Greatest Formula One driver of all time…the team

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.