A Different Look at some Historic F1 Data

Posted on April 4, 2012

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This article is a bit of a departure for the intelligentF1 site. Up to this point, the data analysis has been all about the current F1 scene, being based on race-by-race laptime data, and the modelling of the relative pace of the cars. However, as I have been following the sport for the best part of three decades, and I am very interested in the history of motor racing, I thought that I’d have a play with some of the often quoted statistics of the sport to try to find a clearer (or perhaps fairer) way of presenting the data, and see what this might tell us about the drivers of the past.

The obvious place to start is with the statistics on World Championship Grand Prix wins. It’s well known that Michael Schumacher has the most wins (91), followed by Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, but it is also (reasonably) well known that Juan-Manuel Fangio has the highest win-to-start ratio (of those with a reasonable number of starts). So it is clear that we have a skew in the statistics due to the higher number of World Championship races per season as time passes. How to remove this effect? One way is to look at the wins-to-start ratio, but in my opinion, this is not the cleanest way of doing it. The approach I take here is to look at the number of wins out of the possible number of wins in a season. This makes three wins in an eight race season equivalent to six wins in a sixteen race season, which seems a fair way of doing it to me. So my rules for compiling my ‘winningest’ drivers list is as follows:

– take the number of wins for each driver divided by the number of races in a year (excluding Indianapolis races from 1950-1960)

– add this ‘season fraction’ of wins over all seasons

Simple, eh? Admittedly there will still be a small skew towards modern drivers, but this is due to the careers being longer as the sport becomes safer. But it should give something pretty representative.

So what do we get? Well, here’s my top 20:

1. Michael Schumacher           5.38 seasons of victories

2. Juan Manuel Fangio            3.47

3. Alain Prost                               3.22

4. Ayrton Senna                         2.56

5. Jim Clark                                  2.49

6. Jackie Stewart                       2.30

7. Stirling Moss                          2.00

8. Nigel Mansell                         1.94

9. Alberto Ascari                      1.77

10. Niki Lauda                            1.60

11. Fernando Alonso               1.53

12. Jack Brabham                     1.51

13. Nelson Piquet                      1.49

14. Graham Hill                         1.39

15. Damon Hill                           1.36

16. Mika Hakkinen                   1.22

17. Sebastian Vettel                1.13

18. Emerson Fittipaldi           1.04

19. Kimi Raikkonen                 1.01

20. Lewis Hamilton                 0.95

I think that this makes for some interesting reading. The fact that Fangio is second suggests to me that the method works quite well, and in general, I would argue that this is a reasonable list of great drivers. The most interesting part for me is that this list makes the greatness of one Stirling Moss very clear indeed. For the only driver on the list never to have won the World Championship to be as high as number seven is remarkable – all the drivers above him have at least two titles. That three-time champion Jack Brabham, whose first two titles came in Moss’ era is five places and half a season’s worth of wins behind says it all. Moss is one of the elite.

The other interesting finding is the almost equivalence of father-and-son Graham and Damon Hill. There are significant similarities in their careers, and in the perception of their being less able that the fastest drivers of their time (Clark/Schumacher). Equivalently great? By this list, they are.

As an extra check, it is worth seeing if I get a balance of drivers from different eras. Well there are (OK, some span decades, but this is a good guide) three from the 1950s, three from the 1960s, three from the 1970s, four from the 1980s, three from the 1990s, and four from the 2000s. I’m happy with that – it suggests that the balance between eras is correct and that I’m doing the maths right.

So how can the current drivers progress? With 20 races a year, each race win in 2012 is worth 0.05 points on this scale. So Alonso needs two more wins to break into the all time top ten. And another 77 wins to be first overall. Out of interest, of the other current drivers who have won races, Button is on 0.72, Massa on 0.62, Webber on 0.38 and Kovalainen on 0.06.

I hope this way of looking at some well known data provides a different insight into the numbers. Obviously there is much more to the greatness of drivers than their statistics, but there is often more in the numbers than we realise.

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