It’s a myth that anyone can identify the greatest driver who ever lived. That driver doesn’t exist now nor has ever existed. How can someone make such blasphemous claim when names like Senna, Earnhardt, Fangio, Clark and Andretti are held to such a high standard? The reasoning is based upon a chronological set of points in time known as eras along with the technologies that paralleled them. There were, and are, only the greatest drivers of their era.
We’re used to hearing the names of those eras: The pre-war era, the post-war era and the modern era, that however, is far too broad to be a platform for choosing the world’s greatest driver. It can’t be done. You would literally have to research, ad nauseum, the sub-categories of each era, which would have to be broken down as far as individual races in any given racing discipline and, you would still fail. Stephen Hawking couldn’t create such an algorithm, even randomized.
The greatest driver title would and will always be based upon opinion and they’re like noses, everybody has one. Here’s why: Imagine a timeline that, for total inclusions sake, would begin the moment the second automobile was built. Who are we kidding, that’s the day auto racing began. This timeline would have to include drivers migrating into and out of the races and series held from then until the present.
The drivers advance their results based on the newest technology given them compared to the lack of technology given other drivers of the day. Their results are in direct proportion to the successful technology and the unsuccessful technology. This timeline and the benchmarks set by advancing technology are directly related to what a driver could deliver in terms of results.
Now imagine that timeline and it’s corresponding technologies growing closer together, Moore’s Law comes to mind, the result is that the pre-war era became increasingly dependent on who could provide the best technology coupled with the best driver to effectively utilize that technology. Drivers such as Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi were in this era.
Enter World War II and the interruption of racing worldwide as being formerly organized. Technological advancement didn’t grind to a halt, World War II produced quite the opposite effect, technology exponentially accelerated due to the redirection of research and development into another medium, aircraft, in particular.
The resumption of auto racing post-war benefitted directly from the increased knowledge of engineering and material technique born out of aviation technology. The irony is that many of the auto manufacturers who raced also were direct participants in the war efforts regardless of which side they were serving. Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio were benefactors from this era through the manufacturers repatriation into racing and the emergence of auto builders such as Enzo Ferrari and Jaguar. The timeline in the 1950’s began to tighten up into sub-categories of technology accelerating at a frenetic pace giving drivers such as Stirling Moss and Jack Braham their opportunities for greatness.
The timeline does have an exception in the chronology-technology parallel. In the deep South of America, a different type of sport was born that was low tech and high skill, NASCAR as it’s now known. Drivers who learned to drive and modify what they had such as Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner emerged along with other legendary drivers who weren’t exposed to manufacturers research and development.
Fireball Roberts and Lee Petty made names for themselves with equipment that by the European standards was already dated. They modified and engineered the technology they had at hand. NASCAR would exist in that mode on the timeline in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way. Regardless of the lack of technology, these drivers were no less skilled and no less great. This form of racing was the exception to the sub-category rule until the 1990’s.
The modern era of Grand Prix Racing is technically considered to be from 1950 to the present but that doesn’t match the acceleration of driver’s skills and the engineering leaps that took place on our imaginary timeline from the mid 1960’s until the present. More drivers emerged who could cope with, and thrive, in the rapidly changing environment. Mario Andretti, Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart, Richard Petty and David Pearson all competed in this Golden Age.
So the timeline moves into the 1970’s where technology and drivers began to flourish, although many drivers didn’t live long enough for safety standards to catch up with their skills and the engineering advancements. The timeline was now compressing into shorter intervals between game changing advancements, it had become two to three year blocks of revolutionary discovery. Wings, ground effects, engine refinement, fuel systems and tire technology all set the stage for the 1980’s where suspension systems, huge advancements in aerodynamics and materials took place.
Mario Andretti, engineers and builders such as Colin Chapman of Lotus created perfect partnerships to lift themselves to greatness. Senna, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet made their names in this era, which on the timeline, was filled with technological advantages but still with drivers who could overcome smaller advancements.
The 1990’s compressed the timeline into one-year eras. Traction control and electronic advancements mated with drivers who could adapt emerged, but this is also a decade where other drivers, no matter how skilled, could overcome the onslaught of technology.
A relatively recent example can be found with Ayrton Senna, in the McLaren, battling with Alain Prost in the technically superior Williams FW15C. Despite the undeniable skill of Senna, Prost was arguably his equal, the Williams was far more than Senna could overcome.
Here is where the timeline and the technological advancements compress even further into six month or even three-month blocks. Michael Schumacher was the winner in this war. After his main rival, Ayrton Senna, was killed, the German took multiple World Championships in two different makes, Benetton and Ferrari. Ferrari, with Schumacher’s complete commitment to the strategy, literally built a long-term team around him. This was new in the world of auto racing, especially Formula One.
The present compression of the timeline is now in a race-to-race era. The technology has been changing at each race with teams bringing something new every time they compete. There are presently five World Champions competing in Formula One and this brings us to the real question: How can you choose who would be the greatest driver who ever lived? You can’t. Each era is different and more compressed than the one before it. It’s a timeline where statistics don’t hold up against the vast array of variables.
The question is filled with ‘what if’s’ and there are no real answers. Bummer.