Stirling Moss versus Jim Clark – just one of the great battles denied us by fate. Mark Hughes tackles three of formula one’s biggest “What ifs” and picks winners
The question of how the Ayrton Senna versus Michael Schumacher and Stirling Moss versus Jim Clark struggles would have been resolved may be posed in bars the world over, but the answers don’t lie this side of the Pearly Gates.
Sure, there are clues — but they conflict, often as not. And for each bit of evidence, there’s usually an entirely plausible reason why it’s not representative. Moss showed better than Clark in 1961 despite an older car. Yes, but Clark was at the beginning of his career, Stirling at the very height of his powers. Juan Manuel Fangio was quicker than Moss at Mercedes in ’55, but Stirling was almost certainly better and faster by ’61 than he was in ’55.
What’s more, we’re only dealing with the obvious cases — Moss vs Clark, Stewart vs Lauda and Senna vs Schumacher. What about Jean-Pierre Wimille vs Fangio? When the Argentine first arrived in Europe, Wimille was the standard to which he aspired, and the Frenchman’s margin of superiority over Alfa team-mate Giuseppe Farina was at least as big as was Fangio’s later.
Or what about Gilles Villeneuve and Alain Prost? Villeneuve was dissatisfied at Ferrari and Ron Dennis wanted him at McLaren. Gilles would have joined from ’83 on a multi-year deal, just as the Woking team was entering its first period of technical dominance. Thus there would have been no room there when Prost was sacked by Renault at the end of 1983. Perhaps Alain would have wound up at a lesser team and retired with half a dozen grand prix wins to his name and that Villeneuve would have been the multiple world champion with over 50 victories.
And he might still have been at McLaren just as Senna arrived there.
Ayrton Senna vs Michael Schumacher
Think back to that race at Imola in 1994,” says Watson, “when Michael was doing all the things you do when you’re that much younger and looking for success — pushing, prodding — as opposed to Ayrton who was defending through an issue of pride. It was the law of the jungle and it was going to be cruel whichever way it happened.”
Martin Brundle — head-to-head Formula 3 rival of Senna’s as well as Schumacher’s team-mate — has a different, though not conflicting, take on the same race: “I think Senna was more naturally gifted, more instinctive, but very emotionally driven. Schumacher is mentally driven. I think that’s what you were seeing in the early stages of ’94— Senna just driving himself on to raise his game, pulling out those sensational pole positions, but then the mistakes. Who knows what happened at Imola. But there’s no doubt Senna was pushing to his absolute limits to make up for a car deficit. Schumacher was quite able to sit behind him and put him under pressure. He was mentally even better. It would’ve continued to be a brilliant battle because they were chalk and cheese.”
Gordon Murray, who worked with Senna at McLaren for two years, shows less equanimity: “Schumacher isn’t in the same league. I’ve watched him closely from the outside since Spa 1991 and he still makes pressure mistakes and wrong split-second judgement calls. Senna made one at Monaco in ’88 and I can’t recall him making another one after that. Bear in mind that Ayrton got far more pressure from Prost — a guy of very high calibre in the same car with no team orders — than Schumacher gets from anyone. In terms of natural talent, they were of the same order, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. In how they apply that ability, Schumacher isn’t even on the starting blocks.”
Brundle agrees that Schumacher makes more errors: “Senna would have created those mistakes in Michael and punished them. But I think you’re seeing the same thing from Michael now, anyway, now that Mika Häkkinen is able to push him so hard.” Frank Dernie, who worked with Schumacher at Benetton in ’94, says: “In a car which at the time was not as quick as the Benetton, Ayrton outqualified Michael in the first three races of ’94. Williams later resolved the problem with the car and Damon Hill was then as quick as Michael. Therefore, to my perhaps flawed reasoning, Ayrton would have beaten Michael comfortably. I don’t think Schumacher would have got a look in ’94, and probably not in ’95 either.”
Subsequent to that? “Ayrton would have found it increasingly hard on a fitness and motivational level,” asserts Brundle. “I think you peak sometime in your early 30s. He would’ve been 40 now.”
It’s a point Watson acknowledges: “I think Ayrton’s move to Williams was indicative of a change in focus in his life. He was beginning to look to life beyond F1 and I think he felt the Williams drive would generate another championship, maybe take him beyond Prost in the all-time victory list, without him having to put his cock on the block. He was preparing his life as an ex-world champion, mentally pulling back from the raw edge he used to live in. Michael was thriving in that place.
“Having said all that, once the scale of challenge that Michael represented became clear, Ayrton was always going to respond. The issue of pride would have delayed his move into his new life – it would have been a case of ‘Hang on, I’ve got to deal with this upstart first.’ I’m sure he would’ve beaten Michael to the ’94 world title. Longer term, though, Michael would have prevailed as the younger, hungrier guy.”
In how he’s perceived, Michael’s disadvantage here is that he is current. For although the balance of opinion is with Ayrton, it’s hard to pinpoint why it is so overwhelming. Michael has arguably a bigger margin of superiority over his peers than Ayrton did over his, though that’s probably more a reflection of the competition than anything else.
There’s no doubting Senna’s persona is more appealing. He was religious and spoke openly and articulately of other-worldly places he would inhabit when his physical body was in the cockpit. It has left a prophet-like afterglow now he’s gone. Schumacher can’t compare in the charisma stakes, but what he does in the car is just as wondrous.
He hasn’t, though, dug as deep into his soul as Senna for a performance that left him emotionally drained. Brundle’s right: Schumacher’s drive is cerebral than emotional. This may not bring the same impossible heights but in its place is an irresistible, relentless grind. Still, of these two diamonds, Senna shines the brighter. In any light.
Jackie Stewart vs Niki Lauda
Only Jackie Stewart, Ken Tyrrell and Walter Hayes could have had any idea of how history would record 1973 as a Formula One watershed. They were the only ones who knew that Jackie planned to retire at the end of the year. In his ninth season he was driving better than ever, winning the championship, his third, against a faster car, teasing performances from his Tyrrell that flattered it, alternately calculating and attacking, his timing as exquisite as his throttle control.
Of those he dominated, Niki Lauda did not, in truth, look to be his obvious successor. But, with hindsight, there were signs. At the end of the first lap of the restarted British Grand Prix, he had the cranky old BRM twitching nervously in the Stowe braking area, protecting an impossible second place from Stewart. In the wet of Mosport — Jackie’s final race — Niki even led a few laps.
Maybe the racing world in general was more bedazzled by the exploits of Jody Scheckter or Ronnie Peterson in more competitive cars, but Enzo Ferrari liked what he’d seen of the young Austrian. The subsequent Ferrari ride was perhaps a surprise opportunity, but it’s doubtful whether anyone else could have made as much use of it. The remarkable soon became commonplace for Lauda; he didn’t answer to the same rules as anyone else. He didn’t so much compete against his rivals as transcend them by playing a different game. He was probably never quite the outright fastest driver, but he habitually used reserves of human spirit others didn’t even recognise as being there.
Could even Jackie Stewart have competed against that? John Watson’s Formula One chapter was opening just as Stewart’s was drawing to a close and he went on to serve two spells as Niki Lauda’s team-mate — at Brabham from 1978-79, and McLaren in ’82-83.
He draws a distinction between the relative qualities of each driver and how history might have panned out. “Niki was very smart and incredibly aware for a young guy,” says Watson. “He wasn’t solely responsible for the turnaround in Ferrari’s competitiveness in ’74, but he was an intrinsic part of it. He gave them Teutonic discipline and logic, and his work rate was fantastic. There would have been a transition, but the deciding factor would have been that Ferrari was in the technical ascendancy, Tyrrell was flattening out.
“On the other hand, Niki was not as calculating a driver in ’74 as he subsequently became. He was pushing very hard, sometimes a little too hard. The way Jackie was winning races in 1973 was very mature — he knew when to be fast, he had a fantastic feel of how to win. I don’t think Niki really reached that level until after his accident at the Nürburgring in ’76. That changed him, and his approach when he won the title again in ’77 demonstrated his altered priorities.” Silky though Stewart’s skills were, the raw speed that had been apparent ever since he took pole in his first ever Formula 1 race — the non-championship Rand Grand Prix of 1964 — was always just beneath the surface, ready to be unleashed. Lauda, by contrast, sometimes stood accused of lacking the final tenths. Watson disagrees, but can see where the idea took root: “Niki was capable of being very quick — not in the manner we’ve seen from Senna or Schumacher — but there were occasions in 1982 and ’83 when he would put in a blinding time with a normally-aspirated car among the turbos. But his approach was a very technical one: when he was happy with the car he would put the time in. He became less convincing if the car wasn’t at the front. He’d sometimes prejudge a situation, for example, at Detroit in ’82. He’d decided there was nowhere to pass in Detroit and the car wasn’t competitive. It was only when I passed him, Cheever and Pironi, and he saw me prove otherwise, that Niki switched on. I was perhaps more artisan and instinctive, whereas he was more controlled, premeditated. He didn’t hustle to his or the car’s full potential if he didn’t think he was in a competitive situation. I don’t think that ever applied to Jackie.”
Brabham designer Gordon Murray competed against Stewart and Tyrrell in the early ’70s and ran Lauda at the end of the decade. “I can’t think of two drivers more similar,” he says. “They were both incredibly intelligent, with lots of natural ability. You can have a lot of natural ability — like Mansell or Schumacher — and still make lots of mistakes. But Jackie and Niki used their ability in a businesslike way and were exactly the right mixture of passion and brain. They didn’t really have weaknesses.
Jackie’s amazing strength — and perhaps this is the only thing that gives him the edge over Niki — was his first lap. He used to demoralise people by being 2.5s ahead at the end of the first lap. I asked him how he did that and he said it was just concentration, just slowing everything down and not letting things get on top of you. It’s all very well saying that, but to do it you need the right sort of mind.”
Stewart might just have been the most complete, rounded driver of them all. Each of the many facets of his skill merged with the next one as smoothly as Jackie coming off the brakes and turning the wheel. He was fast, shrewd, technical, adaptive. Lauda was binary, which was his strength and his weakness. The enormous will and ambition were served to stunning effect by the Teutonic logic. He conformed to no blueprint and routinely achieved things never previously seen: coming back from the dead an even better driver than before, retiring a legend then returning after two years for another title. He could see possibilities where others couldn’t — then he’d make them happen with ruthless purpose. Conversely, in times of routine adversity he could be blind to routine solutions and he’d simply switch off his resource.
Stewart’s endeavours were probably lent more help by his natural gift and, furthermore, he pushed just as hard in each race of his final season as he ever had. That probably swings it in his favour.
Stirling Moss vs Jim Clark
Monaco 1961 was the stuff of legend — Stirling Moss in Rob Walker’s year-old Lotus humbling the superior Ferraris. Stirling qualified on pole, but he couldn’t help notice how well Jim Clark was going. The Scot was just 18 months into his single-seater career yet he had qualified third, ahead of two of the three red cars. Away from the start it was Clark who hounded Richie Ginther’s leading Ferrari, not Moss, but he almost immediately suffered ignition problems and history unfolded with Jimmy trailing to the pits and Stirling weaving his magic. Nonetheless, Moss had seen a flashing glimpse of the future, as he recalls: “I said to Rob Walker afterwards, ‘We’re not going to be able to get by with last year’s car for very much longer. I need one the same as his; I’m not going to be able to afford to give him anything.’ He wasn’t yet the Jimmy Clark that he became, but the writing was on the wall.”
There were just four months between the non-championship South African Grand Prix on Boxing Day 1961 — where Clark and Moss, both in Lotus 21s, fought for victory and Clark won — and Stirling’s career-ending accident at Goodwood. As the greatest driver of his day lay unconscious in the St Mary’s banking that magical, mysterious collection of nerve endings, inner ear balance and mental processes that made him great somehow scrambled amid the twisted spaceframe tubes, and motor racing was robbed of the titanic battles it was due.
“The combination of Jim Clark and Lotus was just awesome,” says Stirling’s then-manager Ken Gregory, “but he was still capable of being beaten. It would have been very interesting if Stirling had been able to continue because he would have been driving works Ferraris under Rob Walker’s colours. The 1962 Ferrari wasn’t a great car but the subsequent ones were competitive as John Surtees demonstrated and I firmly believe Jimmy wouldn’t have been quite the force he was if that had happened.
“I would put Stirling ahead of Jimmy because his capacity to get into any car on any circuit and produce as near 100 per cent of performance as was humanly possible. Jimmy was very versatile, too, of course, but he didn’t really do any road racing and I think that was the most difficult area of racing then — I don’t think there has ever been a greater challenge than the Mille Miglia.
“However, in some ways Jimmy was emotionally better than Stirling. I don’t think Jimmy ever wanted to have a technical advantage though, ironically, he had one for most of his career. I think he was quite secure that he could handle the opposition in comparable cars, whereas Stirling was always searching for a technical advantage, quite unnecessarily in my view. He never seemed to come to terms with the fact he was one of the greatest drivers the world had seen and he only needed to rely on his own skills.”
John Surtees was trading lap records with Moss that fateful day at Goodwood and went on to become, arguably, Clark’s strongest rival. He’s in a good position to have a view: “I would say that over a single lap in the same car there would have been virtually nothing in it. But Moss was more of a racer. If Clark was happy with his car then he would do a wonderful job. Stirling was more of a scratcher — he would still be fantastic even if the car was not quite right. I think Stirling was quicker in the wet, but you would probably have seen him have a few more retirements as he pushed the cars that little bit harder.”
Of course, not everyone saw it like that. Ian Scott-Watson was Clark’s mentor in his early motorsport career: “I think, in time, Jimmy would have overhauled Stirling. From a racing point of view they were very evenly matched but, when the chips were down, and Jimmy was really driving 11 tenths, he was capable of anything. I doubt whether even Stirling could have equalled that performance of Jimmy’s at Monza in 1967 when he went a lap down, and then came back to lead the race.”
Trevor Taylor, a team-mate of Clark from 1961-’63, concurs: “I was there that day at Rouen when he climbed into an old ERA, left the pits and, from a standing start, went four seconds under the lap record in a car he’d never sat in before. That sums up the scale of his natural gift.
“I cannot even begin to put into words how much talent he had. I’d follow him into a corner thinking, ‘My God, he’s got to go off going in at that speed’. And then he’d just somehow gather it all together, and by the time I got through the corner, Jimmy was disappearing into the next one. I’ve no idea how he did it: it was like magic. “I’ve followed Moss on the track, too, and he was excellent, don’t get me wrong — fantastic at the four-wheel drift. But Jimmy’s skill went beyond just that it was something extra. Even now, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking of how good he was.”
Clark did his stuff from the front. The clear air between him and his pursuers was mute but eloquent testimony to the breathtaking scale of his blessing from the gods. And his machinery advantage from Chapman. Moss, in contrast, almost wilfully made himself the underdog, sliding himself into his year-old cockpit to see if he couldn’t make the impossible happen. Again. Awesome skill was just one ally in this task; his competitive spirit dwarfed even that. Every other part of Stirling’s make-up was subservient to the intense, driving need of his competitive psyche. With Jimmy, though, the talent dominated everything. It was his inviolable security blanket and it allowed the racing to be almost incidental; he didn’t so much race as express his gift. In the process, the others grew small in his mirrors. It verged on the mystical.
So who was better? I’m with Trevor Taylor. Moss may have had more wells to draw from, but Clark’s one was so very, very deep.