Raw Pace & Expected Classifications – A Mid-Season Review

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In this post we will take an alternative look at the 2019 WRC season to date through Expected Classifications (xCs). The original theory behind xCs was to see if we could uncover the ability of the drivers from their performance on a rally. It would forgive the odd mistake and paint a truer picture of those who gained from the mistakes of others. In practice xCs can only uncover the raw pace of the crews – though quite well. The idea is under review too and I will touch on it’s flaws and strengths whilst uncovering some interesting stories and hypotheses. Please note – this is simply a look at raw pace. There is more to winning and finishing a rally than that.

The Raw Pace Table

First off, here is the driver’s table based on xCs plus actual power stage points. This post only looks at manufacturer entries and excludes trialists Greensmith and Tidemand who were expected to place 11th on each occasion. (Here’s the actual table.)

DriverTotalPPR
O. TÄNAK 18222.75
T. NEUVILLE 15118.875
S. OGIER 13416.75
K. MEEKE 8610.75
J. LATVALA 799.875
E. EVANS 688.5
T. SUNINEN 556.875
A. MIKKELSEN 559.167
D. SORDO 499.8
S. LOEB 357
E. LAPPI 344.25

Clearly the lead story is that Ott Tanak should be streets ahead of his real-world championship rivals. Few would argue with that statement as Tanak’s woes have been much covered. Tyres and wheels cost him in Monte and Corsica, whilst mechanical failures marred Argentina and Italy.

Thierry Neuville should be edging away from Sebastien Ogier but in the real world they are near equals. To help explain we need to look at the points differences between the xC championship and the real table.

Kris Meeke is marginally best of the rest with Jari-Matti Latvala then Elfyn Evans behind. Teemu Suninen and Andreas Mikkelsen should be on equal points, but remember Mikkelsen has competed two fewer events. Sordo and Loeb follow and they have also each missed events. Lappi tails the WRC class and this would perhaps be no surprise to many.

Comparing the Differences to the Real World

Let’s now take the actual 2019 championship points and minus the expected points to show the differences. We’ll arrange them so the lucky/skilful are top, and the unlucky/clumsy are at the bottom. Bear in mind the addition of Power Stage points are irrelevant here, the difference applies to position points only.

DriverTotal DifferenceMedian DifferenceAverage
S. OGIER 121.51.5
E. EVANS 102.51.25
T. SUNINEN 73.50.875
E. LAPPI 61.50.75
S. LOEB 400.8
D. SORDO 320.6
A. MIKKELSEN 100.167
T. NEUVILLE -80-1
K. MEEKE -26-4-3.25
O. TÄNAK -32-1.5-4
J. LATVALA -39-2-4.875

Top of the list after eight events is 6 times World Champion Sebastien Ogier. According to xC theory he has gained 12 extra real world points than his performances or ability should have earned him. Although twelve points might not sound huge they all count, and the reality is it’s keeping him in the fight. More importantly, these are 12 points gained where his rivals are failing to win their own. We shall look at how these points were won below

The biggest underachiever (for want of a better word) is Jari-Matti Latvala. He has failed to grab a whopping 39 points (regardless of blame/how). Next is championship leader Ott Tanak with 32 missing points then Kris Meeke with -26. These are huge numbers in comparison to everybody else and they are all from the same team.

Take a look at the same table in the same order with the teams added in.

DriverTotal DifferenceTeam
S. OGIER 12Citroen
E. EVANS 10M-Sport
T. SUNINEN 7M-Sport
E. LAPPI 6Citroen
S. LOEB 4Hyundai
D. SORDO 3Hyundai
A. MIKKELSEN 1Hyundai
T. NEUVILLE -8Hyundai
K. MEEKE -26Toyota
O. TÄNAK -32Toyota
J. LATVALA -39Toyota

Although the margins are slim for three of these teams it is interesting to see them clubbed together like this.

For completeness here is a manufacturers table from the xC. xP = expected points. Clearly Toyota should be leading the manufacturers table, the other teams are at about the right points.

TeamTotal xPxPPRActual PointsDifference
TOYOTA GAZOO RACING WRT24630.75198-48
HYUNDAI SHELL MOBIS WRT23028.7524212
CITROEN TOTAL WRT16420.51706
M-SPORT FORD WORLD RALLY TEAM144181528

When Fastest Raw Pace does not mean Winning

Here are the differences in actual and raw pace points won over each event for each driver.

DriverMCOSWEMEXFRAARGCHLPORITATotal DifferenceTeam
S. OGIER 10-1008530-412Citroen
E. EVANS -263-10-469210M-Sport
T. SUNINEN -4-15-1256867M-Sport
E. LAPPI -110-64-26-1056Citroen
S. LOEB 450-3-24Hyundai
D. SORDO -662-673Hyundai
A. MIKKELSEN -66-40501Hyundai
T. NEUVILLE -7-32100-1202-8Hyundai
K. MEEKE -468-10-3-7-12-4-26Toyota
O. TÄNAK -300-10-400-15-32Toyota
J. LATVALA 0-12-110-2-10-2-2-39Toyota

Ott Tanak

Enough has been said for Ott Tanak and the Toyotas about why they are losing so many points so I will consider that covered. Tanak has not outscored his pace yet this season and that is usually because he is fastest.

Neuville vs Ogier

Here’s a good opportunity to explain the theory as the two drivers are so closely matched.

Monte Carlo

On the average stage-kilometer in Monte, Neuville was quicker than Ogier so immediately we have a difference between the two. In the end Ogier won by 2.2 seconds, far less time than Neuville spent rejoining the road after veering right at a junction. Tanak should have beaten Ogier too hence why Ogier picked up more points to expected than Neuville dropped.

Sweden

In Rally Sweden Ogier had an out-the-points off but is predicted to have finished 5th had he not. Neuville meanwhile should have finished second to Tanak but was pipped by Lappi in reality. It was another close finish with less than 3 seconds in it. Both drivers had moments and spins, perhaps Neuville had one more spin than Lappi which ultimately cost the time and points.

Mexico

Ogier deservedly won Mexico. Here is an example of where the xCs cannot say what Tanak, for example, could do from a different starting position on Friday. The best description for the purpose of what xCs show would be what the likely finish positions would be if the rally was run again.

Tour de Corse

In Corsica both gained from the drop-out of Tanak and Evans. Ogier also benefited from Meeke’s loss but gained fewer points being further down the board. That’s not to say they were lucky and didn’t deserve their positions with smartly managed drives. Were they protecting their wheels where Tanak, Evans and Meeke perhaps did not?

Argentina

Neuville won Rally Argentina deservedly. Ogier could consider himself lucky to collect an extra 5 points by pipping Kris Meeke and Latvala. All had car issues on this rally so skill vs luck here could be a long debate.

Chile

We all remember Neuville’s monster roll in Chile but he was heading to a likely 4th place. Loeb should have beaten Ogier according to average stage pace. But the senior champion was a lot slower on the Friday morning stages in his first gravel rally with the Hyundai i20. Again it was another narrow margin for Ogier to pip Loeb by just 7.1 seconds overall.

Portugal

In Portugal the leading trio finished as expected. Some might say Sordo or Loeb could have had better road position over the weekend, which in turn would have allowed them to set better times and attain better xCs. I have looked at the xCs for Stages 1 to 7 and nothing changes in this regard.

Italy

Interestingly, Italy was the first rally where Neuville gained actual points to expected whilst Ogier dropped expected points. Even though Ogier had mechanical and ‘commitment’ issues over the weekend after he restarted, I trust what the expected position say here. It’s not the first rally you would choose to open the road.

Select Other Points for Other Drivers

One of the biggest losses of the season was Teemu Suninen in Sweden. His median stage pace suggests he should have placed 3rd but finished outside the points thanks to two significant off-road excursions. On the same rally JML hit a snowbank and was fourth in terms of pace. The biggest gainer of the season was also here when Esapekka Lappi kept it on the road to a P2 finish when he was 6th on pace.

Contender for the smartest/luckiest driver of the season is Elfyn Evans. For when he has to crash out he does it on a rally where the pace isn’t great. This was the case in Monte Carlo and Argentina. Also excepting Corsica where he lost the lead in a pothole, he has outscored his pace on all the remaining rallies.

Forgiving Incidental Rallies

Teemu Suninen has a similar story to Evans in that both have gained actual points to pace-points on 5 events each, more than any other drivers. So if we use the ‘median’ stage pace to work out the xCs, can we forgive freak rally performances to give the drivers an assessment across the season?

Going back to the driver’s ‘differences’ table above and arranging by Median Difference puts Teemu Suninen the highest of all drivers. If it’s M-Sport’s policy to let their drivers go for the win then it’s strange to see them top of the charts of managed pace/rallies. If that’s what this is. But if you take the uber-elite of the leading trio out the picture, than M-Sports policy of letting their drivers go for the win is working. Sort of.

At the other end of this scale however is Kris Meeke. To put that last paragraph into a readable term – Kris Meeke is losing more points than his raw pace suggests on ‘the average rally’ than any other driver.

Jari-Matti Latvala has lost more points in total than Meeke, but has lost harder on fewer rallies. Conversely, Seb Ogier has gained more than Suninen across the season.

Conclusion

It is my assumption from the extremities of these difference tables and combining my own opinion, that these drivers should perhaps have these objectifying labels applied, even though there is a cross-over of reasoning.

Sebastien Ogier is the smartest driver for managing pace. I’m not the first to say that Ogier drives near the limit, but not at it until he needs to. This is how he earns the luck of winning the higher position by such narrow time margins. Sweden and Italy suggest he has crossed the threshold and could improve however!

Teemu Suninen is the luckiest driver. Not through his driving being dangerously risky, but based on the reasoning he has gained more positions and points when other drivers retire or have issues. This could be a smart strategy and many will argue this. I agree to some extent this is a great tactic in our sport but not over the course of 8 events.

In theory Ogier should be the Luckiest and Suninen the smartest by the logic of the tables.

JM Latvala and Ott Tanak are the unluckiest. Both have had two significant mechanical failures and more minor issues with their cars. JML has also made a few errors of his own to be fair so I would prefer to hand the label to Tanak.

Kris Meeke is the biggest under-performer (to ability) of the season so far. The -4 Median Difference is far below the range of the other drivers and yet he has only been expected to podium once all season so far, so the points to lose aren’t even that high. If Ogier is the smartest at pace management, does Meeke counter that? Consider the wall he clipped in Corsica, the roll in Portugal, the roll in Chile, (and even the time penalty in Argentina). These are all instances that have cost him positions. We could call the punctures and damaged rims out to bad luck, but does he cross the limit too often? However, he has still finished in the top 10 on 7/8 rallies and as the points difference is relative to the driver’s raw pace ability, calling one of the fastest drivers ‘dumb’ seems unreasonable.

As for raw pace, Tanak is unarguably the quickest by far. Lappi the tenth most quickest.

Evaluation

As stated in the opening paragraph, there is more to winning a rally than raw pace. As the old cliche goes – To finish first, first you have to finish. You need a reliable car and there is one in particular that is not performing to the level of it’s drivers – the Toyota. You also have to manage tyres, minimise risk where there is no midday service or obey team orders and drive slower.

It’s easier to spot why a driver has lost expected points too than gained them. In the majority of cases it is via an incident or mechanical failure but that isn’t always the case.

Some of these margins are quite narrow too so it may be unfair to give out the labels. With more data a clearer picture will emerge and if we had seasons worth of data we would know what normal levels of differences are.

I’ll revisit the expected classifications at the end of the season. We will see if any changes and new stories appear and learn whether it is appropriate to label drivers smart or lucky and if they’re right or wrong.

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