Competing Formula One drivers are more likely to collide on the race track if they are of similar ranking and age, when weather conditions are “safe”, a study has found.

In the right circumstances, the chances of a smash between two rival drivers can be increased more than 10 times, the findings showed.

Researchers turned to Formula One to test a psychological theory about how competition can escalate into dangerous conflict.

The idea is that conflict is more common in situations where rival individuals are “structurally equivalent”, having no clear-cut understanding about who is superior and subordinate.

The international team analysed data from 732 Formula One races between 1970 and 2014 involving 355 drivers.

Ferrari’s Felipe Massa’s car is put on a truck to take it back to the garage at Silverstone (PA)
Ferrari’s Felipe Massa’s car is put on a truck to take it back to the garage at Silverstone (PA)

Over this period there were 506 instances of conflict on the race track, defined as race-ending collisions.

The evidence supported the structural equivalence theory, said the scientists. When drivers had similar ranking they were were more likely to be in collisions, especially if they were high performers of about the same age, and the race conditions were deemed to be safe.

The scientists wrote in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences: “Estimating from pairs of drivers who raced against each other at least once, this model indicates that a full-range increase in average structural equivalence is associated with more than a 10-fold increase in the odds of colliding.”

Historical examples of competition between equals escalating into conflict included the boxer Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear in the ring, and the “war of currents” between electricity pioneers Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, the researchers said.

They added: “Our inquiry deepens our understanding of when violent conflict emerges and can guide conflict prevention efforts.”

The main reason why good weather contributed to collision risk in Formula One was that when conditions were bad, “drivers must prioritise staying alive”.

“They will focus less on resolving status ambiguity with structurally equivalent others when their survival is at stake,” the scientists wrote.

The research was led by Professor Matthew Bothner from the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, Germany.