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Can A Great F1 Racer Really Be Defined By Stats?

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The last few years of Formula 1 discourse have been a constant and exhausting cycle of debate on who the greatest driver of all time is. Often cycling between the two seven-time world champions Michael Schumacher and Sir Lewis Hamilton and the now two-time champion Max Verstappen, we seem to have forgotten how we should define the greats. Is it fair to quantify the greatness of drivers in an ever-changing sport and can we define a racer with stats?

When asked by Channel 4 in a recent interview about whether he cares about the “stats and the records”, Lewis Hamilton simply said, “not really, no”. He went on to say “I’ve had a pretty amazing 15 years and I’m generally living in gratitude. In 20 years time, I’m not going to be whining about whether I won a race every single year, I’ll be thinking of the championships”. With so many records broken and stats achieved, why is it not all about the numbers? To achieve what Hamilton has achieved is a once-in-generation thing to witness in Formula 1; it’s not often that a driver of this magnitude comes along. With Vettel retiring, it leaves Hamilton with more career wins alone than the rest of the grid combined.

Thinking about the numbers alone, however, is not the most practical for defining an all-time great in a sport that constantly changes. By nature, Formula 1 is not a sport with fixed rules like football or cricket that hardly ever change as time goes on. To adapt to the constant development of motorsport and technology, Formula 1 regularly releases a new set of regulations to bring the field closer and combat environmental and financial concerns. While there are slight changes to the regulations each year that the teams must abide by, the larger regulation changes often define the eras of the sport – for instance, the ‘turbo-hybrid’ era from 2014-2021 and saw the shift from V8 engines to V6 power units which would completely change the structure of the cars and redefine the sport.

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With such significant structural changes per era of the sport, is it not wise to choose the greats within those eras? Comparing a 2022 Redbull to a 2003 Ferrari is strange considering the requirements of the cars were radically different. While one car features a hybrid engine, drag reduction system, and a steering wheel with 25 buttons, the other possessed a 3L V10 engine and a semi-automatic gearbox. Ferrari’s semi-automatic gearbox was as ground-breaking as the introduction of DRS, both being features that changed the trajectory of the sport. Ground-breaking features aside, putting a modern car and driver next to a two-decade-old car and driver is rather unjust.

Watching drivers like Fernando Alonso transition through different eras of the sport should not go unnoticed as many tend to struggle during larger regulation changes. When given the opportunity to reunite with his championship-winning Renault R25, a V10 with a semi-automatic gearbox, he slipped right back in. Being as active as Alonso has, he has been given the luxury of growing alongside the changes in the sport while being able to combine newer and more classic elements of his driving style. Drivers such as Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen were undeniably trained and bred for a different era of cars that would be completely foreign to younger drivers like Lando Norris and George Russell who have foundations in modern motorsports.

Would George Russell be able to drive Senna’s 1991 championship-winning McLaren to the same degree he can drive his current Mercedes? The answer is likely no. Russell has never experienced racing a Formula 1 car without DRS. This is not to say Russell or any of the other young drivers on the grid wouldn’t be capable of driving Senna’s era of cars had they been born in the 1960s bred for 80s motorsport, but instead to highlight the difference in the sport. Putting Alain Prost in a modern Formula 1 car would likely have the same effect – a brilliant and surely versatile driver, but simply not bred for these cars. With the constraints and requirements of each car in mind, why is the ‘all-time great’ conversation never put into context?

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In addition to the frequent structural changes in the sport, it is also important to consider the inconsistencies in comparing stats per era. Max Verstappen is likely to rack up a lot more race wins than drivers from the 2000s simply because there are now far more races a season than before. The 2004 season saw Schumacher take 13 wins out of 18 races while the 2022 season saw Verstappen take 15 wins out of 22 races. While undeniably impressive feats by both drivers, Verstappen and future drivers will have more opportunities to collect race wins that will inevitably overtake stats from our older champions with F1 wanting to add even more races to the calendar. With race wins and pole positions often cited as ways to decide who is the greatest of all time, it truly is inconsistent when considering the number of races has dramatically increased over the years with no intention of slowing down.

If stats were the decisive factor for a great Formula 1 driver, it would objectively be down to Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher – but where does this leave drivers like Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg? For a community of motorsport lovers, many tend to downplay the actual racecraft of drivers on the grid. Massa is perhaps one of the most criminally underrated drivers, having missed his chances of securing a championship in 2008. There are far too many incredible drivers that should not be downplayed simply because they don’t have the stats. Sir Stirling Moss never won a championship but is widely regarded as one of the sport’s most treasured racers.

Formula 1 eras are so radically different that it often feels like another sport. Having primarily watched the Vettel and Hamilton eras, watching Senna or Schumacher races is a different experience entirely. The way they drove the cars was different, the pit stops were different, it was simply just different. So how can we truly compare? These debates are more plausible in sports like football, with little structural change over time allowing for fans to compare players from the 80s to now. It would be a more productive and realistic discourse to discuss which drivers from certain eras were the greatest, comparing Vettel to Hamilton or Senna to Prost. Yet of course it all comes down to the deluded but thrilling GOAT debates, no matter how feasible the comparisons actually are – it really is all about who your personal favourite driver is. 

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