Every sport has its statistics. There is always a need to reduce an activity to the essential numbers that qualify a participant as “the best”. Statistics, by their very nature, remove the humanity from the endeavor. To say that driver “X” won at San Marino at an average speed of “Y” MPH distills the hours of heated competition, daring passes, and frantic pit stops to a simple number. If one were to simply look at the statistics generated by Formula 1 competition, Michael Schumacher’s name would have to top the list with seven World Championship trophies to his credit.
As a driver, Michael Schumacher had a reputation as an arrogant and aggressive driver. A strict perfectionist his public persona was one of a very private individual. Unlike the explosive personality of an Alberto Ascari, his driving was as close to perfection as possible, almost machine-like. Regardless of his personality, his driving ability could not be denied.
Juan Manuel Fangio was certainly considered the best there was until his five World Championships were overshadowed when Schumacher scored number six of his eventual seven. Statistically, while he won fewer championships than Schumacher, his winning percentage having won 24 of the 52 Gran Prix he entered, might actually qualify him as the greatest driver. Fangio’s career spanned from 1934 through 1958, entering his first Gran Prix in 1948. Drivers of this era raced in shirt sleeves and half helmets with goggles. They drove cars without the benefit of “down force” such as is built into modern F1 cars, on tires that were barely six inches wide. They certainly never generated the cornering force typical of a modern F1 car today.
Towards the end of his career, Fangio was to race in the 1958 Cuban Gran Prix, a non-Formula One race he won the year previously. He was kidnapped in his hotel by two gunmen from Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement in an attempt to embarrass the Batista government. He was released unharmed following the race.
The diminutive Frenchmen, Alain Prost, won four World Championships in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in heated competition with a three time winner Ayrton Senna. The two were engaged in epic battles on and off the track. During the 1989 season the two competitors were on the same team at McLaren but certainly not team mates. At the 1989 Japanese Gran Prix the two collided giving Prost the Championship. Much controversy ensued suggesting that Prost had deliberately taken Senna out.
Subjectively, Jimmy Clark was one of the most entertaining drivers to watch, while he was leading. Having won two World Championships before his untimely death in 1968 at Hockenheimring, he likely would have added to those successes had he lived. His smooth style was a joy to observe, although he was not effective at regaining a lead once lost.
Alberto Ascari was a two time World Champion, in 1952 and 1953, driving for Enzo Ferrari. He and Paul Hawkins shared the dubious honor of having gone off the track at Monaco and into the Mediterranean Sea. Alberto Ascari went swimming in 1955 driving for Lancia; Hawkins took his dip in 1965. The two accidents were later depicted in the 1966 movie “Gran Prix” with James Garner dramatizing the accidents.
Tazio Nuvolari does not make the list of World Championship winners, having only won the European Championship in 1932, a precursor to the Formula One World Championship. It was Nuvolari that Enzo Ferrari credited with the invention of the “four wheel drift” as the fastest way around a corner during the days of narrow, hard rubber tires. But there is a story told by his co-driver, Giovan Guidotti, during the 1930 Mille Miglia that captures the personalities of the drivers of the day.
Cars were started several minutes apart for the Mille Miglia, the winner being one who toured the Sicilian roadways in the shortest time. Based upon timing, Nuvolari and Guidotti were leading Achille Varzi by about four minutes in the later stages of the race. Varzie had started before them and was in front physically. They took it as a matter of honor that they should pass him on the road.
It was already night in Primolano, Sicily, as they were approaching Varzi from behind. Seeing their headlights behind him Varzi began driving harder. According to Guidotti, he suggested that Nuvolari turn off the headlights to fool Varzi into thinking they had dropped back. Without headlights Nuvolari was driving at racing speeds on a country road with only Varzi’s tail lights as a guide. They crept up on Varzi’s bumper, the driver having slowed thinking that Nuvolari had dropped back as Guidotti supposed he would. With the finish line approaching Nuvolari accelerated hard, turned on the headlights and passed a startled Varzi. Guidotti later said it was three years before Varzi would speak to him again.
In the end determining who was the best F1 driver is a subjective decision. The choice may be based upon statistics but the true racing fan appreciates the driver who competes, who drives “allegro con brio”.