The Greatest drivers of the century - a personal view

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We have reached the final twenty, the drivers who, says Mark Hughes, are the greatest since racing began. More than ever, personal opinion separates drivers who, to many, are inseparable. You will not agree with all the choices but we hope, at least, that you will be intrigued by them.

Part 5 (20-1)

The story so far:
100 – Hans stuck Snr
99 – Rubens Barrichello
98 – Philippe Etancelin
97 – Albert Clement
96 – Stuart Lewis-Evans
95 – Patrick Depailler
94 – Giuseppe Campari
93 – Rene de Knyff
92 – Elio de Angelis
91 – Wolfgang von Trips
90 – Gerhard Berger
89 – Kenelm Lee Guinness
88 – Denny Hulme
87 – Christian Lautenschlager
86 – Jo Siffert
85 – Luigi Villoresi
84 – Jean Behra
83 – Jean Alesi
82 – Ricardo Rodriguez
81 – Louis Renault
80 – David Coulthard
79 – John Watson
78 – Vincenzo Lancia
77 – Phil Hill
76 – Tony Brise
75 – Carlos Pace
74 – Louis Wagner
73 – Peter Revson
72 – Graham Hill
71 – Fernand Charron
70 – Jules Goux
69 – Robert Benoist
68 – Guilio Masetti
67 – Peter Collins
66 – Damon Hill
65 – Hermann Lang
64 – Tom Pryce
63 – Rene Arnoux
62 – Jack Brabham
61 – Henry Segrave
60 – Francios Cevert
59 – Giuseppe Farina
58 – Mike Hawthorn
57 – Andre Boullot
56 – Louis Chiron
55 – Richard Seaman
54 – Jody Scheckter
53 – Arthur Duray
52 – Emerson Fittipaldi
51 – Victor Hemery
50 – Mario Andretti
49 – Luigi Fagioli
48 – Jacky Ickx
47 – Tommy Milton
46 – Nelson Piquet
45 – Jacques Villeneuve
44 – Keke Rosberg
43 – Ralph de Palma
42 – James Hunt
41 – Alan Jones
40 – John Surtees
39 – Fernand Gabriel
38 -Carlos Reutemann
37 – Mika Hakkinen
36 – Didier Pironi
35 – Stefan Bellof
34 – Dan Gurney
33 – Marcel Renault
32 – Tony Brooks
31 – Ronnie Peterson
30 – Froilan Gonzalez
29 – Chris Amon
28 – Jimmy Murphy
27 – Archie Scott Brown
26 – David Bruce-Brown
25 – Pedro Rodriguez
24 – Raymond Sommer
23 – Guy Moll
22 – Antonio Ascari
21 – Jochen Rindt

20 – Nigel Mansell

20 His enormous natural speed and boundless competitive spirit were intensified by a lack of recognition by the racing establishment. He was from the wrong side of the tracks, with the wrong accent and didn’t look the part. All of which was a red rag to him. He steamrollered any reservations, and success emboldened him to the point where his combativeness made him electrifying. With respect coming from the crowds rather than the establishment, he began performing for them with searing commitment and bravery.

19 – Niki Lauda

Even among the sport’s greatest, Niki stands as an embodiment of what can be achieved by reserves of human spirit usually untapped. His accomplishment were of a previously unimaginable scale – whipping Ferrari’s long-squandered potential into world-beating shape, corning back from near death. At the track he was quick and unflappable, but he won many of his Ferrari races well before race weekend. By the time of his third title, much of the speed was gone but that simply laid bare the colossal scale of his other resources.

18 – Leon Thery

There was nothing ostentatious about Thery. His style in the Gordon Bennett events, forerunners of Grands Prix, went unnoticed among the flamboyance of Lancia or Jenatzy. Likewise his car, a Richard-Brasier, was nothing special. Yet every time he ran the race, against the best in the sport, no-one could touch him. Neatness and accuracy disguised relentless pace, errors were unheard of and in his devotion to preparation and testing he was an early Lauda or Prost.

17 – Felice Nazzaro

A master at reading a race, Felice would habitually sit back in the early stages, watch events unfold and only when the time was right reveal his blistering speed, turned on like a switch, his Fiat still healthy while the less gentle dropped like flies. He gained the tag of ‘Lucky Nazzaro’ but it had nothing to do with luck, everything to do with an unforced style and the rare ability to direct his passion. In 1907 he won all three major events and as late as the 1922 French Grand Prix was still in winning form, his the only Fiat that didn’t break.

16 – Alberto Ascari

Like his father Antonio, he was fast, so fast. Some even reckoned him quicker than Fangio. He’d carry the speed into the corner smooth as cream, the car not seeming to recognise its speed and giving him an easy ride all the way through. With a good Ferrari beneath him in the early ’50s he converted this ability into one of the longest race-winning sequences in Grand Prix history, always leading from the front, sometimes over a lap ahead by the flag. Like his father, he pushed to his limits even when this was was not required.

15 – Jackie Stewart

Motor racing history thrust upon him a seminal stature – he was The Man who accepted the responsibility of ridding the sport of its gladiatorial excesses. It was dirty and unpleasant but he did it. And the reason he held the formidable authority he did was his towering driving ability. The cerebral dexterity which allowed him to compartmentalise the conflicting pulls of safety crusader and racing driver showed too in a cool analysis that could instantly nail what was needed from car or self. The qualities ranged from the steely courage of a four minute victory in the ’68 Nurburgring rain and fog to the precision and flair of Monaco ’71 – with a best race lap a second under the pole despite having front brakes only.

14 – Pietro Bordino

Having started out as a riding mechanic to Lancia and Nazzaro, when the time came to take the wheel himself he welded the flat-out attack of the former to a skill that outstripped even the latter. He was one of those drivers like the Ascaris who stamped themselves on the race from the start and simply broke the opposition. Even driving one-armed the other one was in a sling while the riding mechanic moved the gear lever at Monza 1923 he made the rest look pedestrian. His career effectively ended when Fiat pulled out of racing. He reappeared after a three year lay-off, now 38, at a wet Monza in ’27 and took the crowd’s collective breath away with one last victorious display of supernatural car control.

13 – Alain Prost

The hand is faster than the eye. Alain could conjure a lap time without any outward manifestation of speed. There are those at McLaren who swear that with a perfect car he was faster than Senna, but that more often there wasn’t time for perfection, and that was when Ayrton’s improvisation held sway. But speed was only one element of Prost’s skill. His awareness of what was needed covered all frequencies, and often, like Lauda, the depth of his intellect ensured that his best work was done before the race weekend. Once there, he could read a race like a book, and if ever there’s been a racer kinder on tyres his name can only be Clark. An all-time record of Grand Prix wins was the reward of it all.

12 – Achille Varzi

His competitive desire burned so hot yet was executed with icy chill. A lone warrior, he narrowed his eyes, assessed what was necessary and ruthlessly homed in. His style behind the wheel was clinical and cool, laser-precise and fortified in battle by a relentless will. His nemesis was Nuvolari, and it speaks volumes that Varzi was not overwhelmed by such an irresistible force. Montenero ’29 and Monaco ’33 showed he was not to be overawed by the great man. Keen to avoid direct comparison, though, he moved on whenever Tazio joined his team and later had it as a condition of employment that he would not countenance him as a team-mate. Was that a natural winner’s strength or the betrayal of an inner fear?

11 – Rudolf Caracciola

We’re only talking of small margins, but by the time of Ruth’s biggest successes – the Silver Arrows Mercedes years – he’d actually lost some of his edge. That extraordinary sparkle was more visible before his wounding shunt at Monaco in ’33. He beat the Alfas and Bugattis at Nurburgring ’31 with a ludicrously unsuitable SSK – aided by the rain which always accentuated his caressing feel – and led at Monaco in 29 with the same car. Then came his sensational impact with the Alfa team, instantly operating at Nuvolari level. When he made his comeback, his cars were so formidable he was vastly successful, and his miraculous wet weather skills never left him. But the Caracciola of old would not have needed to work so hard.

10 – Stirling Moss

As a virtuoso who could pull a performance from any machine in any conditions, he stood comparison with Nuvolari. A competitive spirit that knew no bounds made that skill its servant and saw Stirling devastate the opposition as long as his car held up – once Fangio had retired at least. In the latter stages of his career, with a lack of depth among the competition, he had perhaps a bigger margin of superiority over his rivals than any Grand Prix driver ever. His skill wasn’t quite all-encompassing – he was seen to better effect stalking or dominating his prey than when handling pressure from behind – but was such that he could easily have relaxed his desire to search for the mechanical advantage.

9 – Jean-Pierre Wimille

The slightly wild privateer of the early ’30s was only so as he established himself. There was a strong hint of how formidable he’d become when he completely shaded Benoist in their spell together as works Bugatti drivers and began producing the drives that bordered on miraculous – he kept Caracciola’s Mercedes in sight with just a Bugatti Type 59 at Spain ’34, for instance. But it wasn’t until his post-war spell in the dominant Alfettas that the all-encompassing magnificence of his skill became apparent. The way he could hypnotise a car to produce a stunning lap time while taking little out of it was almost mystical, and a major inspiration to Fangio – leaving such formidable team-mates as Varzi and Farina uneasy.

8 – Georges Boillot

It’s doubtful whether there has ever been a driver more sure of himself, whose strategy and tactics were so audacious, yet who possessed the speed and resolve to justify it all. His shooting-star status – he won on his GP debut in 1912, and was only around for another two seasons – meant we saw just a flare of a phenomenon that should have bridged the eras of Nazzaro and Nuvolari. Ironically, his greatest days, Lyons 1914, went unrewarded. There, in a Peugeot so unbalanced and wilful that a team-mate as great as Goux could make no sense of it, he took the lone fight to the armada of the Mercedes team. And gave it a fright like it wouldn’t know again until Tazio’s day of days in 1935.

7 – Michael Schumacher

In an era of Formula One more than ever orientated towards sprints, and with a car that’s usually not quite the best, Schumacher pushes – and sometimes crosses – the physical boundaries more frequently than anyone since Gilles Villeneuve. It’s an ability supremely adaptable and as multi-faceted as Stewart’s. His wet weather virtuosity recalls Caracciola, his opportunism in battle is Jones-like and his work rate away from the track, applying himself to the details, may even surpass that of Prost.

All this has given him many wins that should not have been possible. Or, more specifically, that his opposition should not have allowed. Great though he is, where is the Prost to his Senna, the Varzi to his Nuvolari? Hakkinen is the only one arguably as quick, but as yet he lacks the depth of supporting qualities. Michael, then, has not had his genius as fully stretched as, say, Senna: he has yet to dig as deep. But one thing he shares with the Brazilian is the resort to foul-play in split-seconds of desperation, as though he can’t believe his own super-human ability could go unrewarded.

6 – Juan-Manuel Fangio

Fangio’s was an old soul – so wise yet humble, that the depths of his will could be overlooked. He would do only what was necessary, so when not pushed his wins looked almost routine, coming so easy they seemed to place few demands on his spirit. But that would be to dangerously under-estimate him, because he could reveal more layers than an archaeologist. When he summoned his reserves, like that day at the Nurburgring in ’57, the opposition reeled, open-mouthed that such ferocity could reside in such an ostensibly gentle frame.

There was no vanity clouding his judgement, but his belief in himself was absolute, a delicate balance that no-one else has ever so completely mastered. It gave him giant stature and the mystery of a sorcerer, and the best cars inevitably came his way. This was at a time when it was rare for more than a couple of teams to field potential race-winning machinery. Consequently, his success ratio remains unsurpassed.

5 – Jim Clark

He operated at a different speed to the others, at more frames per second. Clark’s era did not lack depth of opposition – Gurney, Surtees, Stewart, Hill and Brabham formed a formidable group. That was a reflection of the scale of his talent, phenomenal even by the highest of standards. Colin Chapman used to reckon you only ever got a ghost of an insight into this on odd occasions – his recovery from a spin when the car broke or setting an identical time immediately on two fundamentally different set-ups – and that usually he didn’t need to use it all. Especially when Chapman habitually designed in a car advantage.

More than any other driver, Clark had to be considered as half of a partnership; he and Chapman inspired each other in a joint quest to dominate, not merely win. This made the markers of his competitive striving different to others. You tended not to see evidence of an aggressive will in traffic, for instance, because if he was in the pack it meant something was wrong; he was supposed to be out front immune from it all. Invariably, he was.

4 – Ayrton Senna

Ayrton probably gave of himself more than any other driver has ever done. No-one has stared as intently into the abyss. The intensity of his performances was often scary, particularly if his nemesis Prost was around. His resolution was absolute and at times his actions suggested he was prepared to die rather than yield. Literally. Perhaps he really did assume that God would look after him. Whatever, for some this marked his wonderful talent as the ultimate. For others it was a betrayal of that talent, a video-game mentality that didn’t belong in the sport.

He knew he was the best of his time and it was his apparent conviction that this should translate into results that sometimes led him, as a last resort, to on-track thuggery. If he did have a covenant with The Almighty, this surely broke its terms. Usually it was Prost – the only one who could approach his level of performance – who was on the receiving end. But we saw it too at Hungary when Nannini, clearly an inferior, was pitched onto two wheels for having the temerity to defend his place from the great Ayrton.

3 – Bernd Rosemeyer

Having never raced a car before, motorbike racer Bernd landed the job of piloting a V16-engined Auto Union, a monstrous handful that scared many an old hand. In his second event Rosemeyer was battling with Caracciola’s Mercedes for victory. In 1936, his first full season, he took the championship.

But they are just the bare bones of his meteoric career. The spectacular successes of ’36 demonstrated his flowing talent, fearlessness and relentless spirit when given a competitive car. His performance in the Eifelrennen at Nurburgring was among the most astounding ever; thick fog blanketed the track part-way through, but Rosemeyer alone barely slowed and won by over two minutes. In ’37, though, his Auto Union was outclassed and then Bernd’s approach landed him in trouble. The parallels with Villeneuve are uncanny. The miraculous victories that season at the ‘Ring, Long Island and Donington came amid spins and crashes, but could not have happened without the very qualities responsible for the incidents.

2 – Gilles Villeneuve

Never have statistics misled so radically. The brevity of his career, too much uncompetitive machinery and his absolute refusal to accept defeat have seared in many minds a memory of a brilliantly gifted but uncontrolled driver. Wrongly so. The qualities so often cited

as reasons for a lack of ultimate track record would under different circumstances have been the corner stones of fabulous success.

His natural speed 9sec faster than anyone in the wet of Watkins Glen in 1979, putting a tractor of a 126C Ferrari on Monaco’s front row when the next fastest man of the time, Pironi, was 17th in a sister car allied to searing competitive intensity, saw him often pull off the impossible. Deprive such a man of an equal playing field and for each feat there will be corresponding drama. Had his career gone its full course and he found himself in better cars, days like Jarama ’81 and Watkins Glen ’79, where his restraint and control were sublime, would have become the norm. Don’t judge him on snapshots of tightrope drama; marvel instead that sometimes more than anyone but Nuvolari he pulled off the miracle.

1 – Tazio Nuvolari

Nurburgring 1935, when a 43 year-old Tazio, armed with an Alfa P3 that even then should have been in a museum, beat the cutting-edge technology of the German teams, has rightly been hailed as a miracle drive. It had everything. Intelligence he paced the early laps carefully, staying behind but still in touch, waiting for any problems in the German machines, ensuring he didn’t get into any unnecessary fights. Mechanical sympathy the P3, especially in overpowered 3.8-litre trim, was notorious for lunching its transmission (which indeed happened to Chiron’s sister car in this very race), but Tazio nursed and cajoled it throughout. Tenacity – his relentless comeback after a botched pit stop was fuelled by an intense will to win that was perhaps his greatest asset of all, and it did for von Brauchitsch and his tyres. Speed – when the gloves came off he overtook in quick succession Stuck, Rosemeyer, Fagioli and Caracciola, all in Mercs or Auto Unions. It was as great a drive as has ever been seen, so unlikely a win it called for a re-checking of the equations holding up the laws of physics.

But that was just the most famous of his exploits. In 1936 alone he produced another four like it. With an Alfa that was yet further behind the Germans than in ’35, he beat Rosemeyer to win in Hungary, Civacciola to take Barcelona, Varzi for victory at Milan and singlehandedly thrashed the entire Auto Union team at Livorno. All these were the inevitable product of the same impossible cocktail of control, improvisation, audacity and balance, as seen at the Niirburgring the year before, and them were

more examples before and after. It is this overwhelming quantity of virtuosity which places him at the very top.

It was said that he must surely have done a deal with the devil to not have ended his days on the track, in battle. And, certainly, there was much about his approach to suggest personal welfare was way clown his list of priorities, perhaps even more so after his sons succumbed to illnesses. But it was only himself he exposed to such risk, never his rivals, and his honour in the heat of battle was absolute.

It was the mindset of a warrior, one who faced fears, acknowledged them, but refused them house room in his head. From that perspective, inferior equipment, impossible odds and formidable rivals all were irrelevant to him. They were the concerns of lesser men. It is the perfect racing mentality, which he embraced more fully than anyone.

Though he died in bed, it was through a racing related illness, and it was while racked with pain and coughing up blood in his post-war races that the sorry extent of his dependency on the racing drug became clear. Never did the sport seem crueller. Yet still his brilliance would not be contained.

There have been suggestions that he was past it by the time, his skills dimmed. If so, they still out-shone anyone else’s. He was 53 years old, and looked older, at the 1946 Marseilles Grand Prix when he stormed through from the back, lapping 3sec quicker even than Sommer to take the lead before his car broke. He won at Albi, then collapsed at the victory ceremony. With his privateer Maserati, he hounded the vastly superior Alfettas mercilessly at Geneva. At the Milan Grand Prix, he’d again been a thorn in Alfa’s side when his illness forced to him to withdraw, his vision impaired. And, though outside the scope of Grand Prix events, his staggering run in the 1947 Mille Miglia stands comparison with any of his earlier victories.

But what of the accidents, some might say. What of them? They came, like Villeneuve’s and Rosemeyer’s, as he attempted the impossible when that was his only hope. When someone proves, as they did, that the impossible can be achieved, even once, then surely any failed attempts can be excused. Only those who attempt it without ever pulling it off, or try it when it isn’t necessary, can legitimately be criticised as lacking in judgement.

No, there can only ever be one really meaningful measure of a driver’s greatness: what he achieved with what was at his disposal. In this Nuvolari stands as the greatest yet seen, indeed the perfect racing driver. A few others may have a more impressive tally of victories, or a superior start-to-win ratio. It means nothing unless you look at the peculiar contexts fur these cold statistics. Then look at the qualities of spirit, speed, judgement and temperament in the performances. Only then does a true picture emerge, a picture of a bronzed little man, with hollow cheeks and yellow jersey, laughing at the devil on his tail, knowing he can outrun him – just like he can all the rest.

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