The most competitive year in F1 history?

The late '80's and early '90's are regarded by many as the most competitive era in F1 history

Which year was really the most competitive? Which driver made the fastest impact? Who had the most bragging rights? We consult the statistics to find out…

There’s been a lot of talk about 2012 being the highest quality field ever assembled in a Formula 1, with the return of Kimi Räikkönen taking the number of competing world champions to SIX. However, I thought it would be interesting to see how this statistic compares to previous years, particularly if one were to consider two additional factors: competing drivers who would go on to become world champions, and drivers who would have continued competing had they not been tragically killed.

The following graphic has not been prepared by a professional statistician, it has been made by me messing around on excel (I know, I need to get out more). It is however useful for it provides at a simple glance a nice way of visualising the success of all the F1 drivers relative to each other. The drivers are arranged in chronological order across the top, while down the vertical axis is the years competed. The corresponding colour blocks denote their career. Black reflects the years they competed until they won a world championship, while the colour represents subsequent competing years. Sound confusing? Na, it’s not that hard to figure out. Take a look now!

Graphic displaying the careers of F1 World Champions

While of course it is impossible, as a non-driver, to verify which year was the most competitive in history,  the data comparison did throw up some interesting results:

The Most Competitive Year: 1965, 1970, 1972 and 1980

Yes, the first thing you will notice is that there are a few years where a number of champions careers overlap. 1965 and 1970 both boast FIVE current world champions and THREE future world champions in their grid line-ups. That’s eight champion grade drivers altogether, pretty impressive. But 1980 goes a little bit better, matching the five current world champions and raising the number of future champions to five. So that’s TEN competing world champion grade drivers in one line up! So the 2012 field would have to wait four more years to stand a chance of replicating that competition, and that’s on the basis they have a different champ every year.

However, there is one more important issue to discuss, the question of what might have been in 1972. Unfortunately, we lost the drivers Jim Clark and Jochem Rindt at the tender ages of 32 and 28 respectively. Their grey colours on the chart show what might have been their career assuming they had retired at an average age of 36. We can see, then, that 1972 could have been a spectacular year, matching 2012’s SIX current world champions, and offering up a further four. So again, we are looking at TEN world champion grade drivers in one race, that’s nearly half the field.

Fastest Impact / Slowest Impact

Fastest impact is Farina, since he got the whole thing rolling, but then there is Villeneuve and Hamilton, who both took a single year to adjust to the rigours of the sport before claiming its ultimate prize. What about the other end of the glory specturm? Which sorry chappy toiled away the longest? Nigel Mansell, at a painfully long 12 years, Mario Andretti not far behind on 10 and Jenson Button on 9. Another point of note is the similarity between Graeme Hill and Damon Hill. Both took four years before landing their world title, like father like son.

Most Bragging Rights?

Schumacher. You didn’t need me to tell you that. Not only has he competed the most as a world champion, but he was winning world championships for most of those competing years. However, not far behind the Schuminator is the suave Graeme Hill, Mr Monaco, Mr Le mans and Mr Indy 500 all rolled into one.

Greatest Driver??????

Forget Senna, forget Fangio, forget common sense…without a doubt the greatest driver of all time is surely the Australian Alan Jones. Unparalleled in the sport, in 1980 he beat no less than SIX current world champions and THREE future champions. Congratulations Jones, the statistics declare you the top man!

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