The Greatest drivers of the century - a personal view

Part three of Mark Hughes’ examination of the hundred greatest Grand Prix drivers from a century of motor racing features no fewer than ten of the twenty-seven Formula One World Champions and a smattering of pre-war stars with a string of achievements no less impressive.

Part 3 (60-41)

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 – Francois Cevert

With a gift from God and tutelage from Stewart, Cevert was just beginning to reveal how formidable he was becoming when fate, ambition and a lethally dangerous corner conspired against him at Watkins Glen in ’73. There should have been more, much more, to come. Variously recalled as the most handsome Grand Prix driver of all, a brilliant classical pianist and an inspirational, warm man being, perhaps he just had too much for this world.

59 – Giuseppe Farina

The relaxed stance at the wheel belied the fury with which he pushed his car and himself to the limit and often beyond. This was a warrior’s fire and it was stoked with a heady mix of pride and passion, and nothing – certainly not another driver asking for racing room – would in his way. It gave him a long tally of achievement (including the inaugural World Championship) but when up against a Fangio or Ascari it could also see him ask more of himself than he had to give. As such it was a career punctuated by accidents.

58 – Mike Hawthorn

Though accused of being inconsistent, even his off days were better than most drivers’ best. And on a good day he could reach for the stars, even Fangio. A wild party animal off the track, there was nonetheless a dark recess within him – possibly stemming from the tragedies in his life, or the knowledge he had a disease which meant he was unlikely to grow old and it was perhaps from this that the steely courage of his best performances was plucked.

57 – Andre Boillot

Though Andre raced in the shadow of his brother Georges’ memory, eight hours in November 1919 defined his own greatness. On that day, in a Targa Florio that served as the only big international race in Europe, he annihilated a quality field in a drive so full of daring and panache, it could almost have been Georges. The same qualities were apparent in the ’21 French GP when he outdmve an all-star line-up of team-mates before disappearing with long time employer Peugeot into the backwater of sportscar racing.

56 – Louis Chiron

In his prime his smoothly deceptive speed blended with wily cunning. Both were on show on his greatest day – Montlhery 1934, where he won in an outclassed Alfa, leaving the presumed invincible teams from Mercedes and Auto Union broken and frustrated. He was vain though, especrally in front of his home crowd at Monaco, and this was his undoing as he sought to do what looked impressive rather than what was necessary; he could arguably have won there fives times but did so only once.

55 – Richard Seaman

With the sureness of youth, he knew how good he was. Allied to his speed and boldness in the car, he planned his career with a Stewart-like professionalism. And the big occasion left him entirely unfazed as witnessed by the ’38 German GP. His victory was in the Nazis’ backyard and over a squad of blueprint blue-eyed Ayriarts. But at Spa in ’39 he put too much pressure on himself; his crash came as he sought to extend an already comfortable lead.

54 – Jody Scheckter

The seminal moment of Scheckter’s career came in that multi-car shunt he triggered at Silverstone in ’73. Before that, he just possessed speed and a protective shell of arrogance. The driver he subsequently became was one who could instantly assess with a shrewdness bordering on cynicism what was achievable in any situation in or out of the car. Often he was as impressive for the moves he didn’t make but was still blessed with the speed necessary when the cards fell right. It made for someone who couldn’t help winning.

53 – Arthur Duray

His appearance was more locomotive driver than racer and his cars rarely matched the best. Yet his flair took the race to anyone. He won as often as his machinery allowed and came close in the 1907 French GP, leading the Fiats against all logic until reality caught up and up broke his gearbox. In the 1914 Indy 500 he was second in a 3-litre car among a 5.5-litre field. With less jolly-faced equanimity and more narrowed-eyed ambition, he could have been unstoppable.

52 – Emerson Fittipaldi

He kept his Latin fire in a compartment, to be used sparingly as fuel for his ambition. Emerson was nothing if not smart and mature. This and flowing precision at the wheel led to a meteoric career, and in 1972 he was the youngest ever World Champion. Thereafter, he drew steadily less on his speed, and allowed bigger margins into his driving. He never did best his rival Stewart and alongside Peterson his response came outside the car rather than from within. It suggested that great though he was, he could have been greater.

51 – Victor Hemery

An heroic performer in an heroic age, Hemery didn’t always have the best opportunities in a long career (1905-23) but when he did, he pounced with a shark’s ferocity. His consecutive 1905 victories for Darracq in the Circuit des Ardennes and Vanderbilt Cup were high water marks in sustained attack. The depth of his ability was often exposed in adversity though; his lap record after a delay in the 1911 Savannah Grand Prize — against the best America and Europe had to offer — showed how even his track record sold his ability short.

50 – Mario Andretti

The man was a fool for racing, so much in love with it he couldn’t stop. His passion showed in every move he made; the thrill of the wheel-to-wheel fight, the caressing way he had with a car. He was the essence of racer, and the flame lit every second he was behind the wheel. Maybe it didn’t burn as brightly as the best, but it burned long; it should not be forgotten that Mario set pole for his first F1 race against Stewart and did so in his penultimate one against Prost.

49 – Luigi Fagioli

A bandit fired by rage, Fagioli was a team manager’s nightmare — he threw hammers around the pit lane, discarded a healthy car when well placed and pulled a knife on a team-mate. But when directed that rage in the car, he flew with the angels. At Monza in ’32, his trip switch was flipped by inept pit work, and his fightback to second came from a man possessed. That he drove the widow-making Maserati Sedici Cilindri emphasised the violence of it all. They were his finest hours, though some of his later Mercedes drives came close.

48 – Jacky Ickx

The prodigy. He came to be damned by that summary because he never realised the potential laid bare at the Niirburgring in ’67; third quickest in an F2 car! Though there were many demonstrations of his car control and tough mentality over the years – and his wet weather performances were sublime – he was never in a position to sustain such form. He wasn’t enough in love with success to pose a threat to Stewart and by his early 30s the inner spark had dimmed.

47 – Tommy Milton

The American champ with the blind left eye was only at the ’25 Italian GP because Duesenberg’s Indy win put the marque in contention for the world crown. Unused to standing starts, he stalled at the flag. His recovery confirmed all the Indy crowd had said about the speed and white-hot intensity. The Duesy wasn’t a match for a P2 Alfa round Monza, especially stuck in top gear with broken shockers, yet Milton drew them in. He even led for a few laps before his pit crew let him down. A brief but electrifying appearance.

46 – Nelson Piquet

He was the man who left the mountain and withered away in the denser air below. On a good day, in the early ’80s, Nelson in a Gordon Murray Brabham was the gold standard. Those two components locked into each other tighter than a crown-wheel and pinion, and no-one could disrupt their synergy. He was as fast as the car, which was very fast, and smarter than a boxful of tuxedos. It was only when he left this haven that his resolve was tested and found wanting. He’d had it too easy with his guardians on the mountain.

45 – Jacques Villeneuve

Don’t talk to Jacques about rules. He dyes his hair crazy colours, sets pole on his debut, wears his suit too baggy, his suspension too hard. But he’s audacious. Though not as fast as his dad was or Schumacher is, his spirit isn’t on nodding terms with such an idea. No-one else on the grid would have made that move round the outside of Michael at Estoiil ’97 but for him it was instinct. In such moves you can’t argue with genes, much as Jacques would try to.

44 – Keke Rosberg

The rally man’s racer, he impnavised better than Robinson Crusoe. Like when he won at Dallas ’84 on a crumbling track, or set pole at Silveistone ’85 with a slow puncture. Drama. There was always plenty of that once he’d zipped up his racesuit and put out his cigarette. He drove like you’re not supposed to, all harsh inputs and reflexes. But he could bend the car to a will that was tougher than marble and race with a limitless energy. If his tyres were still up to it.

43 – Ralph de Palma

Though mainly an Indy driver, de Palma’s technique translated well on his few road-racing outings with Fiat and Ballot. His speed came without effort, his incisive passing moves conjured like a magician’s tricks. He had no weakness, yet he surely had some heavy karmic debt to repay as he was quite possibly the unluckiest driver in the sport’s history. But the countless punctures, holed radiators and sheared magneto drives take nothing away from his stature.

42 – James Hunt

Inside the twitching mass of competitive energy lay keen, clear-thinking intelligence. Overlay these, add adrenalin and wait for the fireworks. Back to the wall and everything to play for, he was magnificent. The winning – much more than any love of driving a car fast or wheel-to-wheel duelling or even satisfaction of a job well done – was what turned him on. When the tool became blunted, and winning not possible, the challenge of the game evaporated.

41 – Alan Jones

More than any other, he was pyschologically airtight. His strength was everywhere, from his shoulders to his belief that no-one, save perhaps Gilles Villeneuve, was worthy or comparison. With a Williams FW07 beneath him, he was out to prove it every single time. Such certainity gave him momentum at the critical instant. Adversaries crumbled like boys. He drove in the same way and if it lacked grace, “what the hell’s that got to do with it?” he would have countered.