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Fact or Fiction? Five factors that (might) determine Boat Race success

Who ate all the pies?  Does it matter?
Who ate all the pies? Does it matter?

This year's University Boat Race is on Sunday (March 27). The Women's race starts at 15:10, the Men's at 16:10. Coverage begins on BBC2 at 14:30. Here, Jack Houghton reviews the statistics and thinks Cambridge have the edge...


"Every year the result of the coin toss affects the betting, with punters reacting markedly to the advantage bestowed on teams by being able to choose their preferred station: Middlesex or Surrey."

For reasons that I've long forgotten, I keep a Boat Race spreadsheet. There was a time, in my late-teens, when I started it, and I haven't had the heart to stop updating it since: it would seem like I was letting down my younger self.

It does mean that, for someone who knows relatively little about the sport of rowing, I can sound ridiculously well-informed for about an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon in early-Spring. And perhaps this is why I continue to maintain the spreadsheet; moments of appearing knowledgeable are otherwise rare.

Below are five factors oft-cited by journalists in the run-up to the Boat Race, along with the spreadsheet's judgement as to whether they represent fact or fiction.


1) 'Last year's winner is at an advantage'

There has already been - and there will increasingly be - lots of chat about Oxford's demolition of Cambridge last year, by a whopping 19 seconds.

Some will assume that the presence of returning rowers, and a consistency in coaching staff and approaches, will mean that Oxford are favourites to repeat the win. Others will argue that Cambridge will be more highly motivated to win, as they will want to overturn last year's defeat and prevent Oxford taking a fourth straight victory.

But, according to the statistics, the previous year's loser goes on to win around 60% of the time.

Verdict: Fiction


2) 'The boat winning the coin toss is at an advantage'

Every year the result of the coin toss affects the betting, with punters reacting markedly to the advantage bestowed on teams by being able to choose their preferred station: Middlesex or Surrey.

Strange, because the winner of the coin toss has only gone on to win the race 53% of the time.

Verdict: Fact - but not a huge factor


3) 'The boat starting on the north of the river is at an advantage'

The Middlesex, or northern station, is often perceived to have the advantage, because a fast starting crew, with the first bend in their favour, can row in front of the opposition and secure an unassailable tactical advantage. Boats starting from Middlesex, though, have only gone on to win 51% of the time.

Perhaps interesting, though, when combining coin toss data with station data, is that captains who have chosen Surrey have gone on to win around 60% of races, whereas captains choosing Middlesex have won only 50%.

Verdict: No real advantage either way - punters need to react sensibly to post-coin-toss betting moves.


4) 'The heavier boat is at an advantage'

This year's Cambridge crew are around 11kg heavier than the Oxford crew. In boat race terms this is not a massive weight difference: last year the light blues out-bulked their rivals by 42kgs. However, heavier crews do seem to have the advantage, winning 57% of Boat Race contests, with that figure rising to around 62% in recent years.

Verdict: Fact


5) 'The crew starting quicker is at an advantage'

86% of boats to reach Hammersmith Bridge first have gone on to win.

Verdict: Fact


The X-Factor: The better crew is at an advantage

Interestingly, expert commentators like James Cracknell and Rachel Quarrell encourage us to ignore erroneous statistical measures like the weigh-in and coin toss, and instead look at the relative talent of the crews offers.

With this in mind, it might be worth noting that the Oxford crew has undergone wholesale changes this year, with Constantine Louloudis, who captained the dark blues to four wins in the last five years, now gone, and only Jamie Cook returning. In contrast, Cambridge sees four of last year's squad returning, and have added GB oarsman Lance Tredell.


Recommended Bet:
Back Cambridge at [1.68]

Jack Houghton,

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