Sebastian Vettel occupies a curious place among Ferrari’s greatest Formula 1 drivers.
He’s not had as much success as Michael Schumacher or Niki Lauda. He’s not started as many races as Felipe Massa. He’s scored one fewer podium than Rubens Barrichello, and never got the title that Kimi Raikkonen, his number two for four seasons, managed back in 2007 – Ferrari’s last drivers’ championship.
Yet Vettel has racked up more wins than Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari, forged a greater relationship with the tifosi than Fernando Alonso, and only been denied titles by the greatness of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
It’s easy to look at the all-time list of accomplishments to try to judge Vettel’s place in the rankings. To do so renders an easy conclusion: Vettel has already eclipsed the likes of Alonso, Massa and Barrichello as Ferrari’s most successful driver not to win the world title.
Vettel clocks in at a very respectable third for victories and podiums in a Ferrari, and a still-impressive fifth for poles and race starts (slightly less relevant, but a mark of longevity nonetheless).
VETTEL’S FERRARI CAREER IN NUMBERS
But what does that actually mean? Very little if taken in isolation. Quite a bit more if we get creative.
In an exhaustive analysis of Ferrari’s F1 drivers’ numbers, The Race has endeavoured to find a fair statistical ranking of the best to get behind the wheel of a grand prix car from Maranello in the world championship.
Even restricting ourselves to statistics makes it very hard to create a clear ranking because those stats are subject to many different variables: car reliability, race durations, length of calendars and quality of opposition.
Every factor, and others we haven’t mentioned, will play a part in manipulating the fortunes of every driver to have raced for Ferrari. We can’t account for all of them, but we can make a decent approximation and let the rest balance out.
The method we’ve used is to award drivers points, based on the 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 F1 system, to the top 10 Ferrari drivers in key departments.
To start with, we opted for the headline numbers: titles, wins, podiums, poles and starts.
For example, Schumacher has more wins than any other driver, so he earns 25 points. Lauda’s second on the list, so he is awarded 18. Vettel’s third and gets 15 points, and so on.
Here’s how the first table shook out:
THE ‘GREATEST FERRARI DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP’ TABLE
Across the five categories, Schumacher takes a clean sweep of victories, earning 125 points.
That’s more than double the tally of the second driver on the list: Lauda, whose impressive win and pole position tallies, and two titles, more than make up for the deficit he has in terms of race starts.
Raikkonen sneaks into third place, boosted mostly by his 2007 title and his two stints at the team earning him the second highest number of starts for Ferrari.
Vettel’s only fourth: best of those not to win a title, which is no great surprise in itself, but he is unexpectedly close to Massa.
And let’s not forget, Massa came a lot closer than Vettel to winning a world title for Ferrari. As did Alonso, who only winds up eighth, a victim of his mediocre machinery and a place that does not do his efforts justice.
He’s even behind Barrichello who is sixth, level with Ascari at just 18 points behind second-placed Lauda – despite Ascari failing to register any points for his number of podiums or number of starts.
This exposes a problem with this method, one that is underlined by the total absence of Ascari’s fellow Ferrari world champions Fangio, John Surtees, Mike Hawthorn, Jody Scheckter and Phil Hill from any top 10 list in terms of all-time Ferrari tallies.
In fact, that quintet only makes it into this table by virtue of their titles: given Surtees, Hawthorn and Hill made at least 30 starts for Ferrari in a dangerous era that comprised shorter schedules, that seems rather misleading.
This ranking is skewed in favour of the modern drivers, as more grands prix provide more opportunities to bolster respective scores.
So, we devised a second ranking that also incorporates points for ratio of wins, podiums and poles to starts.
This creates a lot of extra work, but it is fairer because it puts individual stats into better context.
You can argue that this gives rise to one-season Ferrari wonders like Fangio and Tony Brooks, but these drivers do have a significant place in the team’s history given their respective title exploits.
And we have tried to moderate entries into the adjusted table where appropriate. For example, anomalies such as Dorino Serafini, who scored a podium on his only F1 appearance, are excluded.
Immediately, this looks like a much fairer spread. Many more names join the party and, with a few exceptions, seem well represented.
THE REVISED ‘GREATEST FERRARI DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP’ TABLE
Unsurprisingly, Ascari and Fangio vault up the order.
Fangio only managed one season with the team after a cold relationship with team founder Enzo Ferrari but started six of his seven grands prix with Ferrari from pole, winning three of them and standing on the podium in two others (although he had to switch to team-mates’ cars to secure victory in Argentina, and podiums in Monaco and Italy).
Ascari’s own impressive numbers across a longer period – scoring 13 poles and victories in 27 starts – mean he comfortably outstrips Fangio, though. In fact, in our adjusted ranking he even edges out Lauda, slotting in just ahead of the Austrian into second place on the list.
The arrival of Ascari and Fangio bump Vettel down, as while swollen modern-day calendars favour him statistically in terms of outright numbers his average is not as impressive: the curse of the bloated schedule, and racing in an era of Hamilton/Mercedes domination.
But Vettel does at least jump ahead of Raikkonen, by virtue of sneaking ninth place in the ‘wins per start’ and ‘podiums per start’ metrics.
Those four points are enough to secure him fifth place in our, ahem, definitive statistical ranking of Ferrari’s greatest F1 drivers.
What doesn’t change is Schumacher, unsurprisingly, still tops the list.
In fact, it’s impressive how well his numbers hold up even when pegged back by factoring in race starts: Schumacher is second to Ascari for wins per start, second to Jose Froilan Gonzales for podiums per start and fourth behind Ascari, Lauda and Charles Leclerc (!) for poles per start.
But this is about Vettel’s place in the rankings. And while he still has, in theory, an opportunity this year to bolster his numbers, for now it’s peculiar.
Vettel arrived at Ferrari with so much expectation, so being so far behind the leaders and so close to the likes of Massa and Barrichello casts him in a harsh light.
Without a championship, though, it’s no great surprise for him to trail the conventional Ferrari greats, and be the best not to win the title for Ferrari.
Yet he still emerges ahead of several Ferrari champions, is well clear of Alonso, and someone like Gilles Villeneuve barely makes it into the standings at all.
Perhaps that’s fitting for someone who splits opinion as much as Vettel: the stats mark him out to be behind only a very small, elite group of drivers.
But many will not afford him the reverence such standing should command. That’s as true of his Ferrari numbers as it is his four world titles with Red Bull.
But oh, how a title and a few of those fumbled lost victories would change things: launching him well clear of ‘the others’ and into the echelons of Ascari, Lauda and Fangio. Dismissing all the doubters.
Unfortunately, missed opportunities will form a major part of his legacy. Vettel will be remembered at Ferrari for the title he didn’t win, rather than the races he did.
That’s unavoidable, and it impacts his final ranking in our analysis and in many others that will undoubtedly be conducted over the years.
But establishing an objective, numbers-driven list like this at least allows us to put Vettel’s ‘nearly’ moments into the correct context.
He stacks up well, but the Hamilton/Mercedes juggernaut and Vettel’s own mistakes are costly variables.
If nothing else, it serves as a good example of statistics not quite painting the full picture.
Villeneuve’s lowly position, despite a healthy number of starts, perhaps underlines that it’s also not about the numbers you achieve but how you achieve them.
If the 2020 season gets up and running, and success is within his grasp, Vettel can still leave Ferrari behind only Schumacher in terms of race victories, and perhaps even bridge the gap to the greats.
That would be a fine farewell for a driver who did not achieve all he wanted, but still managed more with Ferrari than most.