The Braking Point: The difficulty making comparisons in Formula 1

Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel

I am thrilled to be writing my first column for Grand Prix 247, a space I will use to try and set out and explore my views on Formula 1. It is a complicated sport that many of us can only begin to understand in full, but it brings out debates and disputes like few others.

These differences of opinion often centre on the drivers. Unlike many series around the world, F1 plays host to vast inequities in terms of finances and speed, with the top teams spending significantly more than those towards the bottom. As a result, judging the true level of drivers can be difficult, because not only are they rarely in similar quality machinery, but development rates mean that the relative speed and strengths of each car are changing all the time.

There are some like Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton over which there can be little debate. Through their careers both benefited from rarely being in inferior cars, but nonetheless they have always shown up well in comparison to their teammates and delivered wins on a regular basis. Both have shown an ability to master all of the skills a good racing driver needs in their arsenal, while their relentless speed over a number of seasons has been unquestionable. Fernando Alonso is another that fits into this category, while Max Verstappen is already looking as though he will too.

However, when you look a level just below it is incredibly difficult to differentiate between the top drivers and debate rages as a result. Sebastian Vettel has seen his reputation massively damaged since he left Red Bull, despite finishing second in the drivers standings with Ferrari twice. Others like Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg have not had the same number of opportunities as Vettel, but they have not faced the same level of scrutiny the German has having spent almost his entire career at the front of the grid.

Judging the relative merits of these drivers is therefore very difficult and you need to make plenty of assumptions when assessing them. The Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 was dominant in qualifying, but does that mean Vettel deserves less credit for his ruthless driving from the front and the manner in which he defeated Mark Webber? Rosberg only became recognised as a top tier driver when he went up against Hamilton, but should he have earned more of a reputation having dominated his teammates, including Schumacher, for much of his career?

In truth there is no way that we can make comparisons that are totally independent of bias. Observers cannot truly judge the relative strengths and weaknesses of each car, and they cannot accurately determine the running order on every race weekend. Instead, we have to make judgements informed on what we do know and how the drivers deal with their situation.

One thing that we can be certain of though is that any driver who manages to win a world championship deserves our respect. Whether they did it in a front-running car or with an underdog, there is so much that goes into winning in F1 beyond your equipment and the achievements of a driver like Vettel should not be clouded because of his struggles since. F1 may be a ruthless and brutal word in which to operate, but let’s not do our champions a disservice by underestimating their successes.