How Well Does the First Race Predict the Championship Winner?

A strong start to the F1 season is vital for a successful championship campaign. Here I look at how good the first race weekend is at predicting the drivers and constructors champions. I have also compared the opening race to the 9th race (approximately mid-season) and final race of the year, to see if the first race is a better or a worse indicator of the year as a whole. For this study I looked at every F1 season since 1994. This arbitrary date is a compromise between obtaining enough data to be statistically useful, whilst also being modern enough to be practical to today. Please note that all references (e.g. “This has never happened before“) refer to data since 1994 unless otherwise stated.

There are lots of pie charts below, you have been warned!


Drivers

How well does the eventual world champion qualify for the 1st race?

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Fig 1: Qualifying position of the championship winner at the first race of the season.
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Fig 2: Qualifying position of world champion at the 9th and final race of the season respectively.

Nearly two-thirds of the time, the driver who claims pole goes on to win the championship. Whilst this might not shock many people, it actually appears to be atypical for the season as a whole. Looking at a the mid-season race and final race of the season, the percentage of champions to be on pole falls significantly, to 36% and 39% respectively. Although there’s every indication that a champion will remain competitive throughout the season (in all cases studied there’s a nearly 90% chance of him qualifying on the front 2 rows of the grid), the difference here is quite startling.

Note that from 1994-today, many different qualifying formats existed, with some formats meaning that a pole position may not be necessarily be a perfect indicator of who is fundamentally the fastest (due to drivers qualifying on different fuel loads or being forced to complete their laps at different times). With the exception of 2005 (which is discussed here), there’s no obvious indication from the data that these different formats are significantly affecting the percentages.


How well does the pole sitter at the first race perform in the rest of the season?

Another way to look at the data is to see where the pole sitter ends up in the championship standings. This may actually be more useful, as we obviously don’t know who the eventual champion will be after the first race.

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Fig 3: Final championship standings of pole sitter at 1st race.
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Fig 4: Final championship standings of pole sitter in 9th and final race, respectively.

Qualifying on pole is a very strong indicator of a good season ahead. In fact, only 3 times has the pole sitter not finished the season in the top 2 in the standings (1994, 2005 and 2012). Out of those, 1994 is explained by Senna’s untimely death. It’s impossible to know for certain how he found have featured in the championship had he survived to end of the season, but he surely would have been within the top two of the standings. 2005 featured the a topsy-turvy grid due to the qualifying conditions and unusual format, which forced Alonso to set a time on a wet track whilst others got a dry run. 2012 meanwhile, was an unusually competitive season, particularly in the first half. Overall, the first race is again more representative of the season as a whole than future races.


How often does a win at the first race predict the drivers champion?

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Fig 5: Race position of the championship winner at the first race of the season.
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Fig 6: Race finishing position of the world champion at the 9th and final race of the season respectively.

What about the races themselves? Race finishes for the opening race of the year look almost identical to that of qualifying: in nearly two-thirds races where the world champion finishes, they win. Another interesting conclusion is that the championship winner has never finished outside the top 4. Note I have discounted DNFs in the statistics here. This means the chance of the race winner going on to win the championship is actually slightly lower. There were three times the world champion did not finish the opening race (1997, 1999 and 2014). On all three occasions the championship winner started from pole, and in all occasions they would have been the likely winner had they made it to the end. The ifs and buts are discussed here.


How well does the winner of the first race perform in the rest of the season?

Finally for drivers, let’s see what winning the first race tells you about a driver’s final championship standings.

Fig 7: 1st race winners final championship position.
Fig 8: Final championship standings of the race winner of 9th and final race, respectively.

Although starting the season with a win is of course ideal, it is not as conclusive as one might think. A surprising 14% of the time, the race winner does not even feature in the top 4 at the end of the year. Although none of those were in the hybrid era, it is also notable that the winning driver at the first race has not gone on to win the championship in the last 5 seasons. Pole position is therefore a better indicator of a strong season ahead than a race win. This is probably due to the added variability that a race can dish up compared to qualifying.


CONSTRUCTORS

How often does pole position at the first race predict the constructors champion?

Let’s look at the constructors title. In all cases I am considering the best placed car. The patterns are similar to that of drivers, but in general the trends are more apparent. This is to be expected given that there are only half as many teams as drivers.

Fig 9: Qualifying position of lead driver of champions team in the first race.
Fig 10: Qualifying positions of lead driver of champions team in the 9th and final race respectively.

Three-quarters of pole sitters in the first race of the year are in a car that wins the constructors championship. This includes 16 of the last 21 years so it seems more true now than previously. Whilst 2021 was an exception to this, it’s notable that constructors champions Mercedes did have a more competitive opening qualifying overall (2nd and 3rd place, compared to 1st and 11th for Red Bull). Like with other figures, this falls significantly for the mid-season race, but then interestingly returns to 75% again for the final race of the year. How is that possible when the drivers champion only gets pole 39% of the time at the final race? This is mostly explained by the teammate to the world champion exceeding expectations (although drivers and constructors champions not lining up also play a role). My suspicion is that the driver’s champion may not always be performing to the maximum in the final race, either because the championship is already sewn up (meaning their performance is largely irrelevant) or because it’s the high pressure affair of a championship decider.

How well does the pole sitter’s team perform in the rest of the season?

Fig 11: Constructors championship position of pole sitter in the first race
Fig 12: Constructors championship position of pole sitting in 9th and final race of the season, respectively.

Again, the first race is a very strong indicator of a good season, with subsequent races being less so. 10 times in the last 13 years the car on pole at the opening round has won the constructors championship. The exceptions are 2012 and 2021. Despite not holding true last year, this is still possibly the strongest indicator in the data of championship success. 

How often does a win at the first race predict the constructors champion?

Fig 13: Highest race position of constructors champions at the first race of the season.
Fig 13: Highest race position of constructors champions at the 9th and final race of the season, respectively.

Again we see a dip in the 9th race of the season. A mixture of reasons including poor form, unreliability and wet races are to blame for this. Note that wet races are not necessarily distributed randomly throughout the year, and are more likely to occur in the middle of the year (typically in Europe) than at the first race (typically Australia/Bahrain).

How well does the winner’s car perform in the rest of the season?

Fig 15: 1st race winners final constructors championship position.
Fig 16: Final constructors standings of winner of the 9th and final race of the year respectively.

Fig 14: Highest race position of constructors champions at the 9th and final race respectively.

This one seems pretty consistent across the season. The ratios are also pretty expected given the other data we have looked at. Again, pole position is a better predictor for the season ahead, but any car that claims a victory has to be at least semi-decent.

Conclusions

There’s a lot of data here, so I’ve summarised the key conclusions below:

  • The opening race is generally a better predictor of who will win the championships than the 9th or final race of the year.
  • Roughly 2/3rds of the time the pole sitter at the first race will win the drivers championship, with similar probabilities for the race winner.
  • However, pole position is a better indicator of a good season ahead in general.
  • This is particularly true for the constructors title, which the car on pole at round 1 typically wins. Only once has the team that qualified on pole at the first race not finished in the top 2 of the constructors championship.
  • No one has ever finished below 4th in the first race and gone on to win the championship.
  • Whilst champions in recent years seem less likely to win the opening race than in the past, they are still likely to get pole position.

See why the eventual world champions were unable to start things off with a victory here.

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