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5 and 3/4: Looking back at title standings with 5 races to go and at the 3/4 mark of the season // What history can teach us about title championship battles

Published by Journeyer

On Christine's post regarding Sebastian Vettel and his mindset, the following question was asked:

Anyone know the lowest position an eventual champion has been in with 5 races to go? Lower than 5th?

- Stuart Taylor

It was a very interesting question and I decided to look for the answer. As things turned out, it was not as straightforward as it first seemed, so at Mr C's request, I decided it was best to write a separate post to talk all about it.

But before I go into details, a disclaimer. I used Wikipedia as a reference. This was a spur of the moment thing, and I decided to go for the easiest resource available. Given the way the information is organized there for F1, I would say its information is trustworthy for this article. Gavin of Making Up the Numbers has provided some graphs, which he used FORIX to help compile the data.

In order to analyze the data properly, we will look at it two ways. One is based on Stuart's original question (title standings with 5 races to go). But Gavin suggested another way to look at it:

We can establish a point such as 3/4 of the way through a given season and then work out where the eventual champion will be at that point...

- Gavin (RubberGoat)

This is to allow us to minimize the possibility of shorter seasons (Formula 1 didn't have at least 15 races in a season until 1973).

Another concern is the points system. Previous points systems did not have all races counting to a driver's final tally. For seasons where this is applicable, I will explain how it impacted the overall title picture.

Lastly, to speed up the creation of this article, I only made detailed calculations of 3 seasons based on scanning the results of all seasons. These 3 seasons all had 1 thing in common: a driver who wasn't in the fastest car, but won the championship anyway. In all 3 cases, the eventual champion won because of being the most consistent out of a number of contenders.

Candidate #1: 1986

Many people remember this year for the crazy title showdown at Adelaide between 3 title contenders - the Williams drivers Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, and eventual champion Alain Prost in the McLaren. But if we look back earlier into the season, there was actually a 4th contender who dropped out early: Lotus' Ayrton Senna.

Let's look at it first using the "5 races to go" rule. These would be the standings after 11 of 16 races, with eventual champion Prost only 4th.

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Nigel Mansell554
Ayrton Senna482
Nelson Piquet473
Alain Prost442
Keke Rosberg190

Visually, this is what the championship looked like:

1986 Driver's Championship

Round 12, which was the 3/4 mark of the season, was the Austrian GP won by Prost. With all other contenders failing to score, that allowed Prost to leap up the standings. The standings after that race were:

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Nigel Mansell554
Alain Prost533
Ayrton Senna482
Nelson Piquet473
Keke Rosberg190

The final standings were:

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Alain Prost724
Nigel Mansell705
Nelson Piquet694
Ayrton Senna552
Stefan Johansson230

Even if all results were counted, Prost would've still won by 2 points, so it wasn't a factor in this case. Prost won the title mostly due to a superb last 5 races (2 wins, 2 seconds, and only 1 failure to score). While Mansell and Piquet also won races, they only finished 1st or 2nd twice in the last 5 races. We can see how each driver did here:

1986 Driver's Championship

Candidate #2: 1982

This was actually the first year that I thought of when Stuart asked this question because they really had plenty of title contenders towards the end of the season too. And it's the most ideal comparison for me, because all results counted for the championship that year.

Again, looking at the "5 races to go" rule first, these would be the standings after 11 of 16 races.

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Didier Pironi392
John Watson302
Alain Prost252
Niki Lauda242
Keke Rosberg230

In case you didn't know, the eventual champion was Williams' Keke Rosberg, who at this point of the season had yet to even win a race in his F1 career.

Round 12, which was the 3/4 mark of the season, was the German GP, where Didier Pironi was involved in that horrific shunt that prematurely ended his F1 career. Similar to Prost and Austria 1986, only Rosberg out of the contenders managed to score points that race for 3rd place. That too allowed Rosberg to move up the order, and with Pironi out for the remainder of the season, it blew the title race wide open again. So after that race, these were the standings:

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Didier Pironi392
John Watson302
Keke Rosberg270
Alain Prost252
Niki Lauda242

Or visually:

1982 Driver's Championship

The final standings were:

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Nico Rosberg441
Didier Pironi392
John Watson392
Alain Prost342
Niki Lauda302

Again, the key to Rosberg's title was consistency at season's end. He finished each of the last 5 races, took a win, and scored in all bar one. In contrast, John Watson, Prost, and Niki Lauda only scored in 2 of the last 5 races. That said, had Pironi managed to start in the last 5 races, we may well have had a different champion.

The championship contenders' final 5 races looked like this:

1982 Driver's Championship

The last candidate is a little harder to spot.

Candidate #3: 1964

This wasn't an obvious candidate at first. With a short 10-race season, there were only 3 serious contenders at the 3/4 mark of the season. To simplify matters, I rounded things up and got the standings after 8 of the 10 races had been held. In this case, John Surtees was the eventual champion, driving for Ferrari.

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Graham Hill321
Jim Clark303
John Surtees282
Richie Ginther200
Lorenzo Bandini191
Bruce McLaren130
Peter Arundell110

But the surprising thing is when you use the "5 races to go" rule. Using it on this season, we would have to get the standings at the halfway point of the season (after 5 of 10 races). And therein lies the surprise:

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Jim Clark303
Graham Hill261
Richie Ginther110
Jack Brabham110
Peter Arundell110
Dan Gurney101
John Surtees100

If we show this as a bar graph, it looks like this:

1964 Driver's Championship

Here we have future champion Surtees, and he could do no better than a tie for 6th in the standings. In fact, you could even say he's just 7th, as Dan Gurney would beat him on countback with a win.

And these were the final standings:

DriverPointsNumber of wins
John Surtees402
Graham Hill392
Jim Clark322
Lorenzo Bandini231
Richie Ginther230
Dan Gurney192
Bruce McLaren130

So how did he Surtees the title? He did it with a furious fightback in the 2nd half of the season - 2 wins, 2 seconds, and only 1 failure to score. In contrast, both Graham Hill and Jim Clark suffered reliability woes. Graham got no more than a win and a second in the last 5 races, while Clark's initially perfect season fell into pieces, only finishing in the points once in the last 5 races.

The second half of the season looked like this:

1964 Driver's Championship

That said, only the best 6 results out of 10 races counted in the standings. Had all the results counted, we would've had a significantly different result:

DriverPointsNumber of wins
Graham Hill412
John Surtees402
Jim Clark322
Lorenzo Bandini231
Richie Ginther230
Dan Gurney192
Bruce McLaren130

So what have we learned after looking at F1 history? With 5 races to go, you can still theoretically win the title even if you're not in the Top 5. But realistically, you would need to have been in the top 3 at the 3/4 mark of the season to have a good shot at the title. This also reminds us again how unbelievably tight this season is. With 5 drivers separated by a single win at the front of the standings, any one of them can be leading the standings after Singapore. We can statistically say that this is the tightest it's ever been this late in the F1 season.

And to win the 2010 drivers title, our 5 contenders will not just need a whole lot of guts. They will need a whole lot of consistency too.