What was the Best Season in F1 History?

Formula 1 may be the greatest sport in the world but even the most ardent fan would agree that some seasons are better than others. So what was the best season in F1 history? What was the best era in the sport? It seems everyone has an opinion.

Fernando Alonso made his position clear when he described the generally popular Prost/ Senna era of the 80s and 90s as “boring” and the noughties as being the greatest ever era.  According to a poll conducted by James Allen on F1 it seems many fans agree with him.

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Here at F1 Bytes we like to lean heavily on the hard data before making bold claims about who, what, where or when is the best in F1 (although we’re not averse to weighing in with an opinion or two either ;)) So in light of the recent debate regarding the best era in F1 we’ve analysed the data going back to the very first season of the world’s greatest sport and present the results to you here.

Scoring System

F1 Bytes has developed a scoring system that ranks each season across a range of factors to provide a statistical basis for assessing season quality. Our selection of factors is by no means exhaustive and was somewhat constrained by data availability, however it provides a decent first stab at an objective measurement of season quality. For those of you who feel we’ve missed something important, scored factors incorrectly or even made a total hash of the whole thing we’d love to hear from you.

Before we dive into a detailed analysis of the factors let’s take a peek at the bottom line.

The chart above shows the total factor score for each season and a rolling decade average score.

AND THE PODIUM POSITIONS GO TO…

Third Place:   2010  (Total Factor Score 49)

  • Drivers Champion: Sebastian Vettel
  • Constructors Champion: Red Bull-Renault
  • A thrilling final race saw four drivers in contention for the championship (Webber, Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton)
  • Red Bull Racing won their maiden Constructors Championship (the first of four consecutive Driver and Constructors Championships)
  • Sebastian Vettel became the youngest champion in Formula 1 history
  • 2010 earned top points in three factors and with scores in four out of eight overall

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Second Place:   1982  (Total Factor Score 51)

  • Drivers Champion: Keke Rosberg  (like father, like son!)
  • Constructors Champion: Ferrari (note: Rosberg drove for Williams)
  • Hugely competitive season with 11 different winners and no driver winning more than twice
  • Rosberg became the first driver since 1958 to win the championship with only one race win
  • 1982 took top points for three of our factors and scored in six factors out of eight
  • While a superb season statistically it was also marred by tragedy with the deaths of both Riccardo Paletti and Gilles Villeneuve

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AND THE BEST SEASON IN FORMULA 1 HISTORY WAS …

Winner:   2012  (Total Factor Score 53)

  • Drivers Champion: Sebastian Vettel
  • Constructors Champion: Red Bull-Renault
  • A record seven different drivers won the first seven races
  • The season was decided in the final race between Vettel and Alonso
  • Vettel became only the third driver in history to win three consecutive championships
  • Interestingly 2012 only received top points for one of our eight factors but received points for seven of the eight factors overall (only two other years, 1997 and 2008, managed seven factor scores with no season scoring in all eight)

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Key Takeaways

While our winners bask in the glory there are a few things to note about about the overall shape of the data:

  • The period of the 70’s and early 80’s was consistently strong with the decade ending 1983 earning the top score for rolling decades.  Statistically and aesthetically the Golden Era in our opinion
  • Fernando was right…kinda. The three years he highlighted as ‘boring’, ’85, ’88 and ’92 were objectively not great. ’92 was actually one of 6 seasons to score no points in our system. However, we must reluctantly point out to Fernando that each of his two championship winning years, 2005 and 2006, barely troubled the scorers on our factor system
  • On a rolling decade basis, there has been a generally improving trend in season score since the low point set in 1996
  • Despite some great seasons in the last decade there has been significant season to season variation in quality
  • Unsurprisingly given Mercedes dominance the last few years have not been spectacular by historical standards (particularly 2015).  It’s fair to say we were due for a big year.  2017 has been a definite move in the right direction.

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The Factors

No doubt at this point you thinking “sure, that’s great – but what are these factors all about?” Well, here they are:

  1. Highest number of winning drivers in a season
  2. Highest number of drivers to lead the World Drivers Championship during a season
  3. Most changes in championship leader during a season
  4. Highest number of marques to win a race in a season
  5. Smallest average delta in top 10 qualifying times
  6. Smallest average delta in race time for top 3
  7. Highest number of drivers to get a podium in a season
  8. Highest number of drivers who could have won the Championship in the last race (Double Points!!! – see our notes on the scoring system)

For a detailed explanation of the individual factors and a discussion of the associated analysis please click on the factor links above.

Clearly we place a high degree of importance on the level of overall competitiveness in a season.  No doubt some will feel we’ve ignored some important aspects of season quality. One notable omission is an analysis of overtakes during a season. In the end we decided not to include overtake analysis as there was insufficient data on the early years and our analysis suggested they wouldn’t impact the overall results significantly. For those interested in overtakes, there has been some interesting discussion on this topic recently and F1 Bytes will put overtakes under the microscope in a future post.

2017 and beyond…

No matter your personal opinion on Nico Rosberg’s 2016 championship few would deny the fairytale of his accomplishing the same feat his dad Keke did 34 years prior. Statistically Keke’s 1982 championship year was one of the greatest ever (second overall) and for many the cars of that era were among the coolest looking in the history of the sport.

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The 2017 Regulations mean this year’s cars reflect many of the aesthetic features of those early 80’s beasts. Let’s all hope this isn’t just a coincidence and that 2017 and coming seasons can challenge those statistically halcyon days of the late 70’s and early 80’s. We can’t wait to find out!!