The Great Driver Debate

First, the background: I am a Sebastian Vettel fan.  I have been since the Toro Rosso days.  So I get a bit miffed when people say he’s only got 4 world titles because of the car.  This is not to say that the Red Bulls weren’t amazing, because they were, but that because you pretty much have to have a good car to win the driver’s title.  Merely good racers have won the title, but it’s rare that average (in comparison to the rest of the field) cars do.

I may get a little irritated by the Hamilton fans on Twitter that insist that he’s all talent, while Vettel is all car.  I think Hamilton is a fabulous talent, but the Mercedes last year was head and shoulders above any of the other cars, and I seemed to recall that that McLaren he won in was a little bit good too.

Gut feeling (and a certain pro-Vettel bias) is probably not good enough to decide this, so I thought, what would be a good way of seeing if both Vettel and Hamilton’s winning cars were better than everything else in the field.

One quick and dirty way I thought of was looking at the performance of the other car from that team.  If the car is better than everything else in the field, you’d expect the team-mate to come second.

I’ve compiled a list of the driver’s world title winners from the past 10 years, and of who came second to them.

Year Winner Second
2004 Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari)
2005 Fernando Alonso (Renault) Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren)
2006 Fernando Alonso (Renault) Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2007 Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
2008 Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) Felipe Massa (Ferrari)
2009 Jenson Button (Brawn) Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
2010 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
2011 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) Jenson Button (McLaren)
2012 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
2013 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
2014 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

In that list, there were only two times where a constructor had drivers finishing first and second in the driver’s championship, Ferrari in 2004 and Mercedes in 2014.

Now the interesting thing for me is that in none of Vettel’s championship winning years did his team-mate finish second to him.  Which suggests he might have some talent beyond being in the right car at the right time.

Obviously, this is very rough and ready, and misses things like the curse that afflicted Mark Webber.

Another way to look at it might be to look at the positions of the winning driver and his team-mate directly.

Year Winner Team-mate
2004 Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 2nd (Rubens Barrichello)
2005 Fernando Alonso (Renault) 5th (Giancarlo Fisichella)
2006 Fernando Alonso (Renault) 4th (Giancarlo Fisichella)
2007 Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) 4th (Felipe Massa)
2008 Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 7th (Heikki Kovalainen)
2009 Jenson Button (Brawn) 3rd (Rubens Barrichello)
2010 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 3rd (Mark Webber)
2011 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 3rd (Mark Webber)
2012 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 6th (Mark Webber)
2013 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 3rd (Mark Webber)
2014 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 2nd (Nico Rosberg)

On average, the team-mate of the winner finished in 3.81th place.  Which we shall round to 4th 😉  Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel have all had team-mates that finished lower than that.  On average, Alonso and Hamilton’s team-mates finished in 4.5th place, while Vettel’s team-mate finished in 3.75th place.  So not as far behind, but there’s not much of a difference.

Obviously, we’re never going to get a proper head-to-head of Alonso vs Vettel or Vettel vs Hamilton, and the one season where Hamilton and Alonso were in the same car, they scored the same number of points.  To me all of this suggests that they are pretty much of a muchness in terms of driving skill.  Which I grant is not a great conclusion to end with, but it is what it is.

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