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The Fastest Of Them All

Whenever F1 fans get together, you can bet that the conversation will eventually turn to the subject of which driver was greatest of all. Years ago I read a short story that deals with this rather well and I am always reminded of it whenever such a discussion begins. I do not remember who wrote the story so I cannot give credit where it is due – but it was a long time ago so perhaps it will be sufficient that I put on record that the story isn’t mine. Anyway, here’s the basic outline of the tale:

It seems that there was a group of friends who were great fans of Grand Prix racing. They met often and enjoyed many long discussions on all aspects of the sport but things often became heated when the matter of the quickest driver arose – as it did often.

Nuvolari

The usual names were bandied about, Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Senna, Schumacher, but no final decision could ever be reached as each fan produced persuasive reasons as to why his choice must be the right one. Over the years, positions became entrenched and everyone knew the opinions and arguments of everyone else since they had heard them so often before. But nobody would concede defeat and the subject remained the one issue that was entirely deadlocked; yet they never gave up debating it, so determined were they that the matter be settled once and for all.

They were old men by the time they gathered together for the bus ride to Spa to see the Belgian Grand Prix. And, in a way, it was fitting that they should all be killed when the bus fell off a hillside in the Ardennes before they reached the circuit. Inseparable friends they had been in life and now, in death, the bond continued unbroken.

And so it was that they found themselves together again in heaven. St Peter had allowed them entry as a group and no-one was left behind. And, inevitably, the old subject came up again, undecided as it still was. Who was the fastest of all?

Even then, they were unable to reach agreement and things might have stayed that way for eternity if one of their number had not suggested settling the matter by asking the Boss, the Big G, who was reputed to know all things. Elated that they would finally know the truth and the controversy be settled forever, they proceeded to the Big House to ask their question.

The Boss was in residence and expressed Himself happy to answer anything they should ask. They explained the problem (not omitting mention of each one’s preference to ensure that he not be forgotten) and finished with the question that had dominated their lives – who was the fastest driver of all time?

The Boss smiled and answered immediately. “Heinz Hopflinger,” He announced with certainty.

The friends stared at Him and each other in complete perplexity. “Heinz Hopflinger?” ventured the bravest of them. “But I’ve never heard of him. How could that be?”

The Boss smiled again. “Oh, it was Heinz all right. I ought to know – I made him. He was a shepherd in Lichtenstein all his life and never actually saw a motor vehicle, let alone a racing car. But, if they had put him in one, he would have beaten all those you mentioned by a mile…”

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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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