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Big, bigger, biggest!
The 'halo effect' in Grand Prix racing


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Michael Schumacher


Jordan-Ford 191




1991 Belgian Grand Prix (August 25, 1991)

Michael Schumacher, Jordan 191, 1991 Belgian GP

Michael Schumacher made his debut in Spa. He was quite impressive during practice but his race lasted only a few hunderd metres. Who could foresee that 21 years later he would finish his career as a seven-time world champion who scored 91 Grand Prix victories, 68 pole positions and 77 fastest laps? When it comes to downright figures no-one has done better.

Does this mean he is the best?

Absolute figures don't tell the whole story. Take for example the number of races during a season. In 2012, the championship consisted of twenty Grand Prix races. In the early sixties a season counted half that number, sometimes even less. To equal Schumacher's number of participations (309) a career would have lasted at least 31 seasons in those days! The only driver who managed this so far was Michel Vaillant. In his long, almost everlasting career he challenged both Fangio and Prost.

Also, when looking at the technical reliability of the engines and cars used in the sixties it seems highly improbable that anyone would win 91 races in 31 seasons. In 1964, a season of ten races, John Surtees, the world champion, didn't finish in four races (that's 40%) due to mechanical failures. Sebastian Vettel, in 2012, retired on two occasions during twenty races. That's only 10%.

The very best: the experts vote

Fans and experts have a persistent and irresistible need to compare, make lists and hitparades to determine who is really big, bigger, the biggest, be it a rock star, a soccer player, a painter or in this case a Grand Prix driver. Fans do not stick to sheer numbers. Personal impressions and preferences play an important role in this type of elections, with items you can not measure such as charisma and nationality. Motor racing is emotion, jingoism and excitement.

In 2009, British magazine Autosport asked 217 (ex-)Formula 1 drivers to name their favourite racers since 1950. In 2012. members of the BBC Sport crew did the same, with the following results:

Autosport / 2009 BBC / 2012
1 Senna, A Senna, A
2 Schumacher, M Fangio, J.M.
3 Fangio, J.M. Clark, J
4 Prost, A Schumacher, M
5 Clark, J Prost, A
6 Stewart, J Moss, S
7 Lauda, N Stewart, J
8 Moss, S Vettel, S
9 Alonso, F Lauda, N
10 Villeneuve, G Alonso, F
11 Mansell, N Ascari, A
12 Fittipaldi, E Villeneuve, G
13 Piquet, N Mansell, N
14 Rindt, J Hakkinen, M
15 Hakkinen, M Hamilton, L
16 Ascari, A Piquet, N
17 Hamilton, L Fittipaldi, E
18 Brabham, J Brabham, J
19 Peterson, R Hill, G
20 Andretti, M Rindt, J

Measuring success: some simple statistics

So much for personal impressions and preferences: being the best in the opinion of fans and experts is one. But how can we actually measure success? In order to find out we must do some mathematics. We do not measure success by looking at absolute numbers, but at averages.

To find out I collected the classifications of all World Championship Grand Prix races between 1950 and 2012. Then I considered the factors playing a crucial role in a driver's success. Which of these are a real measure of his capabilities? First: drive as fast as you can, be in front and finish. Second: be victorious. Third: be on pole. And fourth: drive the ultimate racing lap.

With this in mind I alloted points to the drivers who finished in the first ten places 1 to 10: first place 10 points, second 9 etc., thus avoiding the varying regulations during the years. I added this all up and divided the result by the number of races. This resulted in an average classification. Simple enough: Fangio scored 350.5 points in this way during 51 Grands Prix, his average score becoming 6,9 points, meaning that he finished an average fourth position during his whole career in Formula One. Not bad. Jo Siffert scored 202 points in 100 Grand Prix and so has an average of 2.02 points (ninth on average). Not bad either, but not as good as Fangio. However, I introduced one condition: a driver had to be active during at least two seasons in order to prevent freak occurrences.

Having done this, I counted the victories, pole positions and fastest laps and computed the averages in the same way. That got me four different rankings but of course these do not equal value. A fastest lap counts less when compared to a victory. Pole position is fine but is it worth the same as a good finishing position?

So the best 200 in the list of race positions were given points. The same applied to the best 75 winners, the best 50 pole winners and the best 25 fastest-lap scorers. World champions got an extra bonus. This resulted in the following top-20 (for the full top-200 see this file):

points wins pole f.lap champ total
1 Fangio, J.M 200 75 50 25 5 355
2 Schumacher, M 200 75 45 25 7 352
3 Clark, J 195 75 50 25 2 347
4 Ascari, A 195 75 50 25 2 347
5 Prost, A 200 70 40 20 4 334
6 Senna, A 195 70 50 10 3 328
7 Stewart, J 190 75 45 15 3 328
8 Hamilton, L 200 70 45 10 1 326
9 Vettel, S 200 70 50 3 323
10 Farina, N 195 65 35 15 1 311
11 Hill, D 185 65 40 20 1 311
12 Moss, S 170 70 45 25 310
13 Mansell, N 170 65 45 20 1 301
14 Alonso, F 195 65 35 2 297
15 Hakkinen, M 180 60 40 15 2 297
16 Raikkonen, K 190 55 25 20 1 291
17 Gonzalez, JF 190 45 30 20 285
18 Lauda, N 170 60 35 15 3 283
19 Montoya, JP 190 45 35 10 280
20 Piquet, N 180 60 30 5 3 278

Reputation and the 'halo-effect'

Now look what happens if we put all three together:

Autosport / 2009 BBC / 2012 Statistics
1 Senna, A Senna, A Fangio, J.M
2 Schumacher, M Fangio, J.M. Schumacher, M
3 Fangio, J.M. Clark, J Clark, J
4 Prost, A Schumacher, M Ascari, A
5 Clark, J Prost, A Prost, A
6 Stewart, J Moss, S Senna, A
7 Lauda, N Stewart, J Stewart, J
8 Moss, S Vettel, S Hamilton, L
9 Alonso, F Lauda, N Vettel, S
10 Villeneuve, G Alonso, F Farina, N
11 Mansell, N Ascari, A Hill, D
12 Fittipaldi, E Villeneuve, G Moss, S
13 Piquet, N Mansell, N Mansell, N
14 Rindt, J Hakkinen, M Alonso, F
15 Hakkinen, M Hamilton, L Hakkinen, M
16 Ascari, A Piquet, N Raikkonen, K
17 Hamilton, L Fittipaldi, E Gonzalez, JF
18 Brabham, J Brabham, J Lauda, N
19 Peterson, R Hill, G Montoya, JP
20 Andretti, M Rindt, J Piquet, N

Schumacher's somewhat disappointing results after his comeback did him no good in the opinion of the BBC people: in 2009 (having just finished an impressive career) only Senna headed him. In 2012 Fangio and Clark passed him.

Senna is first on both the Autosport and BBC list. But when we look at the statistical data he only reaches sixth position. Can we explain this difference? Maybe he was the best but not the most successful.

First, let's keep in mind that to Senna racing wasn't just another sport. It was an all-pervasive passion. No other driver radiated such intensity. Whether you liked him or not, you couldn't be indifferent to his approach to motor racing. Seeing him drive almost felt like being part of a religious experience.

His tragic death in 1994, seen by millions on television, made him part of our collective memory. He was already an icon, a legend, his performances were seen as an act of magic. But in 1994 he (literally) grew 'bigger than life'.

Psychologists call this the 'halo effect', 'halo' meaning 'aureole'. It is the phenomenon that the presence of a very unique quality gives the observer the impression that other special qualities are also present within the same person.

When we consider the statistical data of Senna's arch rival Alain Prost, the latter actually has a better score, apart from pole positions. Although Fangio and Clark were even better – Fangio scored 29 poles out of 51 participations (57%) and Clark 33 out of 73 (45%) – Senna was a class of his own when it came down to qualifying, with 65 poles out of 162 starts (40%).

As far as average race results and fastest laps are concerned, Prost was the more successful driver. But Prost doesn't have the same iconic status: he was Le Professeur, not performing acts of magic. Seeing Prost drive a Formula One car was watching a fine craftsman at work, and a fast one for sure, but nothing like a religious experience. Both in and out of the cockpit his 'halo' shone less bright.

Maybe the 'halo-effect' is also the explanation why Niki Lauda is in the expert top-tens but 'only' eighteenth statistically. Lauda was a great driver, and more than that: he was a courageous driver, almost literally rising from the grave after his crash at the Nürburgring in 1976. Seeing him drive was not a religious experience but a reminder of the purgatory. Lauda became the man marked with scars who survived it all. Maybe spectators didn't really love him – he was not the prototype of a likable fellow – but we were nevertheless fascinated by his guts.

Most underrated driver?

Stirling Moss is the first non-world champion on all lists, selected sixth by the BBC. He was no doubt a great and legendary racer but some British jingoism must play a part in his selection. Talking of jingoism: where is that other British driver? The one who stands his ground in the statistics but is nowhere to be seen on the BBC or Autosport lists? I am talking about Damon Hill who seems to be the most underrated driver in the view of experts, as is witnessed by some of the figures: Hill won 22 Grands Prix out of 122 races (an average of 4.3 – better than Moss, Mansell, Piquet, Rindt, to name but a few), qualified on pole 20 times and drove 19 fastest laps. And that's not all: he kept the Williams team on track after the loss of Senna, and almost won the world championship, only to be kicked out of the crucial Australian Grand Prix by Schumacher.

Damon didn't show the natural talent Senna or Schumacher had. He had to work hard for it, and in doing so made some unnecessary (maybe even stupid) mistakes. Senna, Lauda and Schumacher enjoy the advantage of the 'halo effect', but Damon Hill has it the other way round. The overall judgment of his career is influenced by the negative impression of being a natural loser instead of a natural winner. This is called the 'horn effect', the expression coming from the 'devil's horn'.

The ultimate racer

Just like Senna and Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve was involved in a dramatic accident that made a lasting impression. Gilles was, according to many fans, the ultimate racer. Always on the limit. Never giving in. On the other hand: his driving may have looked impressive and breathtaking, but when it comes to results it was not always very effective.

Statistically Gilles holds 42nd position, with six victories in 68 races and only two poles. He leaves his rival Didier Pironi (48th) behind him but is passed by contemporaries Jody Scheckter (32nd) and Carlos Reutemann (26th).

The outrageous battle with Arnoux in France in 1979 still stands out in the minds of many fans, and so does his crash at Zolder in 1982. These two memories and the unfulfilled promise of a World Championship are fuelling the 'halo effect' and give him the legendary status that Scheckter or Reutemann did not reach.

Past, present and future: true champions

It is easy to look back. Comparing all three lists, nobody has any real doubt about the true champions: Fangio, Schumacher, Clark, Prost, Senna and Stewart. We can have animated discussions about the right order in which to put their names, but these six represent the best of over sixty years of Grand Prix racing. Alberto Ascari is a high scorer in the statistics but less with the BBC or Autosport people. He is (like Giuseppe Farina, the first World Champion) probably too much ancient history to fire the imagination and evoke any warm memories.

Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso are the opposite of these ancients; they are history in the making.