The Holy Grail of Formula One: Is Fangio the greatest of all time?

The greatest ever?

This article attempts to answer the perpetual poser: Who is the best ever pilot of an F1
car? Schumacher? Senna? Someone else?

Allow me to make a disclaimer:

This article discusses the paper published on the subject by The University of Sheffield.
I trust the instincts and judgement of the reader, and hopefully there will be consensus.
All I can do is to shine some light in the darkness: To provide some food for thought.

Without further ado, let's ponder over the problem.
How is the performance of a driver quantified? How important is a driver to the fortunes of
a team? Who is the greatest driver ever?


There have been a number of studies in the past which attempted to answer the above
questions. Each of them presented different results, which were really close.
A study by Eichenberger and Staddelmann (2009) gives almost the same result as this one's.
Another study conducted in 2014 threw in a different result.
A study by the University of Sheffield attempted to find the answer to the above questions once
and for all. Headed by Dr. Andrew Bell, they used a mathematical model to analyze
the relationships between the successes of teams and drivers to the driving conditions and
other parameters. To cut the long story short, they created a random coefficient model and
arrived at some conclusions.This study considered the races from 1950 to 2014 for analyzing
the data and projecting the winner. By their own admission, the results were influenced by the
treatment of the chosen dependent variables, which differ from other similar studies. This
explains the lack of coherence of results generated by the different studies.

The study showed that Juan Manuel Fangio apparently is the best driver of all time. In the
second position is Alain Prost, which is intriguing. In the current crop of drivers, Fernando
Alonso stands on top, pulling ahead of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel and defending
world champion, Lewis Hamilton.
The most surprising result of them all is the position of Niki Lauda on the list. He ranks at a
lowly 142. Quite low for a three-time world champion, isn't it? The most successful driver in
terms of world championships, race wins and podium finishes, Michael Schumacher, finished
at third place. His position is a bone of contention as we will see later in the article. The researchers have thoroughly analyzed the abilities of drivers to perform on difficult
conditions like driving in the rain and driving on street circuits. These situations require
drivers to be at their very best and the co-relation of success with the car they drive was
found to be significantly diminished.Unsurprisingly, the drivers in top ten are known for
their prowess in the wet and on tight circuits.


Let me reiterate this fact: There are no major surprises in this list. AutoSport magazine
conducted a poll for finding the greatest F1 drivers, in which the voters were F1 drivers
themselves. They chose Senna as the créme de la créme. The top ten of that list is virtually
this top ten, with minimal differences.
One relatively obscure name crops up at position 11. Christian Fittipaldi, the Brazilian driver,
didn't have a successful career if success is defined in terms of wins and podium finishes. The
fact of matter is that he has never won an F1 race. He is considered a brilliant driver because the
car which he drove was usually the slowest on the grid and was plagued by technical issues. Yet
he managed to last an entire race more often than not. His is a case of a driver out-driving his car.
For a guy who scored only 12 points his entire career, this is an outrageous rank, isn't it?
With my limited knowledge of higher mathematics, I think the model is quite good and probably
is the best among the various papers published on the topic. The analysis is quite detailed; the
researchers have considered all GPs till 2014 for the model. The effort they have put into the paper
is surreal.

Flip side

Some of the F1 fans are disappointed with Senna's position on the list. The maverick is

considered to be the best of all time, even by his peers. To be ranked below his arch-rival
Alain Prost makes the matter worse for the fans.
The French driver was a four-time champion, so there is no doubting his ability. And he used
to give Senna some tough time, both on and off the track. On a totally unrelated note, consider a case in point. Senna was leading Prost in the Monte Carlo
GP (1988) by a whopping margin of 55 seconds. In a sport where tens or hundredths of a
second separates the winner from the rest, that time period is an eternity. Senna could've easily
won the race had he not crashed. This leads me to another apparent drawback in the study

The team studied and analyzed the "results" of the races and not the way races played out.

The huge gap between Senna and the rest of the field in the Monaco GP was probably not
considered in their analysis and only the DNF ( did not finish) was. This is an example of the
fact that the team was not able to eliminate the 'luck factor'. Even the lead researcher himself
admitted to the inability of eliminating the influence of luck from the study.
Another limitation is that the study of a driver could be inaccurate if he has raced for
a single team during his career.This difficulty arises because of the modeling approach they
have adopted. The researchers admitted that they could never have eliminated team effects
from driver performances if it had been so. There are limits to what statistics can do. It is incapable of capturing and translating the
intrinsic dynamics of the sport exhaustively. Finally, the bone of contention that I had agreed to explain.

Why is Schumacher given two ranks on the list, and why does it affect Nico Rosberg's
ranking significantly? The researchers ranked the German legend( I am talking about
Schumi, of course) according to the different stints he had in F1. Considering the pre-2006
era, he was ranked at no. 3 and after including his second and unsuccessful stint, he was
ranked at a lowly ninth. Now, this outcome is not entirely unexpected but the wild traversal of Nico Rosberg through
the list has stunned me. Rosberg's position fluctuates from 49 to 14! How can the movement
of Schumacher affect the ranking of Rosberg? The answer to this problem is quite simple,
actually. Because Schumi was considered as a different driver in his latter stint, his teammate
was overrated. Outperforming a seven-time world champ flattered his rankings all the way to
top 15. If Schumacher's second stint was not considered, it would mean that Rosberg had no
illustrious teammate to dominate. I don't believe that Rosberg can be anywhere near the
top-crop, despite becoming a world champion.
This reflects the heavy dependence of teammates on the driver's individual fortunes( read as
skills). Rosberg apparently benefited a lot from beating an off the peak Schumacher.
The only reliable and unambiguous method to compare all the drivers is by putting them in
identical cars and letting them race. Sadly, this is not possible and we have to resort to
mathematical modeling to satisfy our thirst to know.
So that's it. The study has opened the door to the most sought-after answer in the F1 world. It
should be taken with a pinch of salt because it is not perfect.

About author

Pranav PS is a third year engineering student from Trivandrum. An incurable petrol-head, he has unconventional takes in all subjects. You can reach him at


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