Six Laps in July – A Statistical Analysis of Markus Winkelhock’s Formula One Career

There was no reason to assume that July 22nd 2007 would become one of the most unique dates in Formula One history. The LI Grand Prix of Europe at the legendary Nürburgring had some intrigue, no doubt: Lewis Hamilton’s severe accident in Saturday’s qualifying session and its impact on the actual race being only one of the most prominent topics of conversation. Another factor that would make turning into the race an attractive prospect (at least for British racing fans) was that Murray Walker would be providing commentary on BBC Radio Five Live in his first Formula One announcing outing since 2001. On the political side of the sport, the ugly affair nowadays known as “Spygate” was slowly starting to unfold.Spyker

However, the story that would turn this Grand Prix into a one-of-a-kind event was happening at the bottom end of the grid. Christijan Albers, former DTM vice-champion, had been released from his contract with Spyker. Despite team owner Michiel Mol claiming it to be “one of the hardest [decisions he ever] had to take since becoming involved in the team”, the Dutchman found himself on the sidelines after his sponsors had defaulted on their payments to the team. As his replacement, 27-year old local driver Markus Winkelhock received his chance to make his F1 debut.

rainThen came race day and one of the most unique sequence of events in arguably all of motorsports unfolded. Called into the pitlane on the formation lap, he received a set of wet weather Bridgestone tyres. This turned out to be a highly inspired choice, as a spontaneous rain shower forced everyone into the pits and allowed Winkelhock to jump up the order. This rise culminated in an effortless pass against world champion-to-be Kimi Räikkönen to take a lead he would keep until the race was red-flagged. Unfortunately, after the restart, he went down the order and found himself out of the race with a technical failure before so much as half the Grand Prix was completed. Still, he had made his impact. As it turned out, however, this was his sole Grand Prix start as Sakon Yamamoto was hired to fill the Spyker seat and finance the team for the rest of the 2007 season.

Markus Winkelhock’s career story is one of the most fascinating pieces of reject history. However, to help demonstrate just how unique the case of Markus Winkelhock is, this edition of The Gravel Trap will look into some statistics surrounding Winkelhock’s F1 debut.

Since it would be unbecoming to do an article about Markus Winkelhock without talking about the man himself, a quick look at his career path leading to the premier series of motorsport is the first thing to deal with. After working his way up through the minor German leagues without ever winning a championship, he made the jump to DTM for the 2004 season. That jump proved unsuccessful, with Winkelhock’s best result being a ninth place in a non-championship race. After a season in Formula Renault 3.5, where he scored three victories, one each at the Bugatti Circuit in France, at Donington Park and at the season finale in Monza, this resulted in a third-place championship finish behind future Formula One race winner Robert Kubica and future Superleague Formula champion Adrián Vallés. Following this achievement, he joined Midland as test driver. He maintained that job as the team was bought out by Dutch sportscar manufacturer Sypker. In 2007, he was also a part-time DTM driver when called to Formula One at the age of 27 years and 39 days.

All of that is not particularly special. Even when limiting the range to the more youth-oriented new millennium, eleven drivers were older than Winkelhock in their first start:

Driver Age at first Grand Prix start
Ralph Firman 27 years, 293 days
Giedo van der Garde 27 years, 326 days
Brendon Hartley 27 years, 346 days
Narain Karthikeyan 28 years, 51 days
Franck Montagny 28 years, 122 days
Tiago Monteiro 28 years, 225 days
Sébastien Bourdais 29 years, 17 days
Cristiano da Matta 29 years, 171 days
Yuji Ide 31 years, 50 days
Allan McNish 32 years, 64 days
André Lotterer 32 years, 278 days

Winkelhock’s path to Formula One is also not a particularly unique one. Naming all FR3.5 alumni in Formula One would make for a long list and outside of the abovementioned Albers fellow reject Pascal Wehrlein and Paul di Resta are two contemporary names who competed in DTM before heading to Formula One. Even if you wanted to be obtuse and specifically demanded a driver with a career in the minor open-wheel series and a mediocre DTM career, Winkelhock would not stand alone, given Esteban Ocon’s forgettable half-season in DTM before his F1 debut with Manor.

However, looking at the unique stuff is much more interesting: first, the car (and team) Winkelhock led for.table 1

This graph shows the finishing position in the World Constructors’ Championship of the lowest-placed team that led more than one lap for each season (purple squares) and the points that team scored/would have scored under a normalised 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system (green crosses). The chart begins with Jordan (with Heinz-Harald Frentzen) in 2000 and goes up to Alfa Romeo Racing (with Antonio Giovinazzi) in 2019. Even without the highlight provided, Spyker easily stands out by being the only team in tenth position and by far the lowest-scoring outfit of all these teams. If Sauber in 2013 is disregarded, Spyker is the only team in the single digits in scoring under the abovementioned scoring system. The F8-VII matches that statistical reality, being far inferior to any other chassis in this comparison. Even in the period from 2006 to 2009, where the lowest WCC positions on this chart are achieved, the comparisons are not particularly favourable to the Dutch team. The Honda RA108 and the Williams FW28 are cars that these teams would like to wipe from their collective memory, but they still managed to be competitive and enter Q2 on merit on more than one occasion (Spyker never qualified higher than P19); the Force India VJM02 managed to make up for its severe aerodynamic deficiencies with supreme top speeds.

To emphasise just how rare a team in 10th place leading more than one lap is, when going back in time, the last time it happened before 2007 was in the 1982 Formula One season, when Andrea de Cesaris led the field for the first fifth of the race after taking pole for the 1982 Grand Prix of Long Beach in the Alfa Romeo 182, one of the three chassis leading Alfa Romeo to 10th in the WCC. However, the fact that we are talking about a pole position should make it clear that in terms of competitiveness, the 182 was light years ahead of the Spyker and that its low championship position was mostly due to the horrific reliability of Alfa Romeo cars and the general mayhem of 1982. Using the abovementioned universal points scale, they would find themselves with 15 points despite their horrible reliability.

modelTalking about Winkelhock’s Formula One career himself, the first thing springing to mind is his 100 percent ratio of Grands Prix led to Grands Prix started, a record he shares with George Amick, who led 18 laps in his only Indianapolis 500 entry in 1958. Excluding the Indianapolis 500, the closest driver to Winkelhock’s perfect record is the legendary five-time world’s champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who led 74.5 percent of all world championship Grands Prix he started.

Winkelhock led 30.88 km in his only Grand Prix start. To contrast that, there are five drivers in Formula One history who have led a shorter distance for their career, yet managed to lead (let alone start) a second Grand Prix:

Driver Km led
Don Freeland 28 km
Paul di Resta 22 km
Jochen Mass 20 km
Stefan Johannsson 19 km
Mika Salo 13 km

This of course also implies that Winkelhock is by far the driver with the least amount of career kilometres driven by a driver who has led a Grand Prix. Every other driver who has led a race has managed to complete at least 300 km in their career, compared to the 66.91 km-long career of Winkelhock (which also means that he spent 46.3 percent of his career leading the field). The comparison to the other drivers who had only ever enjoyed the privilege of starting a Formula One Grand Prix highlights Winkelhock’s unique case as well.

table 2

(note: Miguel Ángel Guerra, Marco Apicella and André Lotterer are not included in this graph as none of them managed to complete a full lap in their Grand Prix start)

Only Osella driver Riccardo Paletti managed to so much as enter the top 10 in his only start (in eight entries) and that was in the farcical 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, where he only was ahead of another driver once: when de Cesaris slowed down with an electrical failure. Paletti followed him into retirement only three laps later, a far cry from leading the entire field by over half a minute.

Do these statistics, combined with the fact that 697 drivers have been part of a Formula One championship weekend without ever leading a single kilometre, mean that Markus Winkelhock was a diamond in the rough? A potential star too easily discarded by a callous system that has struggled previously to put elite talent in the spots to succeed (see: Wehrlein, Pascal) despite his glorious premier outing? No, it does not.

table 3

(note: Christijan Albers, Gianmaria Bruni, Patrick Friesacher, Narain Karthikeyan, Christian Klien, Franck Montagny, Tiago Monteiro, Takuma Sato and Justin Wilson are not included in this graph because their debut qualifyings were not representative for varying reasons)

This chart shows the gap between 38 of the 47 drivers who have debuted in qualifying of the 00s and their teammate in percent. Of the ten drivers behind Winkelhock, only two are not rejects: Nelson Piquet, Jr., who clearly would have qualified for the “lucky bastard” section of the old F1 Rejects website, and Sebastian Vettel. However, Vettel’s outing has a number of factors in play: the chart is not corrected for race fuel, when taking Vettel’s and Heidfeld’s Q2 times, that difference shrinks to -0.6288 percent, which would place him 15th on this chart. Furthermore, it needs to be noted that 2007 Nick Heidfeld and 2007 Adrian Sutil were two drivers of wildly different skill. Obviously, the qualifying comparison is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to rating a driver’s quality, but with limited data, it is the best option available. However, even looking at free practice, it shows that Winkelhock was well behind in Sutil in all sessions of the European Grand Prix. It is highly unlikely that these two ran different programs in all sessions that would justify this disparity.JulyG

Even though this will most likely result in the author never getting invited to any of his birthday parties, but Markus Winkelhock should be glad that his Formula One career was only as long as it was. This is not meant as outright disrespect towards his driving ability, but with the situation Spyker was in, it was extremely unlikely that he would have made a significant impact in any future Grands Prix. This means it would have been highly unlikely that Vijay Mallya would have kept him around to partner Giancarlo Fisichella instead of Adrian Sutil in 2008. With no realistic opening elsewhere, his career would have ended in indignity sooner rather than later and would have ruined a lot of those beautiful statistics mentioned above. Instead of crying for a Formula One career that never would have been, we are better off appreciating his achievements in GT racing. He managed to win the GT1 World Championship in 2011 and the Blancpain Series Sprint Cup in 2018. Furthermore, he collected wins in prestigious endurance races such as a class victory in the 2015 Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour race and overall victories in the 2017 24 Hours of Spa and the first California 8 Hours in 2017. Of course, his most noteworthy career achievement, three overall victories at the ADAC 24 Hours Nürburgring, must not go unmentioned either.

Let us praise these achievements and appreciate his Formula One outing for what it was: a sequence of events like none seen before. It earned him a statistical uniqueness many “run-of-the-mill” Formula One drivers will never compare to. Winkelhock’s “15 minutes of fame” are unique in the history of the series, perhaps even in the history of all of sports. A driver with no breathtaking previous achievements came along and for a couple of laps made the richest outfits, in a sport where money is 90% of the performance, look like a group of baboons learning about the magic of the automobile. All whilst driving the weakest car on the grid. The author feels confident in saying that something like it will never happen again in Formula One, at least not within any of our lifetimes. It is the racing equivalent of a Halley’s Comet flyby – rare and all the more beautiful for its rarity. As Formula One fans, we should all appreciate that we had the chance to witness it.

 Sources: F1 Stats, ITV Sport, motorsport-total.com, m-winkelhock.de

Image Sources: Kytabu (licensed under CC BY-SA; picture cropped and resized), Jeff Wunrow (licensed under CC BY 2.0; picture cropped and resized), Pixabay, PublicDomainPictures