Following on from a look at the 1980-2022 championships if they were decided by qualifying, here we look at 1950-1979. As we shall see, the trend of earlier championships being heavily impacted by reliability continues across the 1960s and 1970s, with reliability impacting the comparison of qualifying and races less in the 1950s.
- How Is The Qualifying Champion Determined?
- Qualifying Champions
- Year Reviews
- Final Thoughts
How Is The Qualifying Champion Determined?
Similarly to last time, the modern points system (25, 18, 15 et.c) is used for each year to make comparisons between seasons easier. In general, the differences in points formats are minimal and will give the same qualifying champion, although of course there are exceptions. (No additional points for “fastest laps” are included here).
Results from the Indy 500 are discounted from all considerations here (including statistics), although in no season does that affect the overall championship outcome.
Let’s start by listing who would have won each qualifying championship in every year 1950-1979, with any differences to the driver’s champion highlighted in bold.
|YEAR||qualifying champion||actual champion|
|1961||P. Hill||P. Hill|
|1962||Clark||G. Hill (2nd)|
|1968||Amon||G. Hill (2nd)|
These results are summarised below by number of qualifying championships. Fangio’s six qualifying championships puts him second on the all-time list, with only Hamilton having more (and Senna being level on six). Clark also gets a well deserved boost with five qualifying championships. Moss, Amon, Ickx, Peterson and Laffite were all considered the best qualifier in a season, despite not winning a championship. Meanwhile Stewart and Brabham are down from 3 driver’s titles each to just 1 in qualifying, whilst Farina, Graham Hill, Hulme and Scheckter were never the best qualifier over a season despite being world champions.
|QUALIFYING CHAMPIONSHIPS||ACTUAL CHAMPIONSHIPS|
|Lauda||2||2 (3 inc. 1984)|
|1950 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1951 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1952 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1953 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Whilst Fangio was denied a driver’s championship in 1950 due to 3 retirements (technically 4, as he retired from Monza twice), he still inches out teammate Farina in qualifying. With pole in four out of seven races and wins from every race he finished, it’s hard to deny he deserved the championship. 1951 largely follows the race results, although this time it’s Farina who performed better in qualifying than races due to DNFs.
The next couple of years demonstrate the dominance in the Ferrari. Four out of the top five drivers in 1952 drove for Ferrari at some point in the season (with Manzon being the exception). Ascari was clearly the fastest of all of them though: In six rounds he secured 6 wins, 6 fastest laps and 5 poles. With modern timing it may well have been a clean sweep across these races, as his second place on the grid in Britain was considered an identical time to pole sitter Farina.
The 1953 season similarly saw Ascari triumph in the Ferrari. Although Fangio’s Masarti was able to compete in qualifying, 3 DNFs in the first 3 races (again, technically 4 retirements from 3 races) put paid to any championshipp challenge.
|1954 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1955 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1956 drivers||QUALI POINTS|
|1957 drivers||quali points|
Despite driving for two different teams, Fangio never qualified outside the top three in 1954. The mammoth 65 point gap to the nearest competitor is partially reflective of his performances, but also exaggerated by the fact that almost noone else competed in every race (even excluding the Indy 500). For example, Two of Fangio’s biggest threats were Ascari and Farina, but he competed in more races than the two of them combined.
1955 may have been considerably closer in qualifying had Ascari survived, as his early results of two second places on the grid were competitive, with teammate Castellotti subsequently taking a pole at Spa. As it is Fangio’s teammate Moss came the closest to him over the season in qualifying, despite Fangio outqualifying the Brit in every race except one.
Fangio’s 1956 season matched Ascari’s qualifying achievement from 1952: In six races he had five poles and a second place with an identical time to pole sitter Moss. Matching times were significantly more likely in this era, due to times only being measured to the nearest tenth of a second. The 70 point gap to nearest rival (and teammate) Castellotti is incredibly impressive despite having the fastest car.
1957 again saw Fangio dominate in the fastest car, this time in a Maserati. Interestingly Moss spent 1 race in 1957 as Fangio’s teammate and beat him to pole, suggesting his cakewalk of a season might have been more competitive with stronger teammates. Regardless, his success over this era was phenomenal, with his six qualifying championships not being matched until the early 1990s.
|1958 drivers||quali points|
|1959 drivers||quali points|
|1960 drivers||quali points|
|1961 drivers||quali points|
Hawthorn’s 1958 season did not start well, and he was significantly behind Moss in both qualifying and races after three grand prix. For the remainder of the season the two were closely matched. Hawthorn managed to overhaul Moss in qualifying due a small edge in pace, whilst his narrow driver’s championship success owes a lot to better reliability in races (Moss won four races to Hawthorn’s one).
Whilst Moss famously never won the driver’s title, with his 1959 campaign also derailed due to DNFs. He overhauled Brabham’s qualifying lead with three successive poles at the end of the season.
Brabham’s 1960 qualifying success was largely due to competing in more races than rival Moss, who was significantly injured at Spa. Of the six events they both competed in, Moss secured four poles to Brabham’s one. Moss was rated as a top driver of the late 50s/early 60s and can be considered unlucky to win just one qualifying championship.
Ferrari dominated the 1961 season, and even more so in qualifying. They competed in 7 races and secured 6 poles, with five of them going Phil Hill’s way. The dominance of the car meant that the qualifying results largely mirrored the season as a whole.
|1962 drivers||Quali Points|
|1963 drivers||Quali Points|
|1964 drivers||Quali Points|
|1965 drivers||Quali Points|
The model presented the early-to-mid 1960s as an era where Jim Clark towered over the rest, and this is very much represented in the qualifying statistics. Five championships in total, including four in a row between 1962 and 1965, cemented his reputation.
1962 saw Clark lose the driver’s championship due to unreliability, (not for the first time,) but was closely matched to title winner Graham Hill in qualifying. Only three poles in the last three races allowed Clark to pull ahead. Clark again battled Hill in qualifying during 1963 and 1965, but both times came out on top more easily. In the races his advantage was further extended, ending both seasons with perfect scores (due to the fact that only 6 races counted).
That just leaves 1964, a year in which was one lap away from the driver’s championship before an oil leak. Clark beat title rivals Hill and Surtees in qualifying once again, with Dan Gurney (who did not feature in the title fight despite two victories) being his closest competitor.
|1966 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1967 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1968 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1969 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Surtees, Brabham and Clark were closely matched in qualifying across 1966. The gap between the top three and the rest is particularly impressive given they all raced for different teams (Ferarri/Cooper, Brabham and Lotus respectively). In fact, there are six different teams present in the top 6 drivers in qualifying, highlighting how much of a difference the driver could make in this era. Once again, the driver’s championship was largely decided by reliability, with Brabham’s six race finishes beating out Surtees (four finishes) and Clark (three) to allow a fairly simple run to the title.
Clark was again hit by reliability woes in 1967, with five DNFs preventing his dominant qualifying display from translating into a title. (Clark’s teammate Hill fared even worse reliability wise, but did not have Clark’s raw pace in qualifying either. ）
Chris Amon achieved 3 poles and only qualified outside the top 5 once in 1968. Despite this, he didn’t win a race due to mechanical issues and finished a lowly 10th in the actual driver’s championship. Although he is often cited as an “unlucky” driver, he did at least survive past his racing career, which was by no means guaranteed at the time. Graham Hill’s driver’s championship ahead of Amon was not really built on reliability either, as even he failed to finish 4 races out of 12.
Rindt and Stewart were by far the two superstars of qualifying in 1969. Whilst Stewart had fewer poles than Rindt, he was just as consistent. Any driver’s championship battle evaporated after Rindt had to wait until the 6th race to even finish (Stewart had 5 wins by this point).
|1970 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1971 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1972 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1973 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Rindt is remembered as the only posthumous world champion, with his 5 wins enough to seal the 1970 title despite his untimely death with 4 races still to go in the season. Ickx and Stewart both suffered from poor reliability which blunted their championship campaigns but were just as competitive as Rindt during qualifying. At the time of his death, the qualifying championship was a tight three-way race, with Rindt 3 points behind Stewart and 6 points ahead of eventual qualifying championship winner Ickx.
1970 was the fifth year in a row that the best driver in qualifying failed to win the driver’s title. From this point onwards it gradually becomes more likely that the fastest qualifier will win the title, due to improving reliability and safety standards, as well as an increase in the number of races reducing the effect of bad luck in one race. (You can see from the years below that reliability was very much a major issue of the era though.)
With better reliability in 1971, Stewart’s qualifying championship mirrors his dominant driver’s title. Ickx had a very competitive start to the season, but his qualifying results drifted off in the second half, which was accompanied by a slew of DNFs (6 in the last 7 races)
In 1972 the qualifying championship mirrors the race results relatively well, although Fittipaldi’s driver’s championship was more comfortable than the slender gap he had to Stewart in qualifying.
Ronnie Peterson dominated qualifying in 1973, with 12 front row starts (eventual champion Stewart had just 4). However, any driver’s championship challenge was over before it began: He failed to score points in the first 5 races despite 3 poles. Teammate Fittipaldi had a similar spell of DNFs later in the season, but both he and champion Stewart were unable to replicate Peterson’s qualifying consistency.
|1974 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1975 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1976 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1977 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Whilst Lauda is typically thought of as a racer instead of a qualifier, he achieved nine poles (including six in a row) in 1974, with a massive gap to teammate Regazzoni in the qualifying championship. The races were much more even, with a four-way battle for the title between Lauda, Regazzoni, Fittipaldi and Scheckter (who was only sixth best in qualifying) being won by Fittipaldi. Lauda’s slim title lead evaporated with five consecutive DNFs at the end of the season.
Lauda once again dominated qualifying in 1975 and walked to the title with vastly improved reliability. Fittipaldi ended the season sixth in qualifying (101 points) despite being Lauda’s closest competitor. James Hunt also showed his talents across these two years. His lack of a consistent teammate can make it difficult to judge, but in 1975 he qualified inside the top three on four separate occasions, with a rotation of teammates achieving a best qualifying result of 17th(!) for comparison.
As in the races, Hunt and Lauda dominated qualifying in 1976. Whilst it’s highly likely that Lauda would have won the driver’s championship without his near fatal crash at the Nürburgring, the situation in qualifying is less clear. Whilst he led the qualifying championship before his injury, his average points per race is below that of Hunt’s. A logical explanation of this is that his outright performance dipped a little upon return (due to lingering injuries), but teammate Regazzoni’s qualifying performances suggest that a more likely explanation is Ferrari’s form dropping off towards the end of the year.
1977 provided further evidence of Hunt’s raw pace. Teammate Mass was outqualified in all but one event and finishes 10th in the qualifying championship. Lauda’s driver’s championship was based on reliability and consistency in races (something that was lacking in qualifying). His low qualifying points haul can also be partially attributed to missing the lack two events after abruptly leaving Ferarri.
|1978 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
|1979 DRIVERS||QUALI POINTS|
Lotus were dominant across 1978, with the qualifying championship looking pretty similar to the driver’s title. The only major exception was at Tyrrell, where the driver’s semi-competitive race results contrasting with their generally poor qualifying. After five races Tyrrell driver Depallier even lead the championship, despite an average grid slot of 10th during this time.
1979 was definitely a season of two halves. Laffiti and Depaillier (Ligier) battled Villeneuve and Scheckter (Ferrari) for pole in the first half of the year, with Alan Jones (Williams) and Jabouille (Renault) splitting the spoils in the second half. (Depaillier unfortunately died halfway through the season, explaining his absence in the top 5).
Whilst Scheckter was outscored by Villeneuve in qualifying, his consistency allowed him to take the driver’s title. Seeing the world champion as only the fifth fastest qualifier is a surprise, but the points gap to leader Laffiti is relatively narrow due to the competitive nature of the season.
In just over half the championships from 1959-1979, the best performing qualifier did not go on to win the driver’s championship (12 times in 21 seasons). In most of these cases reliability played a significant role.
Perhaps surprisingly the effect on a season’s outcome in the 1950s seems smaller. This could be down to a number of factors, including coincidence given the relatively small sample size. The differing nature of qualifying is also definitely a factor.
The nature of modern Formula One (with its high reliability and little to differentiate a qualifying care from a race car) means that the best qualifier is far more likely to win the championship.
An open question is whether qualifying results is a better metric of quality Formula One drivers. In this list we’ve seen Fangio, Moss and Clark win more titles at the expense of drivers who tend not to be rated quite so highly (no disrespect to Farina, Brabham, Surtees or Graham Hill).
However, after this point is appears to be more muddled. The highly rated Stewart wins fewer titles, and whilst was undoubtedly incredibly fast his relatively high crash rate in races is not taken into account in qualifying. In more modern years, Hamilton and Senna have extra qualifying championships whilst Schumacher has fewer (surprisingly losing out to Hill in 1995 and Barrichello in 2003).
An obvious conclusion is that they are measuring different (but related) things, and that neither is a direct measure of the “greatness” of a driver.