Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unanswerable Questions

There have been a fair few attempts by various publications over the years to compile lists of the "best ever" racing drivers. It arises out of the same urge to categorise, list and order that drives newspapers and magazines to put together lists of "the 50 best albums of 2009" and "1000 novels everyone must read" or, mea culpa, "the 10 best drivers of 2009". It's an urge Nick Hornby satirised well in High Fidelity. A couple of weeks ago, Autosport Magazine produced yet another.

What makes the Autosport list more interesting than most such lists is that it was put together by asking the drivers themselves - every living Grand Prix driver they could find. They got 217 responses - probably not much more than a quarter of those eligible to vote but a very decent number all the same. Their list strikes me as no more or less valid than any of the others, though. Was Senna better than Schumacher? Were both of them better than Fangio? Was Clark a greater driver than Moss? Or Mansell than Alonso?

The trouble is, such polls ask an impossible question. It is difficult enough to assess the relative merits of drivers who raced against each other. A quick look on any internet forum to see the arguments raging about the relative merits of Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Kubica and Massa is enough to demonstrate this. Even when the drivers are in the same cars, as Prost and Senna were at Mclaren in the late 1980s, or Alonso and Hamilton were in 2007, it is hard to find agreement as to who was ultimately the better driver.

Such judgments are always in part a matter of opinion. Senna and Prost won a title apiece when they were at Mclaren together. The Brazilian was usually faster, at least over a single lap, but was it that very pace which was responsible for his higher error-rate than the Frenchman? And how to assess Alonso and Hamilton? On the one hand, Hamilton went in as a 22 year old rookie and quickly matched his double-champion team mate - which suggests advantage Hamilton. Set against that, Hamilton was a Mclaren man through and through, from his earliest years, while Alonso was always something of a paid mercenary. Perhaps the Spaniard did well to match Hamilton in a team that was fast moulding itself around the young Englishman.

Where drivers have raced against each other, there is at least the possibility of making a meaningful comparison. On the other hand, assessing the relative merits of drivers who raced half a century apart - Moss and Fangio versus Alonso or Schumacher, strikes me as a fool's errand. How to assess drivers who never raced each other, who competed in fundamentally different contexts, in very different machinery. Is 2009 World Champion Jenson Button a greater driver than 1950 Champion, Guiseppe Farina? How on earth would you decide? (The drivers, incidentally, appear to think so - rating Button the 30th greatest of all time, and Farina, 32nd).

It is perhaps more meaningful to compare the relative merits of different generations of drivers as cohorts, than as individuals. There are essentially two convincing and contradictory arguments here. The first is that the drivers of the 50s and 60s were much greater, because what they were doing was fundamentally more difficult and dangerous. They didn't have endless testing, well-honed aerodynamically advanced cars that appear to be on rails, and the knowledge that, if they do make a mistake, the worst that awaits is an embarassing walk back to the pitlane. The cars were (probably) more difficult to drive, the consequences of a mistake much more grave and circuits like the old Nurburgring much more challenging than the glittering taste-free zone of the Yas Marina circuit at Abu Dhabi. On this basis, you might argue that such as Schumacher and Senna had no business being rated higher than Clark or Fangio.

The counter-argument is that the greats of yesteryear were big fish in a small pond. In the early years of the Formula 1 World Championship, the pool of talent from which the stars were drawn was much smaller. It was possible for a wealthy amateur to buy himself onto the F1 grid with relative ease, and a good half of the field could hardly be considered to be serious professionals, especially in the 1950s. Thus such as Moss and Fangio might have looked so good because there wasn't really any strength in depth in the F1 grid these days. Compare and contrast with today, where even the weakest F1 drivers - such as Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet Jr, have come up through intensely competitive junior formulae, with Piquet an F3 Champion and GP2 runner-up and Nakajima a consistent GP2 frontrunner. The leading drivers in F1 today, the Alonsos, Hamiltons, Kubicas and Massas, have proven themselves the stand-out prospects among thousands of aspiring young single-seater racers, and perhaps tens of thousands of karters (after all, if, as a thirteen year old, you showed no aptitude as a karter, what chance any but the most indulgent of rich parents would fund your junior single-seater career?). On that basis, the drivers of yesteryear don't bear serious comparison with today's stars.

The truth almost certainly lies somewhere in-between. Two competing forces have been at work over the years since the F1 World Championship began in 1950, with the pool of challengers growing ever larger and more fiercely competitive, even as the scale of the challenge itself has diminished. Have these factors balanced themselves out exactly, ensuring that meaningful comparison between the generations is possible? That being the class of the field in 1969 was no more or less of an achievement than being the best in 2009? That's a question which can never be answered with any certainty.

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