This selection which is by no means intended to be definitive is our assessment of 20 of the greatest racing drivers of the past eight decades.
Segrave described him as the finest road race driver in the world, and in the FIAT Grand Prix cars of the early ’20s The Mad Mullah had few equals. He was fiery and aggressive, and liked to fight it out from the front rather than adopting the wait-and-see tactics of the majority of his rivals who placed greater premium on reliability. He was the Ayrton Senna of the decade, as the greats of American racing discovered when he ventured west to challenge them at their own game. And as Robert Benoist found when Bordino returned for another try in Europe in 1927, aged 38, you underrated him at your peril.
Sir Henry Segrave
Tall, debonair and charismatic, Eton-educated Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave was one of the greatest all-rounders of any era. He was quick in anything, had good feedback at a time when it was not fashionable, and could master any situation. He was the first Briton to win an international event since SF Edge and our first Grand Prix victor, at Tours in the Sunbeam in 1923. He was the first man to 200 mph. with the 1000 hp Sunbeam at Daytona in 1927. And he was instantly quick in speedboats. He was the first man to reach 100mph on water, just prior to his death in Miss England II on Windermere in 1930. He was probably Europe’s first great racing superstar.
Nuvolari! Even the name had a magic ring to it, and even today Italians go misty eyed when they recall the exploits of the Flying Mantuan. the man who could charm ridiculous performances from uncompetitive equipment, and a man whose bravery, speed and terrifying commitment dragged success from the jaws of defeat time and again. His daring and his utter disdain for unfavourable odds made him a national icon and established for him a reputation as a fiery, feisty and fearless demon for whom hero worship must have been invented. He was reckless, wild, at times almost diabolical, and his driving possessed a superhuman quality that has assured him a permanent place in the legend of motorsport.
Was there ever a more flawed genius than Achille Varzi? On his day the Milanese driver was one of the few who could hold a candle to the mercurial Nuvolari, though unlike Prost and Senna they resisted the temptation to be teamed together in all but their early years. Outwardly dour, he cloaked a sharp sense of humour with an unsmiling expression. but his perception and ability to judge helped Fangio to establish his career. Varzi was quick tempered, and fell into the clutch of morphine addiction at the height of his powers, but came back to win with Alfa Romeo before his death at Berne in practice for the European Grand Prix in 1948.
Few drivers have ever aspired to the heights of this great German superstar of the ’30s. Driving for Mercedes-Benz, Caracciola epitomised the racing driver of the mid-war years, blending speed with a devastating style that set him apart horn his rivals and made him the yardstick by which they were judged. His skill in wet weather was the stuff of fabulous legend and earned him the title Der. Regenmeister In all things that he did, Caracciola sought perfection, and just like Clark and Prost in later eras, he never seemed to be in a hurry, even on his fastest laps. He was kind to his equipment, possessed of fantastic consistency, and had the uncanny knack of knowing just how to get the best out of the top class machinery at his disposal.
The Schumacher of his day, Rosemeyer burst on to the scene in 1935, and sped like a meteor across the Grand Prix sky before his death on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn while chasing records for Auto Union in January 1938. A successful motorcycle racer, he stunned the world in only his second race by catching and passing Caracciola at Avus, and though the Mercedes driver overtook him right at the finish, a die was cast. Not even Nuvolari could tame the wayward rear-engined Auto Unions the way that Rosemeyer could. The German was brilliant in any conditions, and possessed that most vital of all skills: an absolute refusal to give up.
How many today remember this rather aloof Parisian, who was so often champion of France before World War 11? Yet for many years Fangio rated him as the best driver he had seen. Wirnille could win in anything, and drive in all conditions and on all types of circuits. Like Caracciola, he possessed that ability to make everything seem so easy, never appearing rushed or ragged. As Moss would later, he clung to his nation’s products as long as he could during the ’30s, but when he joined Alfa Romeo he eventually enjoyed the rewards he merited. But how much more success would he have achieved, had the war not stolen his best years?
Even today Fangio (picture second left, between Ascari, Farina and Villoresil is revered the world over as the absolute epitome of the world champion racing driver. To see those blue eyes flash and that wide grin break out across a face that seems to have changed so little since he first came to race in Europe in 1948, is to witness the effect of true charisma. And those who saw Fangio race have little doubt of his innate genius. Such was his manner that, as Clark would be, he was universally admired by his peers, and always the yardstick to beat. In the cockpit he had the killer’s instinct; out of it he was quiet and reserved. No matter what the machinery he could coax it and goad it at the same time. His pragmatism is evidenced by his penchant for switching teams without remorse, and by his desire to win races at the slowest speed, but when it mattered Fangio could match any of the young lions for sheer pace.
If he ever felt overshadowed by the pre-war efforts of his illustrious father Antonio, Alberto Ascari hid it well, for by the time of his death in the cataclysmic year of 1955 the chubby Italian had far outstripped paternal achievements. Even today, nobody has gone a year without losing a Grand Prix, as Ascari and Ferrari did from mid ’52 to mid ’53. In a car Ascari was fast, unflappable and beautiful to watch, driving with an economical style that always got the best from the machinery. There was little of the Latin about him in or out of the car. Instead he was a calm, cerebral racer, who was always at his very best out front, dominating a Grand Prix, yet curiously one who was also an utter slave to intense superstition.
Not even Fangio or Clark were as versatile as Stirling Crauford Moss. Look at the great Briton’s career, and you see the victories in big Jaguar saloons. XK I 20s and 500 Coopers, as well as the Maserati, Mercedes, Vanwall, Cooper and Lotus GP triumphs. Throw in his brilliance in the Mercedes 300SLRs, and the 1955 Mille Migiia in particular, and you have an all-rounder unmatched even today. Moss was once described as the man who could make the impossible possible, and like the other true greats he had that obstinate refusal to be beaten and the talent to make sure in any case that it didn’t happen often. What more might he have achieved had he not so often tried to drive only British cars, or had he given himself a little longer to recover after his Goodwood accident?
Somehow, races just seemed to surrender to the quiet Scot who for most of his days preferred to go back to his farm in Duns rather than indulge in the life of a motor racing hero. In the ’60s, finishing second to Clark was like a victory to the majority of his rivals. He very rarely made mistakes, he was so easy on his equipment, and he was at his best out front, like Ascari. He was shy, but beneath his quiet exterior lurked a racer’s instinct. For all that he was a complete gentleman on and off the track. He was a driver whose ability endowed him with so much extra time over and above the purely mechanical aspects of driving the car, that he could assess precisely what it was doing, and what was going on around him. And he was totally versatile. No matter what the equipment, be it Ft Lotus, Indianapolis Lotus. NASCAR stocker or ERA, Jim Clark would master it within laps.
The easiest mistake to make about John Young Stewart is to forget that he was quick. Perhaps he did not quite have Jochen Rindt’s outright pace, but he was very little slower, and complemented that speed with a canny brain that could take in a race, and an ability to elucidate his ear’s behaviour in minute detail. His safety crusades made him unpopular In many quarters, but he stuck to his guns and smacked his critics in the eye by racing with total commitment even at the circuits that he disliked, such as Spa and the Nurburgring. Throw in a more rounded personality than Clark’s, and an ambassadorial manner, and you have another true great.
Few racing drivers have ever possessed quite the level of pragmatism that is packed into Lauda. It didn’t bother him that people laughed initially at his efforts in F2 and F1; vanity was never part of his make-up. Instead he had a cool, clear view of where he wanted to be, and combined that with a razor mind and superb understanding of vehicle dynamics to produce the results. in his heyday he was the pacesetter who donned Stewart’s mantle; in later years his cunning and resilience won the day in his 1984 battle with Prost for championship honours. And his comeback from the Nurburging accident in 1976 and subsequent withdrawal from Fuji were each in their way the acts of an incredibly brave man.
Much of his time was spent in substandard machinery, and it was not until he joined Lotus in 1973 that he finally got his hands on a Grand Prix-winning car. But few doubt that the tall, blonde Swede had everything it took to become a world champion of the ’70s. Ronnie was blindingly fast and endearingly uncomplicated. Not for him the hours of debating car set-up; he just wanted to get in and drive in a ragged four-wheel drift, to defy the laws of physics. In his time he was the fastest man in Grand Prix racing, and also the most loyal, frequently staying behind Mario Andretti in 1978 because he was the Prodigal Son who had agreed to obey Colin Chapman. Like Villeneuve, we never saw him at his best, with the right equipment and the freedom to race as he wanted.
The unenlightened see Villeneuve as little more than an uncouth headbanger who had one too many accidents. ‘Too fast; too rough; too crude.’ you hear them say. But did he ever have the right equipment? Most times the Ferraris he drove were awful old buckets. When he was learning with the T3 in ’78 he was smoothness epitomised. With the 14 he could have won the title in ’79, had he elected not to obey team orders at Monza. But as well as being fast Villeneuve had Raymond Sommer’s belief that the way you played the game was as important as winning it. Nuvolari and Rosemeyer rolled into one, we never saw the best of him. Imagine what he would have done with Jones’ Williams. . .
Nobody will ever achieve what Mario Andretti has. Championships in his adopted America, the Ft World Championship in 1978, victories in sportscars and sprintcars . . . At 53 he is still a winner, and is the only driver ever to triumph over four complete decades. At times his Italian ancestry is evident in some reckless moves, but Andretti has always been a racer of the old school, a man brought up in the world of dirt when sprintcar drivers could usually count their life expectancy without running out of fingers on one hand. A survivor and a born competitor, racing is his life and he has paid it his dues many times over. No other driver racing today can tie together the era of Clark, Hill, Gurney and Surtees with Prost, Senna, Schumacher and Mansell.
The thing that people so often overlook about Alain Prost is his sheer speed, for more often than not in his latter years he chose to use it only sparingly. When he came into Fl he was like any other young charger who always had to be first; as he matured he took fewer chances, unless the situation absolutely demanded it. Who can ever forget those epic opening laps at Suzuka in 1989 when he demolished even Senna? Prost’s greatest ability, though, his feedback apart, was to judge a race, and to have the innate self-confidence to control himself until it was time to attack. And as Frank Williams once marvelled, very often the only way to judge when he was on his fastest lap was to consult the stopwatch. He was so good that he made it seem as if anyone could do it. Until they tried for themselves . . .
In the immediate aftermath of his death at Imola it is impossible to take in completely that Senna is gone, let alone to place him in his true perspective. Yet without doubt. like Fangio, Moss and Clark before him, he was the greatest driver of his era. And quite possibly he was the greatest thinking driver of all time, for there was barely a moment when he was not using that razor-edged mind to complement his fantastic speed in the never-ceasing quest for the faster lap. In a car he was ruthless: outside it he could be shy or arrogant. Unquestionably he was the most committed racer of his time, a perfectionist who was hard on everyone around him, but whose demands could be justified because he always asked the most of himself.
His critics say that he had a car advantage when he won his World Championship in 1992, but without question Nigel Mansell paid his dues over the years leading up to that bitter-sweet triumph for Williams Renault. Twice he had the cup dashed from his lips, in 1986 and 1987, yet each time he came back stronger than ever. His blend of blinding speed, abnormal bravery, raw aggression and uncanny car control is curiously mismatched with a self-doubting personality out of the car, but if anyone ever had any doubt about the man’s ultimate ability he surely dispelled it with his stunning transition to IndyCar racing. He could mix it with Prost and Senna at their greatest, and that speaks volumes.
Arguably it is too soon to cast Michael Schumacher on to the stage with all the aforementioned greats, but at the tender age of 24 the German from Kerpen has already demonstrated such cool ability, not only behind the wheel but off-track too. that we include him on the basis that he will be the greatest driver of the mid-to-late ’90s. Since graduating to F1 in 1991 with lordan. and then switching so controversially to Benetton. he has barely put a foot wrong. Without question he is the heir apparent to the mantles of Prost and Senna. D J T
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