Saturday, 4 August 2012

The importance of pole position

In previous years, pole position was thought of as one of the most important things in a race. If a driver was able to secure pole position on a Saturday afternoon, then all they would have to do was make it to the chequered flag on Sunday and they would be in with a very good chance of winning the race. In recent years though, with the return of a ban on refuelling mid-race and the introduction of KERS, DRS and Pirelli tyres, overtaking is at an all-time high. So, is pole position still as important in 2012?

Changes to the sport were introduced in 2011 in an attempt to spice up the racing and encourage more overtaking on track, as organisers, teams and fans became increasingly disillusioned with processional races featuring very little on-track overtaking, with the majority of positional changes occurring in the pit lane. In the last two seasons of racing, overtaking has seen a welcome return to races and while the action may sometimes be artificial and passing can be too easy with DRS at some circuits, processional races are largely a thing of the past.

As a result, the importance of pole position can be seen to have changed. Starting on the front row is no longer a driver’s best chance of picking up maximum points on race day as they must now have to manage their fuel load, look after tyres and potentially defend against drivers behind them able to use DRS when trying to pass.

Between 2004 and 2010, there were 126 Grand Prix with 67 of those won by the driver starting from pole position. This does not account for anomalies such as wet races which are notoriously more unpredictable and can throw ‘surprise’ winners, but a success rate of over 50% for a driver starting from pole position going on to then win the race is an impressive statistic. The driver starting from pole position will, in most situations, have the fastest car and would therefore be quite likely to go on to win, so this figure shouldn’t be too surprising.

During this time, the sport came under criticism for uneventful races with on-track action largely being limited to the opening few laps. With the cars becoming increasingly advanced and with engineers and designers looking for any way to add down force to the cars, overtaking was a rarity. It became common to witness cars unable to pass, trapped in the dirty air of the leading car and unable to use a speed advantage. According to some in the know, it was estimated that a car needed to be anywhere up to two seconds a lap quicker than the car in front to be able to pass on track.

Since the changes in the regulations to help aid overtaking, the starting grid hasn’t always reflected the positions at the end of the race. Looking at the figures from 2011 though, a familiar story is painted: of the 19 races held during the 2011 season, 9 of them were won from pole position. This was helped by the dominance of Sebastian Vettel in Qualifying, allowing him to lead races from the front and control the pace to never be in danger of being overtaken. So despite the fact that 2011 had more overtaking than ever before, pole position was still the best place to start the race.

At the halfway point of the 2012 season, six of the eleven races to date have been won by the man starting on pole position. Once again, the figures suggest that even with DRS and Pirelli tyres, the fastest man on Saturday is well placed to go on and win. Even where pole has not been converted into victory, the pole sitter has only failed to finish on the podium; Vettel in Canada (4th) and Valencia (DNF).

History suggests that pole position is a great position to start the race from and understandably so. The driver starting at the front will be in the fastest car, has a clean run to the first corner and has a great chance to lead the race. From this, he can look after his tyres and conserve fuel, turning up the revs when required to try and remain clear of the 1 second window needed for the chasing pack to use DRS. Even with the changes in regulations, exciting races and more overtaking than ever before, pole position remains as important as ever.

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