Formula 1 is, even though we dislike the phrase, something of a Marmite sport. It is divisive and whilst it has millions of fans around the globe and is much-loved by a wide and varied demographic, there are certainly many people who dislike it. With a passion. Those in the latter camp have more than a few bones to pick with the sport and one of the biggest is that it is boring and predictable.
Indeed, this is increasingly an issue for many fans of the sport, some of whom are now former fans. But is Formula 1 really all that predictable? Is it, indeed, as the title asks, too predictable?
If this is the case, where does that leave punters? Logic would suggest that a predictable sport should be easy pickings for those betting on it, but is that really the case?
Is F1 Predictable?
People will have different ideas and notions of what “predictable” means. Do we mean that races themselves are unexciting? Do we mean that the same driver, or small group of drivers, win most races? Do we mean there are not enough upsets in terms of qualifying, the races themselves and/or which driver and team wins the Drivers’ Championship and the Constructors’ Championship?
Well, some critics would quite possibly argue that Formula 1 is predictable in all of those ways. Some are easier to quantify than others and so we will start there. The charge, if we can call it that, that certain drivers and teams are too dominant is hard to refute.
The stats we will look at are skewed, perhaps, by the fact that we are considering an era when Lewis Hamilton, arguably the sport’s greatest ever driver, is/was at his peak. From 2014 to November 2020, one driver (Hamilton) has been crowned world champion six times in seven years. He has also won 82 out of 135 races in that period, an incredible 61%, with a win rate of 71% for the 2020 season at the time of writing.
In broader terms, we can see that in the 21st century, the 21 titles thus far have been collected by just seven drivers, with three (Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel) claiming 16, or 76% of them between them. Unsurprisingly, we see a similar picture when it comes to the Constructors’ Championship, with the top three teams, Ferrari, Williams and McClaren, taking the honours on 33 occasions in the history of the sport. All the other teams combined can muster just 30.
Does this mean F1 is predictable? Well, perhaps, but then by that token almost all sports are; certainly the planet’s most popular sport of all: football. If we look at just about any major league in the world there are dominant teams. In England, Liverpool and Man United have 39 top flight titles between them, in Scotland Celtic and Rangers have an incredible 105 between them and we see a similar picture in Italy, France, Holland, Portugal and especially Spain.
Indeed, as said, the same sort of pattern emerges in many sports. And also in business (think Amazon, Apple, et cetera) and in fact in most walks of life. Does that make all of these things predictable?
Grands Prix Are Predictable
Whether you find the domination of F1 by the top teams boring and predictable or not, perhaps the more serious issue some have is with the individual races. Many argue that the driver in the best car invariably wins and that there is less scope for individual driver brilliance and skill. It is suggested that improvements to safety have led to a bland sport where overtaking is far too hard and so whoever is on poll will invariably win the race.
In many ways this is a subjective argument. Clearly Formula 1 is more technologically advanced than it has ever been but the best car has always enjoyed an advantage. Quantifying this advantage is never easy because invariably it is the best drivers who are employed by the best teams. Assessing how exciting a Grand Prix was is even more subjective.
Perhaps “big data” could be used to create some form of objective answer by looking at the total number of overtaking manoeuvres, both completed and attempted, as well as the average gap between cars, the change in race order from start to finish and other such metrics. But ultimately the ability to say modern F1 is more or less exciting than it used to be will always come down to personal opinion.
What we do know for sure though is that cars are more reliable than ever. Car failure of one sort or another, be it engine, tyres or anything else, brings a huge degree of unpredictability to a race. Modern F1 cars are wonders of engineering far beyond the machines of even 20 or 30 years ago. Performance in so many areas is measured in real time during the race so mistakes by the evermore professional drivers and the car itself are very uncommon.
This means that all too often, after the first few laps it is relatively easy to predict the outcome of the race. This is especially true at the front, which is where fans most enjoy seeing action take place but where it least frequently occurs. So, whilst there may be large degree of subjectivity, there certainly seems to be a decent case to suggest that F1 is becoming more and more predictable. The fact that a number of drivers have even said as much, and so many fans raise the question, offers further support to such an argument.
F1 Predictability And Betting
So, if we do accept that Formula 1 is becoming too predictable, or perhaps even always has been, what does this mean for those betting on it? Surely a predictable sport is just what punters want and what bookies dread? As we have seen, Lewis Hamilton has won six of the last seven world titles, winning more than 60% of all races in that time. He has won 86% of the Drivers’ Championships in that period and in 2020, statistically his “winningest” season, more than 70% of the races to date. Surely any punter who has backed the Stevenage ace is well and truly in the black?
Well, in terms of titles there can be no doubt whatsoever that Hamilton’s dominance would have yielded a profit to anyone backing him over the past seven years. Before the 2020 season began he was priced at odds of around 3/5 but he was 5/2 back in 2014! That price dropped to 4/6 the following season and he has generally been priced at odds-on in the ante post markets but even so, his incredible 86% championship strike rate means anyone backing him would have well and truly bashed the bookies.
In terms of individual races, over the past seven seasons the British legend has undoubtedly started the vast majority as the clear favourite. At the time of writing the next race is the Bahrain Grand Prix and Hamilton is currently the 1/2 favourite. Those odds imply a 67% chance of success, which given his 2020 win rate of 71% would make them good value. That said, against his overall win percentage it would be very bad value and even against his win rate during the golden period of the last seven years it would not be a bet worth taking.
Of course, he has not always been priced at odds as short as 1/2 though. Although for the race prior, in Turkey, where he ultimately wrapped up the 2020 world title, he was actually a shade shorter. None the less, the fact is that over the seven year period at which we are looking, Hamilton’s odds for each race have varied depending on the form of the driver himself, his team and the suitability of the track in question, as well as how his rivals have been doing.
Indeed, he was not far shy of 2/1 for the 2020 season opener in Austria, dropping to around evens for the following race at the same circuit despite finishing fourth. For the vast majority of races Hamilton’s odds have been typically between 5/2 and 1/2, and these low odds are the bookies’ protection against the “predictability” of F1.
In lots of sporting events it is easy to predict who will win or land a winning bet. For example, in F1, a wager that Lewis Hamilton will finish in the points will almost always win. In football, backing over 0.5 goals when Liverpool play is usually a safe bet whilst in tennis the likes of Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic can usually be relied upon to win against lowly ranked players.
The difficulty, of course, comes in finding value, that is to say odds that are longer than they really should be based on the chance of the selection winning. So the price you pay for the predictability of F1 and Hamilton or his Mercedes team winning is that the odds are very small. If betting was as simple as making a profit from backing short odds favourites such as Hamilton, or in football, for example, Celtic to win the league (they won nine in a row between 2012 and 2020), bookies would soon go out of business.
Favourites Still Good For Punters
Whilst it is true that the bookies ensure that their odds on the favourite don’t give too much away, in general, across all sports, wins for the favourites are usually the worst outcome. Because most money is wagered on those towards the head of the market, betting sites tend to price the leading options with a lower margin. A smaller profit margin for them means bigger odds for you. Whilst there are no assurance that blindly backing the favourite every time will see you heading down to the Aston Martin showroom, as a general rule doing so tends to yield better returns than any other very simple strategy.
You may still lose but you will probably lose less than if you had backed a major outsider every time. Of course, outsiders do win from time to time, even in Formula 1. One of the biggest upsets in recent times occurred at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix when Pierre Gasly won. Hamilton started on pole but ultimately finished down in seventh as unheralded French driver Gasly took the chequered flag at huge odds of 150/1. Carlos Sainz Jnr was second and had been 66/1, the same odds as Lance Stroll who ended third in one of the most unlikely podiums in F1 history.
Amazingly one lucky/crazy/skilful punter correctly called the top three at huge odds of almost 170,000/1! The punter only bet about 20p but even so landed an incredible win. None the less, such outlandish results remain the best outcome for the bookmakers.
That is because the vast majority of money goes on the likes of Hamilton and the other top drivers from the best teams. Because so few people bet on outsiders, the bookies know they can offer odds that are really bad value. A punter going for a long shot is not too sensitive about the price being 50/1 or 100/1, even in reality there is a huge difference.