Lewis Hamilton is on the verge of breaking the Micheal Schumacher's record of 91 wins in career, and highly likely expected to equal his record of seven world championships by the end of the 2020 season. The imminence of those records breaking has prompted once more the vivid debate of who, among the all time greats of the sport, is the fastest driver. Whether it has been argued among fans or pundits, that debate has always been endless, and strongly related to what everyone thinks is the best metric to assess their favourite's abilities.
As a result, in an attempt to get the most objective picture, F1 joined forces with Amazon Web Services (AWS) in a full year programm of analysing data to determine the ultimate fastest driver from 1983 onwards. They have used an algorithm wich worked under the following rules:
- Drivers’ qualifying performances over time versus their team mates have been compared, wich means a driver of a backmarker car has just as much chance of showing up well as a driver who was fighting for pole positions;
- Outliers like crashes, car failures, changing weather conditions in a qualifying session have been normalised;
- Team mates had to have completed at least five qualifying sessions against one another before they were compared;
- Age was factored in, while if a driver was coming back to the sport after three or more seasons out of F1 was also considered;
- higher ranking has been given to drivers who either dominated their team mates over time, or those who showed up well against strong team mates
- Only the raw speed in qualifying performance is assessed, neither the tyre management, nor the racecraft.
Having set all the rules, and gathered the datas they had in hands from 1983 to date, F1 and AWS came up with an interesting top ten all time qualifiers:
Expectedly, this ranking, far from its original objective to settle the fastest driver argument, raised even more questions. For instance, some jokingly pointed that George Russel who has never been outqualified by any of his teammates, should then appear in the ranking. On a more serious note though, here are some elements that one might question the algorithm on: has the fuel loads and the tyres from different eras been factored too? Why eliminate outliers caused by weather conditions? Has the number of years of qualifying been pondered? Has the strenght of your opponents really been factored? Like in Lewis Hamilton's case, who had to face three members of this all time top ten list, unlike Schumacher and Senna ahead of him.
Rob Smedley, Formula 1’s Director of Data Systems who led this study along with AWS' teams, has been quite positive about the credit he gives to this specific measure. In his opinion, "Qualifying speed is something that we can be really quite clear about”.
“If you think about race pace, there's a lot of nuances to that race pace, and it's sometimes difficult to pull it out. A qualifying lap is a single lap, you've got two guys in the same car and they go out and do a single lap, and the better driver will end up with the better lap. There's not much ambiguity about that single data point, so that's the data point that we're using"
“What we have to do as the mathematical modellers is to look at what data is available and then ensure that we can normalise that data across the years,” he adds.
“The model is then clever enough to reconcile the rest by just understanding what the lap times are. So it would seem that you'd need a load of data and… a load of car data and all the rest of it, but you don't. It's simply just using the lap times, and we've got robust data, in terms of lap times, from this period.”
Although one can acknowledge the amount of work that has certainly been put into this research, it is quite a wishful thinking wanting to compare drivers from different periods of time, with different machineries, because there are way too many variables to factor, and the coefficient used to ponder them is subject to the algorithm architect's appreciation. Ultimately, if anything, the ranking seemed to get the general agreement about its top 3, even if the order varied from one individual to another. Since F1 isn't only about qualifying performances, I'm curious to see if F1 and AWS will venture themselves in determining who is the all-round best driver of all time. That for sure will create some more arguments, and we are all in for it.