Does home-field advantage exist in Formula One?

Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone

Real Comfortable Racing

No one who saw it will ever forget Mark Webber’s miraculous fifth-place finish at the 2002 Australian Grand Prix.  Not only was it his first-ever Formula One race, but he faced the added pressure of driving in his home country.  He was also driving a Minardi that would finish no higher than eighth for the rest of the season and with which his teammate, Alex Yoong, failed to qualify for three grands prix.  In fact, over the previous six seasons Minardi had scored just one point.  For Webber, surely some sort of ‘home-field advantage’ must have been at work.

In team sports, home-field advantage is a widely-touted concept, but it is not a truism; home teams in the major professional sports do win more games than visiting teams.  Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim explored the reasons for this in their 2011 book, Scorecasting (basically, their theory is that crowds subconsciously influence referees to give home teams better calls).  But does home-field advantage exist in motorsport, where stewards have no contact with the fans and drivers cannot hear the crowd inside their crash helmets, while sitting inches from an engine running at 18,000 RPMs?  Consider this: between Felipe Massa’s victory in Brazil to end the 2008 season and Fernando Alonso’s win at the 2013 Spanish GP, no driver won their home race (although Alonso did win the 2012 European GP, held in Valencia, Spain).

The anecdotal evidence of Webber’s astonishing fifth-place in Australia and the gap between Massa’s and Alonso’s victories tell two different stories, but what do the statistics say about home-field (or should we say ‘home-circuit’?) advantage in Formula One?

To determine whether home-circuit advantage does exist, the first thing to acknowledge is that, in any given grand prix, only a handful of drivers have a realistic chance of winning, and those chances are largely dependent on the quality of their cars.  Therefore, we cannot just count how many races have been won by a driver from the home country and assume that proves home-circuit advantage.  Instead, we must examine each driver’s results, race-by-race, aside from their home grand prix and compare those with how they fared on home soil.  Again, refer to the 2002 Mark Webber example – his Minardi should never have finished near the points (and it did not for the rest of the season), but somehow Webber scored in Australia.  That is more telling, in terms of determining whether home-circuit advantage exists, than Michael Schumacher winning the 2004 German and European (in Germany) grands prix in a season where he won 13 of 18 races (i.e. he could be expected to win those races, home crowd or not).

The scope of this study includes every driver who finished their home grand prix, plus at least five other races in a single season, over the course of the last ten complete F1 seasons (2003-2012).  Their average finishing position for their non-home races was calculated and compared with their position in their home race.  This produced a positive or negative number for each driver, for each season (let’s call this the ‘advantage/disadvantage’).

For this study, drivers’ home countries are those under whose flag they are racing, not necessarily where they were born or where they reside.  Also, home races include any race taking place in their country.  Therefore, some drivers are counted twice in seasons where their home country hosted two races (each result is counted separately, though).  San Marino counts as an Italian race, as it took place in Imola, Italy.  Monaco does not count as a French race, as it takes place in Monaco, not France.  As well, DNFs were not factored into the average finishing positions, as they are just as often the result of mechanical error as they are driver error.  Results where drivers were classified after finishing more than 90% of the race (but breaking down/crashing before the finish) were also discounted, as those positions do not accurately reflect the drivers’ performances during the races.

By taking the average advantage/disadvantage for all the drivers who fit the above-mentioned criteria, we can see whether there is, in fact, an advantage to be gained from racing in front of a home crowd.  The following table shows the average number of places, higher or lower, drivers finished at their home races versus all other races, by season, as well as the number of drivers who met the criteria that year.

Season Advantage/Disadvantage Number of Drivers
2003 -0.66 places 13
2004 -0.02 places 15
2005 +0.46 places 15
2006 -0.09 places 15
2007 -0.83 places 12
2008 -0.14 places 10
2009 -1.54 places 15
2010 -1.50 places 19
2011 -0.19 places 19
2012 +0.50 places 16

A cursory glance at the table should quickly put to rest any notion of a home-circuit advantage.  In those ten seasons, only twice did drivers average a better finish in their home races than at those in other countries.  Over the full ten seasons, the average finishing position at home grands prix is 0.42 places lower.  Of the 149 home finishes considered, 76 were lower at the home race, while only 72 were higher than the driver’s average finish away from home (in 2007, Lewis Hamilton’s average position in races he finished away from home was exactly 3.00 . . . he also finished third at Silverstone).

So, there is certainly not a home-circuit advantage.  If anything, drivers tend to finish slightly lower at home, although less than half a place is relatively insignificant.  We can therefore plausibly say that there is no advantage, nor disadvantage, to be gained or lost by racing at home.  This should not come as a surprise.  Scorecasting demonstrated that it was fans’ effects on officials which produced home-field advantage; in F1, stewards normally have an indirect influence on the outcomes of races and fans have zero chance to interact with officials during a race (in contrast to, say, baseball or soccer, where fans are often only a few feet from umpires with only a short wall separating them).

Even if drivers do push a bit harder at their home races (and some surely do), that late dive up the inside for an extra place is just as often punished with an extra pit stop to repair a front wing as it is rewarded with the extra place.  And no matter how hard a driver pushes, he usually cannot overcome a terrible car (Webber’s 2002 drive in Australia is, again, a very notable exception).

Now you are probably thinking, “Sure, there’s no such thing as home-circuit advantage overall, but in Italy/Britain/Brazil/Your Country Here, the fans definitely provide a real boost to our drivers.”  Well, just a minute.

Using the same statistics, but breaking them down by country rather than season, we can see whether any countries do offer a bigger advantage to their drivers.  Admittedly, some of these sample sizes are very small – for example, the Australian results are almost exclusively Mark Webber – so this particular table may be better-used to settle bar bets than for scientific research, but it still does give us an idea of which countries’ drivers tend to perform well at home (at least recently).  Note that the table only includes countries where drivers met the criteria at least five times over the ten seasons in our study.

Country Advantage/Disadvantage Number of Drivers
Japan +1.21 places 9
Spain +0.65 places 20
Germany +0.03 places 45
Brazil -0.58 places 18
Italy -1.39 places 21
Australia -1.66 places 7
United Kingdom -1.76 places 20

Probably the most striking number is the disadvantage British drivers seem to suffer when racing at Silverstone.  Although nearly a third of British GPs have been won by British drivers since the F1 World Championship began in 1950, over the last ten years, British drivers have finished an average of 1.76 places lower at their home race than they have in other races (remember when we said that you can’t just count how many times a race has been won by a home-grown driver?).  At the other end of the spectrum are the Japanese drivers, who certainly do seem to receive a boost from driving at home: 1.21 places, to be precise.

Fernando Alonso was the first Spanish driver to win the Spanish GP as part of the F1 World Championship (Carlos de Salamanca, a Spaniard, won the first-ever Spanish GP, in 1913), and he has usually done well at home, in front of the rabid Spanish fans, so it may come as no surprise that Spanish drivers finish an average of 0.65 places higher at home than ‘on the road’, over one place higher than the overall home-circuit disadvantage (minus – 0.42 places).

It will probably also surprise the tifosi that Italian drivers’ disadvantage at home is almost one place more than the average disadvantage.  Or maybe it will not, considering an Italian driver has not won on home tarmac since Riccardo Patrese won the 1990 San Marino GP, nor at Monza since Ludovico Scarfiotti in 1966 (the Ferrari team has enjoyed considerably more success, though, both at Monza and Imola).

Perhaps in the past, when fans were closer to the track (or sometimes on it!) and drivers wore open-face helmets, there was a true home-circuit advantage to be had.  Over the last ten years, though, we can definitively say that there is no home-circuit advantage in Formula One.  Just ask Jenson Button, winner of 15 career races, who, in 14 British GPs, has never even stood on the podium – in his 2009 world championship-winning season, he won six of the first seven races, finished third in the other, and then finished sixth at Silverstone, the eighth round of the season.  Home-circuit advantage, indeed!

By: Matthew Walthert

Matthew Walthert is a freelance writer and editor of The Parade Lap – Formula One explained.  He lives in Ottawa and attends the Canadian Grand Prix each year.  Follow him on Twitter @TheParadeLapF1.

Lewis Hamilton at his home Grand Prix – Image Courtesy of Nick Webb

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