Formula 1 is a sport that thrives upon its history and in this strangest of years, that history has become more valuable than ever. Without any racing activity on which to focus, the sport collectively has been rummaging through its back-catalogue. TV channels have broadcast classic grands prix; magazines and websites have curated marvellous retrospectives. It isn’t what anyone would choose to be doing but efforts to fill the void have produced some unlooked-for gems. We’re not immune to the tug of history either, and with over a half a century of F1 competition behind us, now seemed like the perfect time to ask our fans: what is McLaren’s greatest driver pairing?
Where to begin?
This may sound like the sort of free-form conversation best enjoyed around the dinner table, or perhaps with a glass of Estrella Galicia 0,0 in hand and a comfy chair in the pub, but to run it along slightly more formal lines, we needed a format, a selection criterion and a set of rules. We decided on a knock-out competition format first, and then chose the drivers to include. The selection criteria was difficult. Excluding cars entered privately, 49 drivers have represented the team in F1. Whittling down that number wasn’t straightforward.
The first decision we took was to exclude Carlos and Lando: as the blurb on any good competition says, it’s not open to employees. That left us with 47 names. There were various criteria we could apply at this point, any of which had a mix of advantages and pitfalls. Ultimately, we decided the fairest method was to select only drivers that had multiple grand prix wins for McLaren. By happy coincidence there are 16 of them – the perfect number for a knock-out format.
Even this wasn’t without problems. There are several all-time F1 greats that simply drove for McLaren at the wrong time, racing for us before or after their prime, in a difficult car or with a tough team-mate. We were excluding three World Champions in Jody Scheckter, Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell, passing over the mighty Gilles Villeneuve.
Legends from the wider world of motor racing such as Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx and Michael Andretti were cast aside too. In Jochen Mass and Heikki Kovalainen, we were also excluding drivers that had won a grand prix for the team. We’ll happily concede there were other ways to organise the polls – but this way seemed most fair – or the least unfair – to us.
Our final 16 were: Fernando Alonso; Gerhard Berger; Jenson Button; David Coulthard; Emerson Fittipaldi; Mika Häkkinen; Lewis Hamilton; Denny Hulme; James Hunt; Niki Lauda; Juan Pablo Montoya; Alain Prost; Kimi Räikkönen; Peter Revson; Ayrton Senna and John Watson.
As with the selection criteria, there were various ways in which the drivers could be seeded. Ultimately, we decided on a formula based on the drivers’ win percentage across their career. This helped to iron-out many of the statistical anomalies that creep in with a sample size ranging from 31 grand prix starts for Revson to 315-and-counting for Räikkönen.
Enter the bot
To add a little spice to proceedings – we decided to apply some predictive machine learning to the contest. Our friends at Automation Anywhere, leaders in intelligent automation, designed a bot to mine databases and crunch the numbers. Out in the real world, this type of software excels at predictive analysis, spotting complex trends in everything from industrial process metrics to healthcare demographics.
We provided a list of quantitative criteria assess, going well beyond the basic results. The bot would study each driver dispassionately, measuring him against the challenges of car, competition and environment.
The bot was designed to score a driver on pace, composure, race craft, bravery, aggression and determination. On the face of it, those may not sound like the sort of things a machine can measure but if F1 has anything, it’s a wealth of data from which to extrapolate information.
The bot was able to study whether the driver’s performance got better in a wet race; whether he frequently improved on a qualifying position; if he outshone a team-mate; and whether he rose to the challenge or crumbled with a title on the line. The sort of complex calculations that would take statisticians months of painstaking calculation were accomplished by the Automation Anywhere bot in a matter of minutes.
The Bot calculated that Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton and Mika Häkkinen would make the final four, ultimately resulting in Ayrton and Lewis as the ultimate driver line-up.
Armed with the results generated by the bot, we were intrigued to see if F1 fans would agree with the findings of big data. You didn’t. And of course not: motorsport can’t be reduced to numbers alone.
The Round of 16
Our Round of 16 threw up some fascinating duels with former team-mates battling it out once more, and drivers facing their heroes. We started with Hunt vs Räikkönen, followed by Button vs Prost; Alonso vs Hulme; Berger vs Senna; Fittipaldi vs Montoya; Hamilton vs Watson; Coulthard vs Lauda and Häkkinen vs Revson.
The eight drivers going through to the quarter final were: Kimi Räikkönen; Alain Prost; Fernando Alonso; Ayrton Senna; Emerson Fittipaldi; Lewis Hamilton; Niki Lauda and Mika Häkkinen.
Ayrton Senna enjoyed the biggest margin of victory, coming home comfortably ahead of his former team-mate Gerhard Berger. The tightest battle was that between Alain Prost and Jenson Button. Polling took place across Twitter, Instagram Stories and the McLaren App with hundreds of thousands of votes cast. While the margins varied noticeably between the different platforms, the results, interestingly, were almost uniform. The only anomaly came in the Prost vs Button battle, where Prost came out on top across Twitter and Instagram but Button won the fan vote on the McLaren App.
The Round of 8
Our Round of 8 was the battle of the big guns, with each match a contest between storied world champions. We had Häkkinen vs Lauda; Prost vs Räikkönen; Alonso vs Senna and Fittipaldi vs Hamilton. The names involved ensured a huge bump in the number of votes cast and, as might be expected, the polls were tighter in this round, with each driver having an army of supporters rallied to their cause.
There was also a great deal of fascination within McLaren. While the race team itself has only a few members remaining from the 1990s, back at the factory there’s a much more eclectic group, with people who would have worked in the garage with the likes of Senna, Prost and Lauda – and even a few who were around when Emo was in his pomp. Suffice to say the online conversations have been lively.
The final count in the Round of 8 saw a marked divergence from the data-driven results produced by our Automation Anywhere bot. In-line with the findings of the bot, Senna beat Alonso and Hamilton beat Fittipaldi, but the other two contests saw divergence, with Lauda beating Häkkinen and – redressing the balance for Finland – Räikkönen coming out ahead of Prost. Prost seems to split opinion: again, his was the tightest race, with the Frenchman taking 51% of the Twitter votes but Kimi narrowly ahead overall thanks to winning the battle on both Instagram and the McLaren App.
The final four
Our final four boasted 13 world drivers’ championships between them and collectively contributed in all eight of McLaren’s constructors' titles. We had Kimi Räikkönen taking on Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton going up against, the man who in recent years became his mentor, Niki Lauda.
Cards on the table, based both on instinct and the data from the previous rounds, everybody here assumed the voting pattern would agree with the bot and produce a final pairing of Senna and Hamilton. The ultimate pairing of Senna and Lauda came as something of a surprise, with the latter getting 56% of the vote and the better of Hamilton across all channels. Meanwhile Senna comfortably had the measure of Räikkönen, commanding 79% of the vote. Score one for the red-and-white 1980s!
Head versus heart
We constructed this contest to have fun and, to a certain extent, to pass the time. The Automation Anywhere bot delivered excellent insight, and it was easy to see how useful that would be for real-world analysis. We also knew that there’s more to motor racing than statistics alone. The bot crunched numbers; it can’t crunch emotion. Some drivers simply have an attraction that goes beyond the statistics.
Ultimately – and possibly this is why F1 is a global phenomenon – our sport is always going to be a marriage of the head and the heart. We need the hard engineering science and the data-driven approach of the dry statistics – but we also need the human stories. It’s the courage and determination of the drivers; the moments of audacity and quick-thinking brilliance that creates the foundation of the legend from which superstars are born.
And here we’re really entering the realms of the intangible. Kimi Räikkönen – and much to Kimi’s bemusement – holds an appeal that far outstrips his 21 F1 victories. He generates fans by eating an ice cream during a rain delay, by a steadfast refusal to indulge in any melodrama and by having the bravery to plunge into a pall of smoke on the Kemmel Straight without his right foot flinching a millimetre. There isn’t a statistical method of quantifying that – but everyone at Spa on that day in 2002 knew they had witnessed something incredible.
The reverse is perhaps true for Alain Prost. Le Professeur’s thoughtful, technical approach to racing and risk assessment doesn’t hold quite the same level of appeal for a large swathe of fandom – despite the vast success it brought him (he did pretty well as a hot-headed youth also – though that tends to be subsumed by the mythos). He also falls victim to other aspects of popular culture: an era-defining rivalry with Senna has given him as many detractors as it has fans.
Conversely, Niki's movie Rush and his involvement at Mercedes have allowed a new generation of F1 fans access to his career in ways that haven’t been afforded to other drivers from the Golden Age. Fans wouldn’t be human if they didn’t weigh Niki’s incredible return to racing a few weeks after being read the Last Rites – but the bot isn’t human, so it does not. The bot provides a useful counter-point to the arguments of the heart, but it cannot view the sport through the same prism as we do.
Not that every fan shares the same opinions. Within McLaren, there was a widespread expectation that Mika would beat Niki in their match-up. There are many reasons for that but the best is that Mika still has a very strong association with many of the people working at McLaren today. Niki – while always generous with his time and happy to talk about his McLaren years – has more often than not been associated with teams that we’ve competed against over the last 30 years. As an engineering organisation we’re supposed to work from the head – but as motor racing fans ourselves, and in many cases having worked alongside Mika, we’re just as susceptible to the appeal of the heart as anyone else.
What sort of team would Ayrton and Niki be?
The line-up of Ayrton and Niki represents possibly the most intriguing combination we could imagine. There’s an endless loop of possibilities to consider. They were, of course, contemporaries at the end of Niki’s F1 driving career and the beginning of Ayrton’s. This combination of the raw, impetuous Senna and the ultra-clinical Lauda certainly whets the appetite – but you could equally look at it the other way, with Ayrton in his pomp, coming up against Niki in his hard driving, uncompromising youth. Either way it would be one hell of a garage to work in and quite possibly not the most comfortable of atmospheres – soundtrack by Devo or Kraftwerk notwithstanding.
Even with both drivers in their absolute prime, it’s difficult to judge who would come out on top. The answer might very well depend upon which car they were driving. Despite winning his final title in the TAG-McLaren, Niki made no bones about disliking the incredible power and brutality of the turbo era – and it’s notable that, with the boost turned up to maximum for qualifying, he never took a pole position during his turbo championship year. Senna, on the other hand, was a master with both the turbo cars and the V10s and V12s that followed – but would his naturalistic style have coped as well as Niki’s analytical brain with adjusting settings on the fly in the modern era?
Perhaps before we decide who’s the greatest, we need to have a poll to decide which is McLaren’s ultimate car. Figuring that out may be the next challenge we put to the Automation Anywhere bot...
But in the meantime, we couldn’t sign off from our search for the ultimate McLaren driver line-up without a huge shout-out to you, the fans. Right from the very first Round of 16 match-up, all the way through to the final decider, you’ve been there every step of the journey. You’ve not just followed with interest, you’ve played your part too by engaging in the debate and having your say along the way. And when we say you’ve played your part, we really mean it because you cast a staggering 754,748 votes during the entire search.
This time, there’s no arguing with that number. It literally speaks volumes about your passion for McLaren and the sport.
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