“There are no points won on Saturday.” Whilst this cliché is no longer strictly true thanks to F1’s recent experimentation with sprint formats, have you ever wondered what championships would look like if it were only decided by qualifying?
Here we’ve looked at every F1 championship since 1980 to answer this question (with an upcoming part 2 for earlier years). Points are allocated for the qualifying results instead of the GP to come up with a “Qualifying Championship” for each season.
The results are pretty interesting, with several examples of dominant driver/car combinations being even more dominant, whilst in other years drivers whose campaigns were crippled by poor reliability are suddenly much better represented.
- How Is The Qualifying Champion Determined?
- Qualifying Champions
- Year Reviews
- Other Statistics
- Final Thoughts
How Is The Qualifying Champion Determined?
F1 has used various qualifying formats over its history, with a trend towards entertainment value growing as television audiences became more important. This means that not every qualifying session has seen the best car/driver combination on pole. This is particularly true during the 2000s: One lap qualifying saw drivers set times in different conditions (see Japan 2005 for the quintessential example), whilst drivers setting times on different fuel loads meant that the sometimes the driver on pole had an inherit advantage in qualifying (such as Alonso’s fuel aided pole in Hungary 2009). Here the positions are just taken from where each driver qualified, with further discussions of who was “actually” fastest given the conditions/fuel/machinery under them left to the imagination.
The modern points system (25, 18, 15 et.c) is used for each year to make comparisons between seasons easier. In general, the differences in points formats are minimal. (No additional points for “fastest laps” or sprint events).
Only final point is that grid penalties arising from engine changes etc. are not included, but disqualifications from qualifying (such as Hamilton at Brazil 2021) are.
Let’s start by listing who would have won each qualifying championship in every year since 1980, and detailing any differences with the actual world champion.
|YEAR||qualifying champion||actual champion|
|1982||Prost||K. Rosberg (6th)|
These results are summarised below by number of qualifying championships. Senna is the biggest change, winning a total of 6 qualifying championships, including 1 for Lotus. Meanwhile 3 world champions (Keke Rosberg, Räikkönen and Button) receive no qualifying championships, and 3 non-world champions (Reutemann, Tambay and Barrichello) claim a qualifying championship each.
|QUALIFYING CHAMPIONSHIPS||ACTUAL CHAMPIONSHIPS|
|Lauda||0||1 (after 1980)|
|1980 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1981 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1982 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1983 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
The 1980s as a whole have significant differences between the qualifying champion and the actual drivers champion. This was at least partly caused by the terrible reliability of the era.
Whilst 1980 champion Jones retains the title in qualifying, there’s a significant mix up behind. (Arnoux jumps up from 6th place to 2nd, for example.) 1981 produces a new champion in Reutemann, but the qualifying results actually follow the actual season pretty closely. In reality he only lost the title to Piquet by a single point, with a 2 point swing to him in qualifying being the finest of margins.
1982 was an unusual year, where constructor’s champions Ferrari was afflicted by the deaths of both drivers Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Meanwhile Renault drivers Prost and Arnoux had to deal with horrible reliability. Rosberg infamously only won one race on route to the championship, and the evidence from qualifying (he is 6th place on 128 points) suggest that his championship owed a lot to attrition and regular points finishes rather than outright pace.
Tambay is largely forgotten from F1 history. Whilst his qualifying championship may come as a surprise, he was part of a 4 way fight for the driver’s championship in 1983. He was also part of the team that won the constructor’s (Ferarri). In qualifying at least, Ferarri had a slight advantage, with Tambay edging out teammate Arnoux for the qualifying title.
|1984 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1985 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1986 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1987 drivers||quali points|
1984 is an extreme example of how qualifying does not define a season. Driver’s champion Lauda is all the way down in 9th place for the qualifying championship! No other world champion comes close to that level of poor qualifying since 1980. His McLaren teammate Prost fairs much better, but is beaten to the title by Piquet, whose season was hamstrung by poor reliability.
1985 sees the start of Senna’s domination of qualifying. His was another season whose outcome was determined by DNFs. (Out of the 7 times he reached the chequered flag he finished 6 times on the podium, with 2 wins.) This was followed up by another qualifying championship in 1986. Whilst there’s no doubt that Senna’s new teammate Dumfries wasn’t as strong as de Angelis the year before, the gulf between them is truly astonishing. Senna’s total of 304 compares to just 6 for Dumfries (or a big fat 0 if using the points system at the time).
1987 famously saw the Williams drivers of Mansell and Piquet go toe-to-toe for the title. This battle is repeated in qualifying, with Mansell coming out on top. This season also saw Senna’s continuing domination of teammates (with fellow Lotus driver Nakajima ending the season pointless). Finally, it heralded 7 years in a row where the drivers and qualifying champions are different. This is quite a feat considering it only happened 6 times in the next 35 years.
|1988 drivers||quali points|
|1989 drivers||quali points|
|1990 drivers||quali points|
|1991 drivers||quali points|
1988 and 1989 were hotly contested in the races (featuring their infamous championship deciding collisions). However in qualifying they were total whitewashes, with Senna winning both titles by over 100 points. He started 1988 with 6 consecutive poles (and started 1989 with 5), and was never outside the top 3 across these two seasons. The level of Senna’s victories despite having Prost as a teammate (who had obliterated teammate Lauda in qualifying just a few years prior) demonstrate just how fast Senna was over 1 lap. Mansell and (particularly) Berger both fared considerably better in 1989 qualifying than in races, main due to the Ferrari’s horrible reliability that year. Every race the Ferrari pair finished delivered a podium, but between them they managed just 9 race finishes all season.
In 1990 Senna’s teammate Berger is closer to Senna than one might expect, and was a genuine threat to take the qualifying championship until the final few races. As was the trend over the past few seasons, Prost (who finished just 7 points behind Senna in the driver’s championship) was considerably worse off in qualifying compared to his race results.
Senna’s 1991 driver’s championship owed a lot to superior reliability of his McLaren compared to the Williams cars. Unusually though, his advantage in qualifying was actually larger, due to his blistering qualifying pace. This year concludes Senna’s era of qualifying dominance, with the Williams cars in subsequent years being too dominant for him to overcome.
1992 saw Mansell win a (then) record 9 grand prix, but his results in qualifying suggest that the car was capable of even more, with 14 poles in 16 races. 1993 saw a similar advantage for new WIlliams driver Prost, with 13 poles in 16 races. This was a rare example of Prost performing better in qualifying than races. Both seasons also feature a fresh faced Schumacher in the top 5 for qualifying, heavily outscoring his teammates (Brundle and Patrese) both times.
Compared to the actual championship, Schumacher’s 1994 qualifying season benefits from having an additional two races (as his 2 DSQs from races do not affect his qualifying results). Given this, it’s surprising that his margin over Hill is just 22 points. This still owes a lot to the further two races Schumacher was banned from though, with Hill only outqualifying Schumacher twice all season.
In 1995 Schumacher won the championship easily, but misses out to Hill in qualifying. We can also see Coulthard nearly matching Schumacher’s qualifying total, which is not too surprising when considering his race results. Coulthard’s total in the championship was less than half of that of Schumacher’s, but this deficit was largely caused by his 50% DNF rate.
Schumacher was by no means a poor qualifier, and dominanted his teammates in qualifying throughout the 90s (Herbert scored just 93 points, in 1995, behind Häkkinen and barely ahead of Eddie Irvine in the Jordan). However, there is a general trend of him performing even stronger in races during this era.
|1996 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1997 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1998 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1999 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Hill’s 1996 championship margin is larger in qualifying, echoing the dominance of Williams cars in 1992/1993. He was also incredibly consistent, not once qualifying outside the top 2. 1996 also sees Alesi sneak ahead of Berger after their change from Ferrari to Benetton, although as in races it is fairly evenly matched between the pair.
1997 continues the pattern of dominant Williams cars extending their advantage in qualifying. It’s actually surprising Villeneuve started the (infamous) final race of 1997 behind in the championship, given his advantage of almost 100 points in qualifying. Fisichella’s 5th place in qualifying shows how much more the Jordan car could have achieved. He’s ahead of several “faster” cars, including both Benettons, a Ferrari and a McLaren.
Whilst 1998 qualifying was dominated by Häkkinen, it is a season of two halves. After 7 races teammate Coulthard was just 4 points behind in qualifying (with 3 poles to Häkkinen’s 4). Beyond this point, Häkkinen outqualified Coulthard every single time, and a late push from Ferrari saw Schumacher almost overhaul Coulthard.
Hakkinen’s qualifying in 1999 season was even better. His is around double that of the next non-McLaren driver. (This is incredibly is Schumacher, despite him missing almost half the season due to injury). The domination really emphasises much the championship battle that year relied on McLaren’s unreliability and mistakes.
|2000 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|2001 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|2002 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|2003 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Whilst Ferrari came close to the championship in the 3 years prior, the results from qualifying suggests their success in 2000 was largely attributed to having a more competitive car. Coulthard was much closer to Häkkinen in qualifying trim than in previous years. Meanwhile, renowned qualifying ace Trulli took an impressive 5th place in a car that finished 6th in the constructor’s championship.
2001 sees Schumacher unsurprisingly with a commanding lead in qualifying. Ralf Schumacher also his best year, with his qualifying results a significant improvement on the races. The two McLaren drivers are balanced in qualifying, suggesting that Häkkinen’s points deficit in races (65-37 in Coulthard’s favour) was not due to a loss of speed.
2002 is seen as one of Schumacher’s most dominant years, but his relentless consistency and reliability in races masks the fact that the gap to Williams was not insurmountable in qualifying (it’s comparable to Ferrari and McLaren in 2000, for example).
One of the biggest surprises is seeing Rubins Barrichello beating Schumacher in qualifying across 2003. Schumacher lead his teammate for much of the season, with 2 poor qualifying results in the last 2 races proving costly. This is very much against the grain of their time as teammates. However, 2003 is seen as a strongly than average season for Barrichello in races too. His total points of 234 is the lowest for a qualifying champion since 1981, highlighting the competitive nature of the 2003 season.
|2004 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|2005 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|2006 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Schumacher returns to being comfortably clear of Barrichello in qualifying across 2004. The next 3 positions (Button, Montoya and Trulli) are occupied by drivers in different teams (BAR, Williams and Renault/Toyota respectively), a result that was also present in the driver’s championship (with Alonso replacement Renault teammate Trulli).
Poor reliability and engine penalties are seen as major reasons why Räikkönen’s championship challenge faltered in 2005. However, Alonso prevailed in qualifying even without these factors. Trulli’s 3rd place shows further impressive qualifying performances from the Italian, whilst Button’s 5th place is surprising given that his BAR team was banned for 2 races.
As in the previous year, Alonso retains his title in qualifying across 2006. His dominance over his teammate is also preserved across these 2 years. As with Schumacher, Alonso is generally able to extract more impressive results in races than qualifying. (That’s not to say his qualifying is poor though!) The qualifying results of 2006 mirror the actual season very closely, with the only difference in the top 5 being the swapping or Fisichella and Räikkönen’s positions.
|2007 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|2008 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|2009 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
2007 was well known for it’s intense title battle and rivalry between McLaren and Ferrari, which spilled over into the spygate scandal that engulfed the sport. Whilst Hamilton’s championship implosion in the last 2 races is well known, he would have won from teammate Alonso by 20 points looking just at qualifying. More surprising is Massa, whose early season title fight is often forgotten, beating Räikkönen into 3rd place.
2008 again sees Hamilton triumph in qualifying by a relatively narrow margin. One unexpected result is how low Kubica’s score is. He was considered an outside bet for the title until the latter stages of the season. However, his qualifying score is barely better than Heidfeld’s the year before! His championship challenge was mostly built on consistency, whilst the more competitive Hamilton and Massa lost fistful of points across the season due to unnecessary tangles and unreliability.
Whilst it’s generally accepted that Brawn started the year with a dominant car, Vettel was ahead of both Brawn cars in qualifying points as early as round 8. Button particularly struggled in qualifying after this, and had to rely on racecraft to maintain his championship lead. His early qualifying lead over teammate Barrichello (6-1 up) turned into a deficit (1-11 down in the last 12 races). By the end of the season, Vettel, Button and Hamilton all achieved 4 poles, but only Vettel was competitive in qualifying across the whole season.
|2010 DriverS||Quali points|
|2011 DRIVERS||Quali points|
|2012 DRivers||quali points|
Whilst 2010 features the same champion in qualifying, Vettel now has a comfortable points lead. Teammate Webber is now in 2nd, with a huge 150 points gap to the nearest non Red Bull driver. Whilst Button fitted in well at McLaren and won 2 of the first 4 races, the gulf to Hamilton in qualifying may surprise some (it’s larger than Alonso’s advantage over Massa, for example). Lastly, the McLaren and Ferrari end the year finely balanced; they’re just 5 points apart (in McLaren’s favour).
2011 is where Vettel began to dominate the sport, and this is reflected even more so in qualifying. His points haul of 444 is still the largest ever achieved over a season. Despite being seen as a poor season for Hamilton, he still maintains a comfortable lead over Button in qualifying.
Hamilton’s comfortable qualifying championship in 2012 will surprise some. However, it’s been noted before that his McLaren was the fastest car that year by some metrics. Whilst reliability and strategy blunders proved costly in race trim, Hamilton would have won a qualifying championship with a race to spare. This is despite his disqualification from pole in Spain.
Alonso’s 2012 season is regularly hailed as one of the greatest ever (although the model does not consider it to be overly exceptional given Alonso’s talent). Whilst his qualifying results were comparable to previous years, teammate drops down to 11th in the standings. One final surprise of 2012 is Schumacher outscoring Nico Rosberg 123-103pts, an incredible feat for the 43 year old in his final season. This is particularly true when viewed in context of how well Rosberg compared to Hamilton in later years.
2013 qualifying largely follows the Grand Prix results, with the exception of Mercedes drivers Hamilton and Rosberg both getting a boost. This is mainly because of the high tyre wear of the Mercedes car proving costly in races. Alonso’s 5th place continues the trend from the previous years of him outperforming in races. He actually finished a comfortable 2nd in the driver’s championship.
|2014 DriverS||Quali points|
|2015 DRIVERS||Quali points|
|2016 DRivers||quali points|
A major surprise at the start of the hybrid era is Rosberg’s victory in the 2014 qualifying championship, ending the season a full 75 points clear of Hamilton (or more if double points are assigned to the final race). Also of note is now competitve the WIlliams duo of Bottas and Massa were, considering that they failed to win a race whilst Ricciardo managed 3 victories.
2015 offers no major surprises, with Hamilton taking a comfortable qualifying championship as he did in the races. Vettel’s 3rd place also mimics the race results, in a Ferrari that was more competitive in qualifying than anything Alonso managed with the team.
Similarly, Rosberg’s 2016 triumph mirrors real life. Whilst Hamilton’s Malaysia engine blowout was demonstrative of the costly bad luck that year, he had his fair share in qualifying too. Twice he started at the back of the grid, and in Russia he failed to record a lap in Q3. Despite this, he had 12 poles to Rosberg’s 8.
However, Rosberg’s qualifying performances in 2016 were consistently strong. In fact, they marked the first time since 1996 that a driver qualified on the front row in every race (a feat that Hamilton, Vettel and Schumacher have never achieved).
|2017 DriverS||Quali points|
|2018 DriverS||Quali points|
|2019 DRIVERS||Quali points|
|2020 DRivers||quali points|
In these two years qualifying results represent the race results pretty well. A resurgent Ferrari were unable to overcome Mercedes. This goes against the argument that Vettel’s costly errors in races across this era cost Ferrari a driver’s title. Winning the title against a team that’s faster in qualifying is very rare in the modern of F1, and near impossible if the faster team (Mercedes in this case) are reliable and relatively competent strategy wise. Also of note is how similar the two seasons were, with an identical top 5 and similar points totals.
These years also featured Max Verstappen in 5th place, in his first full years at Red Bull. Max was generally closely matched with teammate Ricciardo across their time at Red Bull. However, he was generally the quicker driver on Saturday, with a difference that became more apparent the longer they spent as teammates.
These years again mirror grand pix results with Mercedes’ domination continuing. Bottas is generally slightly closer to Hamilton in qualifying than races, but never enough to really challenge. Leclerc’s appearance above Vettel in 2019 reflects their points difference in races well too.
The top 3 drivers in 2020 were in a league of their own. However Red Bull suffered from the poor pace from their 2nd drivers (Gasly and Albon), as well as the switching of the drivers mid-season. Pérez’s 4th place in 2020 demonstrates how competitive Racing Point were before they became Aston Martin. This is particularly true given that he missed the two races at Silverstone and is not generally considered to be a qualifying specialist. He’s the only driver to be in the top 5 of qualifying since 2015 without driving a Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari.
|2021 DRivers||quali points|
|2023 DRIVERS||Quali Points|
|2022 DRIVERS||quali points|
2021 qualifying is close battle between Verstappen and Hamilton. However, the battle is quite different from the race results when individual GPs are looked at. This is because their high profile collisions and incidents in races don’t affect the qualifying results. Ultimately, Hamilton’s disqualification from qualifying in Brazil is very costly, as he ends the season just 20 points behind Verstappen. Elsewhere we can see Bottas easily outperforming Pérez, whose debut year at Red Bull was rather underwhelming. Leclerc also outscores teammate Sainz in qualifying (courtesy of his Monaco pole), despite being behind in the final points tally.
The 2022 qualifying results show us the kind of season we were teased in the early stages. The eventual champion Verstappen winning by the narrowest of margins from Leclerc, having been behind for the entire season. Despite ending with the same champion, this is the first season in many years whose narrative would have been fundamentally different when looking only at qualifying. Meanwhile Pérez closes the gap to Verstappen somewhat compared to 2021. Hamilton also just outscores teammate Russell in a balanced fight between the Mercedes drivers.
2023 again sees Verstappen record the highest score, despite the qualifying being closer than the races. Leclerc is again his closest challenger. This time Verstappen’s teammate Pérez is down in 7th, a rating incredibly disappointing for such a dominant car. Meanwhile, Russell matched Hamilton in qualifying (their H2H was 11 each) despite finishing the championship on much fewer points.
Top highest points totals
|Driver||year||qualifying points||points per gp|
The highest scores show a heavy bias towards recent years with more grand prix. 2021 onwards was seen 5 of the top 10 highest scores ever.
Top 10 points per qualifying event
|DRIVER||YEAR||QUALIFYING POINTS||POINTS PER GP|
Whilst the top 10 is clearly a listing of some quite dominant cars (with potent drivers too), it is probably not a particularly good metric to understand much about the season other than the consistency in qualifying of the fastest driver/car combination. The standard is so high here that even a single race at the back of the grid (e.g. due to a car failure) can lead to a non-inclusion (note dominant years such as Vettel 2013 and Schumacher 2002 & 2004 are not present here).
Of the top 10 listed here, two did not win the championship that year (Senna 1989, Rosberg 2014) and a further two needing the championship to go to the final round (Hill 1996 and Häkkinen 1998).
Looking beyond the individual seasons, there is a common theme that the correlation between qualifying results and championship position is much higher than it was in the past. The most obvious reason for this is that cars are much more reliable than in the past, and the chances of a truly unreliability (finishing <50% of races) is basically zero today. The increased number of GPs per season also make results more likely to represent expectations (as any given freak result has less influence).
It appeared as though F1 wanted to upend the qualifying system to detach this relationship somewhat (with the idea of reverse grids and the introduction of sprint qualifying), but the current experiments on sprint races place the priorities on providing more racing/spectacle rather than trying to mix up the grid.