The first post on this site can be only about one topic: who is the best driver of all time?

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Answering that question off course means comparing all drivers that have ever competed in Formula 1. Full well knowing that this is the most prickly question one can imagine when discussing Formula 1; it wouldn't hurt to have an objective look at what the numbers do tell us about this subject... which is, not entirely coincidentally, exactly what this site enables us to do.

Objections
But to answer this question we first have to address a few general considerations which, though might be valid, are really not in the realm of objective comparison:

  • the strength of the competition of the drivers; in other words how easy/difficult was it for a particular driver to obtain his results. Against the field and against his teammate and spectacular rivalry resulting from this.
  • the strength of the car or team relative to the opposition.
  • the different requirements laid upon the driver in different periods of Formula 1 both in terms of technology and risk; in this or that period things were better, more difficult, more riskier, more demanding, etc.
  • driving style, attitude, personality, confidence, teamplayer/egoist, character, ruthlessness, determination, smoothness, etc, etc.

Much can be said about the above points and this is were typically the debate gets heated. The starting premise for further comparison is that ultimately over time all these above arguments will be filtered out naturally. For example the 'natural talent'-driver might be hindered by too much aggression, which is countered by the 'professor'-styled driver or the 'strategist' who always know to score their points. And in ways it is also a quality of a driver to get into the best team or build the best team around him, as much is it is a lacking trait when always choosing the sinking ship...

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The numbers: points
Now let's have a look at the numbers. The first list we have to look at is the 'all time points'. And than off course the same point system for all drivers.

Note: the examples below are based on the previous point system (25 point system). Since the current point system unevenly rewards the final race and therefore places emphasis on that last race. One would expect a disbalance in the course of events in case this would have actually been in place at a certain past season. The second reason to select this point system is that this system contains the most points finishes, which therefore better captures the result finishes by drivers.

What the all time points list tells you is that the drivers on the top of this list have shown to be a high-performer for a prolonged period of time. Though in the current era with its longer seasons, and in general longer careers it is definitely favouring the current generations. Which is demonstrated by the fact that of the top 10, seven drivers had a career between 2000 and today.

  1. Michael Schumacher - 19 seasons - 3891 points
  2. Fernando Alonso - 13 seasons - 2582 points
  3. Alain Prost - 13 seasons - 2471.5 points

While these guys have had significant careers, there are drivers like Graham Hill (18), Ricardo Patrese (17) and Jack Brabham (16) who all have had a lengthy career in the past as well and didn't arrive at the very top.

To compensate for career length, let us take the average of per season. Than we end up with the following perspective:

  1. Sebastiaan Vettel - 237
  2. Lewis Hamilton - 218
  3. Michael Schumacher - 205
  4. Fernando Alonso - 199
  5. Alain Prost - 190

This skyrockets Vettel's performance due to his just 8 seasons in the sport. And similar rise is witnessed for Hamilton. But the rest of the list provides a similar perspective.

There is still one major factor we need to take into account and that is season length. In the early days seasons could be as short as 7 or 8 grand prix, while we currently are near 20 per season. Normalizing for season length gives us still the same list as we saw above:

  1. Michael Schumacher - 3366 normalized points
  2. Alain Prost - 2323 normalized points
  3. Fernando Alonso - 2085 normalized points

But now taking the average of the seasons we get a new name on top:

  1. Juan Manuel Fangio - 8 seasons - 172 normalized points
  2. Michael Schumacher - 19 seasons - 170 normalized points
  3. Alain Prost - 13 seasons - 169 normalized points
  4. Sebastiaan Vettel - 8 seasons - 167 normalized points
  5. Lewis Hamilton - 8 seasons - 166 normalized points

It certainly matters at this stage which point systems is applied for the order of Prost, Vettel, Hamilton and Schumacher. Fangio however remains firmly on top.

The last points perspective is simply the average points per grandprix, where Fangio is at a considerable distance to his peers:

  1. Juan Manuel Fangio - 15.5
  2. Sebastiaan Vettel - 13.2
  3. Alberto Ascari - 12.7
  4. Michael Schumacher - 12.6
  5. Alain Prost - 12.2

Again the usual suspects pop-up. But with a new entrant: Alberto Ascari. Ascari had an even shorter career; 6 seasons with just 32 races in total. Ranking this high; a remarkable achievement.

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The numbers: wins & championships
Now being the best, is not just about raking in the points, it is also about winning. Just beating that other guy. The absolute wins overview is absolutely dominated by Schumacher:

  1. Michael Schumacher - 91
  2. Alain Prost - 51
  3. Ayrton Senna - 41
  4. Sebastiaan Vettel - 39
  5. Fernando Alonso - 32

Only here we see the man often rated by experts and fans as the best driver ever: Ayrton Senna. His career sadly cut short, we will never know what he could have achieved in full. The following list provides the average wins per race entry:

  1. Juan Manuel Fangio - 0.451
  2. Alberto Ascari - 0.406
  3. Jim Clark - 0.347
  4. Michael Schumacher - 0.295
  5. Sebastiaan Vettel - 0.289

No doubt each and every driver in this list is very impressive, with Fangio basically winning every other race he contested in. And a new name: Jim Clark. This man had a high winratio, but in other cases failed to finish (higher up).

The final perspective to take into account has got to be championships.

  1. Michael Schumacher - 7
  2. Juan Manuel Fangio - 5
  3. Alain Prost - 4
  4. Sebastian Vettel - 4

And the average championship per season:

  1. Juan Manuel Fangio - 0.63
  2. Sebastian Vettel - 0.5
  3. Michael Schumacher - 0.37
  4. Alain Prost - 0.31

The Best
Now taking into account these different perspectives only three names keep popping up on top consistently: Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel. In order to get some form of comparison over time, it is a necessity not to just look at the absolutes, but also heavily weigh the relative stats.

Sebastian Vettel must be considered as one of the all-time greats, just based on his track record alone. On all of these perspectives he tops only one though. And that one is in part due to his (still) short career. The difficulty with Vettel is the fact that he is still racing and in the middle of his career. His averages might still go up or down. For now he ranks third.

Michael Schumacher has had one of the most extended careers in Formula 1 ever (equalled only by Barichello), which allowed him to reach unparallelled heights on the absolute scales, but for which he pays just a little on the average and normalized scales. If only he had never made is come-back :-) But even that might not have made the difference...

...because there can really be but one conclusion from all these facts: Juan Manuel Fangio is the best driver the sport has ever seen.

Compensation for the shorter seasons and careers is a necessity. And when you do that and consider his stats objectively (he tops all above perspectives but one), he puts a significant distance between himself and his nearest peers, which makes his performance all the more remarkable!

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Do you believe this conclusion is completely of the mark? Or can you relate to the numbers? Let me know your thoughts by posting in the comments section below!