Prost vs Senna: Who Was The Greatest?

The Prost-Senna rivalry is often considered to be one of the greatest in the sport’s history. It even has its own wikipedia article dedicated to it. But which of the 2 legendary drivers was superior? Or is it just too close to call? Let’s investigate.

Teammate Matchup

Prost and Senna were teammate for 2 years at McLaren, dominating the results. During this period they took 1 championship each, along with a combined total of 25 wins (out of 32 races). Let’s compare their stats as teammates in more detail:

Podiums 1988-1989
Causes of DNFs 1998-1989
Points 1988-1989
Poles & Fastest Laps 1988-1989

If pushed I would argue that the data slightly favours Prost, but it’s clear that the 2 drivers were incredibly close. As ever with data, the interpretation is also important and has potential for nuance. For example, Senna had significantly more race ending crashes/spins than Prost during this period. Is that a sign of an inferior driver, or evidence that the other comparisons would probably be superior with a bit more luck? As ever, there are also a myriad of other factors at play that could swing these stats one way or another (e.g. general focus on the championship rather than other stats compared here, or Prost’s additional experience when Senna joined McLaren).

The data also seems to align with perceptions of the 2 driver’s strengths and weaknesses. Prost had fewer DNFs, more podiums, more fastest laps and more points. Senna meanwhile totally dominated Prost in qualifying, and also won 4 wet races to Prost’s 0.

As an aside, I’d argue that their perceived “weaknesses” become less apparent when compared to the rest of the grid. Prost’s qualifying record across his whole career is excellent, for example, with 33 poles (only 4 drivers have more) including 7 in a row (only Senna has more). He also won many wet races. Senna meanwhile, was aggressive but not particularly crash-prone, and is probably underrated as a general points gatherer.

Whilst I won’t be looking at their stats when they weren’t teammates in detail, a previous summary shows the 2 drivers to be almost identical in terms of win and podium rates across thei careers.

Mathematical Model

If you’re new to the site (welcome!) the mathematical model used here assesses a driver’s results by comparing against their teammates to build up a way of comparing drivers in different teams.

The first result from the model is that Prost and Senna are clearly the 2 best drivers of their era. They’re ranked as the top 2 drivers of the 1980s, and are both in the top 3 drivers of the 1990s (along with Michael Schumacher), despite competing in less than half of the decade. They also both have years in which they are considered to be the best driver on the grid.

However, we’re here to compare them against each other! Let’s look at their yearly scores across their careers. As ever, a score of 100 is considered to be an average season for Hamilton (although the generational gap makes a direct comparison a little tricky).

Whilst there’s plenty of crossover, the model gives a clear edge to Prost. Of the 9 years they competed together, Prost was considered the stronger of the two drivers 6 times (although Senna took the higher ranking in their last 2 years together).

Whilst this could be considered to be a clear answer from the model, I thought it would be worthwhile to run it again with one adjustment. The model is usually set up to consider all race results, despite the fact that during the 1980s only the top 11 results counted towards the championship. Counting only championship points instead, we get the following results:

Thick line is only considering championship points, thin line is the original for comparison.

Under this system, the 2 rivals are considered to be practically identical. The biggest change from the original methodology is in 1988, which has a significant shift for both drivers. Which system is “better” is up for debate, but the comparison serves as a quick look at how something set up to be unbiased can still tend towards one result or another depending on subtle changes.

Either way, one slightly surprising result is that Senna is considered more consistent than Prost year-to-year, with a much smaller range and interquartile range. The exact reasons for this are not looked at in detail here, but Prost’s longer career and the more dodgy reliability of the 1980s are possible contributing factors.

Other Opinions/Analysis

There’s no shortage of articles online ranking drivers. Here’s a collection of some different opinions and analysis on the Prost/Senna debate from rankings of the greatest ever F1 drivers. I’m fully aware that this is not an exhaustive list, and that not all opinions are equal, so I’ll leave it to you to work out which (if any) to take seriously.

Opinions

SourceWhich driver is better?Positions
AutosportSennaSenna #1, Prost #4
RankerSennaSenna #1, Prost #4
The SportsterSennaSenna #2, Prost #4
Sports BrowserSennaSenna #1, Prost #7
The SunSennaSenna #2, Prost #8
Motorsport TicketsProstProst #4, Senna #5
Motorsport WeekProstProst #4, Senna #7
SportizonSennaSenna #4, Prost #7
Watch MojoSennaSenna #2, Prost #5
Crash F1SennaSenna #5, Prost #6
One Stop RacingSennaSenna #3, Prost #5

Despite the range of sources, both drivers are always in the top 10, with at least one of them always in the top 4. Although there’s not a total concensus, there is a clear tendency towards Senna. My own Twitter poll also ended with Senna having a clear lead, and he was also the number 1 choice of Bernie Ecclestone (although to be fair he is not always known for his consistency with these kind of things).

I also thought it’d be worth while to look at other mathematical analysis to see if how those rankings compare.

Analysis

SourceProst or Senna?Notes
FIveThirtyEightSennaElo system: Senna #1, Prost #6
F1metricsProstProst #20, Senna #21
Bell et al.ProstProst #2, Senna #5
Eichenberger & StadelmannProstProst #7, Senna #26

Approaches that are more mathematical tend to favour Prost. Another notable difference is that their positions are far less consistent. (Whilst it is difficult to directly compare positions from different sources due to the different times they were written, there is an obvious distinction between the opinion pieces and models here).

The exact reason(s) why opinion pieces tend to favour Senna whilst mathematical models lean towards Prost are not obvious, and whilst it’s easy to come up with reasonable explanations (e.g. Prost is considered a more “boring” driver that is less likely to sway people with moments of magic), it’s neigh on impossible to establish evidence towards these ideas.

Lastly, it’s important to realise that each ranking has a subtly different definition of “greatness” that will cause some natural deviation even without subjective opinions . I’ve discounted rankings that are not focused on the overall best driver (for example ones that focus solely on statistics, or the analysis from machine learning based on the fastest qualifiers) but it’s not always easy to see what subjective rankings are actually using as their criteria.

Conclusions

-Prost and Senna are considered the 2 best drivers of the 1980s (and early 1990s) by any reasonable metric.

-There is evidence that perceptions of the two drivers are reflected in reality.

-They are typically considered to be very close to each other in abilities. My model ranks them similarly but overall favours Prost. However, a small (and arguably reasonable) adjustment in the input criteria can lead to them being considered near identical.

-Opinion pieces place both of them in the top 10 drivers of all time and tend to favour Senna.

-Rankings based on some kind of model tend to favour Prost, and are less consistent with where the 2 drivers are placed (although of course they are always considered to be strong drivers.)

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