“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” So says Formula One racer Mario Andretti. But if the world champion is going to crash, he’s likely to hit someone of a similar skill level—and on a day with good weather.
The finding, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is based on an analysis of 506 race-ending crashes in Formula One—a class of racing featuring single-seater, open wheeled cars and speeds in excess of 350 kilometers per hour—between 1970 and 2014. Drivers close in skill level—i.e. those with a similar number of wins and status—were most likely to collide: The two closest drivers in terms of equivalent status were more than 10 times more likely to crash than the least two. The effect was especially pronounced when the drivers were similar in age—which the researchers suggest would likely intensify a rivalry—and between drivers who had accrued more total points in the season, making the stakes higher. Such crashes were also more likely slightly later in the season—after rivalries and positioning in the standings became more stable. Finally, the team reports that two competitive drivers are more likely to crash in a race with fair weather, possibly because they’re willing to take more risks.
The researchers say their model provides support to the long-standing theory of “structural equivalence” as a driver of conflict in social interactions. As such, the work could be used to identify which actors in a competitive environment, such as a company merger, could be most likely to see competition escalate to more serious conflict.