Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Golden Age?

A question for motorsports anoraks to ponder upon over a pint or two: What was the most talented grid of F1 drivers ever assembled? What was the golden age of Grand Prix racing, in terms of the sheer quality of the field? There are, I think, a few possible candidates...

A strong case could be made for 1967. That year, there were no fewer than seven past or future world champions in the field. Jim Clark was very much at the height of his powers, with the DFV engined Lotus, Jack Brabham had just become the first man to win the World Championship in a car of his own construction, and John Surtees, the only man to win world championships on two and four wheels, took Honda's first victory at the Italian Grand Prix. All of these men were beaten to the title that year by the gruff New Zealander, Denny Hulme, who may not feature in many people's list of the all-time greats, but beat an awful lot of drivers who do regularly make such lists.

The unreliability of the early Lotus 49 may have ensured that Graham Hill didn't figure in the championship battle that year, but he was still near the peak of his powers, and, with the more sorted 49B, would go on to win a second driver's title the following year. In addition to these 5 world champions, the field also featured future world champions Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt. While Rindt may have shown little of the talent which would eventually bring him the World title (posthumously) in 1970 - Denis Jenkinson famously remarked he would shave his beard off if Rindt ever won a Grand Prix - Stewart had made a big impact on the sport when he made his debut 2 years earlier, scoring 4 podium finishes, and 1 win, on his way to 3rd in the driver's championship. Proof, if it were needed, that Lewis Hamilton's achievements are not entirely without precedent. Only the sheer awfulness of the heavy, slow, unreliable BRM H16 ruled him out of contention in 1967.

Not every first rate racing driver wins a world title, of course, and in addition to the 7 World Champions mentioned above, the field featured a number of other quality racers. Dan Gurney, racing for his own All-American Racers team, was, it has been said, the only driver that Jim Clark ever really feared. Pedro Rodriguez may have been at his very best in sportscars, but he was quick enough to win the opening race in South Africa in an elderly Cooper Maserati. Other Grand Prix winners in the field included Jackie Ickx, Bruce Mclaren and Joakim Bonnier, while Chris Amon served as proof that not every quick Grand Prix driver even ever won a Grand Prix.

A case can also be made for the drivers lined up at the start of the 1982 Grand Prix season. The '82 Championship was famously one of the most close-fought battles there has ever been, with no driver winning more than 2 races all year. Sadly, a major part of the reason it was so close-run was that the most likely champion, Gilles Villeneuve, was killed early on in the season at Zolder, and his team mate Didier Pironi would suffer career-ending injuries later on in the year in Germany. Nonetheless, the 1982 season brought together many of the drivers who would dominate the sport throughout the first half of the 1980s. The champion that year, the last man to win a World Championship with a Cosworth DFV, was Keke Rosberg, but others in contention for honours included a young Alain Prost at Renault, returning former champion Niki Lauda at Mclaren, his team mate (who came within a few points of the 1982 title) John Watson, and the eccentric French charger, Rene Arnoux.

Seemingly out of contention that year, but a reigning world champion who would go on to win another two titles, Nelson Piquet was one of two other past or future champions in the field that year. The other? a seeming no hoper in a Lotus whose place in the sport seemed precariously balanced - a moustachio-ed Brummie by the name of Nigel Mansell. If it looked unlikely that he would ever go on to great things, it is perhaps worth remembering that, prior to 1982, Keke Rosberg had just two points finishes to show for 4 years in F1, although whether anyone else would have achieved much more driving for Theodore, Fittipaldi and ATS is an open question.

There were plenty other accomplished racers in the field at the beginning of that year, including Patrick Tambay, Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto - the man who took Tyrrell's last GP win, Elio De Angelis and Carlos Reutemann. By the season's end, Reutemann, Villeneuve and Pironi would all be absent (though Mario Andretti would make a fleeting return) but the opening couple of races of the 1982 season just might have featured more Grand Prix winners than any other. Certainly, it featured a veritable raft of talent.

My next candidate grid is the line-up that existed from the Belgian Grand Prix of 1991, when Michael Schumacher made his stunning debut in the sport, to the Japanese Grand Prix, after which Ferrari fired its multiple champion lead driver Alain Prost, for suggesting that it's 641 car "handled like a truck." This grid featured men who, between them, won 20 drivers titles between 1981 and 2004, and there is a fair argument that in terms of the number of out-and-out greats in the field at once, it was the most competitive grid ever. There was Ayrton Senna, at Mclaren, Alain Prost, at Ferrari, Michael Schumacher and Nelson Piquet at Benetton, Nigel Mansell at Williams and a young Mika Hakkinen was part way through his first season at Lotus. OK, so it is hard to argue that all of those drivers, and in particular, Hakkinen, Piquet and Schumacher, were at anything like the height of their powers but in terms of drivers who were, at their best, amongst the all time greats, I'm not sure there has even been a more standout line-up.

Aside from these six drivers who together dominated the sport for two decades, past and future race winners including Gerhard Berger, Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto, Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert were also competing that year, the first two in potentially race winning cars. OK, so of all these drivers, only Senna and Mansell were in contention for the title, and Alain Prost was enduring a nightmare of a season with a Ferrari team which, after a tilt at the title the previous year, were collapsing back into the anarchy which had characterised much of their history, but it depends on the question. If it's about the number of great drivers in race winning cars at the peak of their powers, then perhaps 1991 doesn't deserve mention, but if it's simply about the greatest concentration of natural talent, it has to be a candidate for the greatest grid of drivers there has ever been.

My final nomination for the most talented grid of F1 drivers ever assembled is.... the current one. When Michael Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, I, for one, thought we would be entering an era dominated by two men - Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. In the event, it hasn't turned out that way. If anything, that brief period where the sport appeared poised on the brink of domination by those two drivers now looks like something of an interregnum between the disappearance of Schumacher and the emergence of a new generation of stars such as Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica and, perhaps, Sebastian Vettel. That's not to say that Raikkonen or Alonso have been eclipsed, more that they now look like merely two of perhaps five or six really exceptionally quick racers in the field right now.

Add to that the fact that the tutelage of Rob Smedley and Michael Schumacher appears to have taken the raw talent of Felipe Massa and smoothed away the rough edges to produce a driver able to embarrass Raikkonen and make a bid for the world title and that's six potential or actual world champions in the field. But what of the rest? Red Bull's Mark Webber is fast gathering a reputation for misfortune to match his fellow Antipodean Chris Amon but has shown enough raw pace to suggest that were he in a half-way competitive car, he would have a string of race wins to his name by now. Webber's team mate David Coulthard may be well past his best now, but let's not forget that, back in 2001, he was the only man to put up a fight against Schumacher for the World title.

And there's plenty more really quick drivers in the field. How about Jarno Trulli, over at Toyota? A man who gave Fernando Alonso a serious run for his money over at Renault in 2004 until he fell out with Flavio Briatore and his performance went off the boil accordingly? Or either of the Honda drivers, Barrichello and Button? Barrichello was an outside bet for the 2003 title until well after mid-point and was about the only team mate capable on occasion of out-pacing Michael Schumacher, while Button is outstanding in the wet - always the hallmark of a driver with innate ability, and, until time seemed to pass him by without his ever ending up in a race winning car, marked as a potential future champion.

Of those not so far mentioned, Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen are both Grand Prix winners, while Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld have all looked as if, given a fair wind and the right car, they too could win races and perhaps even make a bid for the world title. Certainly I reckon all three of them are at least as good as Damon Hill was...

Perhaps, though, what most marks out the 2008 grid is the almost total absence of time-servers and journey-men in the lower orders. In any of the years I've mentioned above - 1968, 1982 or 1991, the bottom third of the grid was largely made up of pay-drivers and hobbyists who didn't really belong in the sport's topmost level. The same could hardly be said of the current line-up of drivers. OK, so perhaps it would be a fair criticism of Kazuki Nakajima (although he wasn't exactly slow in GP2 and he's hardly disgraced himself with Williams) and there's no doubting that Nelson Piquet Jr has been a disappointment - though I believe he was hired on merit and I suspect he'll get the heave-ho because he hasn't lived up to that promise.

2008 may not be the golden age of close racing. Or great circuits, or technical variety and innovation among the teams. The cars may not be the prettiest, and the fans certainly can't get as close to the action at the circuit as once was possible, but in one crucial way, I really do believe we are living through something of a golden age of Grand Prix racing.

So have I got it right? Or have I missed a year to top all of the ones I've listed above. And if you think I have got it right, which of the four years I have picked - 1968, 1982, 1991 and 2008, had the best driver line-up of the lot?

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Anonymous cars sell said...

Its really great to see how racing has evolved from way back to what we have now. Its funny as well that anything that has an engine, we humans always try to race it. I wonder what the future will like for racing. would it be something like speed racer

12:25 AM  
Anonymous Motorsports Vehicle said...

I wonder who's the all around best racer? It's awesome how these race car drivers move with lightning fast reflexes. I bow to their dedication and great overall abilities.

1:29 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Boyers said...

I think in terms of quality, a grid with Mansell, Senna, Prost, Piquet and Schumacher lining up is the best I've seen in my lifetime.

I think that period also coincided with some fantastic racing, underlying how good they were.

Too much of today's racing is decided in the pit lane. I understand it is a team sport, but racing is racing - and we don't see a great deal at the minute.

Raikonnen, Massa and Hamilton have both demonstrated quality to be considered with the greats in time, but certainly not yet.

Alonso is the only driver on today's grid who can be talked about in the same breath as the great and the good. Given a competitive car, he would have walked this season.

Great blog - really love your enthusiasm for motor racing.

2:23 PM  

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