Alonso vs. Vettel, the debate

I have wanted to write this post for quite sometime. If I’m honest, since the end of the 2012 season, but I did not want to look like a sore loser and who really wants to read a cranky blogger’s conjecture at the end of the day? I again had the urge to write this post at the end of last season but in the interest of not wanting to rain on the Vettel four-time champion parade I thought the better of it that time as well.

However, now that the celebrations are over, testing has begun and all manner of F1 topics fall into the open season category, I am at last ready to stir the pot. Vettel vs. Alonso, who is better?

On the surface of it there really is no argument to be made. Vettel has four titles to Alonso’s two. What could be a simpler conclusion? Vettel is the better driver. There is just one small little problem with this kind of analysis, well actually there are four and they go by the designations RB6, RB7, RB8 and RB9. And this is where it all gets very tricky. I don’t think that you can go by the number of world titles won because our two protagonists were driving vastly different machinery, one significantly faster than the other. It is no secret that many in F1 credit Vettel’s success not so much to his driving talent as to being lucky enough to pilot the cars that Adrian Newey has penned.

Let me ask this question out loud: Would we even be having this debate if in 2010 the right pit strategy call was made by Ferrari at the final race in Abu Dhabi? And can anyone forget the Grosjean demolition derby of 2012 in the Ardennes forest on a perfect sunny day at about 2pm local time? If, and I know it is a big if, these two single incidents did not occur then the driver’s title count might be reversed for both of these drivers. I’m not saying Vettel didn’t deserve those titles, they were won fair and square, but is there really that much difference between him and the next guy (Alonso) when it comes down to two incidents?

There are a couple of different ways this post can go right now. In one version I could say something along the lines of: Alonso is the better or more complete driver despite the fact that he has only (so funny to think that is somehow deficient) two driver titles, and then proceed to prove this point which of course would then lead to mayhem and probably some death threats for yours truly, although more than likely it would make for a colorful comments section.

Instead I want to take a different route. I want to work through this conundrum by posing a series of questions for you the readers to ponder and then come to your own conclusion.

Here is my first question for you. What is more important, the car or the driver? The right answer is both are equally important. The greatest driver in the world cannot make a tenth place car a first place one. But if a driver can constantly make a tenth place car into a fourth place car, or in the case of Alonso, a sixth and seventh place car into commonly a third and second place one with a few firsts, is this not a better measure of a driver’s skill set than taking the fastest car from pole to finish line in first place? Conversely, what does it say about a driver whose car is far superior to the others, who commonly finishes first but at the end of a season only just barely takes the title. The way I have crafted the questions could be interpreted as loaded or asked in a biased way, but, fastest car vs. not-so-fast car, which one shows us the driver’s true ability?

Question number two: Are multiple titles an accurate way to determine who’s greater? Michael Schumacher is on top with seven titles and 91 grand prix wins yet if you ask many very well informed F1 fans, Schumacher would not be at the top of the list as the greatest F1 pilot. According to many fans and along with the BBC F1 team this particular honor goes to the late Ayrton Senna who has three. In fact Schumacher lines up fourth behind Juan Manuel Fangio (five) and Jim Clark (two). I am in no way diminishing what Schumacher has done, it is truly remarkable. But it is interesting that the F1 community at large is not necessarily looking at the most titles as making the greatest driver but also at the many other factors involved in driving an F1 car.

OK, if I have not already made about a million enemies by now this next point should do the trick. Let me start off by asking you, who is ideally placed to observe and comment on F1 drivers at large? Is it the fans? There is probably a small percentage that could be considered to have a reasonable amount of insight. How about the commentators? Without a doubt, some of them, yes. Of course you would have to include the journalists who cover F1 and write or contribute to magazines such as Autosport or F1 Magazine. Team principals have to figure high up on the list as well, but arguably the drivers themselves more than likely are the best judges of each other and the ability that each possesses.

So what do the drivers think about this very point of contention? Lewis Hamilton, who by the way not too long ago had nothing nice to say about his then teammate Alonso, has been a little more vocal than others. As far back as October while speaking to AS, a Spanish sports daily, Hamilton states: “Seb is a great champion!” He then goes on to say, “But what is clear to me is that if Fernando (Alonso) had been in that car…he would be far beyond where Vettel is now. He would have won even more easily.” Pretty heavy words to say about a four-time world champion, no?

As if that was not enough fuel thrown on the fire, in an end of season survey (presumably an unofficial one) where the drivers were asked point blank (that always produces accurate results, right?) who the best driver was in this current era the answers were quite varied. The more seasoned drivers abstained minus Hamilton. Some answered in a politically correct manner depending on their employer, but surprisingly, of the drivers that did answer, Alonso comes out on top by a two-to-one margin.

This should not be taken too seriously, but one has to ask how, after winning just about everything under the sun on the way to four titles, has Vettel not won over the majority of the grid in this regard? It is worth noting right here that two out of the four years Vettel has won the championship (2010 and 2012) it was Alonso and not Vettel who was voted (this one was more official as it was conducted by Autosport) the best driver by the team principals using the same points scoring system that F1 uses to distribute points for a grand prix. Food for thought.

So, have I proven my point that Fernando is the better driver, which also happens to be my personal opinion as an avid fan? You might be surprised to hear that my answer, as a (sort of) unbiased blogger, is “No.” As fans, we will always reduce down to the simplest terms something which is extremely complex and in so doing miss some very important nuances. This is the real crux of the problem and the one that I feel is always overlooked when comparing F1 drivers. Let’s be completely honest, there is always a subtext of favoritism no matter how the discussion is crafted. Which is what makes a sports fan a sports fan so it’s just fine. But let’s look at some of the complexities of deciding who is the best driver, if you’re still with me and have not hit the back button just yet.

Let us consider the case of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen when they were both at Ferrari. How can we really make the comparison between drivers, even in the same car? Lets go back to 2007/8 when prior to the huge regulation changes to the cars, Ferrari was still enjoying the fruits of the Rory Byrne era and their car was still competitive. Kimi was driving how he always does, consistently fast and always a threat. Massa was at the top of his game and put together an almost championship year. As of right now I would rate Raikkonen the more accomplished driver, but back in those years was there that much of a difference? In one year Raikkonen enjoyed a better season and in the following one it was Massa that drove at a higher level based on their season-ending stats.

Equipment changes and each driver’s different styles can drastically affect how well they can drive a car, regardless of their talent. Think back to Toyota and Ralph Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. One liked the front suspension geometry and one did not. The way a car is designed or how the regulations change from year to year can have an overwhelming effect on a driver. It surely happened to Massa when the series moved to Pirelli rubber from Bridgestone. Do you recall the issues that Damon Hill had when grooved tires were introduced? What about the claim that those grooved tires actually helped the older Schumacher due to the fact that it simulated driving in the rain, which Michael was extremely proficient at.

Has anyone really considered why Mark Webber was driving on par with Vettel in 2010 and then the following years fell further and further behind? If I have my facts straight was it not due to Adrian Newey perfecting the blown diffuser? Webber could not come to grips with it. It just did not suit his driving style. On the other hand it suited Vettel’s just fine and he embraced it. I wonder what the results between the two would have been like if off-throttle blowing and the black art of the blown diffuser never was developed? We will never know.

Whether Alonso or Vettel wins the title this year (or one of the guys driving the silver and green car, or, who knows at this point?!) I predict that we will be having the same debate at year’s end. Are we not passionate fans who will always defend and support the teams and drivers that are close to our heart? It is human nature to defend with passion that which we (sometimes blindly) love. In fact it is this very debate that makes not just watching F1 so exciting but the F1 conversation so interesting as well. Stewart vs. Clark, Prost vs. Senna, Mansell vs. Piquet, Schumacher vs. everyone … the debate is never ending. And that’s a good thing.

There are those of us who no matter what, feel it is Alonso who is the top competitor and without a doubt the best of the best. There are an equal amount of us who can quite convincingly state the same about Vettel and further support that claim with his titles and many records. Probably there are many in the Lewis Hamilton camp as well, and the Kimi camp and the Jenson camp.

However, when all is said and done it would appear it is simply impossible to claim that one driver deserves that most coveted title, the BEST driver among his peers, although we commonly try. We get all caught up in who is the best this, who is the best that, when the truth of the matter is that in the current era there are five drivers who could all be considered the best under the right conditions. Alonso has done the most with the least. Sebastian has the most driver’s titles. No one is faster over one lap than Lewis Hamilton nor can make a pass stick better. No one has more guts or panache than Kimi and he plucked his title out of thin air so he’s always a threat. Jenson Button took a team from being back markers to winning driver’s and constructor’s titles in one year; no one else can say that.

So I say, let the debate continue, and I will lobby as ferociously as anyone for Alonso and have fun doing it, but let’s all just admit, if only to ourselves, that there really is no final answer, no matter what.

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