Many years ago I started trying to find a way to rank Formula 1 drivers from different eras, driving vastly different cars under different sets of rules, in one table. It turned out to be a very complex problem. Eventually I came up with a system that delivers sensible, easily explained results. This is what I’m sharing here.
I would like to make two disclaimers before going into a more detailed explanation.
First, this is not about deciding who is the “best” driver. Many excellent drivers like André Lotterer (tied in 756th place) didn’t do well because of the circumstances in which they entered Formula 1. Other excellent drivers like Lewis Hamilton (currently in 1st place) have had the advantage of always finding themselves in a car capable of challenging for races. We can’t decide who was the “best” by analyzing race results. We can, however, decide who was the most successful, and that is what I hope to have done.
Second, this ranking system is arbitrary. All ranking systems that propose to do what I have done here are arbitrary. There are hundreds of ways in which the body of Formula 1 results can be sliced and diced and I have chosen a way that makes sense to me. Your way might be different, and is certain to give slightly different results. So please don’t be upset if your favourite driver is ranked below your least favourite. I may very well agree with you. I just list the drivers in the order that the numbers give me.
To come up with these rankings, I had to throw away the notion of using Championship points. There have been over 30 slightly different points systems in Formula 1 history, and I also wanted to be able to rank the most humble of drivers, who might not ever have scored championship points.
Therefore, I developed my own points system. In short, a driver gets one point for every place by which he beats every other driver in the race. So, in a race with three competitors, the winner gets 2 points and the second-placed driver gets 1. Drivers get no points for coming last, but there is a twist – your participation is still counted if you retire from the race. Finishes don’t really count but starting does. You come last if you retire before anyone else does.
Disqualified drivers score no points but drivers who beat them on track still score points for finishing ahead of them.
Then once each driver in a race is allocated their points, that value is divided by the winner’s points tally to get a performance index for that race. The winner gets a performance value of 1. The last-placed driver gets zero. Everyone else is in between.
To get each driver’s ranking score, I add up their performance index for every Grand Prix they started, and divide it by their number of starts, plus a modulating constant. The modulating constant was necessary because, without it, anyone who won the Indy 500 between 1950 and 1960 would dominate these rankings. (If you know your Formula 1 history well, you will understand why.) Once I had it in the calculation, I realized that it helped in other ways. It reduces the impact of “one-hit wonders” and it stops rookie drivers from slewing up and down the rankings by hundreds of places in their first year. Currently, the modulating constant is set to a value of 9, which gives a satisfying, reasonable result.
Starts by drivers who were disqualified are counted when dividing the sum of their performance indices, so disqualification carries a heavy penalty.
If you have read this far, you will want to know a few things now.
The Indy 500 is included.
The Formula 2 competitors in the German Grands Prix of the 1950s and 1960s are included, so there are two people on this list who never actually raced a Formula 1 car in a Grand Prix.
Shared drives are handled by splitting the performance index equally between everyone who took the wheel during the race.
I used official FIA starting criteria. In other words, if the race is restarted within the first four laps and you were eliminated during those laps, you are deemed not to have started.
Every single one of my favourite drivers is ranked lower than I would have hoped, and I have accepted this. I’ve made no attempts to manipulate the rankings. If you are grossly offended by my results, I apologise.
I attempt to update this site within 24 hours of each Formula 1 Grand Prix.
I truly hope that you will be fascinated by the close chases, bitter disappointments, and stellar climbs by new drivers through these rankings. Thank you for your visit to this site. I hope you will return but, most of all, I hope you will continue to enjoy the exciting sport of Formula 1 Grand Prix racing.