September 11, 1957: World champion Argentinian racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio in action driving a Maserati at the 1957 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. He finished second behind Stirling Moss in a Vanwall. (credit: Central Press/Getty Images)

We're pretty sure fans of all sports love a good argument over who is "the greatest of all time." Will Stephen Curry soar higher than Michael Jordan at his mid-'90s apogee? Will Tom Brady eclipse Johnny Unitas? This is the stuff of countless hours of barroom banter. Formula 1 is no different. But given how much cars have changed over the years, is it even possible to compare different eras?

Andrew Bell and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield think so, and this team has just published a paper in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports offering proof that Juan Manuel Fangio owns the crown.

Most sports change over time, but the Formula 1 World Championship—first held in 1950—has changed a great deal over the past six-and-a-half decades. A 1950s F1 car looked like a cigar tube with wheels. The engine was in front of the driver, and there were no wings or spoilers. (Or seat belts, for that matter.) In the early 1960s, front-engined cars were made obsolete when John Cooper put the driver ahead of the power unit. Later that decade Colin Chapman at Lotus was responsible for a string of innovations, from fully stressed engines (bolted to the monocoque and carrying the rear suspension) to aerodynamics. Then we got ground effects, carbon composite construction, an ever-increasing regard for safety, and finally hybrid powertrains.

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