Engineers, not racers, are now the true drivers of success in motor sports
“I ALWAYS THOUGHT records were there to be broken,” Michael Schumacher, a star Formula 1 (F1) driver, said in 2013. At the time, his record of 91 career F1 victories looked safe: the closest active racer had just 32. Yet on October 11th Lewis Hamilton of Britain equalled the mark. Mr Hamilton is also on pace to tie Mr Schumacher’s record of seven F1 championships later this year.
“我一直认为纪录就是用来打破的。”F1明星车手迈克尔·舒马赫（Michael Schumacher）在2013年说。当时，他在职业生涯中总共拿下91个分站赛冠军的纪录看起来很安全：成绩最接近的现役车手只获得了32个冠军。不过在10月11日，英国车手刘易斯·汉密尔顿（Lewis Hamilton）追平了他的纪录。汉密尔顿还有望在今年晚些时候追平舒马赫七次夺得F1总冠军的纪录。
Mr Hamilton’s ascent has ignited debate over whether he is F1’s best driver ever. Comparing athletes across eras is always hard—especially in motor sports, where a racer depends on his car. Moreover, F1 has regularly changed its scoring system and its number of races, drivers and teams.
However, statistical analysis can address many of these nuances. We have built a mathematical model, based on a study by Andrew Bell of the University of Sheffield, to measure the impact of all 745 drivers in F1 history. It finds that Mr Hamilton’s best years fall just short of those of the all-time greats—but so do Mr Schumacher’s.
The model first converts orders of finish into points, using the 1991-2002 system of ten points for a win and six for second place. It adjusts these scores for structural effects, such as the number and past performances of other drivers in the race. Then, it splits credit between drivers and their vehicles. (Today, F1 has ten teams, each using two drivers and one type of car.)
Disentangling these factors is tricky. Mr Schumacher spent most of his peak at Ferrari, as Mr Hamilton has at Mercedes, leaving scant data on their work in other cars.
However, their teammates varied. And drivers who raced alongside Mr Hamilton or Mr Schumacher tended to fare far better in those stints than they did elsewhere. If Ferrari’s and Mercedes’ engineers boosted lesser racers this much, they probably aided their stars to a similar degree. Because most drivers switch teams a few times, this method can be applied throughout history.
Between the two racers with 91 wins, the model prefers Mr Schumacher. He won 1.9 more points per race than an average driver would have done in the same events and cars, edging out Mr Hamilton’s mark of 1.8. Limited to their five best consecutive years, the gap widens, to 2.7 points per race for Mr Schumacher and 2.0 for Mr Hamilton.
This difference stems mostly from the impact of their cars. Both stars raced in the finest vehicles of their day. But 20 years ago, cars from Williams and McLaren were nearly as strong as Ferrari’s. In contrast, Mercedes now towers over its rivals, enabling Mr Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, his teammate, to coast past lesser cars. Before joining Mercedes, Mr Bottas had never won a F1 race. He now has nine victories.
Yet on a per-race basis, the greats of yesteryear beat both modern stars. Three of the model’s top four drivers stopped racing by 1973; the leader, the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, won five titles in the 1950s.
不过，在场均得分的较量中，这两位现代明星都被昔日的伟大车手击败了。在模型中排名前四的车手中有三位到1973年已经不再比赛；排在第一位的阿根廷车手胡安·曼努埃尔·范吉奥（Juan Manuel Fangio）在上世纪50年代获得过五次总冠军。
These pioneers had short careers. Fangio started just 51 races, to Mr Schumacher’s 306. However, the model is impressed by them, because the impact of cars relative to drivers has grown over time. On average, it assigns drivers in the 1950s 58% of their teams’ points; today, that share is 19%. Fangio, who was a mechanic by training and won titles using cars from four different firms, was known as “the master”. The masters of modern F1 are engineers who sit behind laptops, not steering wheels. ■