Don’t Try to Predict Where a Driver Will Finish Based on Where He’s Starting

The general consensus has always been that the higher up you start in the grid, the higher you’ll finish in the race. This makes sense. The fastest cars qualify at the front of the grid and we expect them to perform well in the race too. But what exactly is the relationship between starting position and finishing position? Can we tell a lot about where a driver is likely to finish based on where he starts? These are a couple of the questions I want to look at today.

Using data from 2012-2017, I looked at how starting position correlates with finishing position. Here’s a plot of finishing position vs. starting position for those years, with a trend line added.

A driver’s starting position explains only 12.9% of their variation in finishing position, meaning that a driver’s starting position isn’t very predictive of their finishing position. If you just know where a driver started, you can’t predict their finishing position with much accuracy. I was expecting this number to be a little higher, but the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. 
There are a lot more factors that go into where a driver ends up finishing a race than simply where he starts. Accidents, untimely cautions, and differences in strategy are just some of the things that can make high qualifying drivers perform poorly and let poor qualifying drivers sneak into the top half of the field. Qualifying position is only one part of the puzzle that determines the results of a race. And on top of that, the difference between say 12th and 13th place is usually down to more luck of the draw then driver skill, making the prediction of individual places difficult. 
But this leads us to another question: what are the factors that truly impact where a driver finishes a race. Are practice results predictive of race performance? Or how a driver has raced at that track in the past? Or is racing inherently subject to a lot of randomness and it can’t be predicted with much accuracy? These are all interesting questions that I would like to tackle in the future, but trying to determine how they all interact with each other would be too much for one article. I would like to look at these factors one by one in different articles in the future (starting with qualifying position in this one). Race prediction is obviously the ultimate goal, but before we can determine if it’s even a feasible goal, we need to see what the different factors are that go into determining where drivers end up in a race. 
What we do know now is one part of the bigger picture: qualifying position is a statistically significant predictor of finishing position, but it isn’t a very good one. It explains just around 13% of the variation in finishing position and has a standard error of 6.7 places. Qualifying is a good place to start our investigation into finishing position, and I plan on looking at the other aspects that go into race performance in future posts.
by Drew

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