Formula One drivers are more likely to run into each other on the race track if they’re similar in age, social status and competition results, according to a new study that looked at five decades of crashes. It’s like a big game of “I’m cooler than you are,” funded by teams with annual budgets in the $500-million range.
The study was published in an American scientific journal called Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which has been around since 1914. Its authors looked races from 1970 through 2014, using data on two-driver crashes to find the likelihood of conflict on track. Basically, the authors determined conflict was most likely to happen among drivers with similar statuses because “neither sees a clear reason to cede social turf to the other.”
When you look at the crashes, it makes sense, and even seems kind of obvious—in the past two years, Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton wrecked each other at front of the pack several times, Force India drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez hit each other in the middle of it, and Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton rammed into each other behind a safety car. It’s just a battle of which equally competitive driver is more stubborn about the spot than the other.
But that’s not the only thing the authors found. Their goals were to discover when conflict was most likely to happen, as well as if and when “structural equivalence”—similar social status and achievement—helps influence it.
The authors defined conflict as a “race-ending collision ... that ... includes more than one driver, at least one of whom does not finish the race.” They didn’t use crashes with more than two drivers, which left them with 506 wrecks to look at.
Results showed that drivers with similar statuses are more likely to have race-ending crashes with each other in general, especially when they’re near the same age, perform well and feel like they’re in safe driving conditions. Here’s a summary of what else the authors found, from the study:
These escalations into conflict are especially likely among status-similar competitors, who are fraught with discordant understandings of who is superior to whom. ...
... [S]tructural equivalence exerts a strong positive effect on the collision rate.
Higher-performing drivers also appear more susceptible to structural equivalence. ... Audience members are also particularly interested in comparing high performers. Their focus on the dyad may accelerate microlevel dynamics set in motion by structural equivalence.
When a season is fully underway and a stable role structure has emerged, we expect drivers to shift from a global to a local competitive focus (36). Some (distant) drivers are now irrelevant, while other, structurally equivalent drivers can no longer be dismissed: occupying the same niche is not a fluke once enough time has passed. Structurally equivalent drivers may also grow more salient to each other because the window for establishing clear dominance is narrowing—a process that might work in tandem with competitive arousal, familiar from studies of bidding behavior as auctions draw to a close (37).
That, in non-science speak, means race-ending collisions are more likely to happen when they’re part of a weird, metaphorical social arm-wrestling match between drivers. Those socially influenced wrecks are also more likely to happen among drivers who perform better, since fans and viewers pay more attention to them due to being at the front of the field, and at the end of the season, when the competition gets higher for the title and points standings.
The study unfortunately didn’t dive into the mentality of Mercedes F1 driver Valtteri Bottas, whose boss Toto Wolff just really, really wants him to dislike his teammate a little more than he does. Mercedes needs the drama.