Automotive and Motorsports
From Hakkinen to Clark, Kevin Eason lists the 10 greatest drivers in the modern era of the world's most demanding sport
From the Times "50 greatest drivers" article
Kevin Eason, Sports News Correspondent
10. Mika Hakkinen
Grands prix: 161
World Championships: 2 (1998, 99)
If Hakkinen’s first victories were controversial, there was no doubting what came later. David Coulthard, his team-mate, was twice instructed to move over to allow the Finn to win his opening grand prix. But the Finn was faster and the only man who could go wheel-to-wheel with Michael Schumacher and gain the German’s respect. Hakkinen had announced himself by outqualifying Ayrton Senna, his team leader, at the 1993 Portuguese Grand Prix. Two years later, he narrowly escaped death in a massive shunt at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. It was touch-and-go but he recovered to the delight of Ron Dennis and his McLaren team. A bond was forged between Dennis and Hakkinen, who served out his career with McLaren, showing flashes of raw genius, such as his daring manoeuvre on Schumacher at the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix, hailed as the overtaking move of the decade as the German went one way around the BAR Honda of Ricardo Zonta and Hakkinen went the other. Pure genius.
9. Nigel Mansell
Grands prix: 187
World Championships: 1 (1992)
There will simply never be another Nigel Mansell. Formula One is utterly divided on the Mansell question, with half adoring his bull-headed bravery, his antics and sometimes laughable moaning, and the other half detesting those same qualities. Here was a man willing to give up everything to drive a Formula One car and who would give everything in the cockpit. After a successful spell at Williams, Mansell went to Ferrari, at a time when the Scuderia were at a low ebb. He promptly won his first race for them and was hailed by the tifosi as Il Leone, the Lion. In Britain, "Our Nige" was nothing less than a hero, adored on a scale probably never witnessed before or since in Formula One. Strange, then, that he took his only title in a Williams car so utterly dominant, he barely had to break sweat. Inevitably, his break-up with Williams was messy and Mansell left for the United States to chalk up the IndyCar title to become the only driver to win motor racing’s two leading open-wheel championships back-to-back.
8. Fernando Alonso
World Championships: 2 (2005, 06)
Too many will remember Alonso’s sullen year at McLaren, definitely the low point of his career. But he would be better remembered as the precocious talent who knocked Michael Schumacher off his perch and proved himself to be a tough and intelligent competitor, who could drive brilliantly or simply play the percentages. The year at McLaren was an aberration, although Alonso still tied with Lewis Hamilton on points at the end of the 2007 season and took four victories. But on his return to the Renault team last year - and mercifully free of the Hamilton bandwagon - the Spaniard was back to his former self, driving an uncompetitive car with dexterity and determination. Alonso is one of the greats but has plenty of time to achieve even more.
7. Sir Stirling Moss
Grands prix: 66
World Championships: none
Where do you place the only driver in our top ten who did not win a world championship? Yet Moss is the driver they all look up to, a natural talent whose honesty and deference to the great Juan Manuel Fangio cost him at least one title and whose career was cut tragically short when he crashed at Goodwood on Easter Monday 1962. By then, as he emerged slowly from a coma, he was a national treasure with every policeman expected to ask a speeding motorist: “Who do you think you are, then? Stirling Moss?” It was a sign of the affection in which Moss was held by the British public. His greatest achievement possibly came outside Formula One when he drove a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR 1,000 miles across Italian roads to win the Mille Miglia at an incredible average speed of 99.2mph, a feat that will probably never be repeated. In Formula One, he was the nearly man, though, missing out on the 1958 championship by one point to Mike Hawthorn; in seven seasons from 1955, his championship placings were four seconds and three thirds - fantastic consistency without quite reaching the summit. In at least one survey of the greats of Formula One, Moss has been placed at No 1. He does not make it this time, but no list would be complete without him.
6. Juan Manuel Fangio
24.6.1911 to 17.7.1995
Grands prix: 51
World Championships: 5 (1951, 54, 55, 56, 57)
Consider this: Fangio drove in only 51 grands prix yet started 48 of them from the front row of the grid, winning almost half the races he competed in. An unlikely sporting figure, somewhat rotund with powerful forearms, Fangio became a legend in his own lifetime. He was clever enough to know where the best cars were, how to get a drive in them and then how to exploit them to their utmost. Even more astonishing was that Fangio was winning World Championships at an age when most men were putting on their slippers and sucking on a pipe in front of the fire; he was 47 when he won his final grand prix. Stirling Moss was in awe of his team-mate and even now insists that there has never been anyone better. We cannot argue, which is why, six decades on, Fangio must be included in our top ten.
5. Sir Jackie Stewart
Grands prix: 99
World Championships: 3 (1969, 71, 73)
Jackie Stewart was the first millionaire racing driver and one of the most recognisable faces in sport at his peak. The lad from Dumbarton, in Scotland, dined out with royalty and shared his fun with multimillionaires, and his favourite haunts were in Monaco and in tax exile in Switzerland. But that all paled beside his focus on driving. He was a natural who found his niche with Ken Tyrrell’s homely team; the cars were not necessarily very good but in Stewart’s calm hands, they were winners. Stewart had no qualms about walking away from the sport, tantalisingly placed on 99 grands prix, after the death of François Cevert, his team-mate and close friend, and Stewart will probably want to be remembered as much for his refusal to accept lax safety standards and his campaigning for better measures that probably helped save the lives of many drivers. Now the elder statesman of F1, Stewart has emerged not only as a great driver but also as one of the greatest figures in motor racing.
4. Alain Prost
Grands prix: 199
World Championships: 4 (1985, 86, 89, 93)
Prost finds it difficult to win admirers in the company of other mercurial, often fiery, drivers in Formula One who win flamboyantly and display their passion. But Prost was not nicknamed “The Professor” for nothing. He thought his way to victory, preparing meticulously and driving in exactly the same way, refusing to take risks and get involved in shenanigans with other drivers. It was not spectacular but as one seasoned commentator observed: “The faster he went, the slower he looked.” Prost’s nemesis, though, was Ayrton Senna and their fraught relationship at McLaren, understandable as they fought to be the team’s top dog, spilt over into rare bout of tit-for-tat for the Frenchman. In the end, he decamped for two unhappy years at Ferrari before he was fired before the end of the 1991 season. A year off led to a single season with Williams, partnering Damon Hill, and a final title. Quite a send-off for the Prof.
3. Michael Schumacher
Grands prix: 307
World Championships: 7 (1994, 95, 2000, 01, 02, 03, 04)
If statistics were the yardstick by which we measured the greatest of all time, this would be a walkover for Schumacher. He was the greatest record-breaker in the history of sport. You name it, he achieved it. He was also the consummate team-builder, creating a squad at Ferrari that was completely dedicated to him. He rewarded them with a level of commitment in the cockpit that was not only awe-inspiring but dominant for more than a decade. Yet, his incredible focus was both his strength and his downfall. He won his first title in 1994 amid dubious circumstances after crashing into Damon Hill, preventing the Briton from winning the championship. In 1997, he was expunged from the official records after doing the same to Jacques Villeneuve and who can forget, even near the end of his career, how he parked his Ferrari across the track at Monaco to prevent Fernando Alonso taking pole. Utterly ruthless, some may say a downright cheat. It is a shadow that will fall long across a truly great career from a truly extraordinary sportsman.
2. Ayrton Senna
21.3.1960 to 1.5.1994
Grands prix: 161
World Championships: 3 (1988, 90, 91)
Ayrton Senna has been elevated to the status of a legend as much because of the dramatic circumstances of his death in front of a worldwide television audience. The world held its breath on that day in May 1994, as doctors tried to extricate the three-times champion from the wreckage of his Williams. The Brazilian had started the San Marino Grand Prix desperately trying to fend off the challenge of Michael Schumacher, the pretender to his throne, when his car careered off the Imola circuit into a wall. Senna could be regarded as the forerunner to the modern grand-prix driver, as dedicated to his fitness as he was to his technical ability and understanding of the the modern grand-prix car. When he was hired by McLaren to partner Alain Prost, he was not remotely overawed to be alongside an established champion. He just worked harder until Prost had to move on. Ruthless, private and yet a practical joker, particularly in the company of Gerhard Berger and Ron Dennis, his McLaren team principal, Senna was the complete driver: brave, fast, skilful, exciting and daring. We will never know whether Senna would have overcome Schumacher in what could have been one of the most fascinating battles in the history of Formula One.
1. Jim Clark
4.3.1936 to 7.4.1968
Grands prix: 72
World Championships: 2 (1963, 65)
There was always the feeling that Jim Clark could drive a milk float and make it fly around a grand-prix track. Adept in saloon cars and sports cars, he was the yardstick by which every driver wanted to measure themselves in Formula One. There was nothing he could not do at the wheel of a Formula One car and his marriage with Lotus was made in grand-prix heaven. The shy son of a Scottish border farmer had little to say for himself and would have been out of place in today‘s publicity-hungry environment, ruled by sponsors flinging around money and demanding the attention of the drivers they backed. Clark was a gentleman amateur who drove simply because he loved driving. And he was sublime at the wheel, his touch and feel for his car and the circuit without peer. He could administer a trouncing that would leave his rivals in admiration, no more so than at the extraordinary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. In the 1960s, the circuit was more than eight miles long, winding through the dense forests of the Ardennes, with its quixotic micro-climate, which struck on race day for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1963. Clark drove through the pouring rain to lap the entire field, which effectively put him eight miles in front of his nearest challenger. Clark was also impressively accident-free, registering only three crashes in eight Formula One seasons, which only underlines the paradox of his death. In a minor Formula Two race at Hockenheim, his car flew off the track into the trees and he was killed instantly. Formula One stood still and his death even now ripples through the sport. The quiet man from Scotland was gone, but the memories of his immense talent live on.