The Definition of Greatness

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When I created the F1 aggregator, my intention was not to answer the completely subjective question of the identity of F1’s greatest driver. I did not even intend to create a definitive list on that subject. All I wanted to do was illustrate the opinions of F1 journalists through the ages (which you can see here), but in doing so I achieved the most personal clarity on what intangible qualities define the career of a Formula One great that I have ever had. I found I could formulate a real definition of greatness. In observing the top 100 I began to notice patterns that led to one simple conclusion. Before explaining what that conclusion was though, I should detail some of those observations and their meanings.

Firstly, I noticed that all thirty-two world champions had, perhaps predictably, made the top 100. However to my surprise, the lowest ranked champion was Mario Andretti (59th) which I did not think really reflected the high esteem with which he is held in the F1 world. After much contemplation though I came to realise that his lowly ranking was a reflection of his relatively sporadic F1 career and the very short time that he was at the very forefront of F1 competition. In other words, his successful participation in other forms of motorsport – the very thing that makes him one of motor racing’s all-time greats – negatively affected the impact that he had on F1 and the subsequent opinions of journalists.

I also noticed a number of drivers that, in comparison to other F1 Top 100s, were out of position. Wolfgang von Trips (23rd) was only 70th in Autosport’s authoritative 2009 list, which reflected the opinions of some 217 past and present Formula One drivers. Giuseppe Farina (19th) and Damon Hill (22nd) were also well above their positions in that list. I concluded that their relatively short careers, spent mostly in very competitive cars, must have skewed the opinions of the journalists of their time because winning races and championships does have some effect on the way a driver is a perceived.

In light of this, it is something of a surprise to see Jim Clark and Fernando Alonso, both “only” double world champions, at one and two on the table. It is interesting to note that despite their statistical “weakness” when compared with some of the sport’s other champions, journalists regularly place(d) them at the head of their season top tens even as – in Alonso’s case – his contemporaries continue to enjoy the kind of success that, in his present situation, he can only dream of. There are other statistical discrepancies that stand out. Take Nico Hulkenberg’s (44th) comparatively high ranking for a driver with no wins or podiums to his name. He is the fifth highest ranked German, above race winners Ralf Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, which is some indication of how well regarded the work he produces in the competitive fog of the midfield is. Also, if world championships are the best metric for measuring a driver’s ability then Stirling Moss (8th) has no place in the top ten.

Moss’ ranking stood out to me because I know he often pops up in Formula One top tens, indeed, he is ranked in exactly the same position in Autosport’s list. That gives some validation to his standing on my list, so I decided to check the whole of my top ten against that of Autosport. It turns out my top ten includes exactly the same drivers save for one difference – Gilles Villeneuve (11th) is 10th in Autosport’s list.

As an aside, I should note that his place in my top ten is taken by Alberto Ascari (9th) who is 16th in Autosport’s. Just as Villeneuve – who at the time of his death in 1982 was just beginning to overcome his weaknesses and completely fulfill his potential – may have climbed into my top ten had his career not ended prematurely, perhaps Ascari would have dropped out if his career – spent in mostly competitive Ferraris – had not ended the same way. That said, Ascari was possessed of a now underrated genius and he WAS rated highly in his day. According to Motorsport’s Nigel Roebuck, the legendary journalist Denis Jenkinson placed Ascari in his top five and thought that ‘in equal cars he could beat Fangio whenever he wanted.’

That correlation with Autosport’s exhaustively collated top ten and the statistical discrepancies leads me to one conclusion. What the top ten represents is who the standard setters of their day were. There are no understudies, no pretenders, just the main man of each era. This is the pantheon and you don’t qualify for entry by simply winning.

All the drivers in the top ten have something in common – they are the ones who continued to deliver even when their machinery let them down. Their magic is seen throughout F1’s history. There was Fangio, who retired at 46 while still able to drive the race of his life every time he took to the track. His mantle was taken by Moss who won some brilliant races – think Monaco in 1961, where he triumphed in a privately entered Lotus 18. The car was outdated and underpowered but he beat all three factory Ferraris to the finish line in the kind of performance only a brilliant racing driver can pull off. Gilles Villeneuve could do it too; he won races in some really bad cars, and Ayrton Senna continued to enthral with his displays against the unbreakable dominance of the 1992 and 1993 Williams. Alain Prost was always a threat on race day no matter what car he was driving, as was Michael Schumacher, who best summed that point up in the third stint of the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix. He was the only driver of his day who could have done that. Next came the current standard setter Fernando Alonso, whose career has been characterised by his ability to take a car, accentuate its strengths, minimise its weaknesses and turn that into competitive performances week in week out.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Alonso’s career is in many ways the perfect embodiment of this magical quality: an innate ability to race to the absolute maximum of a car’s potential every single weekend. Consider for a second that with the cars he has had in his career, it is quite conceivable that he could have never won the title. Yes his 2005 and 2006 Renaults were excellent cars, but neither was the quickest of its day and it took a driver with his special blend of ingredients to do the job. It may be sacrilege to say it, but even in 2005 when the R25 was quick and crucially, reliable, Kimi Raikkonen should still have won the title (I will detail that reasoning in another post).

The R25 started the season as the quickest car but after three races it lost ground to the McLaren and never regained it and yet Alonso kept on winning. It took a driver who was very quick – quick enough to beat one or two McLarens on pure pace, as he did in France, Britain, Turkey and China –  and who could do it consistently, without errors. Alonso was that driver every weekend while Raikkonen, in what was probably his best season, wasn’t even consistently the quickest McLaren driver. There were races like Hungary, Belgium and Brazil where Montoya simply had him beaten for pace, and there were numerous little mistakes that lost him points here and there. I don’t think any other driver’s best would have been enough. Raikkonen’s certainly wasn’t.

In 2006 Alonso stepped up another gear. When the R26 was at its best – read able to compete with the Ferraris on merit – he delivered the most statistically dominant start to a season in the history of F1, better even than Schumacher’s in his record breaking 2002 and 2004 campaigns. Without the help of a dominant car as had Schumacher, Alonso scored 84 from a possible 90 points, 93.3% of a maximum score. To put that in perspective, Schumacher’s best was 88.8% in 2004. The difference in their circumstances is best illustrated by Schumacher and Barrichello’s six out of nine 1-2s in 2004, compared to just one for Alonso and Fisichella in 2006. He matched his impressive first half of the season by handling the pressure of the increasingly dominant performance of the Ferraris with some brilliant damage limitation drives, making no mistakes and using all of the awesome speed and racecraft for which he is now renowned. Having since watched him repeat those tricks in some very average Ferraris with often astonishing results, it’s clear that neither Renault was a certain title winner in anyone else’s hands.

Alonso’s career is testament to the fact that statistics are not a metric for assessing greatness. At least not raw statistics without context (for that see the brilliant F1Metrics blog). The top 100 represents what journalists thought at the time – it is not clouded by statistical hindsight, nostalgia or the kind of sympathetic acclamation that a driver often receives after his death. Even with the caveat of shortened careers, and the varying competitiveness of different cars, I do believe it to be an accurate reflection of F1’s all-time greats, which incidentally is a term that is used too lightly, it should be reserved for the top ten drivers of all time. By measuring what journalists think season by season, you get a more accurate idea of who always delivered their best and were always top performers, no matter what car they drove. The few drivers who achieved that appear at the very top of the list.

After studying the rankings and considering the drivers in the top ten and those outside of it, the conclusion that I came to was a very simple one. The world championship is just a badge of honour. It’s a prize for capturing the most points across the season but it doesn’t mean you captured the most hearts and minds. True, it is often an effect of greatness but it is not a cause. The perception of a driver is always changed by success. You’re less mortal when you’re winning. At the end of 2013 everyone thought Vettel was invincible, saw no way he could ever be stopped, but he ended 2014 – now an ex-world champion – looking a lot more human. Similarly, when he first entered Formula One, Hamilton was hailed as the new messiah, until he found himself with a less competitive car and all the problems that brought. Suddenly the comparisons with Senna stopped (from everyone but himself) and he was just another driver until the end of 2014, when it all started again.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is an exception to that rule though. Think of F1 weekend discourse between 2010 and 2013 when Red Bull led the way followed by either McLaren, Lotus or Mercedes. It was always Red Bull versus whichever team was second behind them at the time. Oh, and Alonso. I bet his name was always floating around in Red Bull strategy meetings during that time. Even in 2014, when Mercedes were running in a different category to regular F1, he was still a fly in the ointment of the pacesetters Red Bull and Williams. He hasn’t won a title in almost a decade and yet his reputation continues to grow. I think that when people still see a driver as the benchmark, or at least as a threat when someone else is winning, that is when they are really doing well. After all, if we measured who’s doing well in F1 by who is winning or not then 90% of the grid would be excluded most of the time. Alonso said it best himself when he told the author Clyde Brolin ‘winning a race or a championship leads to recognition from everybody…everybody thinks you are doing well’. If you’ve transcended that shallow perception of success, then you have truly achieved greatness.


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