August 28, 2010

Who is the Greatest of them all?

The debate surrounding the greatest F1 driver of all time still rages on like an inferno. But once you read history, or watch it rather, the answer is sealed; it was Juan Emanuel Fangio. But I don’t want to bore you with the exploits of a man who made his mark almost 50 years ago.

When you start talking about statistics, you get the sense that no man has conquered and achieved what Michael Schumacher has. But that’s all statistics. Forgive my loftiness, but I have never seen Schumacher deliver what people like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, even Nigel Mansell, or more recently, Rubens Barichello delivered to their fans: sheer and utter, perfection. Even now, almost two decades on, it is a sheer joy to watch Ayrton Senna drive like a maniac in his 1200 horsepower, road eating, manic Mclaren. Just like it is a pleasure to watch Alain Prost race with the skills of a Maestro. Michael Schumacher does not even begin to make it to the list of the greatest when it comes to aesthetics.

The question then is: who is the greatest of them all? Well to be exact, who is the second greatest of them all, in terms of delivering the aesthetic joy that made F1 the heart throb of millions across the globe, after Fangio. There are many great competitors to that throne. Almost the entire current crop of F1 drivers throws their weight behind Ayrton Senna as the greatest F1 driver to have lived, including Michael Schumacher. But that isn’t exactly doing justice to the other great names that have graced the legend called Formula One racing.

The list that I’ve prepared and from which I’m going to choose the greatest F1 driver in my opinion, is based on the aesthetic capabilities of the drivers and not their statistical conquests. Consequently, Michael Schumacher does not make it in because he raced in an environment that was devoid of any excitement. In my opinion, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were the finest ever drivers to grace F1. They were all extraordinary in their own distinctive ways. Nigel Mansell has always been over shadowed by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost who had their legendary rivalry going at the same time as Nigel Mansell was racing, and consequently, he hasn’t really been given the attention that he deserved. He is the only inductee in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame who is not from the US, he won the Formula One World Championship in 1992 and he is the fourth most successful driver of all time in F1, statistically.

Anyone who knows F1 knows Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. The two manic drivers who were friends, foes and then friends again. They were the devils themselves when it came to racing. Ever since their departure from the sport, the sheer excitement of F1 has gone. The unbelievable driving of Senna in a manual, 1200 horsepower Mclaren, or a Williams BMW, with no sense of braking or lifting the foot of the accelerator is perhaps only matched by the equally stunning driving of Alain Prost who tried to be a gentleman but was provoked again and again by Senna, until he too lost it and went bonkers on the track. Who can forget the carnage at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix when both Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were involved in a collision only to see the cheeky Senna drive off after colliding and winning the race. And who can forget the following year when Senna deliberately drove into the rear of Prost’s to seal the Championship for himself?

But the sheer driving experience that one got to saw is memorable. Seeing Senna drive amidst super rainfall on slicks, and then terming the whole race quite interesting or seeing Prost doing a four wheel drift through the corners in the Monaco Grand Prix has never been repeated, the same sense of exuberance and passion never seen since.

Perhaps it was also down to the cars themselves. 90s was the decade when certain dramatic changes were applied making the cars lose out on their charms. Active suspensions were banned, and so was traction control and ABS, making it almost impossible to drive the car on its limit. Perhaps that is why Senna, who never really knew another way of driving other than on the limit, met his death in the way he did.

And that concludes it. I cannot pick a winner between Alain Prost, who retired at the start of the 1994 season because Senna joined the same Williams team that he was a part of, and Ayrton Senna, the most sensational driver to have ever lived. Perhaps if Alain Prost hadn’t retired at the peak of his career, and perhaps if Ayrton Senna was alive, people such as Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, even Haikennen wouldn’t have won the races that they did.

F1 is a changed sport now. It is much more humane, which means it isn’t as exciting as it could be. But for all times to come, the memories of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Gilles Villeneuve, Damon Hill and the rest of the racers from the 80s and 90s, the most awesome two decades of Formula One, will continue to mesmerize the people who love this sport.