F1 overtaking stats? We’ll pass on this one

Date published: January 11 2017

It might not rival baseball for sports statistics, but F1 is full of them. Number of wins, number of podiums, number of poles, most laps led etc.

But since 1983 Pirelli have been compiling the statistics of most overtakes in a season. It’s a stat that’s almost as useful as, say, how many times an F1 driver has used a marshal’s folding chair: Alonso in 2015 and 2016, and Schumacher at Silverstone one time*. (*If you can think of more occasions, please forward to Pirelli)

For those lovers of the fine detail, last year Max Verstappen apparently broke a 32-year-old record by clocking up 78 overtaking moves across the races .

Not even George Clarke** would find that amazing.

**the lovable Geordie architect who goes into small spaces and says “That’s amazing!”

Max Verstappen, the raciest driver in F1? – tuh, who’d have thought that. Thank you for pointing it out Pirelli we would have had no idea otherwise.

Pirelli have pointed out that an overtaking move is classed as one that takes place during complete flying laps – so the opening lap is discounted – and is maintained all the way to that particular lap’s finish line. Position changes due to major mechanical problems or lapping/unlapping are not counted, nor are place changes made during pitstops.

Max broke the ‘record’ of 60 overtakes set in 1984 by Niki Lauda, who set the record in only 16 grands prix compared to 21 for Max, and six of these he retired from! How is that remotely comparable?

This is not about decrying Max’s achievement, because for the neutral fan he is F1’s true box office attraction, the one reason you would want to keep watching a race when the driver you supported was no longer in contention. It’s about the futility of comparing like with like. Or in this case, comparing like with something completely different.

Drivers in 2016 had narrower cars, they had the benefit of different (high degradation) tyre compounds and the ability to vary tyre strategy. Many of the overtakes logged by Pirelli in recent years will have been made by drivers on new tyres, overtaking mid-grid cars trying to do one-stoppers, or with worn out rubber at the end of a stint.

Most dissembling of all is the effect of the DRS, which has ramped up the figures enormously since its introduction. It immediately doubled the figures, season on season. The introduction of the DRS should have consigned the overtaking metric to the dustbin. F1’s points systems has long been placed in the dustbin.

First it was eight points for a win, then nine, then ten, then 25. At first it was points to fifth place, then sixth, then eighth, then tenth. People have created Excel spreadsheets to adjust points scored. But how could you ever compare a GP season with nine races to a season with 21? Comparing overtakes in past years is like comparing points scored without the adjustment.

And we haven’t even considered the era of refuelling. When that was introduced in 1994, the overtaking figures took a plunge through the late 1990s and early 21st century, causing FIA boss max Mosley to utter his famous “F1 is like a game of chess’ analogy” – the underlying message of which was ‘overtaking is overrated, suck it up buttercup’.

Another thing that quietly helps overtaking figures along is the introduction of wider, Tilke circuits, and hectares of tarmac run-off. The regular supply of ex-F1 drivers in the commentary box are always pointing out that in their day, they wouldn’t have been able to pull off that manoeuvre because if they did, they’d now be stationary, up to their axles in gravel.

So, who would you think was the least overtaken driver in 2016? Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg? Lewis tended to lose a lot of places on opening laps which don’t count in Pirelli’s scheme, of things. Or maybe even Max Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo, both of whom are robust in their defence of places. The answer is… Sebastian Vettel. Despite his miserable sweary season Seb came away with Pirelli’s stat of being the least overtaken driver of 2016. Supposedly just once (by Max of course) at the Brazilian GP.

As a politician once said, “there are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Andrew Davies