Who’s The Greatest Formula One Driver?

As old as sporting competition itself, debates over the all-time greats in any sport always makes for hearty arguments and heated opinions. 

When considering the greatest Formula One driver in the history of the sport, the variables to consider are many. And certainly, generational bias will play a role. But then this shouldn’t be a decision based in emotion. 

Today’s F1 fans will no doubt stump for six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. A decade ago, a similar campaign would’ve been launched favoring Michael Schumacher, a winner of a record seven F1 titles.

Fans of each decade will have their driver whose qualifications they will adamantly champion. Names like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark are all worthy of consideration. And at the dawn of F1 competition in the 1950s, Juan Manuel Fangio ruled over the racetrack.

It’s a fitting argument to have, because racing is all about who comes out on top. Each week on tracks around the globe, the finest drivers in the world seek to move to the front of the pack. The more often they come out on top, the more frequently they will touted to be in the money again. A continual presence on the podium will gain a driver the opportunity to stake their claim as No. 1.

Who’s the best of the bunch? Let’s crunch the numbers and analyze the data and see who races to the front.

Comparing Eras Always A Challenge

The cars that propelled around the track when F1 was in its infancy weren’t nearly as intuitive or as scientifically designed as today’s multi-million dollar machines. On the other hand, drivers were more in tune with the cars. Many were also mechanics and could instantly tell what the issue was when their car couldn’t find the speed.

F1 teams in the early years might number around 10 members in total. Today, there are hundreds involved with the car, from its design down to the pit crew. As well, the early drivers knew that their cars and the tracks they raced around didn’t contain the safety features of today’s F1. Bravery, a willingness to push the limits of a race car when they knew that an error could most certainly lead to their death, was a quality not to be overlooked. But as legendary F1 driver Sir Stirling Moss once noted, “there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity.”

A Scientific Study

Two years ago, Dr. Andrew Bell and a team of researchers with England’s Sheffield University set out on a quest to answer the question of who was unquestionably the greatest F1 pilot of all-time.

Some of the variables of data that they included in their study were the caliber of F1 team that employed the driver, how the driver performed in comparison to his teammate, and how competitive the racing was during that time period.

Their study takes into account the entire breadth of a driver’s career, and not just his peak years. When all the data was calculated, the study assessed that Fangio was the greatest driver in history of Formula One racing. 

They based their calculations of Fangio’s continued success throughout each stage of his career. His five F1 world titles were won while driving for four different teams – Alfa Romeo (1951), Mercedes (1954-55) and Maserati (1957). That alone is an unprecedented achievement. 

Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark and Fernando Alonso followed Fangio in the Sheffield University rankings.

Schumacher, who surpassed Fangio’s record for world championships in 2003, was downgraded because he went through down periods during his career and made an ill-fated comeback from retirement with Mercedes in 2010.

The Analytical Study

Also in 2018, the analytics website FiveThirtyEight.com conducted its own study to determine the greatest driver in the annals of F1 history. They utilized a modified format of their Elo Rating System to decide the outcome. The Elo Rating System compares athletes via a series of head-to-head results.

Rather than encompass a driver’s entire career, FiveThirtyEight.com opted to look at their average Elo Rating over the five peak years of the racing days. 

In their final analysis, they put three-time world champion Senna atop the rankings. Schumacher, Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel followed, with Fangio finishing fifth on their list.

Who’s No. 1?

As stated at the beginning of this article, picking the greatest of all-time in any sport is always going to be open for debate. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And as the two studies mentioned displayed, even when crunching data, the output can result in completely different outcomes. 

It says here that the best there ever was, and perhaps the best there ever will be was and is Fangio. He dominated throughout his career like no other driver. He proved capable of winning with any make of car, and as anyone familiar with Formula One knows, there’s a big difference in what the top teams are capable of delivering to a driver compared to the lesser teams. 

Fangio’s career winning percentage of 46.15% the best in F1 history.

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