Issue 41: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview

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21 November 2014

So this is it. The Finale. The Showstopper. The 2014 F1 World Champion will be crowned this weekend in Abu Dhabi. After 18 rounds of closely fought battles, some supreme performances, a few bizarre errors and plenty of controversy, the title hangs on this one race. It’s little surprise that this is the case given the tight contest so far and the fact that points scored in Round 19 at the Yas Marina Circuit are worth double.

If only the Yas Marina track was worth double too. Sadly, it’s yet another Tilke-drone lacking in personality. Instead of the grace of Suzuka or the grit of Interlagos hosting the final showdown we are stuck with the monotony of Yas Marina. All the money in the world can seemingly build a state-of-the-art track, but not a great circuit.

The Decider in the Desert: Will it be Hamilton or Rosberg?

How do we arrive at an objective and (hopefully) accurate answer to this question? Making a confident and correct prediction of which Mercedes driver will become champion is hard. After all, the destiny of the title could (literally) turn on the smallest mechanical failure, a factor that is almost impossible to foresee.

I intend to take a scenarios-based approach here. I’ll identify three assumptions and five swing factors and then outline four scenarios of what could happen.

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In crafting the first two scenarios below, I have made what I believe are three fair assumptions. Based on the previous 18 races, I think it’s reasonable to expect that Hamilton and Rosberg will fight between themselves for the race win. No other team simply has the race pace to keep up. Williams have come closest in a ‘normal race’ with Mercedes, but they are still finishing over half a minute behind the lead Mercedes. Secondly, I’ve assumed that Hamilton and Rosberg won’t take each other out; the drivers are paid to get the best result for the team and Rosberg MUST finish to have any chance of winning the title. Thirdly, I feel on very safe ground weather-wise.

I’ve included two performance variables that I believe are likely to influence some scenarios and potentially the title winner. To reiterate, qualifying pace advantage means track position and preferential treatment on race strategy for the lead Mercedes. But race pace advantage for the chasing car at least offers the option of overtaking the rival ahead. To generalise crudely, Rosberg has tended to hold a qualifying pace advantage in 2014 while Hamilton has had the upper hand on race pace.

I have listed five swing factors, each of which, should they occur, is likely to either hand the championship to one driver almost at once or mean that the driver unaffected by the swing factor is strongly favoured in the race and the championship battle. The swing factors are listed in descending order of likely impact on the ultimate result. For example, a failure to finish on Rosberg’s part through either (i) or (ii) would immediately make Hamilton champion by virtue of Hamilton’s 17-point advantage going into the final round. However, unreliability in qualifying for Hamilton, which might mean that he starts from the pitlane, would swing the title towards Rosberg.

None of the swing factors are in the drivers’ or Mercedes’ control. But, these factors are all high-impact even if it’s not at all clear how likely they are to come into play. On that point, I’m relatively confident in suggesting that swing factors (i) and (iii) are more likely to occur in this race than in previous races because powertrain and gearbox components are nearing the end of their life cycles. Likewise, a safety car is perhaps more likely than usual at Abu Dhabi (there have been three in the last five races and two safety car periods in 2012, which aided Vettel’s climb from the pit lane to third place at the chequered flag).

Scenario 1

My assumptions are correct.

Swing factors don’t come into play.

This is the most straightforward scenario. A ‘normal’ race between the Mercedes at the front will make Lewis Hamilton champion, regardless of performance variables. The Briton does not have to finish first to claim the title. However, if Hamilton does have a race pace advantage then it’s a near certainty (90%>) he’ll be world champion.

Scenario 2

My assumptions are correct.

One of more swing factors come into play.

This is a tough scenario to call because of the uncertainty around which swing factor will come into play and which Mercedes driver will be affected by it. The permutations are many and varied. It goes without saying that if one Mercedes driver cannot finish due to unreliability or a freak collision, his rival will be very likely, if not near certain, to take the win and the title. If it’s Hamilton retiring, Rosberg must finish fifth or higher to guarantee that the title will be his. But what about unreliability in qualifying? This of course would be a blow to the driver affected, but not necessarily automatically hand the championship to his rival. If Rosberg is forced to start from the back or the pitlane, for example, then Hamilton is very likely to become champion (75%>). If it’s Hamilton starting way down the field, then I’d say Rosberg is around 65% likely to be champion. Why a lower probability for Rosberg? Because Hamilton does not need to overtake Rosberg to win the title.

That said, I see qualifying unreliability also increasing the chances of swing factors (i) and (ii) coming into play because the affected driver will have to push his car and find a way through the field, increasing the risk of a collision or a mechanical failure.

A pitstop drama for Rosberg would probably be more damaging to his title chances if Hamilton is still running because the Briton would be almost certain to jump ahead, moving the title towards Hamilton. A slow stop for Hamilton would not necessarily be title-ending for him as he does not have to pass Rosberg, but it depends on the amount of time lost in the pits.

Finally, a safety car scenario may act as a game changer too. Rosberg was comfortably leading the Hungarian Grand Prix, but the timing of the safety car cost him dearly and meant he didn’t even make the podium. If Hamilton has track position over Rosberg then I think a safety car period will matter less in the title fight even if it gives Rosberg the chance to attack. However, if Rosberg is in the lead with Hamilton behind, then the Briton is more vulnerable to being overtaken. If he were to drop to third or lower, Hamilton would no longer be in a title-winning position; this would also mean that Assumption A is wrong.

So what if my assumptions aren’t correct? How might this affect who becomes champion?

For one thing, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for title rivals to collide during an all or nothing final race. Think Schumacher and Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997 or Hill and Schumacher at Adelaide in 1994 and most famously, Senna and Prost at Suzuka in 1989 and 1990.

Furthermore, another car might indeed interfere with the intra-Mercedes tussle at the front of the field. This is most likely to happen at the start, at a safety car restart or because of a different pitstop strategy of a fast runner behind, who then baulks one or both Mercedes. Williams are probably best-placed to interfere with Mercedes’ race, assuming Bottas and/or Massa start close behind the Mercedes. A bad getaway from one of the Mercedes, for instance, might allow a Williams to jump ahead. However, unlike a Red Bull or a Ferrari, passing a Williams will be trickier given the FW36’s straight-line speed. Hamilton’s inability to find a way past Bottas at the 2014 German Grand Prix is evidence of this.

Scenario 3

My assumptions are wrong.

Swing factors don’t come into play.

Scenario 3 is somewhat less mind-numbingly complex than Scenario 2. I’d be surprised if Hamilton and Rosberg were to collide, but if they did and neither could continue that would make Hamilton champion (100%). If, after a collision, only Rosberg could continue, his ability to take the title (he needs to finish fifth or higher with Hamilton not scoring), would depend on the level of damage his W05 Hybrid had sustained and the amount of time he had lost.

What happens if a Williams does manage to find its way in between the Mercedes? Here, the critical factor that would impact on the title is which Mercedes driver holds track position. If Rosberg is the one to fall behind a Williams, then the swing is most certainly towards Hamilton. Rosberg will use up his tyres attacking the Williams, leaving Hamilton to build a lead. However, if Hamilton drops to third position, Rosberg’s title chances improve slightly. Hamilton would have to re-pass the Williams to win the title. Difficult, but not impossible round Abu Dhabi.

Scenario 4

My assumptions are wrong.

One or more swing factors come into play.

If you thought Scenario 2 was complex, try this one! The permutations are endless. In this scenario, the destiny of the title could swing multiple times. Perhaps Hamilton drops behind a Williams at the start and cannot get passed. Rosberg streaks away at the front. Title race over. But then, Rosberg has a pitstop drama or a mechanical failure dropping him back behind Hamilton and into the pack. Advantage Hamilton. There isn’t space to go through every permutation, so let’s acknowledge that predicting the title winner in Scenario 4 comes with very low confidence! I guess that’s a good thing. Who wants to know the result before the race?

One thing’s for sure, Scenario 4 would make for one hell of a cliff-hanger.

So what does this tell us? Well, the obvious first: F1 is extremely complex. The sheer number of variables, the potential knock-on effects of various events and even the timing of those events all influence the final result. Second, the uncertainty in Scenarios 2 and 4 is due principally to the difficulty of placing a likelihood on the swing factors at play. These factors are all high-impact, but not necessarily low probability. However, we just don’t know how probable.

In any case, Hamilton is clearly in the box seats for the title in Scenario 1 and potentially in Scenario 3 too. For Rosberg to become champion, he needs a swing factor to affect Hamilton or Assumption A to turn out to be wrong and have track position over Hamilton.

@TheWheelspinner

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