Greatest Formula One driver of all time…the team

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There was a time, when Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was winning everything, that Lewis Hamilton said he’d hate to be like Sebastian and simply win titles because he was in the best car. A few years on and Hamilton didn’t seem to have any issue with winning two titles on the trot in what could be argued as one of the most dominant cars in recent Formula 1 history.

When the University of Sheffield’s Methods Institute decided to wade into the tepid waters of picking which Formula 1 driver is the best of all time, it did so, according to them, by removing the impact a team has on the driver’s performance.

It’s always been the element that becomes the caveat in any argument regarding how good a driver has been in F1. Would Lewis have three titles if he were not in the best car that saw a walk over in 2014 and 2015? If you removed the impact of a dominant car, would Schumacher’s records still lend gravity to his accomplishments? Not according to the study.

F1 greatest driver

The study’s leader, Dr. Andrew Bell, said:

“The question ‘who is the greatest F1 driver of all time’ is a difficult one to answer, because we don’t know the extent to which drivers do well because of their talent or because they are driving a good car. The question has fascinated fans for years and I’m sure will continue to do so.

“Our statistical model allows us to find a ranking and assess the relative importance of team and driver effects, and there are some surprising results. For example the relatively unknown Christian Fittipaldi is in the top 20, whilst three time champion Niki Lauda doesn’t even make the top 100. Had these drivers raced for different teams, their legacies might have been rather different.”

He added: “A similar model could be used to answer a variety of questions in society –for example, how much do individuals, teams and companies affect worker productivity or how much classes, schools and neighbourhoods affect educational attainment.”

I have not read the study which was published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports but I would be keen to know how they removed the team’s impact and what criteria they used to include or eliminate results based on team impact. That, surely, is a critical point and one in which interpretation could skew results. The study said:

  • Teams matter about six times more than drivers when it comes to success in F1.
  • About two-thirds of the team effect is consistent over time, with the rest caused by teams changing year-on-year.
  • Team effects have increased over time, but appear to be smaller on street circuits, where the driver’s skill plays a greater role.

It does reveal, based on their team criteria, that the impact they have on the sport is six times more than the driver and that their importance has increased over time. Just how linear that increase is, I do not know but it could suggest that the technology, manufacturer impact and money spent on the series have all played a large role in the multiple of six in the equation.

Fangio, Prost and Schumacher with Alonso and Vettel leading Hamilton. You may not get a lot of argument over Fangio but you will regarding Prost and Schumacher as many would argue Senna and I would add Rindt and Nuvolari as well as Villeneuve and my top pick of Jim Clark.

It’s always been a fascinating debate and in the end, this study’s analysis could suggest that the greatest of all time is…the team.

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Peter Riva

A very interesting perspective. Did they list all the drivers? They seem to have distilled it down to natural ability to drive the car. It would be very interesting if they could better define the narrowing down criteria. Fangio, No. 1 makes sense in every event. That’s what Graham Hill and Jack Brabham always said. Jim Clark must be up there somewhere.

Peter Riva

There’s a true tale from my childhood (’66) that I heard, years ago at Goodwood, from a mechanic (used to be at BRM) who said he heard this 1st hand 8 years before. Fangio was picked up in a non-UK Ferrari Superfast at Heathrow for a meeting along with two others. The driver immediately gave the wheel to Fangio. They went along. Somewhere near Wallingford there’s a hump-backed bridge. Fangio hit it doing over 100. Airborne, the right seat passenger saw a jack-knifed lorry (truck) 100 yards of so ahead of them, blocking the road. On wheel touch-down, Fangio initiated… Read more »

Michael Self

I’ve head a similar story from Stirling Moss. Apparently back in the 50’s it was common for policemen in the UK to ask a driver they had pulled over: “who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?”. Each time he was pulled over he got to answer “why yes I am, says so right here on my ID”.

Peter Riva

I lived in the UK ’til 81 and I promise you I was asked that once too. It was common for a long time.

MIE

During Mansell mania in 1992, this was changed to reflect the tabloid favourite. It didn’t go down too well when the driver of the car stopped as he was supposedly late for free practice at the British Grand Prix was asked “who do you think you are, Nigel Mansell?” The driver wasn’t impressed that as the current world champion he had not been recognised.

Tom Firth

Parnelli Jones tells a similar story. Even named his Autobiography ‘As a matter of fact, I am Parnelli Jones’.

Negative Camber

Not in the articles I have read, simply that they published it in a document that is an industry trade subscription.

jiji the cat

Very interesting. I have always thought there is one driver that stood out amongst all the champions. I would be interested to know where he is in these standings. He is the most unique of all the champions, as far as I know the only one to have ever achieved his feat. That is John Surtees. 4 wheels and 2 wheel champion. One of the most underrated and talented in my opinion.

dude

What a pile of crap.

Peter Riva

Whoa, that’s not appropriate language for this site.

Jack Flash (Australia)

He meant “shite”… and he is probably right.

MIE

The link only goes to a summary of the report, with no indication of how to get to the full report. I wonder about how they have done their analysis simply because of the statements made about Michael Schumacher. When they looked at his career up until his retirement from Ferrari, he came out as the third greatest driver, yet when they included his later Mercedes year’s he drops to ninth overall. While his Mercedes year’s weren’t great (and he was often beaten by Nico Rosberg) I don’t see how this extension to his career reduces achievements from earlier years.… Read more »

Shocks&Awe

I don’t see this as really having anything to do with F1. It’s a bunch of stats geeks writing a paper for other stats geeks. Their goal is not to actually answer the question, but rather to use statistics to approximate an answer. As sophisticated as their model might be, it’s probably necessarily simplistic relative to the actual problem. For example, they tried to isolate the driver’s performance from the quality of the car, but did they re-factor in the driver’s influence on the performance of the car? I’d argue that Lauda would be much higher on the scale if… Read more »

rambaldi

I don’t really know statistics all that well so not sure on the details but reading the paper it looks as if all the failures during Michael’s Merc years is what counted against him there. Not necessarily his pace against Nico. There is a telling quote in that section: “If a driver consistently has more failures than their teammate in the same car, this is statistical evidence that those failures were at least in part the fault of the driver” As fans we know this isn’t quite true. I think of Mark at Redbull, Lewis at Merc in 2014 and… Read more »

dude

I just feel they left out the human element which is difficult to quantify. Michael Schumacher success is due to his ability to rally people around him, bringing key peoples to Ferrari and working well with the team.

If we just want to look at pure driving skill from individual perspective, I think karting is the purest form to test that.

Junipero Mariano

Was it a list of every driver in F1? If your study is based on comparing the usual best drivers in F1, you should not only compare Schumacher, Senna, and Hamilton etc. against their teammates, but also the teammates of Barichello, Berger, and Rosberg, too. You need to account for when the disparity between drivers is is great, or when a particular driver always does well compared to his counterpart, such as Button. The degrees of separation spread out pretty quickly of course, and you might as well run the statistics on every driver.

MIE

Having read the report, they did consider every driver that competed in F1 from 1950-2014, excluding the Indianapolis races from 1950-60. I think some of their assumptions were flawed, they state that failures to finish could be due to team failures, driver failures or random failures, but then make the assumption that if one driver in a team has a greater number of failures than his team-mate then the majority of them must be down to the driver. By treating Schumacher’s Mercedes year’s as if he were a separate driver shows a flaw in the model. While it elevates Schumacher’s… Read more »

Shocks&Awe

Here’s a link to the report, but you have to pay to read it.
30,00 € / $42.00 / £23.00

http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/jqas.ahead-of-print/jqas-2015-0050/jqas-2015-0050.xml?format=INT

$42 was a bit steep for me, so I didn’t

jakobusvdl

The drivers, always the drivers………If only they’d put their effort into the more important question!,
Dollar for point, which is the most successful F1 team?

Tom Firth

If i understand your question properly, it’s Ferrari by some way.

Renault, Mercedes, Mclaren spent much more in F1 than Ferrari ever has a company, when you take away how much Phillip Morris / FOM funding has contributed to Ferrari.

MIE

Autosport did an analysis of this for each of the last two seasons. From memory it was Williams that came out most cost effective, but Mercedes were close in 2015 due to the vast number of points they accumulated.

jakobusvdl

Well there you go! I haven’t got an autosport subscription so will take your word for it. I’d have expected the middle grid teams to feature strongly and the Mercedes, Ferrari, Mclaren teams to be hampered by their massive costs. But, that’s why they did the research to test that kind of simplistic assumption – cheers Dave & Tom for sharing your knowledge

jakobusvdl

Cheers Tom, Thats an interesting spin – yep Ferrari have probably been the most successful at getting others to fund their racing.
I was thinking on a more basic level, total budget divided by points.
It would be necessary to look at different eras.
Over the last two seasons, it would probably be Williams, but how would that compare to the Brawn WCC in 2009? 140 million pounds (maybe US $ 250 million at the time?) may be the best ‘bang for buck’ for a whole championship, by a margin.

Tom Firth

In that case, refer to MIE below, as has the numbers on cost efficiency, I’m surprised it wasn’t also Williams. They are generally a very conservative team, money wise and with the results they got, it does surprise me, that they didn’t get the $ per point. Brawn is very complicated. Honda paid dependent on which source you trust, somewhere between £63m and £92.5m in 2009 during the season to support the team as part of its F1 exit, out of a total budget for the team of £103.8m according to Formula Money. However in 2008, Motorsport Magazine said Honda’s… Read more »