Racermetrics race-database.com

How the Races Were Won

by Sean Wrona

As the month of February begins, I decided to launch my first Racermetrics series that will be an early cornerstone of this website. This will give racing fans something to follow after the Super Bowl and before the NASCAR, Formula One, and IndyCar seasons begin. As earlier discussed, one of the main emphases of this site is attempting to distinguish between races won by the driver and races won by the team. This column is the start of a 25-part series in which I will review how the driver who eventually won the race took control of the race for every race from 1990 to 2014 in Formula One, IndyCar (both CART/Champ Car and IRL/IndyCar), and NASCAR Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup. It is indeed an ambitious project that I don't believe anyone else has seriously attempted, but I believe it is necessary for understanding the complete context of drivers' accomplishments. Many fans have frequently speculated at various times that certain drivers primarily win because of luck or superior pit crews, but without a rigorous way to assess this, these arguments are hard to justify. What I am not assessing here is dominance. While I rate dominance highly (and more highly than winning an individual race, since the driver who dominates and loses is more likely to win the next race than the driver who lucks into a race victory), I rate taking control of the race on the track even more highly. On circuits where it is difficult to pass, a driver can easily dominate a race without taking control of the race on the racetrack. Despite starting last in the Mid-Ohio IndyCar race last year, Scott Dixon won and led the most laps despite making very few passes on the race track. I'm not saying Dixon deserves no credit. He does. He is the best fuel-saver in IndyCar and he turned some of the fastest laps of the race while by himself and not in traffic, but still, I think in that particular race he would not have won without Mike Hull's brilliant pit strategy. Dixon dominated the race, but the move that allowed him to take control was a strategy call. I find it much more interesting to analyze how drivers took control of the race rather than just who dominated. I am starting in the year 1990 because I think if I go much earlier than that, I'm not likely to find enough good video footage and/or online news reports to figure this out for every single race, not to mention 25 is a nice round number.

This first necessitates an understanding of the multiple types of lead changes. This builds on the work I did for David Smith's Motorsports Analytics website, particularly this article where I introduced four terms for the various ways a driver can take the lead. A natural lead change is an on-track pass for position between two cars at full speed. This is the type of pass that fans generally most celebrate. A strategic lead change was defined as any pass in the pits; however, I would now prefer to refer to this type of pass more accurately as an off-track lead change, which is the term I will use henceforth. Just because a driver beat another driver out of the pits doesn't mean there was necessarily any strategy involved. The resumptive lead change is not really worth thinking about in this series as what I am attempting to determine how the winner took control of the race because all a resumptive lead change means is that the leader before the pit cycle maintained control of the race after the pit cycle ended. An incidental lead change is where a driver inherits the lead when a driver crashes, has a mechanical failure, is penalized, or faces some other freak issue that leads to being passed on the track (running out of fuel I would usually count as off-track if the driver pits, but I would count it as incidental if the driver elects to stay on the track and gamble). Although reliability has increased in all three series to the degree that incidental lead changes are very rare compared to the past, at the start of this period it was rather more common. While I'll be ignoring resumptive lead changes here, I do need to add a new category to reflect a fourth kind of lead change. This will be a called a strategic assist. As all three series see many more cars on the lead lap in general now than they did at the start of this period, pit strategy has become more and more vital in determining race wins (in IndyCar and NASCAR particularly due to many more caution periods) and just because a driver makes a green-flag pass for position doesn't necessarily mean that was the move that allowed them to take control of the race. For instance, Ryan Newman had several races in 2003 that he won on fuel mileage where he indeed passed somebody to take ultimate control of the race, but the move that put him ahead of the fastest cars was staying out of the pits. Danica Patrick passed Hélio Castroneves late in the 2008 IRL Motegi race when both were stretching their fuel mileage to win, but in none of those races did Newman or Patrick actually have control until their teams nailed the pit strategy. These sort of wins will be called strategic assists and I will give half credit for them. The driver did do something to win (the other drivers gambling on fuel mileage could have won too had they not been passed), and the driver didn't inherit the win, since the lead change occurred on the track but not in the pits, but the strategy call was ultimately the real difference. So to review, the four types of ways to take control of the race are: natural, off-track, incidental, and strategic assist. Not all strategic assists are strategic (Driver A can beat everyone else out of the pits under caution with driver B not pitting, then driver A can pass driver B on the track for instance), but I still prefer this as a name for this type of pass to any other term I've considered.

Controversial races

Now I'm going to bring up in advance how I'm going to deal with some fuzzier issues below.

What happens if the car is found illegal after the race, but is still allowed to keep the win? Incidental pass, period. If the team was caught cheating the driver should not be rewarded for the team getting an unfair advantage. If the team isn't caught but it's generally acknowledged that the team cheated after the fact (such as Jimmy Spencer's restrictor plate wins in 1994) I will also count it as incidental.

Should on-track passes obtained by rough driving be counted? No. This can get into a judgment call, but an intentional spinout takes no skill. A bump-and-run takes some skill to avoid spinning the other driver out, but in those sort of cases, if it's clear that the pass would not have happened without the spinout or bump-and-run (as it usually is) I don't think a driver should be rewarded. I know in NASCAR the bump-and-run is generally accepted while the intentional spinout is generally not, but I can't really see a justification for it when making these sort of considerations. Should drivers be rewarded if they punt someone and the puntee is skilled enough to not spin out? I don't think so. I will make exceptions for those races where both drivers gave as good as they got (such as Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003 or Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski at Watkins Glen in 2012). In those sort of scenarios, I think it's unfair to condemn a driver for rough driving when both drivers are driving equally rough. I will generally count situations like those as natural, but they do tend to be pretty rare. There's a reason most races that end in a finish like that are considered classics.

What about team orders or if a driver waves someone past for the lead? This is getting into an even bigger judgment call as some teams no doubt are likely better at hiding their team orders manipulation than others. I would say if there is sufficient evidence that one driver intentionally let another driver past for the lead (for any reason, not necessarily team orders) then it should count as an incidental pass. However, in many of these specific situations, fans might not agree which ones should count and which ones shouldn't. For instance, in last year's spring Pocono race, Brad Keselowski intentionally let Dale Earnhardt, Jr. past to clear some debris off his grille and couldn't get back around him. I don't think this should count. You may not agree. There's room to argue some of these cases. What's more important is the ideas behind this analysis. Drivers should be rewarded and respected for certain kinds of wins more than others. A win may be a win, but some wins are more impressive than others, and I think most people would agree with that, so even if you don't agree with how I judge a particular race, that doesn't mean the analysis in and of itself is not worth doing.

Let's get started with 1990.

Formula One

PhoenixAyrton Senna passed Jean Alesi on tracknatural
InterlagosAlain Prost inherited the lead when Senna broke his nose while lapping Satoru Nakajimaincidental
ImolaRiccardo Patrese passed Gerhard Berger on tracknatural
MonacoSenna led start to finishnatural
MontrealSenna led the entire race except for an exchange of pit stopsnatural
Mexico CityProst passed Senna on tracknatural
Paul RicardProst passed Ivan Capelli on tracknatural
SilverstoneProst passed Nigel Mansell on tracknatural
HockenheimSenna passed Alessandro Nannini on tracknatural
HungaroringThierry Boutsen led start to finishnatural
Spa-FrancorchampsSenna led start to finishnatural
MonzaSenna led start to finishnatural
EstorilMansell passed Senna on tracknatural
JerezProst beat Senna out on a pit cycle then passed Nelson Piquet who was on a different pit strategystrategic assist
SuzukaPiquet inherited the lead when Mansell broke a driveshaft in the pitsincidental
AdelaidePiquet inherited the lead when Senna crashed due to gearbox troubleincidental

Cumulative wins by type:

DriverTotalNaturalOff-trackIncidentalStrategic assist


PhoenixRick Mears passed Bobby Rahal on a pit stop cycleoff-track
Long BeachAl Unser, Jr. led the entire race except for an exchange of pit stopsnatural
IndianapolisArie Luyendyk passed Rahal on tracknatural
MilwaukeeUnser inherited the lead when Michael Andretti ran out of fueloff-track
DetroitMi. Andretti led the entire racenatural
PortlandMi. Andretti passed Mario Andretti on track after Mario left the pitsnatural
ClevelandDanny Sullivan inherited the lead when Unser had a fire in the pitsincidental
MeadowlandsMi. Andretti passed Teo Fabi on track after beating earlier leader Ma. Andretti out of the pitsstrategic assist
TorontoUnser passed Mi. Andretti on tracknatural
MichiganUnser passed Rahal on tracknatural
DenverUnser passed Rahal on tracknatural
VancouverUnser inherited the lead when Mi. Andretti broke a headerincidental
Mid-OhioMi. Andretti passed Ma. Andretti on tracknatural
Road AmericaMi. Andretti inherited the lead when Sullivan broke a gearboxincidental
NazarethEmerson Fittipaldi passed Mears on tracknatural
Laguna SecaSullivan led the entire racenatural

Cumulative wins by type:

DriverTotalNaturalOff-trackIncidentalStrategic assist
Unser, Jr.64110
Mi. Andretti53011

NASCAR Winston Cup

DaytonaDerrike Cope inherited the lead when Dale Earnhardt cut a tireincidental
RichmondMark Martin beat Rusty Wallace out of the pits with a car judged to be illegal after the raceincidental
RockinghamKyle Petty led the entire race except for pit stop exchangesnatural
AtlantaEarnhardt passed Morgan Shepherd on tracknatural
DarlingtonEarnhardt passed Shepherd on tracknatural
BristolDavey Allison stayed out of the pits and retained the leadoff-track
North WilkesboroBrett Bodine was erroneously handed the lead due to a scoring errorincidental
MartinsvilleGeoff Bodine beat Wallace out of the pitsoff-track
TalladegaEarnhardt passed Greg Sacks on tracknatural
CharlotteWallace passed Ken Schrader on a pit stop cycleoff-track
DoverCope passed Wallace on tracknatural
SonomaWallace passed Ricky Rudd on tracknatural
PoconoHarry Gant passed Wallace on tracknatural
MichiganEarnhardt passed Ernie Irvan on tracknatural
DaytonaEarnhardt passed Bobby Hillin on tracknatural
PoconoG. Bodine passed Allison on tracknatural
TalladegaEarnhardt passed Bill Elliott on tracknatural
Watkins GlenRudd passed Martin on a pit stop cycleoff-track
MichiganMartin passed Wallace on tracknatural
BristolIrvan passed Earnhardt on tracknatural
DarlingtonEarnhardt passed Elliott on a pit stop cycleoff-track
RichmondEarnhardt won on fuel mileage after Wallace/Martin pittedoff-track
DoverElliott passed Earnhardt on tracknatural
MartinsvilleG. Bodine passed Martin on tracknatural
North WilkesboroMartin passed Earnhardt on tracknatural
CharlotteAllison inherited the lead when Elliott cut a tireincidental
RockinghamAlan Kulwicki passed Elliott on tracknatural
PhoenixEarnhardt beat Wallace out of the pitsoff-track
AtlantaShepherd inherited the lead after Elliott/Rudd pit crashoff-track

Cumulative wins by type:

DriverTotalNaturalOff-trackIncidentalStrategic assist
G. Bodine32100
B. Bodine10010

This series will continue as soon as I go through all the ultimate lead changes for 1991. I will probably spice things up and write other columns in the next couple months as well, but this will be my main focus.

Sean Wrona is the Managing Editor of racermetrics.com, the Webmaster of race-database.com, the winner of the 2010 Ultimate Typing Championship at the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, and the ratings compiler and statistician for the Mensa Scrabble-by-Mail SIG. He earned a master's in applied statistics from Cornell University in 2008 and previously digitized several seasons of NBA box scores on basketball-reference.com. You may contact him at sean@racermetrics.com.