Although it isn’t going to happen now, the racing world has been all a-Twitter in recent weeks because Michael Schumacher said he would make his Formula One comeback in a Ferrari at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Spain, next weekend.
There is no doubt that Schumacher, statistically, is the greatest F1 driver of all time. He holds all the records that matter – victories (97), podiums (154), poles (68) fastest laps (76).
But does this make him the world’s greatest driver? Does this make him the best of the best? The best of all-time?
I think not.
Here are my very personal selections for the Ten Best Racing Drivers of All Time. The only reason I’m doing this is because of the hullabaloo surrounding Schumacher’s return. Constant references to his being "the greatest of all time" have my dander up. He’s good – but not that good.
Before I start, however, let me explain how I came to pick my "Ten Best."
Everybody always talks about how great Juan Manuel Fangio was. I don’t know. I never saw him race. He won five world championships in the 1950s but in some of those years there were only half-a-dozen races and if his car broke down he’d commandeer his teammate’s.
So all I know of Fangio is what I’ve read about him.
Same with Bill Vukovich. I know lots about "Vucky," the California gas-station owner and midget racer who was on the way to win his third straight Indy 500 in 1955 when he was killed, but I have no first-hand knowledge of his skills and daring and so I really can’t comment.
Ditto Alberto Ascari and Bob Sweikert and Bernd Rosemeyer and Wilbur Shaw and all those other guys who were household names in the sport’s early years.
So my choices are going to be restricted to the people I’ve seen at work, in the arena. I am only picking from a list of people I’ve seen race in person or on television. But what a list to choose from!
Graham Hill, Johnny Rutherford, Arnie Knepper, Chris Amon, Gary Bettenhausen, Eddie Sachs, Parnelli Jones, Pedro Rodriguez, George Snider, Jackie Ickz, Niki Lauda, A.J. Foyt, Jochen Rindt, Bill Brack, Ronnie Peterson, Scott Dixon, Dan Gurney, Alain Prost, Dale Earnhardt, Sonny Ates, Alex Zanardi, Coo-Coo Marlin, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Unser, Mika Hakinen, Bentley Warren, Ayrton Senna, Al Jr. and Dale Jr., Scott Goodyear, Bruce McLaren, Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, Paul Tracy, Stirling Moss, Friday Hassler, Rick Mears, Don Branson, Ted Hogan, Jim Rathmann, Bobby Rahal, Jimmie Johnson and Junior Johnson and on and on and on.
None of the above made the list. I’m comfortable with the following selections, though. I really think the people I’ve chosen are not only the greatest racing drivers of their era but would have been the best – or among the best – whenever and wherever they raced.
|Mario Andretti could win any kind of race in any kind of car.|
No. 1: Mario Andretti
A winner in virtually every form of motor sport imaginable, this Italian-born, all-American driver is, hands-down, the best of the best who ever turned a wheel.
He started out in a jalopy on a dirt track in his adopted home of Nazareth, Pa., and before he retired in 1994, he’d won the F1 World Championship (1978), the Daytona 500 (1967), the Indy 500 (1969), the 24 Hours of Daytona (1972), the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb (1969), the 1978-79 IROC championship and the 12 Hours of Sebring four times.
He won three midget features in one day, was so good in sprint cars that he was inducted into the U.S. National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and was such a terror on the big mile dirt tracks (state fairgrounds tracks in New York, Illinois, California and Indiana) that he won the 1974 U.S. Auto Club Dirt Championship.
His successes on dirt frequently came after he started his F1 career, which was at Watkins Glen in the 1968 U.S. Grand Prix. He was in a Lotus at that race and he put it on the pole.
I believe he could have won multiple F1 championships but he never raced exclusively in that series. He loved the Concorde passenger jet, because it only took him a couple of hours to fly the Atlantic and he could drive in a European F1 race on a Sunday and in a sprint car race in Illinois on Tuesday and in an Indy car race at Elkhart Lake (or wherever) the following weekend.
In 1982, he was winding down his F1 involvement. He drove a race for Williams early in the season and then packed it in to concentrate on his CART career.
But in September, he received a call from Enzo Ferrari. Didier Pironi had been seriously injured and il Commendatore needed a driver. Could Mario perhaps help out?
So Andretti flew to Italy, climbed into a Ferrari and won the pole for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The tifosi still get tears in their eyes thinking about that.
In 1984, Andretti won the last of his four Indy car championships (three under the USAC banner and the last in CART).
He went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans nine times but it was only in 1995 that he had real success – a class championship and a second overall finish.
It is highly unlikely that anyone will ever be able to do better.
No. 2: Mark Donohue
If Mark Donohue had lived, I believe he would have won the F1 world championship.
He was a winner in every class and style of racing he entered. He had no failures. Yes, he and his partner, Roger Penske, were always looking for what they called the "unfair advantage," but that’s why they won and the others didn’t.
A mechanical engineer (which gave him a leg up over many of the other drivers because he really knew how racing cars worked), Donohue started out in the early 1960s racing in SCCA amateur classes. Before he turned pro, he’d won numerous titles.
After he started racing for a living, he won the U.S. Road Racing Championship for sports cars, three Trans-Am championships, a NASCAR Winston Cup race, the Indianapolis 500 (and a half-dozen other U.S. Auto Club Champ Car races) and the Can-Am Challenge Cup.
He sometimes drove in two or three different series a year. Think anybody could do that in this day and age? Oh, and he set speed records when he didn’t have anything else to do.
He was the original IROC champion when it really meant something. He raced against, and beat: Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Peter Revson, Denis Hulme, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Gordon Johncock and Bobby Unser.
He finished third in his first F1 race (at Mosport, in 1971, in the pouring rain, after most of the F1 hotshots of the day had either slid off course or been left in his wake).
In 1975, Penske talked him out of retirement (this actually started before the last two F1 races in 1974) to take a serious crack at F1. After all, they’d won everything else they’d tried, so why not?
What’s interesting is that Donohue agreed because of something we can all relate to (of most of us, anyway): despite all of his successes, Mark Donohue agreed to ride into battle once again because he needed the money.
In August, at the Austrian Grand Prix, he went off track during practice and was hit on the head by a fence post. He walked away but later, during lunch, complained of a headache.
The next day, Aug. 19, he died from a brain hemorrhage. He was 38.
There is no doubt, when you compare his record against anybody else’s, that he was very close to being the best.
No. 3: Tony Stewart
I know. You are probably shaking your head and saying, What?????
But bear with me.
I admire, and respect, race drivers who are all-`rounders. Who are versatile. Who are able to go from one discipline, where they excel, to another – and excel there too.
Yes, as we go down this list, Michael Schumacher is going to make it. But although he is arguably the best F1 driver who’s ever lived, he’s never proved he could win in anything else.
He’s never tested himself elsewhere. And my No. 3 best-of-all-time driver sure has.
After starting out in karts, and winning championships, Stewart won the U.S. Auto Club’s Triple Crown in 1995. Maybe one other driver has done that. He was champion of USAC’s three open-wheel divisions – midget, sprint and Silver Crown (dirt champ cars). It was a killer schedule of dirt and pavement races, competing in cars that were of differing power and weight – frequently on the same day.
Between 1996 and 1998, Stewart drove stock cars and Indy cars, competing in the NASCAR Busch Series as well as the IRL. In 1997 he won the IRL championship.
He moved full-time to NASCAR Winston Cup in 1999 and won his first race that year. He has been a consistent winner ever since – on road courses (did you see his performance at Watkins Glen last weekend?) as well as short ovals and superspeedways – and has won the Cup series championship twice – in 2002 and 2005.
When he has time, he also competes – and wins – in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
In all, he won the 2006 IROC series, was the ’96 Indy 500 rookie-of-the-year (where he won the pole, by the way), ’99 NASCAR Winston Cup rookie-of-the-year, drove in five Indy 500s in all (his best finish was 2nd in 1997) and he “did the double” twice – where you race in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
This season, he became a team owner in Sprint Cup as well as continuing to drive. He also gives back to the sport by fielding teams in the World of Outlaws sprint car series as well as all three USAC divisions. He owns several race tracks, including Ohio’s famed Eldora Speedway.
Let him practice for awhile in whatever he gets into and I guarantee he’ll be right up there.
And that, I believe, would even include Formula One.
No. 4: Jackie Stewart
I had a hard time deciding between Jim Clark and Stewart – and there’s not room for both.
Clark won two world championships and the Indy 500. Stewart won three world titles and nearly won the 500.
In the end, I literally clipped a coin.
The `Wee Scot’ won the F1 world championship three times – in 1969, ’71 and ’73, the year he retired.
But he was also successful in other series and won, for instance, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1965, the 12 Hour International Sports Car Race at Surfer’s Paradise, Australia, in 1966 and Can-Am Challenge Cup races in 1970, ’72 and ’73.
He was winning the 1966 Indy 500 – it was his first crack at it, by the way – when he lost his oil pressure with eight laps to go.
Although it doesn’t really have anything to do with his skill and success on the race track, Stewart’s legacy is in the area of motor racing safety and merits attention.
In 1966 at Spa, he went off track and was upside down in his BRM and drenched in gasoline. He couldn’t get out and nobody came to his aid until fellow racers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant stopped and borrowed a wrench from a spectator who had a car parked nearby.
They were able to free him but from then on, Stewart drove with a wrench (spanner) taped to his steering wheel. (Removable steering wheels followed.) He also started taking his own doctor to the races, as the medical facilities at Spa had been non-existent. (Prof. Sid Watkins and the F1 Medical Commission were a direct result of Stewart’s lobbying.)
Sir Jackie (yes, he was knighted) has gone on to enjoy a lucrative post-retirement career as a spokesman for international companies and as a colour commentator on F1 telecasts. His partnering with the CBC’s Brian Williams was almost as good as Williams with Bobby Unser, which was an auto racing announcing team made in heaven.
He and his son Paul launched Stewart Grand Prix, which became Jaguar and, eventually, Red Bull. The Stewart team won one Grand Prix, with Johnny Herbert aboard.
Jackie Stewart was most recently seen at the Indy Racing League event at Kentucky Speedway. He is never far from the scene and has always been a player so the question begs:
|Michael Schumacher is the greatest F1 driver of all time.|
No. 5: Michael Schumacher
I’m sure that Michael Schumacher would likely have been a great Indy car driver. Given time to practice, he would likely have been a great NASCAR stock car driver too.
Yes, given the opportunity, I imagine Schumacher could have been a great sprint car and midget car racer. And although there’s still time, he hasn’t given any indication he’s interested in trying any of the World Rally Championship events which, I’m sure, he would be terrific at.
I could go on and on but the result would still be the same: we don’t know if Schumacher would have been (or be) successful because he has never branched out, never tested himself in a car or a series that wasn’t F1.
Yes, he did some sports car racing (he won a couple of races in a Sauber-Mercedes but was never anywhere close to winning a championship) before making his F1 debut in 1991 with Jordan.
The rest, as they say, is history. Seven world championships (two with Benetton and then five straight with Ferrari) and complete domination.
Of one class.
No. 6: Richard Petty
It’s pretty hard to ignore a guy who utterly dominated his sport just about the whole time he was in it, but that describes the “King” of stock car racing, Richard Petty, to a “T.”
Petty – who drove his first NASCAR Grand National race in 1958 at the CNE Speedway in Toronto – started 1,184 races in his 34-year big-league career and won 200 of them. He won 126 poles and seven Winston Cup championships. He also won the Daytona 500 seven times.
His greatest year was 1967 when he won 27 races, including 10 in a row.
As well as winning more races than any other NASCAR driver, Petty is almost as well-remembered for his escapes from some of the most spectacular wrecks you’ll ever see (and a lot of them are on YouTube. In fact, the one at Daytona in 1988 is available for viewing and was the first time – and one of the very few times – I’ve ever seen a TV network (CBS) cut into a commercial to cover the on-track action live.)
A team owner today, Petty can’t be missed in either the paddock or out on the street while wearing his ever-present sunglasses and a cowboy hat with a “Yankee-Doodle” feather stuck in it.
No. 7: Sebastien Loeb
Arguably the finest rally driver who ever lived (fans of Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz or Marcus Grönholm might disagree), Sébastien Loeb is a five-time world champion and holds the record for most wins in the World Rally Championship series with 52.
Loeb started rallying in 1995 and won the Junior World Rally Championship in 2001. He won his first drivers title in 2004 with Citroën and won a record fifth consecutive world title last year.
He is currently second in the WRC standings with three rallies to go, so a sixth title may not be far off.
When you come right down to it, there’s nobody in rallying close to this guy. And he'd be good in anything, I suggest.
No. 8: Steve Kinser
The “King” of sprint car racing has been racing with the World of Outlaws for 30 years – for the uninitiated, the WoO is the Formula One of sprint car racing – and has won the championship 20 times, including 11 titles in a row (’83 through ’94).
That’s right. Twenty championships and 11 in a row in one of the roughest, toughest car-racing series in the world, where you slide/wrestle 400-plus cubic-inch-powered race cars around dirt speedways of less than a half-mile – and there’s 23 other cars out there – and you race up to 90 times a year against people who are just as good as you are – Swindell, Shuman, Saldana, Haudenschild, Wolfgang – but not quite.
In 1994, he became the first non-road racer to win a round of the IROC series. He drove at Indy (14th in 1997) and in Winston Cup (he crashed out of the Daytona 500 at the start in 1995).
But his genius is in sprint cars. He’s won the Indy 500 of sprint car racing, the Knoxville Nationals, 12 times. If you don’t believe how good this guy is, tune into the Speed Channel tonight at 10 where he’ll be going for his 13th Nationals title.
You can’t miss him. He’s in the green Quaker State car, No. 11.
|Shirley Muldowney put the pedal to the metal better than most men.|
No. 9: Shirley Muldowney
The first woman to win a race in a major series (no, it wasn’t Danica Patrick), Shirley Muldowney took on the men and she beat them – not once, but many times.
If there’s a glass ceiling in auto racing, Muldowney put her throttle foot all the way down and drove her Top Fuel drag racer right on through it.
Muldowney raced equally against men for more than 40 years. And she raced mostly in the fastest class on the face of the planet, the NHRA’s Top Fuel division.
She was the first woman to be issued a Top Fuel racing licence. It was in 1972 at Cayuga Dragway (now Toronto Motorsports Park), south of Hamilton. To be awarded an NHRA licence, a competitor must complete a series of passes under the watchful eyes of seasoned veterans. Think of it as a 250-mile-an-hour driver’s test. The three old pros who signed off on her licence that August day were drag-racing legends Don "Big Daddy" Garlits, "TV Tommy" Ivo and Connie Kalitta.
Pretty fast and famous company, eh?
She went on to win the NHRA Top Fuel series championship three times – 1977, ’80 and ’82. She won 18 NHRA national drag races during her career.
|Gilles Villeneuve (with his children) remains the patron saint of Canadian motorsport.|
No. 10: Gilles Villeneuve
His record is not the greatest but there is no doubt that when anybody thinks of a Formula One Grand Prix driver, they have to think of Gilles Villeneuve.
He was, in the words of Jody Scheckter, the “fastest racing driver who ever lived.”
He not only wanted to win every race, he wanted to win every lap, whether it was in practice or qualifying or in the war itself.
In 67 starts, from the British Grand Prix with McLaren in 1977 to practice at Zolder in a Ferrari in ’82, he had two poles and six victories in 13 podium appearances.
But it was his joie de vivre when he was behind the wheel that set this man apart. He would get into the car and he would be on a mission, tail end whipping from side-to-side, wheels sliding and tires squealing. He was never-say-die personified and would, at times, try to continue racing when the car was unable to continue.
There have been others who have been better craftsmen, and others who have been better drivers.
But there has never been a better racer. Never.