They found that when the effect of the driver's team is discounted, Juan Manuel Fangio was the best driver. Fangio, nicknamed "El Maestro" won the World Championship five times between 1951 and 1957 while racing for four different teams: Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati, a feat that has never been repeated.
Taking into account only his career before his first retirement in 2006, Schumacher takes third place. In this formulation, when Schumacher is treated as a separate driver on his return, Rosberg's performances appear less impressive by comparison, and he drops from 13th to 49th.
The best driver who currently competes is Fernando Alonso, who comes in fifth place. The only other driver currently racing to make the top ten is Sebastian Vettel, in tenth place.
The study, published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, estimates that teams matter about six times more than drivers. Team effects have increased over time, but teams are less influential in wet conditions, and on city street circuits as opposed to permanent circuits.
"The question 'who is the greatest F1 driver of all time' is a difficult one to answer, because we don’t know the extent to which drivers do well because of their talent or because they are driving a good car. The question has fascinated fans for years and I’m sure will continue to do so," said Dr Andrew Bell of the Sheffield Methods Institute, who carried out the study.
"Our statistical model allows us to find a ranking and assess the relative importance of team and driver effects, and there are some surprising results. For example the relatively unknown Christian Fittipaldi is in the top 20, whilst three time champion Niki Lauda doesn’t even make the top 100. Had these drivers raced for different teams, their legacies might have been rather different."