Who are the best ever Formula One drivers?

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The 2015 Formula One season came to a close at the weekend with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but such has been the dominance of Lewis Hamilton that he had secured the drivers’ championship fully three races before the final chequered flag was shown.

Hamilton’s year scores as one of the greatest ever, but it also illustrates perfectly the complex interplay between driver and car in determining success in the sport. The Briton’s driving was outstanding, but the 2015 Mercedes he drove to glory was also one of the most dominant cars of all time. So does he owe his title more to his own skill as driver, or to his car and the team behind it?

Based on an FT analysis of every race since the inaugural World Championship of Drivers in 1950, Hamilton’s driving performance in 2015 is the sixth best ever, whilst the 2015 Mercedes ranks as the eighth best car over the same period.

In short, both driver and car have been excellent, but despite the considerable performance advantage of the Mercedes over other teams’ cars, Hamilton’s lead over other drivers in terms of skill behind the wheel appears to be larger still.

The chart below shows how Hamilton's 2015 compares to his other seasons in Formula One in terms of his performance as a driver as well as that of the various cars he has driven. This year was both his best performance to date and saw him at the wheel of the most dominant car he has driven relative to all other cars on the grid.

Title wins: 

To assess driver performance we scored every race result according to the 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 system that was in place from 1991 to 2002 (the driver winning a race scores 10 points, second place 6, through to a single point for sixth place).

For cars we applied the same system but exclusively to qualifying, on the basis that this can be considered a purer measure of vehicle performance than the results of a full race, where driver ability, pit stops and other factors have more influence.

We then calculated the percentage of all available points throughout the season that a driver or team won, and scaled them from 0 to 100, where 0 means no points scored, and 100 means a team or driver won the largest ever share of points since the sport began (Michael Schumacher’s 2002 drive and the 1952 Ferrari each score 100).

This system shows us that even among a subset of the 281 seasons raced in total by the 20 most successful drivers ever, the 2015 performances of Hamilton and his car each rank among the top 10 per cent of driver and car seasons ever.

Looking at these performances in the context of recent history, they take on a slightly different complexion: Hamilton’s excellent 2015 was bettered by Vettel’s 2013, whilst Mercedes’ mastery of the sport’s new engine regulations makes it the most dominant car since the 1993 Williams. In other words, Vettel’s driving ability played a more important role in his 2013 title win than Hamilton's did in his win this year.

To see how Hamilton and Mercedes’ 2015 compares to other great seasons past and present, we have visualised ever season raced by each of the 20 most successful drivers of all time. The charts below show driver and team dominance by season for these drivers plus a handful of others from the current generation.

Select a circle to see the driver’s precise dominance scores in that season, where their performance stands in the all-time rankings, and which car(s) the driver was in that year.

Use the check-boxes to select two drivers for a head-to-head comparison.

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Title wins: 

Source: FT research

Methodology detail

The 20 most successful drivers were selected based on the proportion of races they started that they went on to win. Räikkönen, Rosberg, Button, Massa, Webber and Ricciardo were then added to this group to allow for more head-to-head comparisons between current drivers.

For each of the resulting group of 26, we took every race a driver started, and recorded two pieces of information:

We then summed each of these numbers by year, and divided the result by the total number of points available across that season as a whole, to give the share of all points won by a driver or team, i.e a measure of their dominance of the field.

These raw dominance scores were then scaled from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating a team or driver scoring no points using the scoring method described above, and 100 indicating the highest share of points won across all 281 seasons in the complete dataset.

In the charts above, the “10% most dominant seasons” labels and the references to all time ranks refer to a given score relative to all 281 seasons in the dataset.

If you have any questions on the methodology or the results of our analysis, you can contact the author on Twitter or via email