The Champions

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The Editor Looks at Top Drivers from Different Ages of Motor Racing

“The man who never saw — and heard — the tremendous rush and roar of one of the 1908 Clement-Bayards coming down the straight towards Dieppe at 100 miles an hour, the driver crouching under the wheel and the mechanic’s head Just visible above the high scuttle, has missed something which modern racing cars can never again give him in years to come” — Gerald Roce, in the Preface to his book “A Record Of Motor Racing”, second edition. 1949.

It is a fascinating but rather hopeless task to try to decide who should be regarded as the best driver, the unquestioned Champion, in any one period of racing. At the risk of a controversial and no doubt questionable outcome, I will have a stab at it…. Since 1950 there should be no argument, because from then to the present there has been an annual Drivers World Championship. This important and financially-rewarding title has been won five times by Juan Manuel Fangio, three times each by Sir Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda, twice each by Alberto Ascari, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet, and once by Giuseppe Farina, Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, John Suttees, Denny Hu!me, Jochen Rindt, James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg and Alain Prost. But never ever, let it be forgotten that Stirling Moss, who is generally regarded as Britain’s greatest, most versatile, racing driver, never won the World Championship. . . .

This Championship has been awarded for so long and has become such an influence on the outcome of each race counting towards it that I wonder whether it might have far more impact if it were awarded only after a driver had improved on the number of points scored by the holder, assuming of course that the scoring system is foolproof, as surely it must be with so much global acclaim and money at stake? I know Bernie Ecclestone would never agree, but if this arrangement had been adopted from the start, instead of acclaiming an annual World Champion, the list would have been written thus:

Farina — 1950 with 30 pts

Fangio — 1951 with 31 pts

Ascari — 1952-53 with 36 pts

Fangio — 1954-59 with 42 pts

Brabham — 1960-62 with 43 pts

Clark — 1963-68 with 54 pts

Stewart — 1969-72 with 63 pts

Stewart — 1973-76 with 71 pis

Lauda — 1977-? with 72 pts

This would have neatened things up and made the World Drivers’ Championship even more prestigeous, surely? It should be noted that Jim Clark equalled his 1963 score in 1965, and that Hawthorn in 1958 equalled but did not surpass, the 42 points that would have established Fangio as Champion from 1954 to 1959 inclusive. The scoring method was changed somewhat along the years, a point for making fastest-lap in a race being deleted after 1959, perhaps on the reasoning that a driver who did this by over driving his car was less deserving than he who was able to score place-points without doing this. However, we have to abide by the system that has been in operation, with a few changes, for the past 35 years, or ignore the full list of annual World Champions. The idea of insisting on increasing prowess from a driver entitled to call himself Champion of the World if you accept the scoring system, does put Niki Lauda in a very favourable light, with a span of nine years as maximum-points holder, and equalling this in 1984, which Jackie Stewart does not quite match, although only a year short, and he also increased his own best-score during that span of racing. Fangio is placed third, so it seems to work out well both in respect of points gained or years of ascendency. If you prefer to work on a total-points-gained basis, the position becomes: Stewart 196, Fangio 183, and Lauda 144 during their periods in the Championship lead.

That puts the top drivers of the past 35 years as Fangio, Stewart, and Lauda in their respective periods of F1 racing but those who prefer to disregard the Championship and bring in other drivers may have quite different ideas. Fangio was driving at a time when racing had become pretty scientific, the Tipo 159 Alfa Romeos, 250F Maseratis and Type 196 Mercedes-Benz, he drove relying on proper setting-up for the different circuits and responding to advanced techniques of fast cornering, with Fangio able to turn an inherently oversteering car into an understeerer, and so on. Stewart may be said to have raced largely in a transitional era between what were still conventional racing cars by older standards, and before science took another bite at the problem and down-force aerodynamics was applied to obtaining greater wheel-grip, making possible the very quick negotiation of corners and late braking which Lauda had to cope with.

In this last and continuing period of F1 Grands Prix the contestants have in a way to contend with more imponderables than their predecessors — in such a scientific pursuit I hardly like to say luck — with qualifying laps being done on very special tyres and needing the good fortune of a clear track (a front-line position on the starting-grid helping considerably towards a high finishing position in a race) tyres now being so dependent on weather conditions as to make their selection something of a gamble, and overtaking by cars of very closely-matched performance, so far as the top runners are concerned, being as difficult as in earlier times, for quite different reasons. One admires the present-day “gladiators” enormously. Races may now be much shorter, in distance and the time they occupy, but the modern F1 racing driver has to make split-second (or quicker!) judgements, endure very high G-forces, and still be able to handle gear changes under these conditions much as his forebears did, although grippy tyres and rev limiters have changed somewhat both the full tail-out sliding of bends and the fear of over-revving the engine. If trouble ends a race, it is usually from some obscure “black-box” fault, a blown turbo, or from suspension or tyre damage caused by a coming together or a shunt, and not from quite such a multiple of mechanical disasters, perhaps, as might once have been the case. Today, drivers have to remember not to run out of, fuel before the end of a race which means playing with the amount of boost-pressure they use from the turbo-charging, although there were similar judgements to be made in some previous GP races, fuel-consumption restrictions being enforced in 1907, 1913, 1929 and 1930, although not to such a drastic extent. Motor-racing has always been a team effort, with the drivers the ultimate factor in the bid for victory, but with the designers, engineers, and mechanics all playing a vital part: but here I would put in the personal opinion that it is regrettable that nowadays decisions about the tyres a car starts a race on, and how it qualifies come into the equation, as factors additional to driver skill and car performance….

Apart from Championship placings, it is worth looking at the great races driven by the top drivers. Each aficionado will have his or her own opinion but for me Fangio ‘s greatest display of prowess was seen in the 1957 German GP at the Nurburgring, when he came into the pits with a 28 sec lead but then had a deplorable pit-stop, refuelling and changing the rear wheels taking 52 sec (the World Champion got out of the car while this was going on — shades of Nuvolari In the 1935 German GP which the Italian maestro won in like fashion) and he was over 75 sec behind the Lancia-Ferraris of Collins and Hawthorn, when the Maserati rejoined the race, Fangio then broke the lap-record time and time again, and although Hawthorn fought nobly to keep his lead, after Collins had slowed, Fangio drove like the master he was, winning by a bare four seconds, having wiped out his deficiency caused by the slow pit-stop 1 1/2-laps from the finish…. Fangio said afterwards he had done things in the Maserati that day he would not wish to do again! Incidentally, in those days a driver received some £450 starting money and his life insurance cost around £600 a year… I know less about later F1 races and prefer not to emulate some writers who tell of happenings they have not seen, so I will leave Stewart and Lauda fans to decide which races were the peak of those drivers performances.

Jackie Stewart being remembered for his smooth driving style while Lauda could “tiger” with the best of them. Both Fangio and Lauda raced again after horrific accident injuries — when I heard a TV sports, commentator saying recently of a batsman’s broken nose that it was the worst injury he had seen in a sporting contest I knew he had never heard of Niki Lauda.

Having tried to sort out the World Champions of 1950-85, let us go to the beginnings of motor racing and try to apply the same reasoning. Allowing a few years for things to settle down, the first period to consider appears to be that from 1900 to 1905. How different then were the techniques Involved! Races were over vast distances, in primitive cars, heavy to drive, and hampered by dust, frequent tyre trouble, and poor surfaces, for these early races were often town-to-town events over those ruler-straight roads, towards the ever, receding horizon. It was said that when overtaking, the dust-clouds could be so fog-like that it was necessary for drivers to steer by looking at the tops of the trees that lined the route — I never quite believed this, but it was true, and caused a nasty smash in the 1901 Pans-Berlin race when Degrais in his Mercedes was trying to pass Houggieres’s Mors and was looking up at the tops of the line of trees, unaware that where the road turned sharply left the trees ran straight on: he hit the ditch, charged into a field, and the car overturned, his mechanic, Baron de Schwyter, being badly injured.

Applying the present World Championship points-system to the races of 1900, in the Heavy Car class where there was that distinction, we find De Knyff, the Panhard Director, ending the season with 22 points, Levegh with 20, and Giradot with 17. By these standards 1901 would have seen Fournier declared Champion with 18 pts, the runners-up M. Garman (15) and Giradot (12). For 1902 the position would be: Jarrott (15), M. Garman (13). Zborowski (9); but with only two major races that year, this hardly lines up with today. The same applies to 1903, when Gabriel and de Crewhez would have been joint-Champions (12 pts. each), with Jenatzy second (9). The 1904 score would have been: Heath 18, Teste 12, A. Clement 10, and for 1905, Hemery well out in front with 21 pts, from Thery and Raggio with nine each, Nazzaro and Heath scoring eight each. But by my suggested new basis for the Drivers’ World Championship, at this early stage of the game the Chevalier Rene De Knyff would have been the leader his score for 1900 never surpassed.

Of this great Panhard-Levassor driver Charles Jarrott, said “Do you remember the figure of De Knyff in the Gordon-Bennett race in Ireland, the standard-bearer of the flag of France, and the one of all others to whom France looked to regain the Cup? And do you remember how he fought? Huge-limbed, bearded, and sullen-faced, throughout the whole of that long day, when he alone was left to challenge the dare-devil Jenatzy, do you remember how he calculated his chances, how he drove to finish, in the belief that his opponent could not finish, and do you remember that last wild desperate lap when he realised he had left it too late, and that Jenatzy and time had secured the Cup for Germany? If you saw De Knyff on that day you saw him at his best, lighting out a race against odds.” (De Knyff kept fit for the arduous races of his time — anything up to 837 miles — by playing raquets in the Tuileries Gardens and he was a clay-pigeon shot and racing cyclist). Of those other pioneer racing drivers highly placed, Jarrott said of Fournier that he was inclined to be excitable and over-eager but in 1901 was rightly looked upon as the best of the French drivers, and that he regarded Gabriel at his best as one of the finest drivers in the World. Looking at the matter from that angle, rather than on points, perhaps the greatest drive of all was that of Gabriel, in winning the ill-fated Paris-Madrid race in 1903, for when it was stopped by Government decree at Marseilles because of the terrible accidents en route Gabriel had passed some 167 others in his boat-shaped 70 hp Mors. averaging 65.3 mph for those truly hazardous 342 miles of open, badly-guarded roads, and remember that speeds were now up to around 100 mph, although brakes and tyres had scarcely improved since motor-cars were first raced…

But perhaps we should move back from the 1900-05 era to recall another heroic feat, that of Levassor when he averaged 15 mph tor the 732 miles of the 1895 Pans-Bordeaux-Paris race. Before you scoff at the low racing speed you should think of the high, short-wheelbase, solid-tyred, tiller-steered Panhard that Levassor used and remember that he drove the whole way without another driver, fearful of anyone else losing his lead (shades of Levegh at Le Mans in 1952), reaching Ruffec at 3.30 am, to find his co-driver asleep. So Levassor drove on, getting to Bordeaux at 10.40 am on the morning alter that long night drive, turned round, and set off back to Paris, taking on water and fuel every 100 km, his total spell at the tiller of a machine few in the entire World understood, being 48h 48m — for which he won 12,600 francs.

The disaster of Paris-Madrid spelled the abandonment of regular town-to-town contests and after 1905 the industry tired of the Nation-versus-Nation aspect of the Gordon Bennett Cup races, so the face of the Sport changed somewhat. Racing over closed circuits meant that pit-stops could be made for tyre changes, etc, obviating to some extent having to draw up and hack off tyres that had burst anywhere along the road, although when lap distances were considerable (64 miles for the 1906 Grand Prix at Le Mans, for instance) something of the old heroics would be necessary if trouble arose far from the tribunes. Race distances, too, increased, the 1906 Grand Prix being a two-day race totalling no less than 770 miles, rising to a truly formidable 956 miles for the revived two-day GP at Dieppe in 1912. At first the cars showed no sign of getting smaller or lighter — most of the engines were of well over 10-litres, with the 1906 Panhards going to 18,279 cc and the Fiats to 16,286 cc, with the De Dietrich and Itala racers somewhere in between, so drivers continued to depend on sheer physical strength and stamina, and were not aided by four-wheel brakes until 1914 or their riding mechanics by detachable rims until 1908. The difficulties remained largely unchanged but speeds were up, the 1906 13-litre GP Renault being capable of 92 mph, the 1914 GP Mercedes having a top speed of 116 mph.

We now have to decide who was the greatest driver of that era Using the modem Championship formula and applying it to the races of 1906, which include the American Vanderbilt Cup event (which is no more incongruous than admitting the Indianapolis 500 track race to the World Drivers’ Championships of 1950 to 19601) we find that Szisz and Cagno would have tied with nine points each, the runners-up being A. Clement and Lancia with eight points apiece. If one simply looks at the Grands Prix of 1906-1914, the top drivers are Lautenschlager and Boillot (18 pts each), followed by Szisz and Nazzaro (15 each). It might be said that Peugeot’s Georges Boillot was the idol of France, a true racing driver, whereas Lautenschlager and some of his Mercedes team-mates were more in the idiom of test-drivers, making up in understanding of their machinery and careful preparation what they may have lacked in the driving skill of a Georges Boillot or a Goux. William Court, in his book “Power and Glory”, prefers to divide this period Into two parts, 1906-11 and 1911-21. In the first period Narrazo leads, clearly superior to Cagno, Wagner and Bruce-Brown, in the second period he has Dario Resta the greatest, on the score of races in which the drivers came home 1, 2, or 3. As many voiturette races intrude in this era nothing is to be gained by using the “Championship” marking.

Just as Court cribbed some of his tabular data from Laurence Pomeroy, so I am going to use Court’s tables for some of my findings. After the war he regards 1922-33 as the next viable period to assess. GP cars were then becoming ever smaller and quicker but driving them over the new, shorter, better-surfaced circuits called for much of the same technique as before. Today cars are very carefully set-up for given races and for qualifying: in the 1920s you had to decide how many turns to tighten-up a shock-absorber or to bind cord or tape round a leaf road spring! It might be said that drivers and mechanics of this era had to withstand not only the heat and the noise in the cockpit but a severe pounding from hard suspension, rather as, in much later times, short suspension travel and the downforce exerted by aerofoil “wings” gave drivers a harsh ride. Flying stones could still be a hazard, nor could the machinery be abused Segrave, for instance, discovered that if the clutch of the 1921 GP Talbot-Darracq was withdrawn at high engine-speed the clutch spigot immediately seized-up. Cornering skill had come into its own, too influenced by better brakes prompting quicker approach speeds, although in that context the great authority Gerald Rose, who actually saw those early races, has said that “the finest driver of 1949 cannot slide his corners any more skilfully than Jenatzy, Lancia or Hemery used to do”. However, we can say that towards the 1930s power-cornering and four-wheel-drifting began lo play a bigger part at this stage of the art. Study of Court’s table really says it all. He shows Tazio Nuvolari as having won 14 races (with a co-driver in a few cases but one does not need to speculate as to who was then the faster!), finished second in 10 others, third in four, with 16 fastest laps per race (and this not including sports-car races!) in the 1922-33 period. Chiron is next with 13 firsts, three seconds, and two thirds and 10 fastest laps. Varzi next best, with a dozen victories, four second places, and an equal number of thirds, and eight best laps. No one else is anywhere near. Applying the full 1980s Championship score might alter this a little but there is no question of Nuvolari having been the greatest driver of that exciting pre-war period of road racing.

His skill matched his bravery and will-to-win. He suffered injuries but he came back. His great victories are too numerous to even list here, but two stand out — the 1935 German GP at the Nurburgring, for instance, when with an ageing Alfa Romeo he beat the might of Germany on her home ground, in spite of a terribly slow pit-stop when the pit fuel-feed went wrong. Nuvolari was leading when this happened, lost an agonising 134s, when the Germans were taking on average not much more than a minute for refuelling and changing wheels, then drove like the impetuous master he was. to catch up and in the end win, 1 m 39s ahead of Stuck ‘s Auto-Union. And what of Nuvolari ‘s win in the 1933 Ulster TT in a K3 MG Magnette whose pre-selector gearbox was quite new to him? These races lasted for over four hours, and nearly six hours, respectively, which is a measure of how much longer a driver’s skill had to be maintained then, as against the under-the-two-hour present-day F1 battles….

Nuvolari was versatile as well as the most skilful GP driver of his era. Some may think the period is too extended. Applying Championship points to the holders of the first three places in the major road races of 1922-25 we get: 1st Antonio Ascari, 2nd Albert Divo, 3rd Major H.O.D. Segrave. I have adhered to the 1950 method of ignoring drivers who shared a car, otherwise Divo would have surpassed Ascari. For 1926-30 the result is 1st Archille Varzi. 2nd Louis Chiron, 3rd Robert Benoist. Nuvolari ‘s day was yet to dawn …, he was then 4th with 37 pts. It was after 1924 that riding mechanics were dispensed with, on safety grounds — since the war at least 11 well-known drivers had been involved in fatal accidents and 1922-24 was a particularly bad time, when among those killed were Baigio Nazzaro, Lampiano, Giaccone, Wilcox, Sivocci, Count Zborowski, Dario Resta, Murphy and Boyer. In the heroic-age riding mechanics were indispensable to help hack off smoking covers after tyre bursts and swing the giant engines; after the war they were needed more to speed-up pit-stops, keep an eye on the instruments, and warn a driver of cars about to overtake. From 1925 onwards the driver had to scan his instruments himself and glance in an often-vibrating rear-view mirror. A separate piece could be written about the courage of the mechanics in the cockpits and one recalls that, after De Knyff stopped racing, the faithful Aristides refused to accompany anyone else.

Coming now to the period 1934-39 we enter a new highly-exciting era, because soon the German GP cars were the fastest road-racing jobs ever, capable of speeds equalled only very recently by the turbocharged 1 1/2-litre F1 cars of today with acceleration to match but roadholding not in keeping, so that very quick reactions and great skills were demanded of those who drove them. When it came to close racing between cars able to spin their wheels in top gear and which cornered with vicious oversteer, especially in the case of the rear-engined Auto-Unions, Germany had to look beyond the Fatherland for the few with the ability to cope. Putting this into perspective, D.S.J. quotes 646 bhp and a top speed of up to 200 mph for the 1,110 kg Mercedes-Benz W125 of 1937 — which says it all…

In looking at this ultimate era of pre-war racing there is little need to resort to our imaginary Championship: another table of William Court’s suffices. It gives Rudi Caracciola 17 wins, nine second places, four third places and 12 fastest laps, the clear Champion and real master of those fabulous GP Mercedes. Dashing Bernd Rosemeyer comes next, with a score of 10, 4 and 4, and ten fastest laps. Third is Nuvolari (in spite of being then older, and hampered by having to learn the new techniques required of the tail-happy Auto-Union), with 8, 6, 4, and seven quickest laps. Ex-mechanic Lang just about out-classes von Stuck, and that’s it although, if we apply points, von Brauchitsch just out-scores Lang. Caracciola was the supreme maestro of his time successful in sports cars as well as in the powerful GP Mercedes. He excelled in the rain, as his victory in the 1929 TT with a lhd 38/250 SS Mercedes-Benz (no easy car on that rh course) proved, likewise when he won at Phoenix Park in 1930, again in the wet, with an SSK, lapping at 91 mph. legend has it spinning round twice, but not stopping!

Atter the war we had the real Drivers World Championship. It started in 1950 perhaps because until then racing was reviving and was too ragged to be marked. In fact, a quick calculation shows that on points, the brilliant J.P. Wimille dominated racing from 1946-49, in the age of the Alfa Romeo, well outclassing Count Trossi and Varzi. Statisticians with time to spare may care to re-write the entire period 1900-1949, using the points that apply to the present Championship (down to six places, and for a time including fastest laps) but I doubt whether the emergence of the top drivers would be altered: I was prevented from doing this by the difficulty of finding the full results of the earlier races, in which, however, after the first three home the fields were frequently so spaced out as to hardly influence a Championship assessment. Not everyone may agree that these Champions on points were are the true “greats”, but I hope this attempt to applaud the leading drivers along the years will be of interest, with the proviso that it is futile to try to name an overall Champion at different stages of the game, as I have tried to show, racing having varied so enormously. — W.B.