Who was the Rightful 2005 World Champion?

Rightful Champion?Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rightful Champion? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Whenever the topic of the 2005 Formula One World Championship comes up I’m always disappointed by the number of fans who agree that Kimi Raikkonen should have won the title that season. Just last week I saw a McLaren fan proclaim him the ‘moral winner’ on Twitter. That trope is rife in all of sport, the competitor who would have won if they weren’t thwarted by the cruelty of sport, but in F1, where the driver is often at the mercy of his own equipment and the behaviour of those around him, it is particularly common and sometimes, appropriate.

Whether that is true of the 2005 season is debatable. A glance at social media and online forums quickly forms such a narrative. In a recent survey 87% of Raikkonen fans – not known for their impartiality – claimed that the unreliability of the McLaren MP4-20 and general bad luck conspired to deprive him of the title. 59% of them also agreed that Alonso did not deserve his first world championship because he was allowed to “cruise and collect” race wins and podiums. That interpretation of the season is unfortunate because it does a huge injustice to what was a brilliant championship campaign from Alonso, and I can’t believe that a decade has gone by without anyone properly addressing this fallacy.

It is easy to understand the above frustrations. Raikkonen did lose the title as part of what is generally accepted as the fastest driver/car package of the year, but it is important to make a distinction between fastest and best. To be considered the best over a season a driver has to deliver in the three areas of performance by which they can alter the outcome of the season: pure speed, consistency of performance and driver reliability. How Raikkonen matched up to Alonso in each of these areas should be the real measurement of how much he deserved to win the 2005 championship.

Pure Speed

It goes without saying that to be world champion a driver has to be fast, but sometimes his speed can be the factor that tips a championship in his favour. When measuring a driver’s performance during a season we should consider his speed in both qualifying and races and how much that had an effect on his results.

2005 was undoubtedly Raikkonen’s finest season speed wise. Some of his high fuel qualifying laps were truly incredible, the most memorable being France where he set a time just 0.147s off pole with eight laps more worth of fuel onboard. Fuel corrected, he was around 0.7s quicker than Alonso’s pole lap, which even with the typically extraordinary track evolution of the Magny-Cours circuit considered, is quite a margin. However Alonso was by no means slow. It is true that Raikkonen qualified ahead of him 11-8, making him statistically the quicker driver, but the facts are nevertheless misleading. Often his own one-lap performance was blunted by the characteristics of the Renault R25, which struggled with tyre warm up. That and its general inferiority to the MP4-20 – which, as with many Adrian Newey cars, was in another league – meant the R25 was not the car to have in qualifying so Alonso’s performances were often underrated.

MP4-20 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

MP4-20 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During his ITV commentary on the 2005 French Grand Prix, James Allen – well known for his appreciation of the less overt factors of F1 performance – pointed out that Alonso’s qualifying so far that season, with the superiority of the McLaren in mind, had actually been extremely good. ‘There’s been a bit of criticism of him in terms of his performances in quali, but when you go away after a race and you work out how much fuel he was carrying in the qualifying sessions, adjust the times for fuel, time and again Alonso comes out as having done the best job.’ Raikkonen may have been grabbing headlines, but that wasn’t because Alonso was slow.

The idea that Raikkonen was quicker than Alonso in 2005 is further undermined by their performances relative to their teammates. Raikkonen outqualified his three teammates (Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa and Alexander Wurz) 13-6 with an average margin of 0.364s, but was actually beaten 5-4 in races where he and his teammate both finished. Alonso dominated Giancarlo Fisichella in both areas, 14-5 in qualifying with an average margin of 0.725s and 10-3 in races. His dominance in the races and his average grand prix distance pace advantage of 47s strongly contradict the “cruise and collect” argument and illustrate how his speed directly enabled him to take valuable championship points.

It was this speed which helped him beat at least one McLaren in a straight fight on multiple occasions, most notably in Turkey where he split the dominant MP4-20s, and in China where – free of the reliability concerns that had shackled him all season – he took victory by four seconds from Raikkonen. This McLaren-threatening speed is what led to an average finishing position 2.6 places higher than Fisichella. That was usually the difference between the podium and fifth or sixth place. Had a lesser driver been sitting in the Renault R25, then Toyotas, BARs and Williams’ might have got between him and the podium more often and deprived him of all the points that came with it. It can therefore be argued that Alonso’s speed made more of a difference to the outcome of his season than did Raikkonen’s to his.

 Consistency of Performance

It’s useless for a driver to turn in just one or two great drives every season even if he can rely on the quickest car to carry him to the title. The world champion should be the driver that best maximises the car he has at every race, because then if bad luck does cause him to lose points he can at least be sure that he couldn’t have done any more to change the outcome of the season.

That Raikkonen’s 2005 speed gained mythological status helped to obscure the idiosyncratic inconsistency which hurt his performances during the year. It was the early rounds of the championship which put Raikkonen on the back foot in his challenge for the title and that was almost entirely down to him. In Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain he just wasn’t quick enough and he had a familiar excuse – he was struggling with the front-end feel of his McLaren and losing time on entry to corners. McLaren worked hard on new suspension geometries to fix the issue, but until then, the inherent pace of the MP4-20 was plainly hindered by its driver’s failings.

He was particularly bad in Bahrain; slower than his fill-in teammate de la Rosa in both qualifying and the race, he only made the podium from ninth on the grid because of his car’s innate speed and the retirements of Nick Heidfeld and Michael Schumacher. It might have looked like a good save but he should have achieved a better result than third place. A prospective world champion should never be the weak element of the car/driver package.

The 2014 season should have ended the Alonso/Raikkonen debate but some still insist that the Raikkonen of 2002-2006 would have beaten Alonso last year. They argue that he was somehow different to the Raikkonen who later drove for Ferrari and Lotus, but his early 2005 form is proof that he has always lacked the ability to get the most out of a car that required him to deviate from his natural style. The only difference is that in more recent times he has been without the car to cover his inadequacies.

A good indication of how well a driver is using his car can be found through comparison to his teammate and as the season wore on, and more and more suspension solutions were cast aside, Raikkonen became increasingly fallible in the intra-team battle. That was most notable at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the race where Alonso secured the title. It was a must win race for him but Raikkonen was no threat to Montoya, who led him and the new world champion home ten years ago today. It was the last in a sequence of races where Montoya could justifiably claim to be the quicker McLaren driver. After easily outpacing him in six of their first seven races together, Raikkonen was slower in four of the next eight. If being slower than your teammate is the definition of failing to get the most out of the car then Raikkonen did just that five times.

In total, Raikkonen had eight weekends where he arguably didn’t get the best result available to him and that is too many for a championship campaign especially when your rival has none. Martin Brundle made a pertinent observation during his ITV commentary that season in defence of Alonso’s perceived run of luck during the summer. He believed that Alonso, and not Raikkonen, was showing all the signs that he was a worthy champion – speed, mental toughness and consistency: ‘He delivers every weekend, all kinds of different race tracks, conditions, dramas.’ He can’t be criticised for doing nothing wrong.

Renault R25 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Renault R25 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In eighteen races, Fisichella was never really the quicker Renault driver, especially in race conditions. Although Alonso was beaten three times by him on track, it was not for lack of performance. Twice he was hindered by rain in qualifying – starting 14th in Australia and 16th in Japan – while Fisichella, making rare top three starts, enjoyed a clear run ahead. He was given another free pass when Ralf Schumacher assaulted Alonso at the first corner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, who then had to complete a lap without a front wing before making an unscheduled pitstop.

Hungary was also unusual as one of only two races Alonso finished off the podium, the other being Monaco where he suffered with a badly timed safety car and poor tyre compound choices by his Renault engineers. Although disappointing, that result was somewhat miraculous because his rear tyres became almost useless in the race’s closing stages. Mark Webber, who passed him for third, said he saw him almost crash several times and Alonso agreed that the result could have been a lot worse. With perfect judgement, he managed to walk the line between speed and conservatism and lost only one position, eventually finishing 4th, 1.1s ahead of 8th placed Barrichello.

His otherwise constant presence on the podium besides these two unavoidable hiccups, is the clearest evidence that he was far more consistent than Raikkonen. It would have been acceptable for Raikkonen to have one or two races where he didn’t get the best out of his car – everyone has off weekends – but he did not and that was in great contrast to Alonso. Each weekend his level of performance was in another realm to that of his teammate and that made the difference in the championship. That relentlessness, which would later become Alonso’s trademark, means he easily wins this category.

Driver Reliability

In a just world, the driver who makes the least mistakes would always win the world championship. It proves his skill and is a measure of his ability to deal with pressure. As with consistency, a driver can have no grievances about bad luck or reliability if he can’t perform reliably himself. If he missed opportunities to score points then he can’t complain about points lost to bad luck. The 2008 season is a good example of how frustrations with reliability are misplaced if the driver squandered points with errors. People say that Felipe Massa would have been champion without the engine failure in Hungary and the pitstop issue in Singapore which cost him two clear race wins. While that is true, it is also indisputable that he could have punished the error prone Lewis Hamilton if he had been perfect himself, but he was not. Massa blew at least 16 points with mistakes in Australia, Malaysia and Japan. Ultimately the blame for losing the title by one point falls to him because he didn’t succeed in the areas that he could control. Rare is the season where a driver can justifiably believe that he could have done no more in his pursuit of the title.

2005 was no different. A world champion should be expected to make no more than one or two errors a season but Raikkonen made five. The first was a simple one that could not have come at a worse time. After suffering the same misfortune as Alonso in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, Raikkonen cancelled out his right to be aggrieved about that by stalling on the grid. That turned a 10th place grid slot into a pitlane start and that, combined with a sloppy race drive where he damaged his car running wide at Turn 1, deprived him of a likely third place. Retirements ahead of him allowed him to take a point away from the race but it could have been so much more. By contrast Alonso, who started back in 13th, drove a clean race and took third place, the maximum he could have hoped for after his qualifying trouble.

In Bahrain, a race where he should have challenged Alonso, Raikkonen squandered more points with a Turn 14 lock-up in qualifying which turned a probable second row start into 9th on the grid. His car was quick enough for third place even with another untidy race drive but that only leaves more questions about where he could have finished if he’d started where he should have. It may sound finicky to criticise small qualifying errors but if you want to beat the best in the world at something then you must be close to perfect. A good start to the season is essential for a strong championship campaign and Raikkonen lost between twelve and eight points with avoidable mistakes in two of the first three races. In the old points system that was already a substantial gap to recover.

It was another lock-up that lost Raikkonen all ten points in the European Grand Prix. Fans often try to count this as one of the wins he lost to pure bad luck but the suspension failure that sent a horrified Raikkonen straight on at the first corner of the penultimate lap was completely avoidable. It was a direct result of the particularly malignant flat-spot his lock-up inflicted which caused the brutal vibrations that eventually broke the suspension.

This race is often cited as an example of Alonso’s “cruise and collect” mentality that season but it can just as easily be seen as a parable for the counter intuitive nature of the “win it or bin it” philosophy that is so celebrated by racing “purists”. Raikkonen was under no threat from Alonso and had no need to be pushing as hard as he was when he locked-up lapping a backmarker. It was immediately clear that he had inflicted no ordinary flat-spot and pitting to change the tyre seemed like a logical course of action. Despite having a sufficient lead to stop – which he could do under the force majeure rule – and re-emerge in second place, he chose to risk trying to make it to the end of the race. It didn’t pay off and instead of minimising his self-inflicted points loss, Raikkonen lost another ten in the title race. Had he chosen to “cruise and collect”, then he would have saved himself eight points.

Alonso’s 28s deficit to Raikkonen in Belgium is another oft cited cruise and collect weekend, but what is not as well documented is that, as in Monaco, he did well to finish in the circumstances. That weekend the underpowered Renaults were running low downforce in order to have some hope of competing on the long straights of Spa-Francorchamps and so were twitchy and difficult to drive, a problem further exacerbated by the rain that came on race day. It was why Fisichella crashed spectacularly at Eau Rouge and after surviving a big moment there Alonso decided to pull back his approach and settle for second. It was either that or crash. This was Alonso assessing the risks and delivering what was necessary for his championship – a skill Raikkonen failed to use at the Nurburgring.

Alonso spent all of 2005 defending his lead Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Raikkonen spent 2005 chasing Alonso
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Raikkonen also threw away victory with another bad qualifying performance at the previously mentioned Brazilian Grand Prix. A major error on his one and only lap left him down in fifth, and gave Montoya plenty of breathing space in their exclusive battle for victory. It meant that Alonso sealed the championship on a day that illustrated what had ultimately separated them that season. Alonso had been guilty of just one mistake all season – albeit a silly one which cost him victory in the Canadian Grand Prix – but Raikkonen’s fourth of the year added two more points to his total lost to his own mistakes. Can Raikkonen really blame reliability for his 21 point deficit to Alonso in the championship when his mistakes cost him at least 22?

 The Question of Bad Luck

It is only fair to sympathise with Raikkonen on this front. He did suffer an unusual amount of misfortune during the season. Eight individual incidences of bad luck, beginning in Malaysia and ending in Japan, cost him two wins and around 35 points. In the purest interpretation of that statistic, yes, he would have won the title without that bad luck. However that argument is too simplistic. It ignores the fact that everyone is affected by luck – Alonso lost 18 points to bad luck too – and has led to a lot of misperceptions about Raikkonen and Alonso’s differing fortunes during the season.

Good fortune plays a big role in all sports. A good result requires a number of factors to be pulled together by that draw string called luck. Cristiano Ronaldo’s perfect free kick technique won’t count for anything if a sudden gust of wind sends an accurately hit shot off course. Equally, it won’t help the goalkeeper if that sudden gust comes too late for him to change his positioning and he concedes a goal that he would otherwise have covered. Luck definitely exists in the descriptive sense – there are some events that just can’t be explained by any other force. It is the factor most outside of drivers’ control, although studies have shown that lucky people can have some hand in generating their good fortune. That idea definitely applies in F1 where the concept of making your own luck holds up in some instances as in the case of Alonso in 2005.

Nobody could accuse Alonso of lucking in to his San Marino Grand Prix win for example. Raikkonen was unfortunate to lose an easy win at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, but to suggest that Alonso didn’t deserve the victory instead is to admit that you turned off the TV on lap nine of the grand prix after Raikkonen pulled his MP4-20 onto the white clovers that lined the track. Nobody who watched the subsequent battle between Alonso and Schumacher would deny that Alonso had to fight for his win.

On that day, Schumacher’s heavily upgraded Ferrari F2005 and its Bridgestone tyres – working better than the Michelins in the cool spring of the Apennine Mountains – was simply the best package on the track. Alonso’s Renault was further hindered by his engine which had been damaged by sand during the Bahrain Grand Prix and so was heavily detuned. The car wasn’t fit for the purpose of defending against the powerful Ferrari V10 of his adversary and yet for the final suspenseful twelve laps Alonso barely gave Schumacher a sniff.

Schumacher tried every trick he had to find a way past but Alonso was immaculate, his car positioning as frustrating for Schumacher as it was enchanting for everyone else. Schumacher attempted to get alongside several times but Alonso had every angle intelligently covered. Schumacher overtook Button as if he wasn’t there at Variente Alta, but Alonso recognised the danger and changed his entry line there, and at other corners he deemed high risk, to deter any passing attempts. He also slowed markedly through Tosa and Rivazza Two to gain precious metres in the following traction zones and make up for his lack of straight line speed.

Imola 2005 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Imola 2005
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This riveting duel, in which the protagonists were never separated by more than 0.465s, ended with Alonso ahead by only 0.215 as they crossed the line. His winner’s trophy was solid evidence of the brilliance of his defensive racecraft and was well deserved. Had he not driven as well as he did then he would not have gained the two points he did from Raikkonen’s misfortune. By the same rule, if Alonso hadn’t put himself into second place from third on the grid with a perfect first lap of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim then he wouldn’t have been the one to benefit from Raikkonen’s hydraulics failure. You make your own luck.

Ironically, considering the claims about his losing out to bad luck, Raikkonen was, by the protestors’ definition, “handed” five victories. His win in Canada could have easily gone to Montoya without a badly timed safety car or Fisichella without his hydraulics issue, his easy cruise in Hungary would have been to second place if Montoya had not been halted by a driveshaft problem, at Spa, Montoya would have been the clear winner if McLaren had not indulged in some very unsubtle race manipulation and it may be sacrilege to say it, but the good fortune that helped Raikkonen to take his greatest ever win in Japan was also what stopped Alonso from winning that race instead. (The reasons behind that claim are numerous and complex and are enough to fill a separate blog post). What this proves is that during the course of a season everyone has bad luck, and if we reverse Raikkonen’s bad luck then it would only be fair to reverse that of everyone else or it would be unrealistic.

I’ve already numerically demonstrated how Raikkonen lost himself the world championship but just to be sure I have adjusted the points to reverse all instances of bad luck. While Raikkonen gains more points than Alonso from this adjustment he also loses more points. He gained 14 points from other drivers bad luck during the season, four more than Alonso, which rather contradicts the general consensus of the season according to surveyed fans. The final standings are closer but still favour Alonso 140-137.

Conclusions

What the non-bad luck extrapolation emphatically shows is that while Alonso didn’t lose as many points to bad luck as his championship rival, he also didn’t waste as many or benefit from the bad luck of those around him to aid his relentless points collection. The adjusted points are by no means gospel. They’re as much conjecture as the claims they attempt to refute but what is fact is that Alonso made less mistakes than Raikkonen and unlike him, was devastatingly fast and effective every single weekend. It proves that Alonso’s detractors cannot hide behind the excuse that although the MP4-20 was the fastest car of 2005, it was not a championship worthy car because it was unreliable. Raikkonen had the fastest car and should still have won the world championship. If, like Alonso, he had got everything out of the only factor he could control – his own performance – then he would have done just that. The outcome of the 2005 Formula One season, where a driver took the title without the quickest car, is testament to the fact that it doesn’t matter how quick the car is, if its driver isn’t good enough, then it will not win.

Don’t agree? Tell me what you think in the comments or on Twitter. (@aggreracer)

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One thought on “Who was the Rightful 2005 World Champion?

  1. Pingback: The Definition of Greatness | AggreRacer

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