The past year in Formula One has seen an unlikely world champion and even more unlikely retirement. Nico Rosberg was in the news for all kinds of reasons. He had fashioned an improbable win against Lewis Hamilton over the course of the year by being consistent, efficient and by doggedly accumulating points. The use of improbability to describe his victory is not born out of a reluctance to acknowledge that he fully deserved this accolade, but more because he was up against a teammate who had consistently bettered him in the previous seasons and was starting to hegemonise the team.

Whereas adjectives such as ruthless, naturally gifted, raw pace are frequently used to describe Hamilton’s style, Rosberg is referred often disparagingly to as the committed, hardworking, resilient driver, the team player and the quintessential family man.

Defining the nice guy

Understanding racing styles and attitudes to offer a description of a nice guy is a complex exercise. Is he defined by his ability to contribute to a work-in progress team? Is it a willingness to follow team orders? Is it born out of a more conservative driving style, more respectful of other racers? Is it reflected by how the rest of the pitviews the individual? Is it a media construction that paints characters to create a compelling narrative? Is it a business decision to create opposing characters?

In many of these instances there are few who completely fit the perception of the nice guy. When Jenson Button and Felipe Massa announced their retirements last year, they were seen as likeable persons but not among the great drivers. Button, a world champion with Brawn F1 and Massa, someone who almost won the title with Ferrari but who was desperately unlucky were seen as good racers but without the genius, the ruthlessness, the cold-bloodedness to be classified as great. Even in the last race of the 2016 season, when Hamilton was accused of shutting out Rosberg, many while criticising his lack of team spirit, praised him for his ability to do whatever it took to win the title. His determination to push the limits was synonymous with other greats like Michael Schumacher and Aytron Senna, and it was almost justified as a condition to understand his genius.

This piece tries to explain whether greatness and niceness are mutually exclusive.

Head to head: Contrasting personalities

If a comparison is undertaken between drivers who are teammates, where one was perceived to be the nice guy (Rosberg, Barrichello, Webber, Massa) and the other more ruthless (Hamilton, Schumacher, Vettel, Alonso), we can see that the nice guy always finished second-best.

It is clearly evident that when faced with a more ruthless teammate, the nice guy has always taken a back seat, and only once (Rosberg in the previous season) has he won a Driver’s Championship. These drivers have always finished well behind their teammates in terms of points, race wins, podiums, poles etc. However, does this always mean that the teammate finishing ahead is the better driver? We have seen instances where teams clearly favour one driver over the other and this leads to one, more often than not the ‘nicer’ one, being the fall guy. The question that then emerges is whether the team also plays up these differences to be exploited.

F1 has been replete with examples of internal team dynamics spilling out of control. Many teams adopt contrasting strategies. McLaren, Williams and Mercedes pride themselves on giving both drivers equal opportunity; Ferrari has traditionally always had a No. 1 driver. This has often resulted in situations where one driver is seen to be more compliable than the other. In the Schumacher and Barrichello Ferrari team, the now infamous racing incident at the Austrian Grand Prix where Barrichello was ordered to allow Schumacher to win the race despite him dominating the weekend has come to define their relationship.

Head to head: Similar personalities

It is all well and good when one teammate is ready to play the supporting role. What happens when you have two drivers as teammates who are both ruthless (Hamilton and Alonso) or both easy going (Raikkonen and Massa)? Is there still a fall guy? Let’s see what happens in these cases:

This change in team dynamics leads to a much more competitive scenario within the team. Hamilton and Alonso both finished with an equal number of points, wins and podium finishes in the one season they were paired together (McLaren 2007). The combustible nature of this relationship resulted in both teammates fighting each other and an external driver, Kimi Raikkonen, winning the Driver’s Championship.

In the three seasons Raikkonen and Massa were paired together at Ferrari (2007-09), they both had an equal number of race wins, and although Massa had more poles (12-5), Raikkonen had more overall points (233-213). Looking at these numbers, it is very difficult to gauge who was the better driver.

What is the better team mix?

When we examine teams with two combustible personalities like Alonso and Hamilton, in an equal opportunity team like McLaren, the situation resulted in both fighting each other and not the external rival, and saw Raikkonen win the world championship. It interesting to note that in the four instances highlighted above where teammates were similar, only one (25%) has lead to a championship winner within the team. Whereas in the previous scenario, where there is a mixture of teammates there has been a championship winner from within the team 12 out of the 19 times (63%). Further, if we exclude the Alonso-Massa example, this percentage rockets up to 80% (12 out of 15). This makes it evident what strategy a team should employ when trying to win a Driver’s Championship.

Rosberg proved the data and the doubters wrong. Was it because he was more ruthless? Was he willing to push more than before? Or was it evidence of a change in F1, where the nice guy fights back? The new season should give us the answers with the latest nice guy, Valtteri Bottas, joining Mercedes.

Jayant is a data scientist and Siddharth is a lawyer.