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No Driver Is the "Greatest Of All Time" in Formula One, and Here's Why

Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Ishani Aziz

Image credits - Clive Rose/Getty Images

The “Greatest of All Time”, or “GOAT” debate continues across social media platforms even today. Typically this involves debates among sports fans, as to who has received the most accolades, trophies, or legacies. A “GOAT” should be widely regarded as the resounding and historic best in their sport. The pinnacle of these examples in football include Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo, or perhaps in terms of legacy over the years; Diego Maradona versus Pelé. No sport is immune to these debates, and Formula One is no exception.

The most cited example is probably the debate surrounding Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher. Do their seven World Championships compare? Does the reputation and passion of Aryton Senna in the late 1980s compare to Alain Prost's cool and calculating prowess? There are even strong cases to be made for Juan Manuel Fangio, racing in perhaps more hardy times. How do we weigh “the Greatest of all Time” in a sport that is subject to so many different eras and evolutions since its inception in 1950.

Many factors play a role in these debates. Standards of safety have greatly evolved, to such an extent to enable crash testing for drivers’ helmets, the introduction of the halo, and stronger barriers, in the aftermath of heavy crashes during the olden days. Catch fencing has also been a popular feature of Formula One race tracks in the past couple of decades, to prevent fans from flying debris arising out of incidents on track.

More obviously, the cars themselves have morphed over the decades across which these drivers are compared, in every possible manner. Capable of notching 250 km/h (155.343 mph) back in the 1950s, today’s cars can surpass the 321 km/h (200 mph) barrier with relative ease. Today’s cars possess state-of-the-art technology, from advanced steering wheels, energy recovery systems, various components of power units, to the intricate detailing in the front and rear wings of today’s cars. In the 1950s, aerodynamics were almost non-existent, and cars were front-engined, four-speed manuals. Drivers were exposed to the elements, and had little to no margin for error.

Not only have the cars changed, but the calendar and circuits have evolved as well. From just eight races in the 1950s, to a gruelling 23 this year. That means driver’s from the current era have their stats inflated by some margin, compared to the likes of Fangio and Stirling Moss in the 1950s. Fangio won all of 24 races in his career, and five World Titles. If we assess that proportionately for Lewis Hamilton, who won a whopping 22 races combined, during his title-winning years of 2019 and 2020, that easily overhauls Schumacher’s records. Max Verstappen also overshadows the older generation, stepping on the podium 25 times between 2021-2022, taking both championships across the years. With these changes it becomes less feasible to compare these “GOATs”.

Even the conditions in which racing occurred have changed dramatically. Fangio being a prime example, braving the car in an era of relatively nascent safety features. Even with the sparse calendar of those eight races, winning titles for as many as four different constructors (Alfa Romeo, Mercedes Benz, Ferrari, Maserati), his achievements in his short, yet decorated career cannot be overlooked. With 52 starts, 24 race wins, and 35 podium finishes, that amounts to a win percentage of 46.15%. This remains one of the highest stats in F1 history, despite what seems like a small amount of racing. This is why the likes of Fangio are still considered in these debates. The legacy of drivers like him continues to live on through other greats, such as Michael Schumacher and Hamilton, both of whom spoke highly of the Argentine racer.

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Another example of this can be found in the Scostman; Jim Clark. Considered by many as one of the greatest to have graced the sport, Clark took 25 victories from 72 race starts. His biggest accolade stands in the form of seven victories from 10 races in the 1963 season, surpassed 25 years later. This translated to a win rate of 70%. Clark is also the only driver to win the famous Indy 500 as well as the Formula One championship in the same year, a record unmatched till date. Clark’s smooth driving style, coupled with his stupendous ability to be quick in any car he drove, made him stand out from the rest. Thus, when he died at Hockenheim doing what he loved, many offered wholesome tributes about the Scotsman’s driving ability and prowess during the times, and he remains a candidate for the ‘GOAT’ moniker for many fans.

There are of course drivers that need no introduction. Senna is undoubtedly one of these, and often at the heart of the “GOAT” debate. What set him apart from the rest was his ability to drive at the limit and with unparalleled concentration in both wet and dry weather. His iconic mastery of tracks like Monaco is remembered by many, and his pole position lap of 1988 revered as: “The best qualifying lap you’ll ever see”.

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Senna’s accolades amounted to three world championships, 42 wins, and 65 pole positions, and that tally would have stood a lot higher, had it not been for his tragic crash at Imola in 1994. Senna’s death had a profound impact on the sport, and his precision, pace, and determination to succeed inspired many drivers. It was also his contrast with cool-headed rival, Prost, and their dynamic at McLaren that would be remembered for the decades to come.

Similarly, another resounding name is that of Michael Schumacher. Who would win his first world championship the year of Senna’s death. Perhaps combining traits of Senna and Prost, Schumacher charted his path to glory, setting new benchmarks and standards for the sport, statistically as well as from his personality. In the golden period with Scuderia Ferrari, Schumacher achieved five world titles and 72 more wins, adding to his tally of two titles and 19 wins for Benetton prior. His consistency remains famed in the sport, and his 100% podium record from the title-winning 2002 season may well stand the test of time. Schumacher withstood stern competition from the likes of Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen, as well as the rising star Juan Pablo Montoya. He is rightly considered one of greatest drivers to have graced the sport.

The drivers on the current grid have also been considered as part of the debate. Lewis Hamilton’s statistics often surpass even those of Schumacher. Fernando Alonso, despite his two world championships, has a personality and drive that also often make him a candidate among the greats. Max Verstappen’s aggression and attitude, coupled with his consistency and driving style has certainly established the Dutchman as one of the greatest contemporary drivers.

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It will become immediately obvious to fans that the “Greatest of All Time” debate cannot be settled. Not least because “All Time” refers to the entire existence of Formula One, all 70 years of it, over the course of which the sport has evolved considerably. As much as we can inflate statistics, or modify them to evaluate how successful these drivers have been, there is no denying the fact that we cannot compare drivers from different generations of Formula One to pick one as the ‘GOAT’. One can wonder what the likes of Ayrton Senna, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, and Michael Schumacher could’ve achieved with the current-day Formula One cars. Ultimately, each driver has redefined the sport in their unique way, and these numbers can never encapsulate the conditions of racing at that point in time. Thus, there just cannot be any driver who is the “Greatest of All Time” in Formula One.

What may be worth debating is whether a driver is the “Greatest of An Era”, with the statistics remaining easier to compare, and considering the sport's evolution within that period. The doors are open for healthy arguments and debates on this topic, and, may the best drivers be awarded the ‘GOTE’ moniker!

1 comment

1 Comment

Apr 01, 2023

A great piece Vyas - of course your making the point no one can be considered the greatest but in your name check or roll call of those who might have a claim... no Niki Lauda ??

3 time champion with 2 of the best teams to have been in F1, Champion 9 years apart, winning in a now very agricultural aluminium monocoque car with flat 12 engine, through to a carbon tub and a V6 Turbo. A principled man who stood by his decisions and views.

I totally get the piece is about how crowning a king isn't possible but if your name checking some that you have, a guy like Lauda who fought Regazzoni, Peterson, Hunt, Reuterman, Villeneuve,…

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