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The Greatest Driver…

Wherever F1 fans gather, the subject will come up: who was the greatest driver of all time? It’s a never-ending debate and one that has no answer, as it’s impossible to compare drivers from different eras; each faced and conquered the challenges of their time, extracting performance from their cars that seemed impossible.

Much also depends on what we have seen. In the early sixties, there was general consensus that the greatest was Tazio Nuvolari. René Dreyfuss said this of him: “He talked to his cars, and they answered! It was incredible. He would jump from side to side, put his whole body into the effort. It seemed to me sometimes that he was himself physically lifting the car – over a curb, for example, to take a corner faster. We’d ask ourselves often, how can he drive that way? That’s not right. But then he’d win …”

Tazio Nuvolari

Tazio Nuvolari

My problem is that I never saw Nuvolari drive, apart from blurred images in old newsreels that told one nothing. And how can we compare those skinny-tired monsters of the time with the technical masterpieces of today? The skills required to drive them must be entirely different.

So Nuvolari must remain for all time as the greatest driver of the pre-war era and we can talk only of the drivers of modern times. Fangio and Clark have some claim to be the best, but they occupy that intervening period when cars were still fairly primitive and downforce was never mentioned. Our era really starts with the introduction of wings; from that moment onwards, designers spent much of their time getting the cars to stick to the track.

With the possible exception of Stewart, there is no driver who stands head and shoulders above the rest through the seventies. Ground effect and skirts moved the goalposts at the end of the decade and I would propose a little-regarded driver as the one who mastered those cars better than any other: Nelson Piquet.

Nelson Piquet

Nelson Piquet in the Brabham BT49

Ground effect cars were difficult to drive because they would hang on to the road like leeches but would let go very suddenly and without warning when the limit was reached. For this reason, you won’t see them sliding as they go through the corners; the drivers learned quickly to stay within the boundaries of adhesion. Except Piquet. Watch old videos of him taking the Brabham BT49 through corners and you will see the car twitching – it is right on the limit and Nelson is catching it every time it lets go. His reflexes were almost superhuman and it is no wonder that he was the only driver to mourn the outlawing of skirts a few years later.

The ground effect era was brief and Piquet was not to prove so outstanding in the cars that followed. But another Brazilian then came on the scene and towered over the drivers of his era. From the first, it was clear that Ayrton Senna was something special. He could get in a Toleman and wring its neck until it threatened the leaders. When he graduated to competitive cars, the only thing that would prevent him winning races was mechanical failure. I have no doubt that he was the greatest driver of the modern era.

Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna

Finally, there is Michael Schumacher. His record suggests that he might be on a par with Senna but there are doubts as well. The long list of controversies must be one and the new lions, Raikkonen and Alonso are others. Perhaps we need some distance before we can assess Mr Schumacher dispassionately.

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