Formula 1 doesn’t exist primarily to generate statistics, meaning that numbers can only ever be a sideshow to entertain and inform.
They are also by their very nature one-dimensional, requiring nuance and context to interpret them and add context.
But the most valuable ones do have an intrinsic meaning simply in what they encapsulate.
That’s why Sebastian Vettel is absolutely correct to declare it “wrong” that the official history books will credit pole position to the driver who wins Saturday’s Silverstone sprint race and therefore starts Sunday’s Grand Prix at the front – not qualifying pacesetter Lewis Hamilton, unless he wins on Saturday too.
Clearly, the answer to the question of ‘who started the grand prix on pole position?’ will be whoever started it first regardless of how they got there. So from that perspective, you see the logic of this decision. It is correct to state that whoever that is at Silverstone on Sunday was the pole position driver. But that’s not really what the pole positions statistic is about.
The heart of the achievement of a pole position is nothing to do with the prosaic fact that you started at the front, but about what you did to get there by being fastest over a single-lap in qualifying. Yes, it’s a means to an end, but it’s also a glorious, artful expression of the driver’s art and has tremendous value.
This what makes it one of the big beasts of F1 statistics. Only the number of world championships and wins counts for more as a measure of significant achievement, which is why Hamilton’s astonishing record of 100 pole positions matters – or should it not be 101?
That’s 100 times he’s been the best driver/car combination in qualifying across every conceivable set of conditions and a wide range of circuits.
Vettel’s pole position number, 57 – the fourth highest in F1 history – also means a lot. While he has had difficult phases in his career where he hasn’t been capable of dragging the most from a car, when everything is right he can be stunningly fast. You do not luck into that sheer weight of numbers, even in a sport when the performance of the car is so important.
This is why anything that corrupts the pole positions statistics is unsatisfying. But that’s not to say that the numbers haven’t been polluted over time.
Disregarding exclusions, for anything that comes under the heading of technical infringement even if it’s something as mundane as not having the requisite amount of fuel to supply a sample, there have only been four drivers in world championship history who have set the pace in qualifying but not been credited with pole position in the history books. All of these cases occurred in the era of the grid penalty.
The first was Kimi Raikkonen at Monza in 2004, where a 10-place penalty for an engine change led to his McLaren-Mercedes being bumped down to 11th on the grid.
The next was in Hungary in 2007 when Fernando Alonso was fastest in qualifying, but relegated to sixth for the controversial ‘blocking’ of McLaren team-mate Hamilton in the pits during qualifying.
Perhaps the most cruel case was at Monaco in 2012, when Michael Schumacher was fastest in qualifying. He was put back five places as a result of having rear-ended Williams driver Bruno Senna in the preceding Spanish Grand Prix.
It would have been the only pole position of Schumacher’s three-year comeback, although there’s every chance the penalty spared him the agony of retiring from the lead given the fuel pump problem that the team believed would have manifested itself independent of anything that happened in the race.
Most recently, Max Verstappen lost pole at the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix to failing to heed yellow flags after Valtteri Bottas crashed. He was given a three-place grid penalty as a result.
There are three sprint qualifying events this year, and while it’s likely that the driver starting the sprint race on pole position will win it and ensure the statistics book is well-served, there is the potential for the grand prix polesitter not being the qualifying pacesetter happening three times this year having happened only four times in the previous seven or so decades.
Add to that the prospect of more of the same next year, with Ross Brawn having mentioned six sprint races as a possibility and there is the prospect for statistical drift.
If Hamilton gets credited with an extra pole position or loses out on one because of this, it’s not a problem, but over time it will grow to be a significant effect.
We should not pretend that there hasn’t been some corruption of the pole position statistic in other ways. From 2003-2009, drivers had to qualify with a race-start fuel load, meaning that the driver who set the pace in qualifying wasn’t always the one who had set the quickest time fuel corrected.
Perhaps the classic example was Jarno Trulli’s pole position in the 2005 United States Grand Prix on a very light load given Toyota knew full well that it was very likely to withdraw from the race on the formation lap – as indeed did all the Michelin-shod cars.
But just because there has already been a little corruption of the statistics doesn’t mean that it should continue to happen. And the argument that the points tally statistic has long since been distorted by the various changes in rules is not relevant simply because that was never a number that carried the importance of the wins, poles or title numbers.
Vettel has already suggested a viable way round it by giving the qualifying winner the extra notch in the pole position column and creating another column in the great spreadsheet of statistics to be called something else. That would appear to be a sensible compromise that reflects reality and preserves the soul of the pole position statistics.
Motorsport is, in essence, about speed, which is why drivers like Vettel care about the value of the achievement of taking pole position. This statistical oddity is hardly the biggest problem in F1, but it is something that is very easy to fix.
The pole position number matters because of what it represents – that you were the fastest over one lap on a given day. Nothing more, nothing less.