SCIENCE
04/18/2016 02:55 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2016

Scientists Name Greatest Formula One Driver Of All Time In New Study

Researchers say Juan Manuel Fangio was better than any other F1 driver, living or dead. Here's why.

Who is the greatest Formula One driver of all time?

F1 fans certainly have their own opinions. But according to a new statistical analysis by scientists at the University of Sheffield in England, it's Juan Manuel Fangio (see him in action in the video above and the GIF below).

Though other drivers notched more first-place finishes, the research shows that the legendary Argentinian driver -- who in the 1950s won five world championships for four different teams -- towers above all others in terms of his overall performance as a driver.

What about Michael Schumacher? The celebrated German driver notched more wins (91) and more world championships (seven) than any other F1 driver in history (and was voted best in a recent poll) but is #8 on the new list of all-time greats. 

Other marquee names didn't fare especially well either. Ayrton Senna, a favorite of many F1 fans, won three world championships but is only #4 on the list. Lewis Hamilton, another three-time world champion who is still driving, is #12. Niki Lauda failed to make the top 100 even though he too is a three-time world champ (he ranked #142 on the list).

Some lesser-known drivers scored surprisingly high on the list. Christian Fittipaldi, for example, is just out of the top 10 in position #11.

Deciding who's best in motor racing's premier series is a tricky question. After all, victory on the track depends not just on a driver's talent but also on the speed and reliability of his car and the strength of his team. Then there's the challenge of comparing recent drivers to those who competed in earlier, very different eras of the series, which got its start in 1950.

To compensate for all the variables, the researchers created a "multilevel" statistical model. It took into account team and driver performance between 1950 and 2014, along with the weather conditions in which the drivers competed and the tracks they drove on. 

Here are the top 10 F1 drivers, according to the new analysis:

  1. Juan Manuel Fangio (Argentina)
  2. Alain Prost (France)
  3. Jim Clark (UK)
  4. Ayrton Senna (Brazil)
  5. Fernando Alonso (Spain)
  6. Nelson Piquet (Brazil)
  7. Jackie Stewart (UK)
  8. Michael Schumacher (Germany)
  9. Emerson Fittipaldi (Brazil)
  10. Sebastian Vettel (Germany)

It was possible to judge drivers' relative abilities only because drivers tend to switch teams.

"If drivers all stayed in the same team, we would have no way of separating the effects of the team and driver," study co-author Dr. Andrew Bell, a lecturer in quantitative social sciences at the University of Sheffield, told The Huffington Post in an email.

(Story continues below infographic.)

In addition to revealing which drivers were tops, the analysis showed that teams are about six times more important than drivers to success in Formula One.

This isn't surprising, the scientists argue in a paper about their research published online April 11, 2016 in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, since "certain teams have more funds, are able to employ the best engineers, statisticians, and use more advanced technology than other teams."

Bell said the names atop the list aren't especially surprising either, although he acknowledged that Prost above his rival Senna is "a bit surprising," and Schumacher in eighth is "surprising until you realize his results were dragged down by his post-2008 performances."

As for the high rank of Christian Fittipaldi -- a nephew of Emerson Fittipaldi -- who was saddled with inferior cars, Bell said in the email that "he often did a good job of getting a poor car over the finish line, and his teammates often failed to do so."

You won't see any female drivers on the top 10 list. Female drivers compete regularly in other racing series, but only a very few have competed in F1 -- and without much success.

The same statistical model used in the study might prove useful in other ways. For example, Bell said, it could be used to measure how segregated neighborhoods and cities are; to rank schools according to educational attainment; or identify high- and low-performing teams within companies.

It could even prove useful as a tool for identifying promising drivers in lesser series -- to determine who deserves a shot as an F1 driver.

But Bell said he was under no illusions that the new research would end the debate over who's best in Formula One, adding "Nor should it."

Bob Varsha, a veteran F1 commentator for ESPN and other networks, expressed doubts about the validity of the new rankings, saying "This seems a little silly to me" in an email to HuffPost.

"One thing is certain," Varsha added. "The 'greatest driver' argument is one that fans love to engage in, and this project will certainly add fuel to that fire. Which is probably a good thing."

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