|50 Years of Formula One: Conclusion and Stats|
|by Barry Kalb, Hong Kong|
A half century of the modern Formula One championship is now behind us. The sport has changed markedly over those five decades, inevitably succumbing to the modern maladies of excessive commercialisation, astronomically-high salaries, and over-exposure of the drivers on television and in the print media.
Yet for those who love the sport, all that is pushed aside when the cars line up on the grid. Our heartbeats quicken as the start looms; we cheer the driver who makes an aggressive move, sympathise with those whose cars fail them, shake our fists at those guilty of stupidity or misconduct. There is no other sport quite like Formula One, and the men who drive these incredible machines, whether they're fast or slow, smart or dumb, sportsmanlike or insensitive to the rules or just plain bloody-minded - they put on a hell of a show for us fans.
The results of the 50 seasons of racing just past give us some measure of comparison among the drivers who have participated and shows that the they have, indeed, been all of the above at one time or another. The statistics are also filled with interesting little facts, and they suggest something about what might be coming as the next era begins.
One point that jumps out of the figures is the extent to which a very small coterie of men has dominated the sport. Some 670 drivers - including two women - have started at least one championship Grand Prix over the years (not including those in the Indianapolis 500, whose results were included in the championship for the 11 years 1950 through 1960, but which was never really a part of Formula One). Yet the results show that only a relative few of them were really in there fighting for the glory.
The vast bulk of Formula One's achievements - wins, pole positions, podium finishes, points scored, fastest laps - have been garnered by only 47 or 48 drivers, who among them have scored three-quarters or more of the total in every category; a mere 25 men have accounted for most of that. The rest, by and large, have been also-rans, who score a few points, or make it to the podium, or even win an occasional race after an unusual amount of attrition among the front runners. The rest of the time, they fill in the grid, they provide some additional excitement and colour, they perhaps put on a brief show of talent and promise before fading. Not infrequently, especially during the first 33 seasons of the modern era, they died.
The Top Drivers
Twelve drivers above all stand out during this period, for sheer driving brilliance and accumulated achievements on the track: Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Nigel Mansell, Jackie Stewart, Jimmy Clark, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Damon Hill, Stirling Moss and Alberto Ascari.
Only Moss among this group, for a complex variety of reasons, failed to win the the world championship. The other 11 accounted among them for 29 of the 50 championships of the era - 58 percent of the total. Throw in three more men - Jack Brabham, Emerson Fittipaldi and Graham Hill - and you have 14 men winning 72 percent of all the titles.
Only the first ten on the above list (leaving Moss and Ascari aside) have ever achieved 20 or more wins; only one driver outside this select list of ten two-time champion Mika Hakkinen - has won 20 or more poles. These ten men alone have accounted for an astounding 48% of all wins, 48% of all poles, 29% of all points, 30% of all podium finishes and 40% of all fastest laps during the 50-year period.
None of the top 10 has been more controversial, his ability more extensively debated, than Briton Damon Hill. Even during the four-year stretch when he was chalking up one of the most remarkable records in Formula One history, Hill seemed to display some appalling failure of judgement or skill almost as often as he posted an achievement. His final three seasons were close to a write-off, especially this past season, and he could hardly blame the car in '99. His Jordan was strongly competitive; teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen won 2 races in it and came third in the championship with 54 points.
Hill, by contrast, finished only 4 of the 16 races and scored a lacklustre seven points. For months he debated out loud - one might say ad nauseum - about whether to pack it in after mid-season: one day he was going, the next day he was staying. For his own sake and that of everybody else, not the least of which team owner Eddie Jordan, he probably should have quit after the British Grand Prix. The 1996 champion had clearly stopped caring, and top-ranking Grand Prix drivers owe at least that much to their fans.
Yet despite the personality quirks and three almost barren seasons that played hob with his career statistics, Hill retires among the top ten drivers in every single category of racing achievement. He has 22 wins to his credit, 20 poles, 42 podiums, 19 fastest laps and 360 points. On a per-race basis, he is among the top ten every time.
A good driver will occasionally dominate a season if he has the best car under him, but it takes something exceptional to run up the kind of numbers Damon Hill has. History will judge him a man who was not quite among the very best, but one who clearly had some very special qualities he that could call forth when needed.
Michael Schumacher is on the controversial list for highly different reasons. The German seems to balance every demonstration of brilliance in a racing car with some act of questionable propriety or some inappropriate comment. His criticism of David Coulthard after the Japanese finale to the 1999 season was typical. He suggested at the post-race press conference that Coulthard may have intentionally blocked him in both that race and during Belgium '98.
The accusation itself is not that far-fetched: certainly a lot of people have wondered if it isn't true. But it's the type of thing that would have been better left unsaid, or said in a different setting: not just as Schumacher had come back from his broken leg to again won everybody's admiration with two smashing racing weekends, and not just as Mika Hakkinen was being crowned champion after a very hard-fought season.
Yet agree with him or not, love him or hate him, Schumacher clearly ranks among the greatest drivers of all time. He said after winning his second championship, in 1995, that he was now more interested in records than championships, and if he can maintain his winning ways during his next three years with Ferrari - he's signed up through 2002 - his already spectacular record could put him at the very top.
Even a modest three seasons would put him second in all-time wins, poles, podiums and points, and first in fastest laps; he could conceivably finish first in all five. In addition, he will almost certainly end up among the top five or six in each per-race category. He stands to become, statistically, the most successful Formula One driver ever.
The Finn, who won back-to-back championships during the past two seasons and who showed touches of real driving mastery during '99, stands a good chance of becoming the next to join that select fraternity of men with 20 or more championship wins. He is currently at the peak of his form, he has 14 victories under his belt, and his McLaren promises to remain among the top two or three cars on the track for at least another couple of seasons.
Hakkinen took exceptionally long to emerge at the top of the sport. It wasn't until seven full seasons had gone by, in the very final race of 1997, that he scored his first win, and that was literally handed to him. Until '98, he seemed more on a par with drivers like Jean Alesi, destined to finish in the 3rd-to-6th-place range often enough, but rarely to go much beyond that. Yet a mere two seasons later, he stands poised to become one of the most accomplished drivers ever. It has been a remarkable coming-out.
Hakkinen is widely respected, although he is not without a controversial side of his own, one that surfaced more than once during the season just past. He broke down and wept inconsolably after spinning out of the Italian Grand Prix; he sat down on the podium like a petulant boy in Malaysia after coming in third and falling behind in the championship race. Call it a male perspective, but one doesn't like to see men who flirt with death for a living cry in public.
Nevertheless, it's Hakkinen's driving that sports fans care about most, and if he proves to be more than a two-season wonder, and if he continues to demonstrate some of the surpassing ability he showed in a couple of races during this past season, he could end up among the top drivers in wins, poles, points scored, podium finishes and fastest laps. He could, at the same time, end up being judged among the top 20 Grand Prix drivers of all time.
In fact, the only Italian to rack up a notable record since Ascari (and Andretti) was Riccardo Patrese. Patrese won six races between 1977 and 1993, and came in (a very distant) second in the 1992 championship: 56 points to Nigel Mansell's 108. He had eight poles, 37 podium finishes, 13 fastest laps and 281 points-altogether admirable. He also started more championship races, 256, than any driver in history.
At the other end of the scale, Andrea de Cesaris of Italy started 208 races-third-highest after Patrese and Berger (210)-yet he never won a single one. For all that effort, he scored only one pole, one fastest lap, five podiums and 59 points. One wonders why constructors continued to hire him.
Italy also gave Formula One its only two female drivers of the modern era: Maria Teresa Filippi, who made three starts in 1958 and '59, and Maria Grazia ("Lella") Lombardi. Lombardi had a slightly more extensive career, starting 12 times during the 1974-'76 period. She also has the distinction of owning the lowest point count of any of the 279 drivers who have scored at all in Grand Prix racing. This oddity occurred during a problem-plagued 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. Through attrition in front of her, Lombardi had worked her way up to sixth place, and then the race was stopped due to a serious accident. Since more than one-third of the race had been run, half the normal number of points was awarded for each place; Lombardi received one half of a point for being in sixth place at the time.
Winning a pole is perhaps the ultimate test of a driver's ability to go fast in a race car (as opposed to winning a race, which takes a combination of speed, stamina, strategy and teamwork). Very good drivers win poles - the great Ayrton Senna won more than 10% of all the poles contested during the entire 50-year period! - mediocre drivers usually don't. Perhaps Irvine will fill in this gap in his records in his new Jaguar-Ford. Then his claims to be better than his fellow drivers will be somewhat more justified.
|Barry Kalb||© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.|
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Barry Kalb is a veteran journalist of 20 years' experience (the Washington Star, CBS News, Time Magazine) and a motor racing fan - especially Formula One - for almost 40 years. Barry previously published a series of features on the All Time Greatest Drivers at Atlas F1.