Fernando Alonso, as has been anticipated for a while, beat the haughty Michael Schumacher's record for most points scored in F1 ever, now having a total of 1,571 compared with Schumi's 1,566. And yet with it has come a conspicuous round of guffawing. The points total doesn't mean anything, they said; the systems have changed so much over time so as to make comparisons meaningless. Alonso himself however - albeit with something of a glint in his eye - declared it 'great' to set the new mark.
|Fernando Alonso claimed F1's |
all-time points record in Japan
Photo: Octane Photography
All sports evolve over time of course, so just about any sporting record necessarily involves an element of imperfect comparison. But I struggle to think of another activity that has changed as much as F1 has from generation to generation, and therefore is so apt for the numbers and historical marks to be taken with not so much a pinch of salt but rather a trailer-load of it.
The points records we know about, with the points system tweaked at various stages of F1 history, and then having a grand departure in 2010 when the points for a win rocketed from 10 to 25, other points increased pretty much in turn and points were awarded all the way down to tenth place for the first time. It's therefore not for nothing that the sport's all-time top points scorer list (as outlined by Edd Straw at Autosport recently) is dominated by current drivers: seven of the top ten still race, and two of the remaining three stopped within the last two years.
More generally we all know about the much-mooted limitations of comparing different drivers in very different circumstances in very different eras. It's therefore unsurprising that when assessing the greatest ever F1 drivers raw stats are relied upon less than, say, is the case when making the same judgement of cricketers or baseball players (two sports that followers of really love their numbers).
Yet even F1 records that strike as more immune to all of this are, on closer inspection, more problematic than you might think.
|How many races would Jim Clark have |
won with modern-day reliability?
Credit: Rtsanderson / CC
And then there's the fact that there are many more races in a season. We've had it as high as 20 races in 2012; the current calendar for next year has it at 22 (though few expect it to stay that high). By contrast in 1950 - the first year of the world championship - there was just six Grandes Épreuves if we don't include the Indy 500. Even 21 years later in 1971 there was just 11, barely half of what he have now. And to illustrate further, Jackie Stewart had what seemed to be a long F1 career stretching from the start of 1965 to the end of 1973, and yet he didn't even reach 100 Grand Prix starts. The ever-youthful Sebastian Vettel cruised past that mark last season.
|Riccardo Patrese - |
the first to reach 200 Grands Prix
Credit: Stuart Seeger / CC
It stands to reason that the more races you do, in combination with the more races that you finish, the more races you'll win (if you're quick enough).
Similar imperfect comparisons over time apply to the number of world championships to your name, as F1 careers are in most cases much longer in terms of seasons than was once the case. In the sport's much more dangerous eras past many great careers were cut short by death (e.g. Ascari, Clark, Senna) or by injury (e.g. Moss). And in a similar sense, even if you were fortunate enough to avoid these drivers would often make a conscious decision not to push their luck and therefore stop out of self-preservation. This was part of Stewart's considerations when quitting racing at the age of just 34; the same with James Hunt who jacked it in when he was 31. Such things hardly enter into career decisions now it seems.
Taking such records as percentages (e.g. points or wins per race, championships per season) can alleviate some of this, but isn't perfect by any means, mainly in that percentages will by their nature benefit those with fewer seasons or races to divide by. Remember that if you divide something by zero you get infinity...
There's also the skew of when the F1 world championship started - and when points first started to be awarded at all - in 1950, which has had the effect of excluding some careers from consideration, shortening others, even effectively helping those who were reaching their peak at that very point. And to take an extreme outlying example, Juan Manuel Fangio didn't even arrive in Europe until he was the ripe old age of 37.
And this is all before we get into the matter of the competitiveness of the car you're in, as well as the quality of your contemporaries. On top of those are the differences of the eras and of the regulations, such as that - as an example - debutant drivers now don't get the thousands of testing miles before their first race that they used to get. Accounting for all of this is when things get really messy...
The Japanese Grand Prix weekend was one for records indeed. In addition to Alonso's claimed in the race another fell in qualifying, when Renault beat Ferrari's total for most pole positions for an engine manufacturer: 209 vs. 208. And this passed pretty much without objection - indeed it was considered to be a particular achievement given that the usurped Italian marque had a 27 year head start (as well as that Renault's been out of the sport for a couple of spells since). A fine success by any stretch therefore.
|Renault benefitted from Ayrton Senna's |
prodigious single lap abilities
Credit: Peterhanna / CC
And then there are the differences in the teams supplied to themselves. While we need to be wary of confusing cause and effect, it's tended to be the case Renault's supplied more competitive teams than Ferrari has. Indeed you could argue that Renault has to a large extent been in a position to select teams on the grounds of competitiveness, whereas Ferrari has been stuck with Ferrari. In 1985 and 1986 Renault benefitted from Senna in the Lotus and his prodigious qualifying ability, while in the 1990s it was able to cherry-pick Williams and Benetton at the peak of their respective powers as its partners. Now of course it has both Red Bull and Lotus using its units at the competitive cutting edge. And even when Ferrari has supplied engines to other teams, possibly cautious of creating rivals for itself it's tended not to be to front-runners: instead it's been Sauber, Minardi, Dallara, Marussia - a motley crew of midfielders and tail-enders
And to return to Alonso's new badge of honour as F1's top points scorer, Andrew Benson put a slightly different spin on matters, which may make Alonso's glee at it seem more justified. As mentioned it was Michael Schumacher that Alonso claimed the record from (just as Schumi holds most of the 'F1 driver with most of X' records), but Alonso's career has lasted 12 years while Schumi's lasted 18. Moreover, Alonso has raced for eight years with the old points system three and three-quarters with the new; Schumi's equivalent time spells are 15 and three years respectively. All of a sudden, from this angle Alonso's mark seems a bit more impressive. The worst he can be accused of is making hay while the sun shone in a way that Schumi didn't.
But Benson went on to say something even closer to the mark, maintaining his 'general belief that raw numbers only have limited meaning when assessing an F1 driver's "greatness"'. Wise words: after all we all know the one about lies, damned lies and statistics. And further, given everything outlined above perhaps when assessing greatness we shouldn't rely on numbers; to take one case, remember that had Stirling Moss won the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix in a vastly superior car rather than the outdated and underpowered Lotus that he did win it in, the record books would have treated it exactly the same.
We should instead talk about the times drivers and teams did something that took our breath away, or that they stayed at the top, or punched above their weight, for what seemed an interminable time. We should think of qualities, not quantities, in other words. And, you know what? It's a lot more fun that way too.