How to choose a Formula One driver

September 5, 2016


[Image from wikipedia Formula One entry]

A top formula one driver announces his retirement.  His organization faces a decision with potentially huge financial consequences. Decision theorists line up to offer their expert services

This week [September 2 2016] Felipe Massa announced his retirement from the Williams Formula One racing team at the age of thirty five.

He has earned a reputation as a great driver and also a superb role model in the way he dealt with injuries and other setbacks.  He earned that least-wanted accolade of the greatest in his chosen sport who never won the highest prize.

He was thwarted for much of his best years by the supremacy of the great Michael Schumacher. Massa thought he had won the world championship in 2008, in his home Grand Prix in Brazil. Seconds after he crossed the finish-line his celebrations were cut short. Lewis Hamilton had squeezed out a fifth position in the last corner of the last of the season’s races.

Who will replace Massa at Williams?

Now the Williams outfit has to find a replacement.  In some ways the decision is relatively straightforward.  There are a handful of the most gifted drivers already driving who might be attracted from their existing places for various reasons. To these might be added the next ‘greatest racer in waiting’, who has been outperforming his contemporaries from pre-teenage events.  Lewis Hamilton was one such figure.  The eighteen year old Dutch prodigy Max Verstappen is the most recent one, albeit already pugnacious enough to have upset his more experienced rivals

Enter the decision theorists

The impressive Claire Williams of the Williams racing organisation has to reach the decision for Massa’s replacement.

Many years ago, I acquired a comprehensive set of notes being taught at the time at Harvard by the great decision-theorist Howard Raiffa. They anticipated later developments in statistical decision theory, game theory and negotiation analysis now taught at Business Schools. Maybe Claire Williams is already fully tooled-up with access to the best theorists whom money can buy. Her explanation of their intended process (interview with Sky Sports, September 3 2016) was a model of clarity:

There are many criteria, and we know what they are and the value we attribute to them, she said. At the appropriate time we will announce our decision. [My quote from memory of the interview given to Sky Sports by Claire Williams]

Bounded for success

A simple decision?  Not really.  But a nice example of a decision-maker pragmatically reducing the uncertainties by ‘bounding the rationality‘ of an important decision. The question ‘which available driver will maximize returns on investment?‘ would require a pit lane of quants Profs. The question ‘which driver meets our criteria best?’ is one from which it is easier to arrive at an answer.

Book review: Seeing What Others Don’t

June 7, 2015

Bisociation KoestlerOne of the most contested aspects of creativity is the act of creation itself. Research psychologist Gary Klein is the latest author to examine the process

The act of creation has been associated with insight arguably since the origins of the myth of Archimedes and his eureka bathtub moment. Even the prestigious and very serious American Association for the Advancement of Science calls its breaking news site EurekAlert.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Winning the Toss: A Surprising Explanation of an Old Cricketing Conundrum

January 5, 2010

When Andrew Strauss, captain of England, recently won the toss in the third of a four match series against South Africa, he made a decision which could well influence the outcome of the series. I decided to look more deeply into the factors which a captain has to take into account in deciding whether to bat first. I came up with a surprising conclusion.

‘Every schoolboy knows’ that to win the toss at Cricket confers an advantage. On benign days the opposition will then probably have the worse of a deteriorating wicket later in the game. The Captain sould elect to bat first. But what if conditions are tricky – poorish light, cool, and with high humidity that helps the cricket ball swing mysteriously in flight? The dilemma is plain. Should the captain elect to bowl first. Strauss decided to bowl.

His decision was applauded at the time by the coterie of former captains available to comment on such occasions. Then, a determined innings by the team’s most determined batsman, Jacques Kallis, swung things back in favour of South Africa.

“If you are so clever what would you have done?”

I muttered that Strauss was a good batsman but not a deep-thinking strategist. “If you are so clever what would you have done? The Captain can’t theorise, he’s got to make a decision.” Susan’s question (as so often) forced me out of mutter-mode into thinking-mode. I assumed it would not take long to sort out this little problem. I was wrong. My initial thoughts were that the probabilities could be converted into a version of game theory. This would give some indication of when it might be better to bat first after winning the toss.

Several lengthy periods of thought later, I knew beyond reasonable doubt the extent of my ignorance. That is to say, I did not know how to reach the ‘bat or field’ decision. But the implication went further. I was also pretty sure than no-one else knew the answer either. The decision into the class of indeterminate ones for reason of complexity of factors and lack of adequate information.

The shocking implication and a Leadership Dilemma

The shocking implication of this finding is that a captain who knows the right thing to do on winning the toss, is suffering from a common leadership delusion. It is not a case of ‘knowing more than can be told’, but more a case of believing more than can be known’. The dilemma arises if a Captain feels he loses credibility if he appears to be less than certain of what he is doing. The conclusion applies to more diffident captains like Andrew Strauss, who often appears to recognise the inponderables of leadership. It also applies to the massed ranks of the pundits, be they fearless former England Captains or back-page scribblers.

For the moment take it from me, the uncertainties are of the kind which led Herbert Simon to coin the term ‘satisficing’ for a process through which a decision-maker simplifies the complexities in a situation in order to reach a decision. It may well be the case that someone has done a little analysis of the statistics of winning the toss and electing to field. If so, the results are a carefully guarded secret.

So what should a Captain do on winning the toss?

But Susan’s follow-up remark also hit home. The Captain has to do something in double-quick time. Strauss had had a brief period to anticipate conditions before the toss, and then a few moments to confirm a decision on winning it. Incidentally, he then had less than a minute to justify a decision that can not be arrived at completely by a rational analysis.

Based on this line of reasoning, my considered answer to Susan’s question is as follows: Now that I know my decision is not much better than tossing a coin I would stick with statistics more often than I might otherwise have done. And that means batting first is an advantage. If conditions appeared to favour the bowlers first, I’d think more carefully about it.

I would probably consult, but if I did so it would be with the knowledge that bowlers and batsmen alike would prefer their team to bowl first in tricky conditions, if only for self-interested reasons.

All this would not tell me whether I should bowl, but if I decided to do so, at least the decision to field would then be based on consultation, rather than my trying to maintain face as the captain knows best, and has made the decision on grounds of superior judgement.