The Greatest drivers of the century - a personal view

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Over the next five issues we will list the 100 best drivers of all time. Many will disagree, others will say comparing past and present is meaningless. MOTOR SPORT regular Mark Hughes begs to differ. These are his views and they are bound to provoke debate. Please let us know yours.

Part 1 (100-81)

The greatest Grand Prix drivers of the century? I need to provide you with some clarification here.

Firstly, that term ‘greatest’. You won’t necessarily find it in a track record or start-to-win ratio. Its not just what they did, but how they did it.. And it must take into account what was at their disposal when they were doing it. There can be just as much glory in failure as mediocrity in victory.

Secondly, how can drivers who never competed against each other – and who raced differing machinery – be compared? They can’t definitively. But then what is definitive? Think of the eras of motor racing at the highest level – and the cars and competitors within them – as the blank canvas. The most vivid pigment on it will have been imposed by the greatest of each era .Regardless of how the canvas is made up, it will provide a roughly uniform surface for the purposes of perspective and so make comparison between the eras, if not an exact science, then at least a decent approximation. Only beyond that point does it become a matter of gut feeling and bias. And, in this case, it’s my gut-feeling.

As for the machinery, motor racing has always been a competition to see who can best balance power against grip through the medium of steering and pedals and, from there, what qualities of human spirit can be called upon to exploit those physical skills. Much the same qualities have been evident in the great drivers since the dawn of the sport – and we’ve included the six years at the beginning of the century before the term ‘Grand Prix’ was applied – as the pioneers of this era have every bit as much right to be considered here as their descendants.

Finally, consider this more a salute to all these men than a mathematical rating of their worth. It’s their efforts that have given the sport we love the majesty to transcend the niggles.

100 – Hans Stuck Snr
Grand Prix cars never came in more demanding form than the mid-engined Auto Unions that challenged the might of Mercedes in the mid-late ’30s. They were monsters that tested even the greatest drivers. But Hans Stuck could make them purr, could soothe their willfulness with a rare and polished aplomb. It took nothing less than the genius of Bernd Rosemeyer to show that these machines could give yet more to those brave and skilled enough to dominate rather than placate them.

99 – Rubens Barrichello
He drives with Fittipaldi-flow – deftness and momentum have permanent homes here. But it’s only lately, under Stewart’s nurturing, that his natural flow has been allowed to flower. His confidence has been fragile, that of a boy rubbing shoulders with his heroes.

Rubbing shoulders but not tyres. It’s taken a time for him to feel the lifted burden of realisation that he doesn’t, in fact, have a covenant to continue Ayrton’s work. As he gives fuller expression to his true self, so he grows. One day, he may even be his own hero.

98 – Philippe Etancelin
You might have mistaken the extrovert manner and back-to-front cap as the mark of a racing dilettante. But he was a coiled snake of a driver, attacking when least expected. He might pass a few races as just one of the pack but then, like a dust-devil on a calm sunny day, he’d pull a feat like rattling Mercedes at Monaco in ’35 armed only with a Maserati. Or, as a 53-year-old in a lumbering Talbot, show such spirit as to give Ferrari a severe fright at Spa in ’49.

97 – Albert Clement
l’he biggest race of the 1904 season, the Vanderbilt Cup at Long Island, brought the elite of American and European racing together. Thundering 12-litre engines, wheels kicking up the dust, precarious chassis. A big blue car just loses out in a late race charge fbr victory.

The driver climbs out and it’s only as he rubs the grime and oil from his face that you see he’s barely more than a boy. Just 19 years old. He never made it beyond 22, but in his short time, he gave the iron men a few more scares in between.

96 – Stuart Lewis-Evans
A sunny day at Reims 1957 and the quiet man from Luton was driving for Vanwall as a stand-in for the indisposed regulars Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks. But he did more than just drive – he led, ahead of Fangio, and looked like staying there too. Only an oil leak smearing his goggles prevented a fairytale result, but his substitute days were over. This mate of Bernie Ecclestone’s was brimming over with a God-given gift, though it was sometimes betrayed by a stamina shortfall.

95 – Patrick Depallier
He was the adventurous little boy with the shield that kept the grown-ups out – they could only watch from the outside as he performed stunts according to his own rules. It made him very straightforward; he’d charge like hell and was unaffected by pressure.

Sometimes, though, his other games got in the way of this one, and sometimes this one got difficult, like finding a few tenths that weren’t naturally there. Sheer will would eventually find them.

94 – Giuseppe Campari
As much Pavarotti as Andretti, the burly Campari was looking to finish his career to a standing ovation as he headed the field into the first comer of the 1933 Monza Grand Prix. The first to find the spilt oil, his accident ensured he never did get to devote himself full-time to opera. It was the final note of a remarkable 19-year career that encompassed Grand Prix wins for Alfa and Maserati. Only when paired with Antonio Ascari or Tazio Nuvolari did he look a little breathless, although he remained able to surprise right to the end.

93 – Rene de Knyff
The big ox of a man with the beard knew his time was up. Motor racing was going in a way he couldn’t follow. It was 1903 and racing cars were becoming more sophisticated; the brutal audacity with which he’d piloted his thundering Panhard in the city-to city races was no longer going to be enough. And he was too old to learn the new tricks required to master the new breed. He retired as the acknowledged master of wayward pioneer machines.

92 – Elio de Angelis
If there was a weakness, it was that it came too easily: he didn’t have the stuff that let him dig himself out of bad situations. But when all was right what you saw was beautiful, flowing talent as effortless as his charm, while those classical pianist’s fingers held a remarkable, mechanically sympathetic touch. He could also tame overboosted, qualifying-tyred turbo cars like few others – to such a degree that team-mate Senna was once or twice left pondering. How many other team-mates ever gave the Brazilian cause for that?

91 – Wolfgang von Trips
He was the man with too much desire. As a Count he was able to buy the best apprenticeship. This done, the wildness of youth was replaced by something just as lethal at the time: an aching desperation for success which stretched his high but fuzzily-defined ability into the realms of chance. His sheer bravado in wheel-to-wheel situations took on even scarier proportions when the 1961 Ferrari offered him the cruelly tantalising prospect of a world title. Desire, finally and fatally, tripped him up on the cusp of taking the prize.

90 – Gerhard Berger
Lap four of the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix and the Ferrari went straight on at Tamburello. Inside, Gerhard knew he was about to die. A second after hitting the wall at 160mph, the car was a fireball. Remarkably, he only suffered mild injuries but the old Berger did indeed die in that crash and a new one was born; the speed was still there but the daring only came with a good reward on offer. However, his win in Germany in his final season was as ballsy as any.

89 – Kenelm Lee Guinness
He may not have appeared often, this heir to the brewing millions, but when he did, you noticed. The great Antonio Ascari certainly noticed in the ’24 French GP as his leading Alfa P2 was hauled in by the Guinness Sunbeam until the green car broke. He had foot-to-the-floor bravery displayed when he set the Land Speed Record in 1922 rather than a silken skill, yet suffered few incidents. But the death of his riding mechanic in the ’24 San Sebastian GP, caused Kenelm to give up, his potential left clawing at thin air.

88 – Denny Hulme
He used what he had so well. He lacked the pure speed of many contemporaries, but he was tough in the head. Which meant that in an F1 career stretching from ’65 to ’74, he barely put a wheel wrong. He never transcended the ability of his cars, but never did less never than full justice either. Often, as in his ’67 championship year, that was exactly what was required. The same toughness allowed him to ignore burnt hands to bring McLaren back after Bruce died.

87 – Christian Lautenschlager
Over fast dusty roads, the white car sped for hour after hour. There were a few faster cars on the Dieppe track that day in 1908 but none with the near metronomic consistency of Lautenschlager’s Mercedes. A broad, powerful man with a tester’s detachment, he was perfect for the task of hauling a 13-litre aero-engined monster round for six hours regular as clockwork – and duly won. He did the same in 1914, again through stealth rather than speed. He contested only three Grands Prix and won two of them, a unique feat.

86 – Jo Siffert
Fast and dramatic, Jo gave the impression of racing with clenched jaw and tight fists. Often his driving wasn’t pretty, though it was invariably effective in coaxing speed from the car. Combine this with one of the toughest combative spirits to have waited for the starting flag and he could be formidable. There were days when this allowed him to beat Jim Clark, win the British Grand Prix in a private car or dominate at Zeltweg for BRM. But there were days when team-mate Pedro Rodriguez made him look ham-fisted.

85 – Luigi Villoresi
In the late-40s, as Luigi coached protégé Alberto Ascari from in front, we saw a fleeting, white-haired impression of a greatness lost to the war. Years when he should have been a Grand Prix driver in full bloom were instead withered away in a prisoner-of-war camp.

But his captors hadn’t dulled the indomitable spirit that fired his charging efforts for the few years that were left to him before time inevitably eventually took the sheen off his skill instead.

84 – Jean Behra
Men of the French Resistance were much like Behra; tough-nuts, resilient, self-sufficient, with a love of taking long odds and hearts as big as frying pans. Like Sommer before him, Behra often swapped winning for the glory of striving for the impossible. When he was good, he was great; like humbling Ascari’s Ferrari with a Gordini at Reims in 1952. But over-revving his Ferrari in ’59 was part of him too, as was subsequently punching the team manager, and over-committing himself to the south curve at Avus — the final act of his life.

83 – Jean Alesi
It has begun to rain, the track is greasy, everyone’s on slicks. On days like this Jean can perform miracles, can shade even Schumacher. The ’95 European Grand Prix was one such day. The advantage he established kept him at the front for over 50 mesmerising laps. It looked like he would walk it. Then we saw his downside; his lead evaporated with mediocre laps as the track dried as, inevitably, Schumacher hove into view. Jean co-operated more than he needed and let German to rob him. There’s no logic to him, only magic.

82 – Ricardo Rodriquez
The Mexican kid’s entourage never tired of telling him how great he was, how he could go faster. One day, in front of his home crowd, he took too much notice of them. What was lost in the subsequent crash was perhaps the fastest driver of the coming generation. His wild streak had been calmed, all he’d needed after that was time for his understanding to catch up with his speed, for the good car to come along. It would have happened. He would have had it all…

81 – Louis Renault
There was a moment of elation at Bordeaux 1903 as the race was stopped and Louis found himself second against far more powerful machines. The racer’s spirit within soared but was soon brutally extinguished for good: in the carnage that did for city-to-city racing, his brother Marcel had perished. As the survivors were escorted to a train, crowd shouting abuse, Louis must surely have felt most desolate of all. Henceforth, he would build his empire, and the driving infused with a hint of Marcel’s magic would be lost for good.

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