Lap charts…

A number of people have asked me to explain about old fashioned lap-charting and why I do it, in an age where there is endless digital information. The problem with all of this, I find, is that one needs to spend hours putting it all together to create the story when an old fashioned lap chart tells you everything in one go. It also means that you have a total understanding of the race, the moment it ends, so that you can write instant reports about events – and ask the drivers the right questions.

I note from various reports that some of the newspaper men found the Malaysian race confusing. I found the whole thing to be very simple and clear. In Malaysia, a journalist came up and me and said: “There must have been 100 overtaking moves in that race”, to which I was able to reply within 30 seconds: “No, there were 17, where drivers passed one another during a lap, not including the first lap, and not including repassing moves on the same lap as the original pass”.

Lap-charting is a dying art. It is labour-intensive and requires total concentration but it also means that one is control of all situations, particularly when the screens freeze, or when there are errors made (which do happen). You need to be able to instantly recognise the cars as they pass. There is no time for “Um.. Was that Hamilton or Button?” A split-second distraction can throw a lap-chart into chaos. I tend to use a vertical lap chart, which means that the cars are listed vertically on a page. One can do it horizontally, but I find that the natural way of listing is to go down a page. The grid positions are listed vertically on the left side and the lap numbers run along the top of the chart. By reading across the chart on the top line you can see who led the race on any given lap. A horizontal chart gives the grid order at the top and the number of the lap on the left side, with each lap being recorded across the page. Thus by reading down the page on the scribbled chart, you can see who was leading on a given lap.

At the top left of the chart the first lap is recorded. The next column is the second lap, and so on.

A list of numbers does not tell the whole story; it does not indicate the gaps between the cars or any incidents that might occur. So lap charters develop their own personal systems to record the action on a given lap. On my personal chart there are different marks and squiggles each of which record a particular point. If a car is catching the one in front, for example, I will often put an arrow. When cars are close together this becomes a line. When cars are nose to tail, there may be two lines to indicate a battle. If there are three lines m it usually indicates that an accident is about to happen as the fight is getting out of control. You will also see small horizontal lines in places between numbers, which indicate gaps, although I do not always include these. A circled number indicates a car which has pitted. A puff of smoke beside a number indicates that a car has blown up or is trailing smoke. A circular arrow around a number or initials indicate a spin and beside it are scrawled words “NK stopped” means that Narain Karthikeyan retired from a race. “MS off” means that Michael Schumacher ran wide. When there is a passing manoeuvre I tend to put in a pair of crossed lines so I can see what happened on what lap.

There are times, but not always – when I will write FL above a number, indicating that the driver in question has set the fastest of a race. It isn’t always tidy, but the system gives you a film of the race with the incidents highlighted. It is from this that a race report will be developed. At the bottom of the chart you see a line which indicates the cars that have been lapped, or in some cases, lapped twice. At the top of the chart above the lap number one sees two numbers: the bottom one indicates the gap from the leader to the second place, the top one indicates the gap from second to third. You will see that these tend to stop during pit stop sequences because it is impossible to gauge the actual gaps.

On the first page of the chart on the right side, you will see a box for “START” and below it “LAP ONE”. This tends to get very messy as one is simply writing the order at various places on the lap. Thus one can see “SV, LH, JB” as the order coming off the line. Then below that a note that says “NH.VP outside”. Below that there is “NH 2nd. LH. JB.VP 2 Ferraris FM. FA.” Below that “MW 9th”. And there you have the story of the first lap in just a few scrawled phrases.

Doing lap charts is not easy. It takes a lot of practice. In the old days we did it from grandstands and other such vantage points but today it is done in the press room, with the help of live timing, although when the computers go wrong I will be seen running to a window (if the Press Centre actually has one) to see the order on the track. It is a job that needs a cool head, because it you lose track it is very hard to get it back.

Why bother? Because it means that one is away of every battle being fought all the way down through the field. It tells you who did well and who did not, which does not always show up on the results and it enables one to understand the different strategies and even to predict when pit stops will happen.

As far as I am concerned it is a vital tool for any F1 journalist, but there are probably only a few who still do it…

The full story of the 2011 Malaysian GP on two sheets of paper...

71 thoughts on “Lap charts…

  1. Humbled.

    Beats the flaming Cr** out of fancy video and computer tech i’ve rumbled about which can’t annotate real observations, and so is utterly anaemic & cannot e.g. post fact communicate writing inflection/style.

    – j

    p.s. makes me think of Apollo Flight Guidance mnemonics.

  2. Very interesting article Joe. I was not a aware that people did this, but it makes perfect sense. Have you ever thought about making say a blank spreadsheet with all the columns and rows, and then printing it out to fill in by hand, for a tidier chart? Or does it not matter?

  3. the 2011 App on ipad/iphone gives you a similar tracker of drivers by lap, in pretty lines. I reckon it is about 50% of what you have captured in your charts.

    How do you capture events mid lap, say Trulli is overtaken by Glock but takes the position back again?

    Do you capture what tyres were on the cars?

    I’m guessing the Belgian GP is the easiest to do as it only has 44 laps!

  4. Good for you, Joe. Like you, I still employ the old method. Apart from knowing everyone’s place and pace at any given time, I find keeping traditional lap charts incredibly satisfying.

  5. I found the race very easy to follow.

    As for ‘overtakes’, many of the statistics you see are simply for position changes at the start/finish line, and not actual ‘overtakes or passes’.

    Because as witnessed in Malaysia drivers were passing and re-passing each other on a lap, but may have crossed the line in the same positions as the lap before, resulting in it looking like there was never any passing.

    It’s just a lot easier to record position changes at the line, rather than all the passing that takes place over an entire lap.

  6. Had to read your post three times to fully understand! Now suffering from brain overload and off for a lie down in a dark room!

    Great post, who says computers can do things bettet sll the time!

  7. Thanks for sharing this with us, very interesting!

    Slightly unrelated; I was wondering whether the timing screens in the Press Centre in Melbourne also froze or whether this just happened to a lot of us using the Live Timing feed from the Formula 1 website?

    Maybe as an added revenue stream you can organise lap chart training sessions for ‘the newspaper men’ you mentioned above? 🙂

  8. Hi Joe. This is really fascinating so thank you very much.

    Just one question: why would you not use lined or hatched paper to aid layout? Is it a case of using whatever you can get your hands on at the time?

    Thanks for the intriguing insight, please keep them coming!

  9. Joe, it makes fascinating reading and I can certainly see the benefits of doing these lap charts. However it makes me wonder – it clearly takes much effort and time during the race, does it leave time to actually enjoy the race much?

  10. Interesting!

    But I’m amazed that you don’t have a pre-prepared template on Excel which you print off before the race, so you can just fill in the boxes as the race goes along…

  11. Hi john,
    Back to your blog to have “candid” debates about Fernando.

    Many thanks for sharing this with us, I am truly impress you are able to track the race in such a way.

    This makes me think again why FOM does not share more information through their website. More often than not races tend to be very boring unless you follow the different strategies of each team. TV tends to show only one thing at the time. I will love to be able to switch between drivers or cameras / more graphic data / radio conversations / current position on track on selected drives… with all technology currently available races could be so dynamic, each viewer could have a tailor-made experience.

    FOM is not doing a great job on this area, in fact quite poor in my view.

  12. Wow. Very glad you posted a picture. I am impressed – maybe its what we should expect from serious F1 Journo’s but these days, how many can legitimately claim to be in that category…

    I did read that many of the fleet street journalists wrote reviews that claimed the race was very confusing for fans, but really I think that should be something that they were ashamed to write! You should set up a school Joe, to educate some of them 😉 !

  13. Brilliant Joe, it’s always great when something so “old school” can prove its worth in our modern data hungry society. One of the things I’ve long wanted is better access to historical timing data during races to compare driver lap times over the last X laps and gaps.

    I remember fastidiously filling in the charts they used to print in the programmes on many a club race day when I was a child. Rarely did I manage to capture a whole race!

  14. Excellent, I’ve never seen a handwritten one before although some series now release PDFs of the electronic timing (without these extra notes of course).

    Well before my time as a fan but I’ve seen footage and read that in the 60s and 70s the F1 drivers wives or girlfriends would sit on the pitwall and do the lapchart, with the team boss relying on it. There were even occasions when they corrected the official timekeepers when they’d got lost (also doing it largely manually). Seem to remember reading that Helen Stewart (Mrs JYS) was always very good at it.

    I’ve no idea how you can keep up with a pack of cars passing the line almost as one, or all the pitstops we have this year.

  15. Good stuff.

    Stirling Moss suggests that spectators should keep lap charts. The chart in his book, How To Watch Motor Racing (1975), is ridiculously neat and a touch unbelievable for it.

    I’m pretty sure that the FIA produce both a lap chart and a lap time sheet so for those who are unable to make a chart can use these together to understand a simpler version of what Joe does. This does suffer from being harder to truly track progress of cars when catching other cars as well as when there are multiple overtakes on a lap if drivers end up in the same positions.

  16. Silly question, but have you swapped Webber and Hamilton on that chart? I thought Webber dropped back to 9th with Hamilton 3rd behind Heidfeld at the start, you have them the other way round.

  17. Why dont you use the offical FIA timing data that is published on their website and excel?

    It would take only a few seconds to produce and you could add that additional info you mentioned too (car catching another etc).

    I can show you how if you wanted?



  18. I used to go to Brands Hatch almost every week in the 80’s, and they used to print lap charts in the programs back then. For me it made the races a lot easier to follow, especially in races that had pit stops.

  19. Excellent!

    Joe just a quick question, Why have you not prepared a pre-printed template layout to tidy the chart up a little bit?

    I am in awe of your ability to be so focused during a GP, kudos sir. 🙂

  20. I used to make lap charts as a kid – from the grandstand. Unfortunately battles were sometimes so close that once I had written down the number of the first car, the second car had already passed 🙂

  21. Hi Joe
    I for one miss the lap charts in the weekly comic – for some reason Autosport has stopped including them in the results section of the race reports. Whilst on results reporting I have always liked the humour that sometimes creeps into the ‘reasons for retirement’. I remember Alan McNish’s retirement from an F3000 race at the old (and much missed) Hockenheim as ‘lost in woods’ as he took so long to get back to the pits after a problem up the far end of the circuit!

  22. Wow! Brilliant stuff Joe! Thanks for giving us an insight into this – I did wonder how you guys managed to recall the race in such detail afterwards…

  23. I really like lap charts, and indeed they are incredibly useful in deciphering a race. Autosport used to print them in their race reviews until the last couple of years, and alas I do miss them.

    I’m glad there are still some journalists out there who use them.

  24. Joe,

    I meant print off a blank template and then fill in by hand during the race (I can see how using a laptop would be slower). This would make your lap charts neater, and you could still scribble your “codes” on top.

  25. Wow Joe,

    I never realized that this kind of tracking was done nowadays, very impressive. I think that this kind of dedication and focus that separates the mediocre from the good.

    wouldn’t it be helpful to use paper with a grid on it, you know like an excel sheet with all the predetermined data already placed in it, it would save you from writing a lot of the same info race after race (like no. of laps, cars and such) and the grid would help you go up and down the chart with greater ease no? it seems like you have plenty of things to pay attention to as it is.

    great insight Joe!

  26. Wow. Does this prevent you actually “watching” the race or has practice made your charting a fairly automatic process?

    1. noahracer,

      You can go out on the circuit if you want to, but information is now so critical that you really need to be in the centre of the action. All information comes to the Media Centre…

  27. I still have 1960’s race programs from Silverstone with lap charts completed (complete with mud on some).

    Continued doing it for years – I especially remember one 1970’s USGP at Watkins where I had an impromptu lap chart going. After 2/3 of the race a small crowd had gathered because I was the only person who had a clue what was going on.

    With the advent of big screens there is less compunction to keep the chart. That, and bladder capacity must not be what it was, forcing a break in that 100% concentration and watching.

  28. Hi Joe,

    That’s an impressive skillset to have and glad you still employ it. As you say it must make the GP+ rapid write-up a lot more focused and accurate. I had wondered sometimes how you kept such a clear presence to write up.

    Maybe you should offer your services to one of the teams? They seem to be more confused than some of the spectators at the moment!

    And it’s a shame they don’t have an F1 sport journalist development course the same as young driver courses. Your lap charts would seem to be the journo equivalent of latin – it may seem unneccesary to some younger members but it’s essential to a proper language education.

    However as one of the younger generation myself I didn’t find malaysia particularly confusing. I understand it’s a bit more complex and phasic than last years, one stop and then run til they drop circuits, but surely watching strategies develop through the 3-4 phases of the race is what keeps it interesting? We still had racing in the last phase, rather than simply waiting for an engine to go as the only chance of an order change.

    Anyway – keep up the good work and try passing this knowledge on to a few of the shockingly bad ‘journalists’ out there at the next GP who seem to think shouting ‘I’m confused! no-one else could possibly have grasped that mental arithmetic therefore F1 is a disaster!’ is the height of analysis…

  29. Joe, it must be a real pain then when drivers are occasionally changing their helmets, (or in the case of Vettel forever changing)

    ….actually on that subject, does he have a deal to race different designs in different countries or is he just fickle ?

  30. Joe, since you say the lap charts provide more insight on who had good and bad days during a race, would you consider doing a top 3 or 5 list after every race? It’d be very interesting to know particularly if we learn of some quiet drives that were in reality impressive and some seemingly impressive drives that were actually disappointments.

  31. Joe-absolutely true. I have done timing and scoring for our team in hundreds of races, and pride myself with being able to keep track of it all. I also use a vertical chart…and wear a scanner headset tuned to race control and the corner stations. You get an unparalleled feel for the race this way.
    If I am at a GP where the Kangaroo sets are available, I keep it tuned to the timing screens…you can see battles starting to emerge even before they are seen on the track.
    I encourage everyone to try this sometime…it really does add to the experience.

  32. Thanks for that insight Joe, very interesting indeed. Shades of Bette Hill and Nina Rindt sat, stopwatch in hand, charting the races from the pit counter. I wonder if you’d ever get Jessica M. or Nicole S. doing same…

  33. Genuinely fascinating insight. Just the sort of comprehensive dataset I can get excited about. However, I think in the case of F1 I’ll stick to my cup of tea and opinion. No biscuits till the European season starts though.

  34. The pen is mightier than the pc!
    Your dedication and passion is what stands out in your writings, you put to shame so many “professionals” that is not even funny.
    Excellent work.

  35. Jezz, I really thought F1 journos merely knew about F1 team cocktails, F1 stewardess, VIP airline lounges and five star hotels; some are even smart enough to develop a lap by lap position grid… Who would have thought…. :–)

    Thank you so much for sharing your F1 insight.

    All the best,

  36. Joe, – all can say is brill. there is always great value in the traditional non digital work shame so many forget that and rely on it rather than the spadework.

    Like @oradis I used to “track visit” a lot in the 70’s & 80’s and loved the Lap Charts printed in the progs. Somewhere I still have mine from those days including a couple from Le Mans (complete over the 24 hrs they were fun!). I know how much effort they take to keep really accurate. The most annoying races for me were not F1 but the Touring Cars in the Broadspeed Dolly era – Andy Rouse would “pop up” everywhere chasing Frank G’s Camero – OK I’ll admit often not chasing – then Wizzo (Barry Williams) sometimes did the same when (if) the Mazda was on song and then Gerry Marshall well …. those were the days. Now living where I don’t get to any tracks/races and unless you subscribe to satellite (I don’t) no F1 or anything here so races are followed via the BBC text feed – coverage not available in your area! – Your blog is always refreshing to read and (sorry) the second site opened up every morning.

    Just a silly thought – edit it if you will – I bet there are a few members of “Joes Army” at each race and in different track locations to the Press Center that could and would “assist” by keeping sub lap charts to your master, so if MS is “two lines” to TL on the “back straight” or anybody is an arrow to SV in the “complex” you could have supplementary info. Also keeping “live” lap charts might help some people really appreciate a race I know it did with me

    Good work as always

  37. Noahracer: At Zandvoort in the ’70s I used to go down to Tarzan and lapchart there until the last few laps, when I walked back to the nearby press centre for the finish – to see who actually crossed the finish line when. That was when there was no TV or timing screens in the press room. Also towards the end of the race there might only be 10 cars still running. Dijon was difficult from the press grandstand because the cars come into view at the last moment coming up the hill from the last corner and the grandstand was at a 45 degree angle to the track, too.

    Re marked-up paper, sponsors (notably Champion and Martini) used to give the press books of professional blank lapcharts – the Champion ones were spiral bound so you could keep the whole season togther in one place – but these are long gone – gold dust for people like Joe if you can find any unusued.

  38. Years in the future someone will find Joe’s charts, and it will be a treasured look back to this great era of champions. Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Button, and of course “MS off”

  39. nice article joe. But it brought a question to my mind. With such a busy workload, do you still enjoy races ? Are there moments where you say : Waooooooooooh what a race !

    Anyway, with this year’s tires DRS & KERS you’ll earn your wages. It was too easy with Bridgestone’s single pit-stop processions.

  40. I can see a tie-in with one of your recent postings Joe. If the numbers were bigger on the cars, it would certainly make your job easier if the timing screens go down and you have resorted to using Eyeballs Mk 1.

  41. I blame Tony Blair! (I tend to blame him for most things) his lowest common denominator, no blame society had got used to a procession with one or two changes of position per race, the “journalists” who complained at suddenly having to work, or at least start using a small part of their brains, had sunk to the lowest level required to report on processions, thus proper motor race reporting is obviously a huge stretch for them. Presumably they had no access to a tv screen, timing chart or window to see who was in the pits.
    If however they did have access to the normal facilities then they should tender their resignations forthwith, they are obviously feature writers not racing journalists, they should pack up and give someone else a chance. The indications are that more interesting races will follow.

  42. My dad has been racing for nearly 50 years in speedway in australia and my mum used to do lap timing in the 60’s and 70’s. She still does it the same way as you do. But as they have electronic timing it is only for her own records. But she does it pretty much the same way as you. Big ups to you for doing it this way

  43. Interesting, Joe. Here in the US we track baseball in very much the same way, substituting “at bats” for laps. After a game, the “scorecard” represents everything that happened. It would be possible to re-reate the game by reading the scorecard, as you said you can do for races. One question though; for baseball there are published blank scorecards in tablet form that anyone can purchase. Are these available for racing?

  44. Can I just say “Wow”? And “Thank you for this fascinating insight”. Don’t know how you manage to do it, especially once the cars start being lapped…

  45. Thank you Joe, that lap chart was, no is, very beautiful, takes me back to my youth (as well as my sin of being an F1 fan I’m also a Mathematician). I miss when Autosport used to have them in as well.

    I remember watching races and this may sound very sad, thinking how very interesting the lap chart would be because of the different overtaking moves/retirements that lap.

  46. As a digital data monkey myself (unfortunately not in the F1 arena) I can totally appreciate this Joe, as the prep time once data is collected is always where the effort is put.

    I also appreciate you doing this for another reason Joe, it means I can be immersed in the race for all it’s glory and pomp, regaling in hearsay and speculation knowing that I will actually be put right in time. But still this never stops me telling my friends what is happening when actually all I am doing is interpreting the little information I get from the BBC feed!

    Thank you Joe, this effort is appreciated

  47. A few years ago I used to write down the lap-by-lap times for about six drivers for each race. I found it interesting although I was spending more time looking at the computer screen than the race on TV. And then my work hours changed so I had to VCR the races. Perhaps Joe could include his charts in the GP+ emagazine.

  48. Joe – would you consider popping the lap charts in to GP+? Annotated or not, they would give you another string in the bow.

  49. “There must have been 100 overtaking moves in that race”, to which I was able to reply within 30 seconds: “No, there were 17, where drivers passed one another during a lap, not including the first lap, and not including repassing moves on the same lap as the original pass”.

    Aren’t you both correct since you’re definition of “overtake” differs from that of the other journalist?

    Overtakes by your definition are the ones that affect the race result, but the other determines the level of action/excitement as perceived by the vast majority of spectators.

  50. Hi, rpaco,

    i’ll get in trouble for this, but i don’t blame that guy anymore. He was being bullied, playground stuff, but not nice.

    What is nice, my point of view, is i don’t perceive any genuine baddies in F1, foreground, or background, right now. I could be way off, or just being a little boy who wants to cheer again and ignore anything untoward, but my BS radar isn’t bleeping at me.

    Or maybe it’s guys like Joe who are shining light into the dark corners. I may be possessed of many superstitions, but genuflection to coincidence is not one of them.

    Me, hopeless optimist? That’s my original sin. Broken clock! (crosses fingers and dives for cover . . . chokes on own rhetoric . .)

    all best from me,

    – john

  51. Joe, these days, what you mean by ‘all information go to media center’?

    People have live timing all around the world, even though 0.0 format rather than 0.000.

    Race control information are usualy forwarded quickly by live commentators or using TV graphics.

    In age of internet, people in media center has actually no advantage. Quite an opposite.

    The only advantage of being at the circuit is to get inside stories, not lap chars, sorry.

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