Clip The Apex
As 2017 draws to a close we are less than 3 months before the first race of 2018. Here's a place to offer your opinions on the runners and riders for next year. Firstly, here's the calender:
25th March - Melbourne, Australia
8th April - Sakhir, Bahrain
15th April - Shanghai, China
29th April - Baku, Azerbaijan
13th May - Barcelona, Spain
27th May - Monaco, Monaco
10th June - Montreal, Canada
24th June - Le Castellet, France
1st July - Spielberg, Austria
8th July - Silverstone, Great Britain
22nd July - Hockenheim, Germany
29th July - Budapest, Hungary
26th August - Spa Francorchamps, Belgium
2nd September - Monza, Italy
16th September - Singapore, Singapore
30th September - Sochi, Russia
7th October - Suzuka, Japan
21st October - Austin, Texas
28th October - Mexico City, Mexico
11th November - Sao Paolo, Brazil
25th November - Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi
21 races, kicking off in Australia and finishing in Abu Dhabi with races returning in France, after a 10 year break, and Germany with it's now "traditional" one year on one year off cycle. The summer break falls after Budapest, there are quite a few back to back weekends to pop in your diary and Malaysia has gone.
There is only one seat still to be filled in the 10 teams who will make up the grid:
Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Valtteri Bottas
Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Kimi Raikkonen
Red Bull Racing: Daniel Ricciardo & Max Verstappen
Force India: Sergio Perez & Estaban Ocon
Williams: Lance Stroll & TBC
Renault: Nico Hulkenberg & Carlos Sainz
Toro Rosso: Pierre Gasly & Brendan Hartley
Haas: Romain Grosjean & Kevin Magnussen
McLaren: Fernando Alonso & Stoffel Vandoorne
Sauber: Marus Ericsson & Charles le Clerc
A few changes amongst the teams. Felipe Massa has retired (again) and there is speculation that Russian Roubles will buy a seat for Sergi Sirotkin. Carlos Sainz will have a full season at Renault after replacing Jolyen Palmer. All change at Toro Rosso (if you ignore the last couple of races of last season) with Pierre Gasly and Brendan Hartley given a chance to prove themselves in the Red Bull junior team and Sauber have dumped Pascal Wherlein in favour of Ferrari junior driver Charles le Clerc whilst retaining Marcus Ericsson (!).
Two other significant changes at the teams, McLaren have moved to the Renault power unit and Honda have picked up with Toro Rosso as they attempt to repair their damaged reputation as an F1 engine manufacturer.
So what are you hoping for in 2018? The home of Grand Prix racing is back on the calender, will Paul Ricard provide a decent race? Some the less exciting circuits keep their place but we still have a few of the classic venues and some modern classics.
Will Mercedes be all conquering in 2018? Can Valtteri Bottas mount a challenge to Lewis Hamilton or will he continue to be the submissive No. 2 we saw in 2017. Might Ferrari manage to match the power war with Mercedes, the 2017 chassis was certainly a match for the Merc and on some circuits was significantly better. Despite the smallest budget on the grid Force India have performed brilliantly over recent years, can this be maintained in 2018? Can Danny Ric up his game to compete with Max Verstappen? He's very far from being Yuji Ide but Max bossed him in 2017. Will the Renault engine move McLaren back to the front of the grid? How will the Honda engine perform in the Toro Rosso? Could the tie in with Alfa Romeo allow Sauber to improve? What will happen to Haas now that Sauber are the defacto Ferrari junior team?
Lots of questions. The first test session of 2018 takes place in Barcelona between 26th February and 1st March followed by a second between 6th and 9th. This will give us a good view of what we might expect but don't forget the "joker" for 2018 as teams will only be allowed 3 engines for the season. Expect quite a few grid penalties.
So the question in the thread title is necessarily a subjective one (leaving aside the question of whether "fastest" = "best"). However we do have some objective data to try to make an assessment. Although cars' performance varies we do have team mate comparisons to draw on, and qualifying times are a 'cleaner' data set than race results given the number of variables involved in a Grand Prix.
So, with apologies and thanks to Rutherford, I've analysed the relative performances of team mates in qualifying sessions for the past decade and more, the results of which are shown below. The basis of measurement is a percentage, representing the average gap between the faster and slower driver(s) over the course of a season. To save decimal places and for easier interpretation, I've scaled them up by a factor of 10,000. So in the chart below, +1 means a difference of +0.01%, and +100 means a difference of +1%. Over a typical lap time of 1m40s, +1 = +0.01% = +0.010s compared to the faster team mate. In this case, +10 would be a difference of one tenth, and +100 would be a difference of one second and so on.
The comparisons all exclude wet sessions and those in which drivers have had mechanical problems - as far as possible from contemporary reports.
Then I have tried to create a basic model of driver speed from this data. One of the problems with this approach is that occasionally there are situations where A > B > C > A. A classic one is when Damon Hill beat Jacques Villeneuve in 1996 (+43), who beat Heinz-Harald Frentzen in 1997 (+43) and 1998 (+21), who beat Damon Hill in 1999 (+61). I would argue that there are two effects at play here: a rookie effect (disadvantaging Jacques in 1996) and an age effect (Damon was 38 in 1999) that explain the apparent anomaly: Villeneuve got faster over the period while Hill got slower.
Analysis of the past decade seems to suggest most drivers gain speed from their first into their second season. A minority appear to improve further in the third season. This seems to be independent of the age they make their debuts. Additionally, some drivers show signs of losing pace from the age of around 33 onwards - although this isn't consistent or true for everyone.
So I've taken a simple model that assumes a driver's speed is constant, except in their rookie season (or two), and assumes they decline gradually from age 33. Then using the historic team mate comparisons, create an estimate of their speed over the course of their career.
I've chosen Hamilton as my baseline, driver 0, on the basis that he's a qualifying expert and has had some long-term team mate relationships providing a good sample of data. So from Hamilton we can get estimates for Button, Rosberg and Bottas; from Button on to Alonso, from Alonso on to Raikkonen and so on.
This is what I came out with for the 2017 grid, plus Button and Rosberg included for reference:
As you'd expect there are a few adjustments where the model didn't quite fit. It made sense to assume Raikkonen wasn't the same driver after his two year break, given the wide margin between him and Alonso and, latterly, Vettel. I assumed Massa took some time to recover from his 2009 accident, while I've chosen to represent Kvyat declining after 2015 - although you could take an average of his deficit to Ricciardo across those seasons, which would move him and Sainz up a bit in 2017.
Finally the only driver who I couldn't fit to the model at all was Magnussen. He was marginally faster than Button in his rookie year of 2014 (shown on the chart) but has been very underwhelming against Palmer and Grosjean since. I've put him at +88 since it's easier to assume one season was the outlier rather than 2016-17.