Closest F1 field for ten years – or more?

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Giancarlo Fisichella was only 2.78s slower than Kimi Raikkonen at Silverstone

The past two seasons have seen the gap between the fastest and slowest cars shrink. A fairly basic assessment of the data suggests the F1 field is more closely matched now than it has been at any point in the last ten years.

How has this happened?

To find out how the gap between the fastest and slowest teams had changed over the years I looked at fastest race laps for two circuits over a ten year period. I chose Silverstone and Sepang, two circuits which have changed little in that time.

I also discounted instances where a driver had set a very slow fastest lap because they retired early in a race.

In the days before race fuel qualifying, qualifying times would have been a much easier way of assessing this. However this does give a strong impression of how the variance in lap times have changed:

Best and worst fastest laps at Silverstone and Sepang, 1999-2008

The difference in laptime between the fastest and slowest cars increased slowly from 1999-2002, then increased rapdily to a peak in 2005/6 of around seven seconds (we can blame about a second of the 2006 Sepang spike on Yuji Ide).

In 2007 and 2008 it fell to less than half of what it was – around three seconds. So why has this happened?

Tyre war

From 1999-2000 Bridgestone were F1’s sole tyre supplier. In 2001 Michelin returned and during the tyre war years the gap between the fastest and slowest cars reached its highest level.

In 2007 Bridgestone became the sole tyre supplier again, and the difference between fastest and slowest fell to less than 1999/2000 levels.

But just because there is a strong correlation does not prove cause an effect. How might the tyre war have increased the gap between leaders and backmarkers?

It’s not necessarily down to one manufacturer providing a ‘slow’ tyre and another bringing a ‘fast’ one. In a tyre war the fastest teams tended to enjoy the closest links with their tyre suppliers, who produce rubber tailored most closesly to what their preferred teams need. For evidence of this, witness how Renault have struggled without Michelin.

Performance of the slowest teams

It’s likely the speed of F1’s slowest teams distorts this data as well. In 2005 the slowest team was Minardi. That in itself was not unusual, but in that season the team was in its death throes and potentially at a nadir of competitiveness.

In a similar vein 2006 saw the arrival of Super Aguri who at both the Sepang and Silverstone round were using a car based on a four year-old Arrows chassis.

When was F1 last as close as it is today?

A more detailed study of the statistics is needed to be certain, but it looks like 2008 is the closest F1 season for some time. Before 1999 there were more years of tyre wars and in the early ’90s there were many extremely uncompetitive teams in Formula 1.

To answer this question the data would need to be expanded to include more circuits and perhaps take pre-2003 qualifying statistics into account. The laptime difference between the cars might be better expressed in percentage terms as well.

If anyone can offer and data to answer this question, or alternative explanations for why F1 has gotten so much closer, I’d be very interested to see it. Over to you…

More Formula 1 statistics

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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20 comments on “Closest F1 field for ten years – or more?”

  1. In my opinion,I think the technology now opened,such as the shark wing,when Redbull introduced it in Feb test,now almost every team try it,the horn wing too.

    Second,as Keith said the tyres now are the same for everyone,not Ferrari-Bridgestone or Renault-Michelin,and the date is open too.

    Then I think the car lack of TC is a reason,but we can see at some high Aerodynamic require and faster corner circuits,the gap is there too.That’s why I think F1 has gotten so much closer.

  2. Don’t think the TC ban helped here: it helps the spectacle and it requires more from the driver, but usually the slow teams also do not sport the quickest drivers either.

    One thing that helped definitely was the single tyre supplier. The engine freeze was also essential.

    And let’s not forget the young newcomers – Vettel, Glock, Sutil – all are quite fast, even in sometimes funny cars.

  3. This is begging for a response from Alianora!

    I think Keith is right though, but I want to add something similar to what Tommy mentioned above:


    Nowadays, when some F1 team tries something never seen before – and it works, all the other teams try to make it work in their windtunnels. While it may take them a while to do so – around 6 months on average – it’s usually a given that by the following year, everyone will have it on their cars too.

    The 2009 cars are different, of course, but if they don’t look similar right away (and they may still all look similar anyway), they all all look a lot more alike by 2010.

  4. A spec tyre & the engine freeze have a lot to do with it. However, although the lap times are close there is little overtaking on track.The current aero regs dont lend themselves to a following car getting a tow for a pass.Close times or not, too many F1 races are processional.

  5. Perhaps the recent tightening of the Formula One field can be attributed to the smaller teams (such as Sauber, Jordan, & Minardi) being bought by larger concerns. This has two effects as it improves the quality of the lesser teams and reduces the number of pay-driver seats in F1.

    I could be wrong but I believe that Formula One will always continue to get closer and more competitive, just as it has over the past 50 years. I think that’s just the nature of sport.

  6. While the field seems to be the closest for at least a decade, the races have become more and more dull. For both there’s one main reason: the (semi-)standardisation of several parts, like electronics, tyres and engines. As history shows the more variables we have the more exciting races are, due to the different paces during the race.

  7. I would give you statistics on when the last time the field was this squashed together, but the usual statistics site I use has gone down and I don’t have paper records dating far enough back to give you an answer. Suffice to say it was before 2000…

    Improvements have become more expensive, which explains the pattern. First, some teams were able to afford much more improvement than others. Then, as it got more expensive, the rich teams could continue to make major improvements while the poor teams could only tweak bits. Eventually, the amount required to improve was so high that even some of the richer teams struggled to afford major improvements. However, the richest teams could afford to continue apace, making the gap even wider.

    Meanwhile, the poorest teams were going bust or being transferred to richer organisations. This meant teams generally had morew similar amounts of money. In 2004, the richest team had about twelve times the budget of the poorest one. Even excluding Minardi, the next-poorest team (Jordan) had less than a sixth of the richest team’s budget. By 2006, the removal of the poorest teams meant that, Midland excluded, the next-poorest team had just under a third of the richest team’s budget. Now that Force India has taken over Jordan/Midland/Spyker, they have nearly caught up with the other teams again on budget.

    The increasing standardisation of components means that each dollar gains much less improvement than it did even five years ago. This not only explains why the field has compressed, but also why it has become more difficult to overtake the more it has continued.

  8. michael counsell
    25th July 2008, 11:04

    This year on average 10 cars have been finishing on the lead lap. This has steadily increased since 2002 when it was around 5 or 6. In the mid 90s it was more like 4.

  9. Pingguest: what are you talking about? Last season was good but for the smearing off track between drivers and between teams. This season the racing is even better. I’d say that we’ve had a 5 year low with Schumacher dominating. From 05 on it has been game on, race on between well matched competetive drivers. We have the best period of F1 since the ninties and it can only get better! (fingers crossed)

  10. Withw the gap between fastest & slowest decreasing, it looks like F1 is finally going in the right direction (look at the amount of overtaking at Hockenheim for example). Hopefully next years reduction of aerodynamic grip will improve things further.

  11. I think Alianora has said everything that is to be said. And very well put too.

    I think the reduction in gap in 2007 is owing to a combination of engine supply (big teams to the smaller ones), smaller team buy-outs and the single tyre supplier. And the recent crop of the fresh new talents, most of’em seem to be race winners, provided a good car.

  12. * everything there is to be said. Sorry.

  13. If there where no rules the gap would shrink too. For technical improovment reasons.

    The problem is that the competitors wants one thing, and the governing body and the public wants just the oposite.

    The driver wants to win the race for the largest gap (1 lap) and win the title as soon as he can. He and the designers wants turbos, active things (variable speedbox, wings, suspension etc…), slicks. and a F1 car that had an “unloyal” advantage,like Chapman did. A driver wants like Fangio to suprise the rivals, with a diferent strategy, stop the car and change tyres, refuel (in a time no one do that) change glasses, take a cup of tea, and overlap the others again.

    The Governing Body and the large public wants the emotion to be pemanent until the end like a Bingo game.

  14. Sorry guys, kinda off the topic but I stumbled across this a moment ago and most of you guys probably know this info already but:

    Toyota – £220m ($418.5m)
    Ferrari – £212m ($406.5m)
    Mclaren – £210m ($402m)
    Honda – £198m ($380.5m)
    BMW Sauber – £186m ($355m)
    Renault – £170.5m ($324m)
    Red Bull – £132m ($252m)
    Williams – £102m ($195.5m)
    Torro Rosso – £42m ($80m)
    Spyker** – £39.5m ($75m)

    Approximate budgets for 2007. Assuming this is accurate, I think this may be one reason why Toyota didn’t do very well in Keith’s poll. Not much bang for their buck wouldn’t you say….

  15. Andywolf,

    I don’t think you can point to Hockenheim as an example of how overtaking is improving, as Hockenheim is one of the few circuits that has a sequence of corners which allow for overtaking.

    IMO the racing this year has been better mostly because of the weather variables rather than the close lap times.

  16. It’s better than it has been in recent years….. My point was about the aerodynamics.

  17. And about the tyres, lets not forget that during the last years of “tyre war”, Bridgestone had only one top team: Ferrari. So, at least in 2005 and 2006 (confirmation needed), tyres were not the key factor to the performances level, since Ferrari and Minardi used the same…

    An opposite argument would be that Bridgestone made the tyre targeting Ferrari’s needs, and that made the rest of the teams adapt to it and, therefore, fail to score decent lap times…

  18. Robert McKay
    26th July 2008, 0:01

    I don’t think it even requires statistics. I feel we can say with near certainty that the teams have never been closer than they are at this point.

    Stable regulations for a number of years (minor tweaking apart) coupled with the most professional set of teams F1 has ever had is the reason for it. The big teams quickly reach the optimal solution and move the bar higher by smaller fractions each time, the smaller teams take a bit more time but get there – look at Force India. Plus, add in increasing restrictions like engine homologation too, as well as customer teams sharing data/chassis etc, and the great increase of personnel moving teams and taking acquired knowledge with them.

    Having said that, expensive newfangled technology like KERS and wholesale aero reg changes for next year will spread them back out a bit, I suspect. But we’re not going to go back to the days of a gap of 10 seconds between pole and last on the grid.

  19. The gap is getting closer but the same teams seem to manage to win in the end..use the safety car more often after a crash. I am not suggesting using safety car like in Nascar where a lug nut will bring the safety car, but it would bunch them up nicely…some smaller crashes in F1 deserves a sc. Also extend the time frame to 2.5 hours. Some people pay $500.00 bucks for 2 tickets and everything is said and done in 1 1/2 hours..ouch

  20. Robert McKay
    26th July 2008, 19:59

    “Also extend the time frame to 2.5 hours. Some people pay $500.00 bucks for 2 tickets and everything is said and done in 1 1/2 hours..ouch”

    I agree…races ought to be longer. I quite liked Champcars 1 hour 45 minuntes minimum race distance time limit.

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