You may have heard the one about nature abhorring a vacuum. That the nothingness sucks things into it. Well late-2015 F1 has gaped. Lewis Hamilton wrapping up the drivers’ title already seem a long time ago. I’d struggle to tell you when exactly Mercedes made the constructors’ crown official. Most of the races too have not been thrill-fests.
But even in its extended period of tepid dead rubbers the sport has found something to keep us occupied. That of Nico Rosberg’s fine, but in the name of the ultimate aim of the championship largely futile, late-season form in the other Merc. It started with a run of poles which he later started to convert to wins too. Everyone’s got a pet explanation for it apparently.
Yet whatever is the case most agree that it does matter, and you suspect that both Mercedes drivers think so too. This is because even though the destination of 2015 honours is set it is thought that the end of one season can influence the start of the next. Certainly Nico has confirmed that he is of this persuasion. “It’s always better to end on a high than a low, for sure, the season, also thinking about next year…” he said after Brazil’s qualifying. “It’s always better for next year to end on a high” he reiterated after that race.
Common sense says it is so too. Momentum and all else similar can very easily still make itself felt. After all everything is connected to everything else (as Lenin once said) and even F1 drivers are human – mental resets of previous experience are easier said than done, least of all in the handful of weeks of an off-season. Furthermore it often is hard to see the join between the end of one season and the preparations for the next; as Clive James once noted the next season starts on the same day the old one ends. Everyone shifts their focus immediately in other words.
Mark Webber in his recent autobiography admitted indeed that his crushing disappointment of losing out on the 2010 title at the last still was impacting him in 2011, at least in its early days: “The new season came too quickly and it was hard for me to find the motivation from within” he wrote. “I was finding it harder to keep the fire alight…”
But is this assumption backed up by F1’s previous? As is often the case the history lessons from this sport actually obfuscate rather than enlighten. On this basis, the good news for Nico is that the answer on whether good late-year form can feed into the next is in some part ‘yes’. The possibly better news for Lewis is that it can be argued that the most remarkable thing about looking at F1’s past is how tentatively it backs up the suggestion that Nico’s late 2015 showing will have a positive impact on him in 2016 when it all starts up again.
only on five occasions has someone won the world championship the season after their team-mate didIt still makes sense that late-season form will feed into the next. But F1 history says not really.
Common problems when trying to infer from F1 history includes the often low base size – championships are by definition rare things (there are, after all, only 66 seasons and therefore drivers’ titles ever) and in this case we are trying to form conclusions from a small sub-division of something already small. Related to this in part is that in this game especially you very easily end up relying on imperfect comparisons. Both factors are at play here.
There also is the added confusion that few sports have as many variables as this one. Also unlike many it is a game of man and machine. So, in staying true to our hypothesis, even if a driver raises their game late in a season it might be rendered irrelevant in the next one by them having a poor car.
In the first stop-off of our analysis in what may be considered bad news for Nico only on five occasions ever has someone won the world championship (presumably Nico’s aim) the season after their team-mate did so. And on one of those occasions when Jacques Villeneuve did it in 1997 he was aided by his champion team-mate Damon Hill leaving the team.
As for the remaining four, it’s far from clear whether Nico can take hope from them – none can be said to fit the theory neatly of late-year improvement launching them into a title charge the next. Three on the face of it look to fit the pattern but on closer inspection things become a lot less clear. The other doesn’t fit it at all.
The first to do this was Juan Manuel Fangio winning out in 1951 after missing out to Alfa Romeo team-mate Dr Giuseppe Farina in 1950, and at the helicopter level it follows the presumed pattern almost precisely. Fangio trailed Farina by nine points after three of the six 1950 Grandes Épreuves, but then won the penultimate-but-one and penultimate races, which looked like they would set him up for the title, only for him to retire with a technical failure in the final round. Yet Fangio carried this form into his victorious 1951 wherein he left Farina far behind. But on that closer inspection there wasn’t really a late-season surge from the Argentine in 1950 at all. What did for Fangio, and resulted in him being far behind in the first place, was unreliability rather than a lack of speed. His season, astonishingly, was made up of three victories and three DNFs. Farina meanwhile, crucially, only experienced technical woe twice and on one of those occasions salvaged fourth place, which proved the difference.
The next such occasion was when Denny Hulme won the 1967 title having watched his team-mate Jack Brabham do the same the previous year. And as 1966 drew to a close there was nearly no indication of Hulme’s title winning form of anon. In the final five rounds of the nine-round campaign he totalled but two third places and three retirements, and never once qualified ahead of Black Jack in that time either.
The other two were undertaken by the same man, one Alain Prost. He was champion in both 1985 and 1989 having missed out narrowly to his team-mate the year before. In 1984 Prost indeed won the final two races of the year – and missed out on the championship to stable mate Niki Lauda by a mere half point – before leaving Lauda in his wake in 1985, which again seems convenient to our theory. But really he left Lauda in his wake for the most part of 1984 too, the main difference was that then he had wretched luck in the season’s latter part with reliability and the like. And while on the face of it Prost winning three of the final four rounds of 1988 before going on in 1989 to beat his team-mate Ayrton Senna to the title seems to also fit the hypothesis precisely, any sort of deeper delve into that 1989 year tells you that’s a rather misleading over-simplification of how things went. If nothing else Prost hardly started 1989 on fire, as he didn’t win a race until round five, by which time Senna had triumphed on three occasions.
So the more direct comparisons give us little. But by expanding this to include less direct comparisons – and opening ourselves up more to the imperfect comparison charge mentioned – we find a little bit more to give Nico optimism.
It can be argued credibly that including consecutive seasons in which the same guy won the title is creeping close to a tautology, but we can take something from the mighty runs of crowns by Michael Schumacher (2000-2004) and Sebastian Vettel (2010-2013). In both cases the first title of the sequence came thanks to a devastating late-season run of form after being behind. And for both – them apparently emboldened – their title won the following year was a rout.
Jackie Stewart’s experience late in 1972 helps the case too. It was a frustrating season for him as defending champion, troubled variously as he was by an old car, a problematic new one and illness. It was only after the title was officially gone – to Emerson Fittipaldi in the Lotus – in the final two rounds that it clicked properly and Stewart swept up both race wins, leading all but three laps in them taken together. Which set him up beautifully for his third and final title in 1973 before retiring at the season’s end.
One might be tempted to include Alan Jones’ stunning late surge in 1979 – four crushing wins in the last six – which launched him into his triumphant 1980 campaign. It would be slightly dubious however as it owed to the astonishing performance advantage of the Williams FW07 discovered mid-season, and by 1980 its rivals hadn’t clawed all of that back.
We can expand it beyond champions and find further examples. We often think of Fangio’s sensational win in the 1957 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, in which he confirmed his final title with his final win, as his grand last act as an F1 driver. But two rounds remained that year (and for what it’s worth Fangio lingered on for some of 1958 too) and they both were won by Stirling Moss. And it wasn’t for a lack of effort on Fangio’s part, as Paul Fearnley outlined in those races, both in Italy, Fangio was “desperate to shine in Maserati’s back yard” but “was a well-beaten second on both occasions”. For Moss and his Vanwall team it was the portent of 1958 when Moss won four rounds of the 11 (though one was in a Cooper as the Vanwall wasn’t ready) and only just missed out of the title to the much more cruise and collect Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari. Also Vanwall won six times to become the sport’s first constructors’ champion.
it makes sense that late-season form will feed into the next, but F1 history says not really
There also is the unusual case of Nigel Mansell, who although he ended his F1 career with towering records he spent his first five years in the sport after making his debut in 1980 thought of by most as little more than a gritty trier, and he never finished higher than third place in that time. In late 1985 it all turned though, almost overnight. In the Belgian race he finished second to Senna, then he went and won the next two, before retiring from the final round after getting together with the self-same Senna (turned out it wasn’t their last run-in either). And it was all just the beginning of him being the sport’s number one pace-setter in Williams’ ‘red five’; he was rather unfortunate to miss out on the next two championships.
And while of course a single race hardly counts as a run, I recall it being said that Damon Hill winning the season-closing 1995 round in Adelaide, on a day that things went wrong for everyone else and he won by two laps, ending with it a desperate spell for him in which he at times looked broken, was just the fillip he needed to blitz the 1996 season, particularly its early part, on the way to his sole title.
But there also are exceptions – times when late-season form proved a false dawn. And Jacky Ickx and Ferrari in late 1970 is a classic in this regard. Jochen Rindt was the sport’s only ever posthumous champion that year of course but Ferrari won four of the final five rounds, and Ickx won three of them in fine style. He and the Scuderia therefore entered 1971 as firm favourites, and when Mario Andretti in another Ferrari won the 1971 season-opener at Kyalami many nodded knowingly. Plenty even reckoned that Ferrari doing this, with its Flat 12 engine, meant the Cosworth V8 had by now had its day. They were only about 12 years early on that one… As it was Jackie Stewart (powered by a Cossie) cruised to the honours after winning six of the 11 races. Ferrari meanwhile had managed to introduce a new car for 1971, the 312 B-2, slower than the B-1 used in 1970 mainly due to problematic suspension (not coincidentally the Andretti win mentioned was in the B-1). While Ickx only won once, when it rained in Zandvoort thus handing rare advantage to his wet weather skills and Firestone tyres.
Another case is James Hunt winning two of the last three in 1977, and he would have won the other most probably had his team-mate not wiped him out while being lapped. Therefore Hunt was in many people’s view – including that of Andretti who did actually win the title – the man to beat for the 1978 championship. But the season was a stinker for him – he took but eight points and almost never was a contender at the sharp end. This one was much more of a mystery than Ickx in 1971 too, which the giant ground effect stride from the Lotus 79 explained only in small part. The McLaren M26 was never a popular car, but Hunt used it in 1977 also.
Gerhard Berger too won the final two rounds of 1987 from pole, in so doing ending a two year plus Ferrari win drought (a record at the time). But come 1988 he, like everyone else, was blown away by the McLaren MP4/4s. McLaren as a team has been on the receiving end too. After all it won the last two rounds of 2012 (and a McLaren broke down while leading in the round before that). Since then, zippo.
It is possible that all of this demonstrates the inherent shortcomings of making conclusions from F1 history as mentioned – small and therefore volatile base sizes; plenty of variables and a lot of them outside of the driver’s control. But it still seems odd that something accepted so readily in fact has such patchy evidence to back it up. It still makes sense that late-season form will feed into the next. But F1 history says not really.