastor Maldonado of Williams as the surprise poleman, with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso alongside him. When Alonso led off the line it looked like the more experienced driver would win out. But Pastor stuck with him, ran an 'undercut' at the second stint, overtook Alonso, and then held him off, under pressure, on older rubber at the end. A super victory.

-2003 Brazilian Grand Prix
Dreadful wet conditions and controversial tyre rules meant a somewhat chaotic but hugely dramatic race. Many drivers - including Michael Schumacher - crashed at Turn 3. The likes of Rubens Barrichello, David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber all had their moments. But Jordan's decision to put Fisichella on a heavily-fuelled one-stopper paid dividends in a big way when the red flag came out just after he had come through the field to lead. A great strategy by the team, perfectly executed by Fisi.

-1996 Monaco Grand Prix
In some respects the inspiration behind this post. Panis qualified 14th, pitted earlier than his rivals for dry tyres (timing it to perfection), and set a series of fastest laps to move up to 4th. Next, he overtook the race's mobile chicane - Ferrari's Eddie Irvine - by literally muscling his way past at the Loews Hairpin. He then overcame a spin and benefited from mechanical retirements for Damon Hill and Jean Alesi in front. He then held off McLaren's David Coulthard in the closing laps to take an ultimately deserved win.

-1989 Japanese Grand Prix
Ah! The late 1980s! A time of great drivers and big rivalries - Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet. Anyone else? Well there was this bloke in a Benetton called Alessandro Nannini, who was taking on the big guns after years in an underfunded Minardi. This was a man who doggedly scored his first podium at the 1988 British Grand Prix despite spinning on three (three!) separate occasions, and who battled for wins at Hockenheim and the Hungaroring in 1990. Not for nothing did then-Autosport scribe Richard Asher write in 2007 that "no underdog came in a more attractive package as Alessandro Nannini...and the best thing was he kept giving us glimmers of hope!"[1] Alas Nannini did repay the hope and deliver - sort of! He inherited the win somewhat in Japan after Prost and Senna collided, before Senna was controversially disqualified for missing the chicane. But, hey, you had to be behind Senna when it happened and Sandro made sure he was best of the rest that day in Suzuka.

-1972 Monaco Grand Prix
In truly treacherous conditions, Beltoise scored the last win for the BRM marque by dominating in Monte Carlo. There were murmurings that he may have benefited on the day from having a V12 in the back of the car, but the scale of Beltoise's achievement is summarised most eloquently by Nigel Roebuck (see title link). As Roebuck added in 2012: "Jean-Pierre was never the most assertive of drivers, but it was as if he realised this was his one shot at winning a Grand Prix, and that no-one was going to take it from him."

[1] - Richard Asher's comments were taken from an article "Our Heroes", published in the Autosport 2007 Christmas Double Issue (13-20 December). Asher's hero was, of course, Nannini!

1 comment:

  1. As usual a fantastic analysis of the underdog victories of F1 drivers with an expert insight into the subject matter. Well Done