When Nigel Mansell won the Formula One world championship in 1992, it was in a Williams Renault car that was capable of lapping (at times) 2 seconds faster than its nearest rival.
And Michael Schumacher, winner of seven championships, won at least one of them in a superior Ferrari that used Bridgestone tyres which clearly outperformed their Michelin rivals.
So when, as happens occasionally, a car is developed that gives the driver such an advantage, how can we really assess who the best drivers are? In 2017, with Ferrari and Mercedes going head-to-head, does that mean their drivers are the best, or just the lucky ones in the right machinery? And does a driver’s number of championships clearly indicate who is best?
To answer this, the first place to look is at the only other person in equal machinery. If one driver vastly outperforms his teammate in the same machinery, then clearly he is better.
Secondly, we should consider past performance. If a driver has consistently been faster than his teammates in different teams in his career, then the indicators are that we are dealing with a special talent.
However, this method has its limits: regulatory and technological changes alter the way cars feel, and some drivers adapt better than others. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was formidable in the early 2000s; yet in modern cars he struggles to apply his talents. The truly best drivers can adapt.
We must also consider politics: some drivers have contracts that guarantee them ‘number one’ status in their team, creating an unequal playing field. The greatest example of this was Ferrari in Schumacher’s time — would he have had so many world championships had the team not been completely built around him?
It’s worth noting that drivers improve over time, but the best ones are instantly fast. Thus, when assessing the current grid, Lewis Hamilton stands out. In his first season, he was neck-and-neck with double world champion Fernando Alonso in the same machinery, and if we are honest, Hamilton was often faster.
Against world champion Jenson Button, Hamilton was always faster, even if Button one year scored more points. And against Nico Rosberg, who was marginally quicker than Schumacher (though Schumacher was at the end of his career), Hamilton was nearly always faster, just losing out in 2016 due to bad luck and earlier silly errors.
Fernando Alonso also stands out: only Lewis Hamilton has challenged him in the same machinery, and Alonso will tell you the team favoured Lewis.
What about Ferrari? Raikkonen may have a world championship, but he has consistently been outpaced by Sebastian Vettel during their time together, and was even beaten by Felipe Massa earlier in his career — the same Massa who could never quite catch Schumacher.
Vettel is interesting: his first title was won in a remarkable four-way showdown, but after his victory, the team solidified around him, and the titles followed. Yet in his last year at Red Bull, he was often overshadowned by the arrival of Daniel Ricciardo, an upstart Australian who had the audacity to, on average, outdrive Vettel. Had Vettel lost motivation, or was he genuinely not as good as we thought?
And this year, Ricciardo, now partnered against 19-year-old Max Verstappen, has been ever-so-slightly outpaced, suggesting that Max is a clear champion of the future, and logically suggesting that Vettel, while having won four championships, can’t be regarded as a true great.
Perhaps deep-down, Vettel knows this, as his contract includes a blocking provision to keep Lewis Hamilton out of his team at Ferrari, depriving us of a true comparison.
As for the rest, some point to Esteban Ocon as a star of the future; yet his performance against Sergio Perez, a driver comparable to Jenson Button (i. e. quick on his day, but nothing too special), indicates he’s at best a Vettel, not a Hamilton. Nico Hulkenberg seems to be similar, though Carlos Sainz Jr, who went head-to-head against Max Verstappen and didn’t do too badly, is the only other driver with clear potential.
So, if we were to assess the current field, Hamilton and Verstappen stand out, with Alonso, Ricciardo and perhaps Vettel and Carlos Sainz Jr not far behind. Yet the prospects of these titans going head-to-head in the same cars, alas, remains the stuff of fantasy.