Facts Or Fiction?

“Nigel Mansell drew level with Jackie Stewart as Britain's most successful Formula One driver after winning his 27th grand prix race in a rain-interrupted French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours yesterday.” — Daily Telegraph, July 6 1992

There are, of course, other ways of gauging "the most successful British Formula One driver". And before the Mansellosi turn the page, you are not about to embark upon a gratuitous piece of Mansellbaiting, merely a plea for greater objectivity.

Fact: Jackie Stewart has won 27 Grands Prix. He also won a trio of World Championships. His 27 victories came in 99 races, a strike rate of one win per 3.66 starts.

Fact: Nigel Mansell's first 27 wins (this was written between the French and British GPs) have brought him no World Championship triumphs, as yet, although it seems inconceivable that he won't have been crowned as the first British champion since James Hunt by the time the teams assemble in Adelaide for the Australian GP on November 1. His 27 victories came from 173 starts, a notably poorer strike rate than Stewart's at one win per 6.41 attempts. Other Brits with a better win-per-start ratio are, predictably, Clark (2.88), Moss (4.12) and, less obviously, Brooks (in danger of being overhauled, 6.33). This does not, of course, imply that Mansell is only Britain's fifth greatest driver, nor is it concrete proof that Clark was necessarily the finest. (For the record, and expanding this formula beyond the UK's cream, Piquet has one win per 8.46 starts, Lauda one per 6.84. Prost one per 4.16, Senna one per 3.94, Ascari one per 2.46 and Fangio one per 2.22.)

There is no question that Mansell is currently making the most of superior equipment, but did Stewart do any different in 1969 (Matra took six victories, Lotus, Brabham and McLaren only five between them) or 1971 (seven victories to Tyrrell, one by Cevert, and two apiece to Ferrari and BRM)? Would anyone belittle the achievements by Ascari in 1952/53, when Ferrari won 14 of 17 World Championship events, the sole exceptions being two Indy 500s and the 1953 Italian GP, which went to Fangio's Maserati? Are Clark's sublime achievements any the less for the technical edge that Lotus enjoyed at the time? Of course not.

Similarly, nobody of sound mind would dispute the contention that Gilles Villeneuve was one of the fastest men ever to grace a Formula 1 cockpit. A touch overexuberant from time to time, sure, but when it came to extracting the most from the material at his disposal, he had no contemporary peers. Yet his CV shows just six GP successes from 67 starts. But that doesn't mean he isn't a fit subject for discussion when degrees of 'greatness' are up for debate.

Few, if any, of these figures are worthy of direct comparison. They relate to different times, governed by different regulations. Should Brabham and Hill be awarded bonus points for economy of effort, for example? After all, their combined total of 28 Grands Prix victories earned them five world titles between them.

Statistics can be manipulated to say more or less whatever you want. Maybe, one day, somebody will come up with a 'dog factor', a ratio by which the above information can be multiplied to take into account uncompetitiveness of engine, unsuitability of chassis, size of budget and so forth.

In the meantime, a little perspective from the national press would be welcome. (The Daily Telegraph wasn't the only culprit, most national dailies fell into the same trap on July 6.)

Following Magny-Cours, Nigel Mansell joined Jackie Stewart as the most winning British GP driver in World Championship history. There are too many variables to take into account, however, before sweeping generalisations about levels of success can be applied to any driver, from whatever era of the sport.