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A Dr Andrew Bell of Sheffield Methods Institute, in conjunction with the University of Sheffield has just published the paper Formula For Success: Multilevel modelling of F1 driver and constructor performance applying statistical analysis to answer the question of who the greatest F1 driver of all time might be. It’s not the first time such a thing has been tried, but maybe the first to be attempted by an official academic institution.
The modelling methods attempting to de-couple car and driver performance are sophisticated but as with all such efforts, the basic premise that it is possible to accurately model the miraculous mix of neurons, psychology, hydrocarbons and elastomers that is this sport is deeply flawed. Just like telemetry defining driving technique, it is tail wagging of a dog. Our understanding of the processes involved is so incomplete, we have an imperfect idea of how the picture is formed but a visceral appreciation of the quality of the picture. We can know the level of performance of the great drivers without resorting to statistics – and if working the other way, the modelling does not support that picture, then it is the modelling that is clearly wrong, not the picture.
Watch Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso on the limit today and their specialness is obvious. In earlier times, anyone with a basic understanding of the dynamics involved who watched Stirling Moss in action knew without a sliver of doubt that they were watching genius. Even his peers acknowledged as much. The way that Jochen Rindt or Gilles Villeneuve could almost sidestep the laws of physics marked them out as special. Then there was the subtlety of technique of a Fangio or a Prost, the searing speed of Alberto Ascari, the commitment bordering on madness of Ayrton Senna or Nigel Mansell, the shrewd brilliance of Jackie Stewart, the phenomenal gift of Jim Clark that team-mate Trevor Taylor said made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end when contemplating it.
So any list trying to correlate statistics with greatness has to pass the first test: is it free of obvious nonsense? The top six using Dr Bell’s modelling – Fangio, Prost, Alonso, Clark, Senna, Stewart – doesn’t look ridiculous. But look through the top 50 and you will notice the absence of: Rindt, Niki Lauda, Mansell and Ascari. Yet present are: Louis Rosier (who used to drive privateer Ferraris in the early ‘50s at relatively sedate endurance-like pace and consequently had a good finishing record) and Christian Fittipaldi (the 12th-greatest F1 driver of all time according to this list, eight places above Ronnie Peterson!). You will find that Marc Surer was better than Stirling Moss by 12 places! That’s really all you need to know about this list – impeccable academic credentials and methodology can still produce something producing such nonsensical results.
Finding a way of identifying and isolating the various traits of drivers and then assessing their relative importance in the specific demands of the era in which they raced, the cars they were driving, how well that infinite combination of particular talents meshed with the demands of any given day, in a given car on a given track would be illuminating. But that’s a fantasy. And best left that way.
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12. Christian Fittipaldi
13. Nico Rosberg
15. Graham Hill
18. Damon Hill
21. de Angelis
47. Keke Rosberg
49. Jacques Villeneuve
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