Just how good is Fernando Alonso? Here's what the data says
Sir Stirling Moss is often described as the greatest driver never to win a World Championship. Similarly, many believe Fernando Alonso should have won more than his current two Championships – that he is one of the best ever.
With a reported $40M a year pay packet McLaren clearly values Fernando’s abilities. His pedigree is indisputable. He was world karting champion at 15, made his F1 debut four years later and won his first World Championship four years after that.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN…
In addition to his two World Championships Alonso has come within just four points of a further three World Championship titles! Had the rub of the green gone his way those years we would now be talking about Fernando Alonso as a five-time World Champion. Only two drivers in the history of the sport have won that many titles – Fangio (5) and Schumacher (7).
Let’s compare this to the other multiple World Champions on the grid today – Lewis Hamilton (3x WDC) and Sebastian Vettel (4x WDC). Amazingly Hamilton has also lost two World Championships by a mere five points or less. Vettel’s nearest miss of 11 points in 2009 wasn’t nearly so agonising (ok, maybe it was to Seb!).
Though these are certainly “coulda, woulda, shoulda” results they do show that both Fernando and Lewis could easily have been 5 time World Champions to Seb’s four with just a small tweak to history.
So just how good is Fernando Alonso?
BACK TO REALITY
If we ignore the what-ifs, the reality is that Alonso hasn’t won a Championship in 11 years and hasn’t won a race since the Spanish GP in 2013.
Is he still at the top of his game? Is it just bad timing and a lack of winning machinery that has stifled his career? The only way to really gauge the relative ability of a driver is to compare them to their teammates. This takes differences in equipment largely out of the equation. So let’s take a look at the Spaniard’s career results in our six teammate head to head factors (H2H). A detailed explanation of the factors can be found here.
(Note: the two occasions where Alonso was beaten on H2H by his teammate are highlighted).
We can get a feel for a driver’s overall H2H performance by averaging all of their individual head to head results. Taking this approach we see that Alonso has won an average of 5.1 of the six H2H factors each year versus his teammates. Similarly he has lost just 0.5 factors and drawn 0.4 factors each year on average.
Alonso with his two, multiple world champion contemporaries, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton (Pic: Sutton)
Again let’s compare these results to his current multi-Championship-winning rivals. Averages of their respective H2H performances are shown in the table below. The final column of the table boils each driver’s entire H2H history down into a single figure for comparison: Average Factor Wins less Average Factor Losses (AFW-AFL).
Fernando Alonso clearly comes out on top with an AFW-AFL score of 4.6.
Vettel has on average won slightly more H2H factors than Hamilton but has also lost more – the end result is a dead heat between these two champions with an AFW-AFL score of 3.2.
Further analysis shows Fernando and Lewis have each lost two H2H battles over their careers. Even when beaten though these two drivers have always managed to score at least one factor win against their teammates.
In contrast Seb has had only one H2H loss and one draw but that loss was a painful one. He was resoundingly beaten by Daniel Ricciardo in 2014 failing to win a single H2H factor – the result: a 5-0 loss with one draw at the hands of the “smiling assassin”.
NOT ALL TEAMMATES ARE CREATED EQUAL
What about the caliber of their teammates? Perhaps Alonso’s superior H2H performance simply reflects teammates who were not as strong as those Hamilton and Vettel have faced?
Well, as an indication of teammate quality let’s take a look at specific H2H performances versus other World Champions.
Alonso has beaten no fewer than four teammates that were, or would become, F1 World Champions (Villeneuve, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Button). In comparison Hamilton has beaten two (Button, Rosberg) and Vettel one (Raikkonen).
A more detailed appraisal of relative teammate quality across the full career history of each driver is a significant undertaking (perhaps we’ll take a look at this in another post). Suffice to say, Alonso’s has not exactly had an easy run of it against substandard drivers!
THE ULTIMATE HEAD TO HEAD
In 2007 Fernando and Lewis were pitted against each other as McLaren teammates. That battle was extremely close with both drivers finishing on equal Championship points (and losing out to Kimi by a single point!). It was certainly close but ultimately Lewis was beaten by Fernando in our six head to head factors by 3 to 1 with 2 draws. Another tick to Alonso.
Drivers: Alonso v Hamilton
H2H Winner: Alonso (3/1/2)
A COMMON DENOMINATOR
To try to further separate the relative ability of these two Champions there has been one significant common denominator for comparison – Jenson Button.
Both Alonso and Hamilton have been teamed against fellow World Champion Button over multiple years at McLaren during their careers. As a credit to JB he beat both these drivers in one season head to head.
In statistics the more data we have the more confidence we can generally have in our results. So multi-season H2H battles provide a good opportunity to really measure a given matchup. Combining the data across seasons we created multi-season H2H summaries for both Alonso and Hamilton versus Button.
The bottom line: Fernando beat Jenson in all six factors while Hamilton won only five – scoring less championship points than JB during their time together at McLaren.
Tight, but Alonso manages to come out on top again.
A CONTROVERSIAL CAREER
Fernando Alonso’s career has been surrounded by its fair share of controversy – 'crash gate' and 'spy gate' stand out and more recently a multitude of amusing sound bites from the cockpit at Honda’s expense. However the Spaniard’s determination, race craft and pure speed have never been in doubt.
The reality is that it is extremely difficult to draw absolute conclusions when comparing F1’s top drivers. Regardless, the analysis here supports the conclusion that even though he has only won two World Championships Alonso is one of the very best.
He has consistently beaten his team-mates in our H2H analysis (losing out only twice in his 16-year career - even though he has driven alongside more world champions than most drivers), he also comes out on top in a detailed comparison with contemporary multiple world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and he also beats Lewis Hamilton in the H2H with Jenson Button.
Whichever way you look at the stats, the answer is:
Whether Fernando will win another World Championship remains to be seen. For the good of the sport we hope he at least gets the opportunity to fight for one.
If you don't agree (or if you do!) have your say below in the comments, or head over to the F1 chat channel to argue about it...