Has conversation at a dinner party or bar started to flag? Or perhaps the chat around the barbecue has exhausted the rugby, fishing and Trump subjects?

Ayrton-Senna-in-Toleman-1984Then turn to one of the oldest tricks in the book and ask “who do you think was the greatest (dot, dot, dot) of all time” and fill in the blanks.

Chef, javelin thrower, politician, American president, film star, whatever; you get the picture.
Rarely will everybody agree on that ‘‘greatest’’ title but usually it comes down to a shortlist of three top choices. And often good friendships are severely tested during a ‘‘friendly’’ chat that morphs into a debate and teeters on the edge of an argument.

The definition is impossible to give to any person in almost any walk of life but most especially in sport, particularly a sport that has changed considerably over time. When it comes to motorsport — and in particular Formula 1, as you knew it would — there is little comparison between the sport in the 1940s-50s and and even the 1960s when you consider the same sport through the 1990s to today.

Yet, every so often a new ‘‘study’’ comes out that proves, apparently beyond doubt, who the greatest driver of all time was. The latest ‘‘study’’, as reported in the New Zealand Herald last week, has been completed by the University of Sheffield’s Methods Institute and titled Formula for success: Multilevel modelling of Formula One Driver and Constructor performance, 1950-2014.

The study purports to concentrate on the relative drivers’ talents but then uses statistics to come up with the answers.How sheer talent can be measured in numbers, I have no idea. Some of the most talented drivers in history had low statistical success.

Widely recognised as one of the most talented drivers of all time — by people in the sport as opposed to a university — is Sir Stirling Moss, or Sir God as he is popularly known by many motorsport people, yet he does not figure in the top echelon of this study; reaching only 30th in fact. He never won a Formula 1 World Championship, so statistics ignore his talent.

The 18th-century American statesman Henry Clay had it about right we he said “Statistics are no substitute for judgment”.

When the university people crunched the statistics the top driver was proven to be Juan Manuel Fangio. Niki Lauda was not even in the top 100. (Lauda, you might remember, won 21 Grands Prix and three World Championships but apparently was not, according to the wise academics, talented enough to be included in the top 100.)

Fangio is credited with five World Championships and 24 wins.

However, Christian Fittipaldi (nephew of the the famous double world champion and winner of 14 Grands Prix Uncle Emerson Fittipaldi) who never even stood on a podium, on any step is rated at number 11 on the list. Uncle Emerson is at number nine.

I am sure that the university people are clever but I would question whether they have too much time on their hands by spending weeks, and it must have been weeks or more when you look at the study report, trying to put into numbers the value of talent. In the study they discount the effect the driver’s team had on their success, which is also, in my opinion, a fatal flaw.

As good as he may have been, Fangio had the benefit of taking over his team-mate’s car at the 1956 season-ending Italian Grand Prix. Fangio’s Ferrari team mate Peter Collins was also in a position to win the World Championship but handed over his car to Fangio whose own car had developed problems, giving Fangio the world title.

Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen, Jim Clark and many others were instrumental in developing their various teams into race winners, so their own statistics were consequently damaged by that but they had the talent to do it. I met Fangio on a number of occasions but never saw him drive in competition.

I am sure he is more than worthy of being top of the “greats” of the sport but I do think that his achievements are often looked at with romanticism and just a hint of rose tint. The study is based on measuring talent by statistics but that gift is indefinable. We can all paint a wall but in no way are most of us talented enough to be a Matisse or Michelangelo.

The study trivialises the talent many champions possessed — so much so that it becomes spurious — but nonetheless, it is a good discussion to have and opinions will be divided as to whether Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg would have been quicker than Fangio or Alberto Ascari.

Personally I think Ayrton Senna had more talent than all of them — and was the greatest of all time. He sits at number four on the list.
And that topic forms a discussion I have had over a beer many a time. Sadly we will never know the real answer.

source: Bob McMurray / driven.co.nz