A Tale of Two Motorsports: Comparing NASCAR and Formula One

Comparing NASCAR and F1 racing is a popular topic on the Internet. NASCAR is simple. All left turning in bulky, simple cars. F1 is complex. Left and right turning in sleek, technologically sophisticated cars. NASCAR is rough and tumble. Bumping and jostling add to the excitement. F1 is refined and elegant. Contact between cars spoils the precise aerodynamics and handling. As for the drivers, it is said that the best race in F1 and the rest race elsewhere. The comparisons by bloggers and racing analysts, no matter how erroneous, go on and on.

As shown in the table below, there are clear physical differences between the two motorsports. Less clear is whether there exists performance differences – that is, differences tied to the drivers’ and their teams’ performance – between the two sports. To address this question, we look back at the results from the 2009 NASCAR and F1 seasons.

Physical Differences: NASCAR and F1 Racing in 2009

Number of Drivers4320
Number of Races3617
Design of Carsfront-engine, “stock” car, heavy (3,300 lbs)mid-engine, open-wheel, light (1,322 lbs)
Technological Sophistication of Carsrelatively simple mechanical engineeringadvanced electrical and mechanical engineering
Racing Tracks and Circuitsoval-shaped speedwayscircuits and road courses
Width of Tracks and Circuitsrelatively wide, side-by-side racing is commonrelatively narrow, side-by-side racing is rare
Length of Tracks and Circuitsrelatively short (0.53 mi to 2.60 mi)relatively long (2.08 mi to 4.35 mi)
Location of Races23 locations in USA17 countries in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America
Turningall left turns 34 of 36 racesleft and right turning
Overtaking and Lead Changesrelatively commonrelatively rare
Final Practiceoccurs after qualifyingoccurs before qualifying
Ability to race in wet weathercannot race in rain under any circumstancescan race in rain with tires designed for this purpose

What is the relationship between a driver’s performance during the final practice before a race and his finish position?

Former NBA star Allen Iverson’s rant aside (“We’re not talking about the game, we’re talking about practice!”), coaches and sports psychologists say that athletes should practice like they play. The same is true for the 43 drivers who normally start a NASCAR race. An analysis of these drivers’ ranking in final practice and their finish positions throughout the 2009 season revealed statistically meaningful correlations or relationships between their practice performance and their finish positions in 81% of the races. The better someone performed in practice, the better his finish position. This was not the case for the 20 drivers who make up the starting field of an F1 grand prix. These drivers’ performances during final practice and their finish positions were related in only 41% of the grands prix. Interestingly, there was an even less reliable relationship between a driver’s practice performance and finish position if the results from only the top 20 points-leading NASCAR drivers before a race are considered. For these drivers, practice performance and finish position were related in only 22% of the races.

What is the relationship between a driver’s performance during qualifying (and thus his position at the start of a race) and his finish position?

“Qualifying is key” is a phrase that is heard often by drivers, crew chiefs, and racing analysts. The better a driver performs in qualifying, the closer to the front of the field he will start a race. For the 43-driver starting field of a NASCAR race, a statistically meaningful relationship between their performances in qualifying and their finish positions occurred in 75% of the races. For F1 drivers, the correlation between qualifying position and finish position was even stronger and occurred more often. But, for the top 20 points-leading drivers in NASCAR, a meaningful correlation between qualifying performance and finish position was uncommon.

What is the relationship between a driver’s points-standing (a measure of his performance in previous races) and his finish position?

Historians remind us often that the past is the best predictor of the future. This appears to be true for the 43 drivers who start NASCAR races. The higher a driver’s position in the points standings, the better his finish position. In contrast, a statistically meaningful correlation between F1 drivers’ performance in previous grands prix and their finish positions occurred much less often, and even less often for the top 20 points-leaders in NASCAR.

What is a more reliable predictor of a driver’s finish position: His performance during a practice, his performance during qualifying, his overall success prior to a race or a combination of these variables?

Overall, the best predictor of a NASCAR driver’s finish position was his points-standing. For F1 drivers, the best predictor of their finish position was their performance during qualifying and thus their position at the start of a grand prix. For the top 20 points-leaders in NASCAR, there were no reliable predictors across the races held in 2009.

Based on the analyses of the 2009 NASCAR and F1 racing seasons, we can now build a new table that summarizes performance differences in these two motorsports. Surprising, perhaps, is that the most noticeable differences were not between NASCAR and F1 drivers, but between the best NASCAR drivers and everyone else.

Performance Differences: NASCAR and F1 in 2009

CharacteristicNASCARF1NASCAR (Top 20)
Finish position generally correlated with practice performanceYes, 81% of racesNo, 41% of grands prixNo, 22% of races
Finish position generally correlated with qualifying performance/starting positionYes, 75% of racesYes, 82% of grands prixNo, 28% of races
Finish position generally correlated with overall success in season Yes, 86% of races Somewhat, 59% of grands prix No, 19% of races
Best overall predictor(s) of finish position Points-standing before a race Qualifying performance (starting position) None of the performance variables studied

Article written by Kathleen Silva and Francisco Silva

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