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Core Characteristics of Formula One: Unpredictability

Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Meghana Sree

An unpredictable race determines the champion; Image credit - Red Bull Racing

This series "Core Characteristics of Formula One" seeks to take a look at the qualities that form the essence of the ‘Pinnacle of Motorsport’. Through past instances and famous quotes, writers will aim to explain why each characteristic is fundamental to Formula One. Continuing the series is Vyas Ponnuri, Head of Writing at Divebomb, going in detail about the aspect of unpredictability in Formula One.

The element of surprise is certainly not one to be discounted when discussing a Formula One race. Unpredictability defines this sport: incidents on track, changing weather, strategies, penalties, and the list goes on. There are plenty of variables at play during a Formula One race, and even one of them can change the entire outlook of the race.

Senna’s 1988 Monaco shunt; Image credit - Autosport

The best example is Ayrton Senna at Monaco in 1988. Having led by a minute, he suddenly slid into the barrier at the famous Portier corner, just before the tunnel. He’d just misjudged the position of the barrier, which had slid a few feet forward due to contact earlier. Cameras suddenly panned to the stricken McLaren in the barrier. It’s the most prominent of this phenomenon called unpredictability.

Just ask Max Verstappen and Red Bull - the chips were down at the season finale in 2021, until a sudden incident of Nicholas Latifi looping it into the barrier at Turn 14 brought out a late safety car. Although the race would be remembered for the safety car fiasco, it points out the perfect phenomenon for unpredictability in Formula One. As Murray Walker once said on a soggy day in Malaysia: “Anything can happen in Formula One, and it usually does.”

You turn back the pages of history, and you can find one instance after another, of typical Formula One unpredictability. Sergio Perez was looped around by a late-braking Charles Leclerc in Sakhir once, but the F1 gods were on his side that day. He got underway, and went on to win the race. On the same day, the unpredictability was especially high, with front-running Mercedes pair of Valtteri Bottas and George Russell hampered by pit stop trouble. A rare misstep from the metronomic team back then.

An emotional Perez after winning at Bahrain; Image credit - Autosport

It isn’t just pit lane pandemonium responsible for unpredictability. At times, the heavens opening up can add to the element of surprise. They create uncertainty within the strategies, and the think-tanks have it all on the line. Do they stay out an extra lap, or pit a lap earlier? Do they pit both drivers at the same time? The decision-making becomes critical, as a minor slip-up can cost their driver his race.

When the weather changes, the unpredictability factor soars; it becomes imperative for drivers to keep it within the white lines on the track. Many phenomenal races from the past have been unpredictable due to the weather. A sprinkling of rain induced an error from long-time race leader Sebastian Vettel at Germany in 2018. This provided for a massive points swing in the championship to his rival Lewis Hamilton, a season when the Briton took his fifth championship.

This would be similar to an instance from seven years ago, when Vettel dropped it onto the wet part of a rapidly-drying track in Canada. His closest challenger Jenson Button capitalised on this slip up, and went on to take one of Formula One’s unlikeliest victories. His race encapsulated the unpredictability on store that day: spars with close rivals Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, punctures, and penalties. His judgement of the conditions was spot-on though, as he aced the challenge of a rapidly-drying track, coming through the field to take the win.

Button won a thrilling Canadian GP in 2011; Image credit - McLaren

You never know what awaits next. It is up to drivers to judge the conditions, and prepare for the course ahead. The 2008 British Grand Prix caught many drivers off-guard, as they simply weren’t prepared for what would come next. A number of wet-weather spins dominated the action, with Felipe Massa spinning as many as five times on the day, while his championship rival Hamilton took victory by a minute (yes, you read that right!).

The Belgian Grand Prix is arguably the most unpredictable racing event on the calendar for any season. The wide expanse of the track makes it a tricky course to navigate in varying weather; one part of the track could be wet, while the rest can be bone dry. The 2010 Belgian Grand Prix cements the aspect of unpredictability in F1, as it was a race of varying weather conditions causing chaos, keeping drivers and teams on their feet all race long.

Qualifying at this track tends to be unpredictable in such weather: the importance of being on the right tyre at the right time becomes crucial. A driver could emerge a hero here. Would you have seen both Racing Point cars lock out the second row for the race in 2018? Force India (the erstwhile Racing Point team) had themselves saved from administration at the eleventh hour, an unprecedented scenario in itself.

Or would anyone have predicted Russell snatching an unlikely second in qualifying, for the backmarker Williams team in 2021? Could you have guessed Oscar Piastri netting a front row slot for the sprint race at Spa this season? All these events further highlight the unpredictability of qualifying in such weather conditions at the track, and these drivers aced the weather to deliver some truly special laps.

And that's only the weather. There’s even more to unpredictability than this. Even under the bright sun, races can have a high rate of uncertainty. The 2020 Austrian Grand Prix saw high degrees of unpredictability, with as many as nine cars dropping out before the chequered flag dropped. Hamilton’s five second penalty for his incident with Alex Albon gave way to a surprise podium: While teammate Bottas won the race, Ferrari’s Leclerc, and McLaren’s Lando Norris, benefited from Hamilton’s penalty, finishing second and third respectively.

Bottas, Leclerc, Norris, would you have expected this podium? Image credit - Formula One

That was just the first race in a season of unpredictability. At the 2020 season’s British Grand Prix, a series of punctures at the end of the race caused plenty of attrition. The sight of Hamilton’s Mercedes crossing the line on three wheels is one not to be forgotten too soon.

Later that season, another penalty for Hamilton at the Italian Grand Prix paved the way for a surprise podium, with Pierre Gasly completing his redemption arc on the day, by winning the race for Alpha Tauri. Gasly himself was resurrecting his F1 career, having been sacked in a shock move by Red Bull midway through 2019.

The Turkish Grand Prix later that season kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Rain and a slippery track paved the way for drivers starting further down the order, to show their experience and class and take the biggies on offer. Race-winner Hamilton started sixth on the grid, while Ferrari’s Vettel and Leclerc finished third and fourth, from 11th and 12th on the grid. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Norris came through from 14th and 15th to finish fifth and eighth respectively.

Unpredictability isn’t just on track, and sudden changes within the driver market, or official schedules can come as a definite shock to many. Veteran racer Alonso’s left-field switch to Aston Martin for 2023 (and beyond) certainly caught out his former employers at Enstone. And not to forget, Piastri’s rejection of his Alpine deal came soon after as another surprise. The 2020 F1 season is a perfect example of unpredictability: with a pandemic raging, F1 had to settle with a curtailed, condensed 17-race season across 23 weeks, as uncertainties gripped the world as a whole. Decisions had to be taken on the fly and one could never predict what would happen the very next moment.

At the end of the day, Walker’s quote from Malaysia in 2001 certainly drives home the phenomenon of unpredictability in the sport.


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