Science proves Formula One’s greatest driver of all-time

And it’s not Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna.

Meryl D'Souza April 19, 2016

Schumacher - Senna - Lauda - Prost.

We’ve all been there. Discussing the best-ever driver in Formula One almost always starts with a healthy debate and ends with a couple of punches thrown. The problem with determining the best of all-time is that there’s always a matter of opinion and, to a large extent, personal bias. It doesn't help that the cars have constantly evolved throughout the decades.

If you were to go by trophies alone, no one could fault you for saying Michael Schumacher and his unbeaten seven world championships. Ayrton Senna is often a favourite for his tenacious overtaking manoeuvres and the feel he had on a wet track, and Niki Lauda for his technical know-how in setting up the car.

Thank the motor racing Gods then that science can end the debate once and for all. A new study claims to have worked out who the all-time greatest Formula One driver is – and it’s not any of the superstars mentioned so far.

According to a statistical analysis by scientists at the University of Sheffield in England, that title belongs to Juan Manuel Fangio - we told you he was a bit special. 

The Argentine driver's performances in the 1950s – when he won five world championships with four different teams – helped him tower over former legends of the sport.

While a study can be hard to argue with, undoubtedly some will disagree. But it's hard to discredit the findings. After all, it’s pure quantitative evidence that brought the scientists to this conclusion. 

There are some shocks however. Three-time world champion Lauda doesn't even make the top 100. Out of the current generation, two drivers made the top ten, though neither are the current world champion Lewis Hamilton (12th). Fernando Alonso placed fifth with Sebastian Vettel at 10th. 

According to the study, the effect of the driver's team may account for a huge 85 per cent of the performance, with the driver accounting for only 15 per cent to help reach the chequered flag. To compensate for all the variables the study, published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, created a “multilevel” statistical model. It took into account team and driver performances between 1950 and 2014, along with the weather conditions in which the drivers competed and the tracks they drove on. The study found that: 

  • 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.

According to the study then, here are the top 10 drivers to ever race in Formula One:

1. Juan Manuel Fangio (Argentina)
2. Alain Prost (France)
3. Jim Clark (UK)
4. Ayrton Senna (Brazil)
5. Fernando Alonso (Spain)
6. Nelson Piquet (Brazil)
7. Jackie Stewart (UK)
8. Michael Schumacher (Germany)
9. Emerson Fittipaldi (Brazil)
10. Sebastian Vettel (Germany)