Greatness arrives on its own terms, especially in the brutal world of Formula 1 racing. Never has there been a better example than this season's champion, Sebastian Vettel — who at 26, secured his fourth F1 title last weekend in India, beating the rest of the field by nearly half a minute. Yet despite his speed and his domination this season, Vettel often gets booed by F1 fans for lacking the presence of a superstar.
That reaction shows that even in a sport dominated by technology and math, the world of F1 discounts objective measures of greatness in favor of emotional ones. And how do today's modern stars in their computer-powered cars stand in comparison to the manual labors of those who raced decades ago? The answer lies in looking at both the stats and the abstract.
Let’s start with a subjective legend that objectively shouldn’t figure in any list of the greats: Gilles Villeneuve. Amassing six wins from 67 starts and only two pole positions, Villeneuve never won a championship, something dozens of drivers have accomplished. And yet most experts routinely rank Villeneuve among the best. To truly empathize, you need to watch the video below of the 1979 Dijon Grand Prix, battling Rene Arnoux for second place.
More than just a ferocious racer, Villeneuve was unbelievably fast. Jodie Scheckter once said after Villeneuve’s death during qualifying for the 1982 Belgium Grand Prix, “I will miss Gilles for two reasons: First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known."
Objectively, all lists begin with Juan Manuel Fangio. The five-time world champion from Argentina boasts an unrivaled win-to-start ratio of 47 percent. “El Maestro,” as he was known, often won with ease. But when he found himself down and out of contention during the 1952 German Grand Prix at the fearsome Nurburgring, Fangio broke the course record lap after lap as he battled his way back through the field, in what remains one of the greatest drives in F1 history. But driving for Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari — the true heavy hitters of his era — the cards were arguably stacked in Fangio’s favor.
Four-time world champion Alain Prost also ranks near the top. But like Fangio, he spent many of his years in the best cars available. Earning the nickname “Le Professeur,” the Frenchman built a reputation for doing exactly what was needed to win a championship, not necessarily each race; if a fifth place finish would suffice, that's where Prost would finish, unwilling to push harder in search of a higher placement.
Prost was also politically savvy, using his relationship with FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre to orchestrate what appeared at times to be acts of favoritism. But for Prost, when the car wasn’t a winner, like in 1991, he didn’t have that edge to take the machine beyond its limits, unlike Ayrton Senna and Fernando Alonso. Logic carries him into the pantheon, but emotion keeps him from the top.
You can’t talk about the greatest drivers of all time without mentioning Michael Schumacher. The German dominated F1 at the turn of the 21st century, winning a record seven world championships and 91 victories. What Schumacher did well was build a team around him, at the detriment of even his teammate. While his unsuccessful return to F1 with Mercedes, in some eyes, has perhaps marred his accomplishments, his ruthless ability to win remains unquestioned. Schumacher must rank in the top three.
Perhaps the greatest raw talent was Scottish racer Jim Clark. The 1963 and ’65 world champ didn’t seem to have a clear grasp on what made him so fast, but his "seat-of-your-pants" feel often left him untouchable. Sure, his relationship with Colin Chapman meant his Lotus car was blindingly fast, but when his equipment was inferior, like in 1966, Clark would routinely produce magic. Had he not died in 1968, Clark and his Lotus 49 would likely have amassed another title. The quiet Scotsman, who was a truly versatile driver racing anything with four wheels, became the first non-American in almost half a century to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1965.
Naturally, modern day drivers like Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton will be judged amongst the greatest. Alonso, the two-time champ, has proved he can take unworthy cars and produce spectacular results. He may be the best overall driver of the modern era. Hamilton, on the other hand, has been custom bred by McLaren from age 13, offering the Brit every tool possible to become F1 world champion. Hamilton has delivered on the faith Ron Dennis bestowed upon him, almost winning the title as a rookie before hoisting the cup the following year. Like Alonso, Hamilton can extract performances others seemingly cannot, especially when his machine is sub par. With Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, today's era is amongst the very best.
So what about the now four-time champion Sebastian Vettel? Over the past few races, Vettel has built insurmountable leads over every competitor, including teammate Mark Webber. But the German superstar struggles to gain the respect he deserves. Adrian Newey, F1’s greatest designer, has built a Red Bull racecar so dominant Newey often garners more credit than his driver. And with new allegations suggesting Vettel’s Red Bull team may have found a loophole in the restrictions against traction control — by potentially linking the suspension to the KERS hybrid system, allowing the electric motor to limit torque based on shock pressure changes — the Vettel vs. Newey debate only grows stronger.
But let’s not forget the German won his maiden F1 race in the wet at Monza driving for the second-tier Toro Rosso team. His skill in those early years often gets forgotten. And at just 26 years of age, and with four world titles under his belt, eventually, Vettel’s true talent will silence any remaining doubters.
My title as the greatest of all time, however, belongs to Ayrton Senna; even Michael Schumacher himself rates Senna as number one. Subjectively, he performed miracles with cars that had no business being competitive, like the wet 1984 Monaco Grand Prix driving for the woeful Toleman team. Senna lapped seconds faster than the world’s best, and had it not have been for a political red-flag just minutes before he would have caught Prost for the lead, Senna may have won in his inaugural season. In 1992 and ’93, Senna wrestled a struggling McLaren to multiple victories, taking the fight to the vastly superior Williams-Renault of Nigel Mansell (1992) and Prost (1993) and its highly innovative active-suspension setup.
But beyond his epic speed was his Villeneuve-like race craft. Senna was ferocious, placing his cars in positions that forced others to make a decision: crash, or let the Brazilian go. This attitude, to many, made Senna a villain, but even his adversaries could not deny his raw talent. And unlike Villeneuve, the subjective heroics Senna exuded were backed up by objective statistics:
He won pole position in 65 of his 161 starts, an unsurpassed ratio. He won three world titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991, amassing 41 victories. Had he not have died at Imola in 1994, those numbers would only be greater. His unbelievable dedication and self-belief is what makes Senna stand tall, along with his humanity, using his stature as a worldwide hero to help those in need. No other racer has ever touched so many. And likely, no one ever will. If you didn't witness the Senna era and perhaps don't understand what made him so special, watch this:
While for me, Senna takes the top spot, a hat tip must go to the often overlooked Italian racer Tazio Nuvolari. While technically pre-F1 era, the former motorcycle racer switched to four wheels full-time in 1932, racing for Alfa Romeo. According to Enzo Ferrari, Nuvolari was the inventor of the four-wheel drift technique, and boasted an effervescent style all to himself. He was also completely fearless.
In 1946, Nuvolari injured his mouth during the Milan Grand Prix, causing him to drive one-handed while holding a bloody handkerchief with the other. And that’s nothing compared to what he went through back in his motorcycle days: Breaking both his legs in a heavy crash, Nuvolari was told by doctors that he wouldn’t walk for a month. The following day, sporting a plaster cast on both legs, Nuvolari’s mechanics hoisted him onto the bike. They then tied him to the bike. And then he started the race. Which he won.
The magic of Tazio Nuvolari was born.
But perhaps his most prolific tale did not result in victory: During the 1948 Mille Miglia, the car’s hood became unfastened and flew off, barely missing Nuvolari’s head. In those days, drivers rode with a mechanic. Nuvolari, trying to reassure his terrified passenger, told him that everything is now “better," stating the “engine will cool more easily.” Next, Nuvolari’s seat came adrift, causing the Italian to feel "sea-sick" as he slid within the car. So he took the entire seat out and replaced it with a bag of lemons and oranges. Sitting on a pile of fruit, Nuvolari continued in his quest for victory, despite the team pleading with him to stop while the car continued falling apart.
Nuvolari would not give in.
Eventually, however, his brakes failed, causing even the intrepid Italian to face a gut-wrenching retirement. While Nuvolari may never be ranked as number one, subjectively, does it matter? It’s our heroes that inspire greatness, no matter how many championships they've won. Nuvolari did just that.
Senna did that too. Only he mustered the stats to backup his tenacity.
The question as to who’s better: Vettel or Schumacher, Senna or Prost; or why Fangio deserves the nod over Jackie Stewart, or Niki Lauda, or Stirling Moss or any of the greats merely keeps us busy. The real key lies with who touched us the most; who's stories we'll tell to our grandkids, and who's legacy will live on. For me, Senna will always shine brightest. But Nuvolari's glimmer should not be overlooked.