2018 Mexican Grand Prix, Sunday - Paul Ripke

Hamilton versus Fangio – who’s the greater driver?

It’s one of the most popular of discussions between fans of almost every sport on the planet. Comparing the icons of the game and wondering who would come out on top, regardless of the era, when at the peak of their respective powers.

Woods vs Nicklaus in golf, Navratilova vs Williams in tennis, Ali vs Marciano in boxing are just a few that spring to mind. And now that Lewis Hamilton has equalled the great Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio on five Formula One world titles, it’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn.

But is such a comparison even worth making due to the huge difference in machinery now and then, when Fangio won his fifth title way back in 1957?

Juan Manuel Fangio
Statue of Juan Manuel Fangio, Circuit de Catalunya, Spain.

In truth, as with every fantasy battle, it’s all just a little bit of fun and fans will always have their favourites. But for the sake of that bit of fantasy fun, let’s compare the two greats, head-to-head.

Statistics can only tell so much of the story, but a good starting point is winning ratio. If this were the defining factor, then Fangio is the master, boasting a staggering wins per race percentage of 46.15 compared to Hamilton’s 31.28. Yet the most successful F1 driver of all time, Michael Schumacher, is on 29.5.

Next, one must evaluate the level of competition each driver came up against and both can claim to have been up against extremely tough rivals. For Fangio, there was the likes of Alberto Ascari, Giuseppi Farina, Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. For Hamilton, his biggest adversaries include Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg.

All great names, but then the quality of machinery also needs to be taken into consideration. Most world champions invariably have the best, or close to the best, car beneath them although a case can be made for Hamilton in 2008 and perhaps Schumacher in 1995. Even without the best car available, during his final seasons with McLaren, Hamilton was able to push the car to remarkable wins.

Of course, with so much money now in the sport, seasons are also much longer in order to satisfy corporate demand. Hamilton already has a whopping 227 races under his belt over the course of 12 seasons. Compare that to Fangio’s 51 over nine years. For Fangio, the business of winning races was a very different one when he was dominating the game in an era when motor racing really was a matter of life and death. It makes his achievements even more impressive and it seems remarkable that he was 46 years of age when he won his fifth and final title.

The grim prospect of serious injury or death was ever present during Fangio’s era, when drivers tiptoed on the very edge of control, cloth gaps guarding their heads and seatbelts unheard of. Indeed, when Italian great rival Ascari perished in 1955, he had a win ratio of 39.39 percent and may have gone on to push the Argentine for a share of those five titles. We will never know, as we will never know how many titles the great Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna may have accrued had tragedy not struck.

That car and circuit safety has improved beyond measure certainly means that today’s drivers are able to take more risk without fearing the greatest penalty of all. It doesn’t mean that they are not still hugely brave sportsmen.

As for who’s the greatest, that will always be a matter of opinion due to the variables mentioned. With all sports, comparing eras is almost impossible. So, let us content ourselves with the fact that we are watching a driver at the peak of his powers and one who could well have a good claim to be the best of his particular era.

Top image: Lewis Hamilton at the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix. © Paul Ripke.

Fraser Masefield

Fraser Masefield

Son of a knight, relative of a poet laureate, sports editor and published author.

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