Paul van Gerven
11 July

Some drivers are better than others, but whoever gets to drive the best car, wins the Formula 1 championship, right? Not quite, according to new research.

Who’s the best Formula 1 driver of all time? Being tied for seven titles in the driver’s world championship, it has to be either Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton. But, actually, it’s Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, according to Swiss research. Despite dominating the first decade of F1 racing, Fangio only won five titles. But, relatively speaking, he got more wins, podium and point-scoring finishes than Schumacher, Hamilton or any other F1 driver ever managed.

Interestingly, Fangio won his five titles for four different teams, suggesting that, at least in that particular era of racing, the Argentinian’s driving skills substantially contributed to his success. If you gave the man a decent car, he made the most of it. The fact that Fangio lived to a ripe old age instead of dying young like so many of his racing contemporaries also speaks to his aptitude, by the way.

How much does driving skill contribute to F1 success today? While current drivers are undeniably highly skilled, there’s no denying that advances in driving technology have skyrocketed. These days, two races are happening: one on, and one off the track. Teams spend millions to gain a competitive edge through design and technology improvements, however short-lived it may be – the other teams are usually quick to copy it. With only a few rich teams dominating the championships and drivers’ salaries being a minor component in a team’s budget, it’s tempting to conclude that the car plays a much larger role in race outcomes than driving skill.

Still, at the very least there’s a non-negligible contribution from the driver: teammates have the same hardware at their disposal, yet never cross the finish line at the same time. In fact, the performance differences between teammates are often quite substantial, especially when compared to the lap time differences between the best and worst car-driver combinations on the grid.

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Complementarity

The rule of thumb in the F1 world, introduced by former champion Nico Rosberg, is that driving skills account for only 20 percent of winning success in modern F1 racing. Using an elaborate statistical model, researchers from the University of Bristol and the University of Sheffield concluded in 2016 that it’s even less: they attributed 86 percent of the relative differences in drivers’ performance to the execution of their teams.

In a more recent analysis, two Canadian researchers agreed that pure driver skill accounts for about 15 percent of results. They posit, however, that the rule of thumb, as well as the British study, severely overestimates the car and team’s input: instead of 80-something percent, it’s closer to 20 percent. By far the biggest contributor to wins and championships (30-40 percent) is the interaction between driver and team, they say. The remainder is random events.

“Our findings are particularly validating for drivers, as it shows they don’t just drive the cars but also provide valuable input and feedback on the development of the cars. More skilled drivers improve the return to team technology and vice versa. After all, F1 cars don’t drive themselves and drivers can’t ply their trade without an F1 car. The 80-20 rule vastly underestimates the role of the driver,” says Duane Rockerbie from the University of Lethbridge.

Due to a strong complementarity between driver skill and car technology, it’s not man or machine but man and machine.