Then and Now – Driving Flat Out


Over the sixty six years of the Formula 1 world championship regulations have changed, and as a result every aspect of the sport has been altered, the technology used in the cars and the circuits themselves have altered to reflect the changing demands of the sport.  In the 1950s races were typically three hours long, on circuits far longer than today’s offerings.  With much greater distances covered and less reliable cars, it would be logical to think that drivers in that era nursed their cars more than those today.  Fangio was famous for winning at the lowest possible speed, in order to preserve the machinery.  Yet today, many drivers and fans are unhappy that the cars cannot be driven flat out during the whole race.  The reasons for this are many: tyre degradation; fuel flow limits; maximum fuel carried; power unit preservation; Energy Recovery System deployment; etc.

I thought I would look at Formula 1 seasons in each decade that the championship has been run, to see how the situation now compares to those in previous decades.  To do this I compared the fastest race lap with the pole position time and the average race lap time of the winning driver with the pole position time.  Some races were affected by either wet races, wet qualifying or both, and some in the later decades were impacted by the safety car deployment.  For the wet races/qualifying, the results were excluded from the season average, but for the races impacted by a safety car, only the winning drivers average race lap time was excluded.

1956: All the cars were front engined and rear wheel drive, 2500cc normally asperated engines or 750cc forced induction (although no-one used forced induction).  Races were 500km or three hours long.  I have excluded the Indianapolis 500 from the results as it ran to different regulations.

1956 comparison

The Belgian (race 3) and Italian (race 7) Grands Prix were affected by rain, so removing those from the calculation, the fastest race lap was 1.08% slower than pole, and the average winners lap was 4.87% slower than pole.

1966: After a period with only 1500cc normally aspirated engine, this was the first year of the new 3000cc normally aspirated engines (or 1500cc forced induction – which still no-one was using).  The engines had moved behind the driver at the end of the 1950s and even Ferrari had changed by the early 1960s.  Races varied in length between 314.5km (Monaco) to 399.761km (Watkins Glen).

1966 comparison

Once again Belgium (race 2) was wet, along with Britain (race 4) and Germany (race 6).  Removing these from the calculation, and the deficct from fastest race lap to pole was 1.50% while the winners average pace was 4.48% slower than pole.

1976: The engine regulations were still the same, but the advent of wings at the end of the 1960s had allowed much wider tyres to be fitted, these were now slick tyres in dry weather conditions.  Pit-stops were no longer commonplace during races, so cars carried the fuel they needed for the race, and the tyres were expected to last the distance unless there was a puncture  or a rain shower.  Races were shorter again (255.323km in Spain to 320.665km in Watkins Glen).

1976 comparison

Four races were impacted by wet weather (Germany- race 10, Austria – race 11, Italy- race 13 and the very wet final race in Japan).  Removing these from the results and the fastest race lap was an average of 1.36% slower than pole, with the winners average pace only 3.15% off the pole time.

1986: Renault had been the first to introduce the 1500cc turbocharged engine in 1977, and this quickly  developed into a much more powerful option than the normally aspirated 3000cc unit.  By 1986 the normally aspirated engines were banned, with every team using the turbos.  These produced in excess of 1400bhp in qualifying trim, and qualifying tyres were developed to maximise the speed.  With no parc ferme rules, the chassis were fitted with lightweight parts that would not last a complete race, the boost was turned up to the maximum and super sticky tyres that would last just one lap were bolted on.  In an attempt to curb the power being delvelopped, the maximum fuel tank size was set at 195 litres (about 145kg), this down from the previous value of 220 litres.  Refuleing had been banned in 1984 following Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team exploiting the loophole allowing the practice to maximise the use of the Pirreli tyres the team were using (which were softer than the opposition from Goodyear and Michelin).   Race distances were more standard, with most within a lap or two of 300km, Monaco was still shorter at 259.584km due to the slow average speed of the circuit, the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch was the longest at 315.458km.

1986 comparison

Unusually, there were no races affected by rain during that season, and on average the fastest race lap was 4.57% slower than the pole time, with the winners average lap time 8.81% slower.

1996: The turbocharged cars were finally banned in 1989, being replaced with 3500cc normally aspirated engines (initially V8, V10 and V12 configurations), before everyone settled on the more efficient V10.  By 1995 the capacity had once again been reduced to 3000cc to try and control speeds.  Active suspension had come and gone, and the cars were now narrower, with narrower tyres.  In 1994 a 120 km/h pit-lane speed limit was introduced during the race, in race refuelling was now allowed, but with a fuel flow limit during the process.  Goodyear became the sole tyre supplier in 1992.  The race distances were similar with most a lap or two over 300km, Monaco being the exception at 249.6km.

1996 comparison

Three races were weather affected, race 2 (Brazil) race 6 (Monaco) and race 7 (Spain).  Removing these from the results gives the average fastest race lap at 2.84% slower than pole, with the winners average pace being 6.03% slower than the pole time.

2006: The engines were reduced in size for this season 3000cc V10s being replaced with 2400cc V8s (although a dispensation was granted for teams to run a rev restricted V10 if they were unable to get a new V8).  The cars had been made narrower down to 1.8m maximum in 1998, and the grooved dry weather tyres introduced all to slow the cars down.  From 2004 the engines had to last an entire race weekend.  After a year of banning in-race tyre changes (with the debacle at Indianapolis the result) the teams were once again allowed to change tyres during the race.  Only 14 sets of tyres were allowed for the race weekend (seven dry, four wet and three extreme wet tyres).  Knock out qualifying was introduced.  The race distance was again a lap or two over the 300km with the exception of Monaco, this time at 260.52km.

2006 comparison

Two races were affected by the weather, race 13 (Hungary) and race 16 (China) yet a further nine races had an appearance by the safety car hence slowing the overall race time.  The safety car races were race 3(Australia), race 4(San Marino), race 5(Europe – Nurburgring), race 7(Monaco), race 8(Britain), race 9(Canada), race 10(USA), race 14(Turkey) and race 18(Brazil).  Eliminating these from the calculation gives the average fastest race lap 1.93% slower than pole, with the winners average pace 4.7% slower than pole.

2016: Slick tyres came back in 2009, but the big regulation change was 2014 with the introduction of the new Power Units (a 1600cc V6 turbocharged engine with Motor Generator Units attached to the Turbocharger and the crankshaft to recover energy and feed it back at appropriate times.  The number of engines each driver was allowed for a season has steadily reduced in an attempt to control costs, with currently each driver allowed just five power units for the year.  Fuel use is limited to 100kg for the race, with a maximum fuel flow rate of 100kg per hour.  Pirelli are the sole tyre supplier, and drivers now have to select from three compounds to be used during the race weekend.  The softest of which must be used during Q3 should they get through, and the hardest two compounds must be available for use in the race.  Each driver must use at least two tyre compounds during the race, unless it is a wet race.  Once again the races are a lap or two longer than the 300km limit, with Monaco being the only exception at 260.286km – the difference being due to slight re-profiling of the corners in the last decade.

2016 comparison

After just over half a season (twelve races) there have been two that were weather affected: race 6 (Monaco) and Race 10 (Britain).  There have been only four races that have run from start to finish without the appearance of the safety car or virtual safety car: race2 (Bahrain); race 8 (Europe – Baku); race 11 (Hungary) and race 12 (Germany).  Taking out the weather and safety car affected races, the average fastest race lap is 4.38% slower than pole, with the average race winners pace some 8.35% slower than pole.

Looking across the decades of the championship, the ability of drivers to lap close to the pole position time has varied, due to the limitations imposed by regulations.

1956 - 2016 comparison

Oddly enough, the current performance equates almost exactly with that of the last time F1 was reliant on turbocharged cars for their motive power.  I don’t recall drivers in the mid-eighties complaining that their cars were so much slower in the races than they were in qualifying.  In many ways the causes are similar, today’s power units are turned up for qualifying (with the energy stored up on the out lap and used on the qualifying lap, and the fuel flow at the maximum 100kg/hour), the qualifying times are set on the softest tyres available that weekend which in many cases aren’t suitable for the optimum race tyre.  From this analysis of selected seasons in every decade of the championship, it would appear that the seventies was the time when drivers drove closest to flat out all the way through the race, and they did it without needing to refuel or change tyres.  The aim is to get to the chequered flag first, I think the regulations should allow the teams and drivers make the decision on how best to do that, without imposing mandatory pit-stops, or the use of different tyre compounds.

If you watch the free practice sessions, can you tell when a driver is on a qualifying simulation or on a long race run, if the stop watch isn’t running?  Experienced commentators at the circuit have difficulty, because they are watching the car go through a set of corners, and both can look spectacular.  What was telling in the last race in Germany was Rosberg being asked to lap in the mid 1 minute nineteens to get a gap to the Red Bulls before his final pit stop (where he would need to take a five second penalty), and he couldn’t get below 1 minute twenty, despite recording a pole time well over five seconds quicker (1’14.363).  It isn’t as if the drivers are deliberately driving slower than the car is able to go when it is configured to finish the race.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Race pace will always be slower than qualifying pace. For one, the tires, especially the option tires, offer their maximum grip for only a lap or two. It may be a while before their performance plummets, the tires certainly aren’t at their best for the vast majority of a stint. There is also the issue of focus. Maintaining the intense focus required to extract the maximum pace from a car for one or two laps in qualifying is challenging enough. Trying to keep that level of focus and concentration while the car is on the razor’s edge of its performance… Read more »

Richard Piers

Interesting analysis but I am not sure it proves a huge amount, there are too many other factors in play.
I do not believe you are correct in stating that the wide tyres were the result of wings, the two things happened more or less at the same time but were otherwise unrelated, certainly wide tyres preceded the use of wings. The technology of all tyres was developing ie radials and the first wides ran at very low pressures to avoid ballooning.


I thought the first radial F1 tyres were introduced by Michelin in 1978, with Goodyear sticking with cross ply tyres until well into the eighties?

Richard Piers

Don’t actually remember exactly when the first radial racing tyres were introduced, I’m sure you’re right, but I meant that the concept was being widely introduced on road cars through the second half of the 60s. At much the same time the construction and thus width of racing tyres was “doubling”. In ’68 the rear wheels of even little, light F3 cars went up to 14″ courtesy of Firestone. This preceded the fitting of wings which arrived shortly after. On road tyres the steel belted Michelin X was technically a radial from the early 60s or maybe sooner, beautifully made… Read more »


A comprehensive piece of work Dave. I think the parameters you’ve chosen allow a reasonable assessment of the ‘flat outness’ of the racing. I guess that the difference between quali and fastest lap indicates how close they can race to the cars ultimate potential. And as with the first turbo’s the hybrids are more constrained from getting as close to ultimate pace than in other era’s. The fastest lap to average lap is (I think) an indication of how consistently the drivers can push the cars. That has consistently been in the 3.0 to 4.0% range, even in the turbo… Read more »