We can see they are different – but why? Matthew franey talks to some big players who say that talent alone is not enough.
Senna, Fangio, Clark, Schumacher, Prost, Stewart, Mansell. It takes just a few seconds to compile the list. They are the very greats of motor racing, the drivers whose feats separate them from those who, however unwittingly, make up the numbers.
Now look at the following list: Brundle, Lehto, Amon, Herbert, Warwick, Alesi, Magnussen. Spot the difference? They all arrived in Formula One set to shake up the establishment; in many cases they were the sport’s next great white hope, but you can count their Grand Prix wins on the fingers of one hand. Like it or not, those on the second list – and they are just a few selections from a much larger pool – can never be ranked with those from the former. The question is,’Why?’ What separates a Senna from a Brundle, a Clark from an Amon?
Raw statistics provide no concrete answers, but they go some way to revealing the difference in ability, the combination of talents that makes up the overall package. Leaving aside Schumacher as a current driver, it is no mistake that the others average nearly 35 Grand Prix pole positions a piece and their victory tally is a mean 33.1 per driver. Compare that to Jean Alesi – one win in over 150 starts – or Derek Warwick, none in 146. This is not to declare these drivers failures, for they were not. The point is simply that the greats have something that the others can only imagine, and it is more than just an ability to drive a Grand Prix car faster than their rivals.
Williams technical director Patrick Head, into whose team have been drafted several of the sport’s most talented racers, points to their unrelenting ability to draw their supporters around them.
“On the circuit, top drivers are always able to find that little bit extra,” Head says. “But the very best also have an intensity and a drive which is projected to the people around them. It causes everyone to raise their game. One sees it at the moment with Schumacher, and we have seen it in the past at Williams as well. When you have a great driver there, you know it.”
There is no more obvious example of a driver ensuring that a team is built with him in mind than the Schumacher situation at Ferrari, but this is no phenomenon of the 1990s. The relationship between a number one driver and his team is complex. If it is to work, both partners need to ask almost unreasonable demands of each other, time and time again, without falling out. Peter Warr, who worked at Lotus with the likes of Clark, Fittipaldi, Andretti and Senna says the greats are the ones who don’t just put up with the workload, but actually enjoy it.
“One thing that sets them apart is that they generally had the same opportunity as the others but they also had an absolutely illuminating, burning desire to win,” argues Warr. “That gave them a mental attitude that refused a compromise of any sort. Ayrton was the one who would be there until eight o’clock at night studying print outs and telemetry and trying to learn. I remember Denis Jenkinson used to say, ‘Dedicated racing drivers are boring; Ayrton is a serious racing driver, not a dedicated one.’ Senna’s application is what gave him the reputation of being unbelievable at setting up cars and understanding the minutiae. That was what Jenks meant by being a ‘serious driver’ – Ayrton was at the track while the others were back at the hotel bonking the bird.”
Having your engineers behind you is half the battle, but it takes two drivers to make a team, and learning to deal with your team-mate is part of the sport. Those who come out on top in that struggle are often the ones who seem capable of stopping at nothing in their search for perfection. It is often described in the media as ruthlessness but those closer to the drivers often sense a different cause. Peter Warr again:
“I can remember with Ayrton his lack of trust with other team-mates didn’t come over in a nasty or unkind way, it was just that he was sure that only with him in the car would we achieve the level of development that would make it possible to win the next race. It was nothing to do with who was in the other car, rather this drive that came from inside him that made him want to do it.”
Derek Warwick, Britain’s great F1 hope before Mansell’s ascent, became a victim of that mistrust when Senna blocked his signing for Lotus. “One of the greatest drivers of all time wouldn’t have me as a team-mate,” he recalls. “He saw me as a threat and knew that the team wasn’t capable of running two number-one cars, so he did what was best for him. And even at the time I didn’t really bear him any malice because you could just see the signs of a great driver, this uncanny ability to make the right decision about who to drive for and when.”
The Senna factor may have been no help to Derek Warwick’s career but, like Schumacher, Senna’s skill at choosing the right team is no novelty. Commentator Murray Walker looks back 30 years for evidence of that.
“Fangio would just move from team to team on one-year contracts so that he could assess at the end of the season what the best car for next year was and take his talent to that team. You can call that a lack of loyalty or ruthlessness, and I think you would be right, but I am not criticising that. Nice guys finish second, don’t they?”
Staking claim to a team comes naturally for some, but for others it takes time. A Grand Prix driver’s ego is a strong one and with two in a team the ensuing struggle can drag on. While Senna and Prost never settled their differences at McLaren, Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese sorted some form of hierarchy at Williams a few years later… eventually. Patrick Head recalls the sparring between them.
“When a driver is convinced that he is the lead driver, he gets on with his team-mate as long as his team-mate is behind him! In the early part of the Mansell/Patrese partnership, the relationship was not particularly good because Riccardo was giving Nigel a very hard time and often qualifying and racing ahead of him.
“When we went to the active-ride car in ’92, Nigel was in a different league on the circuit and therefore didn’t see Riccardo as a threat any more and so could get on with him better. Nigel had a much higher level of commitment. Patrese wanted to win, but not with quite the intensity that Mansell did. He was prepared to do himself damage to win.”
Intensity, drive, desire. These are words that spring up again and again. Whatever era is being discussed, whoever is the subject of that discussion, the will to succeed – at the circuit and in private – somehow surged with greater potency from those we now consider legends of the sport. Peter Warr saw evidence of it throughout his time at Lotus:
“It revealed itself in so many different little ways. I remember once being with Jim Clark at a party at Colin and Hazel Chapman’s house. Everyone was well into their cups and someone produced a pogo stick. There we were in Hazel’s beautiful house with fancy furnishings and somebody bet £5 – a lot of money in those days – that none of us could pogo our way up to the first floor landing! So off we all went, no-one getting past the second step, knocking lights off the wall, until it was Jimmy’s turn. He sailed effortlessly up to the landing. He was always a lovely man, but put him behind the wheel of a racing car and he couldn’t bear to be beaten.”
Trevor Taylor, Clark’s team-mate at Lotus in the early 1960s, echoes Warr’s recollection. In their formative years, like Senna and Brundle two decades later, the duo fought head-to-head, even splitting the 1960 Formula Junior title. But as the machinery became more sophisticated and the pressures more intense, Clark eased further away. Taylor, for so long on a par with his rival, just sat back and admired his genius.
“Jimmy was a born natural. His ability was so far advanced from anybody else at that time that I could never see anything happening to him. No matter what position he got into he seemed capable of getting out of it, whereas I just couldn’t do that. His sense of balance was exceptional. You only had to look at the way he walked and talked to see that.
“Once at Oulton Park we were lying first and second and I followed Jimmy into Lodge Corner. He went in there so fast that as I got on the brakes I thought ‘Jesus, he’s lost it!’ but as I turned in he was already disappearing out the other side. His ability was something I could only imagine.”
And therein, perhaps, lies the crux. If Schumacher is a greater driver than Eddie Irvine – or even a world champion like Damon Hill – then does it come down simply to being born with the talent to drive faster through a corner than the next man? Peter Warr believes that it is not that simple.
“Even Ayrton Senna had to work at elements of his driving. We always used to remark on his incredible car control and the way he had of blipping the throttle in mid-corner to keep the car on the limit and also how good he was in the wet – you can’t forget what he did at Donington in 1993. But something that even I never knew until recently was that he wasn’t any good in the rain when he started out.
“In karts he used to get constantly dusted off by everybody. So when it rained, he would purposefully get his kart out and just practise and practise until he got it sorted. And that was where that incredible feel for finding the grip and avoiding the puddles came from. I never knew that, but it goes to confirm that when he realised there was a chink in his armour, he went out and fixed it.”
Genius matched to application allied to self belief. That is what it takes to join the elite; that is the picture drawn by those who work alongside or race against drivers who make themselves almost unbeatable. Murray Walker puts his finger on it when he looks at the early Senna/Brundle years and the sacrifices the Englishman might have had to make stay on a par with a man as driven as Ayrton.
“Martin might challenge me on this, but at the time he was living a secure family life in his own country and couldn’t, without being an extraordinarily self-centred man, give as much devotion, time, and effort as somebody like Senna. As you well know, Ayrton was simply obsessive about every detail. I would think that, at the end of the day, Martin was a better man for not being like that.”
That dilemma faces every sporting great of the future. Be prepared to be branded ruthless when you make it clear that your team-mate doesn’t suit you. Accept the charge of arrogance when all that goes through your head is extraordinary self-belief. Work into the night when your body and mind cry out for rest. To many, the demands are too much to suffer. To a rare few it doesn’t even enter their heads.