Joe-Pinions: Sports

19 Dec 2012 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 5)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 19/12/2012

So here we are, breaking into the top half of this Top 10 list of my favorite F1 drivers.  Where spots 10 thru 6 were perhaps filled with names that many fans would probably never put in their own top 10, I’d dare say it’s very likely that every single driver in spots 5 thru 1 would be in most observers’ lists.

The only thing that would differentiate one list from the other would be the order in which the names would appear.

Before we start with the driver in the # 5 spot, let’s recap our list so far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

And now, my # 5 favorite F1 driver:

5.  Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart Modern 002

Jackie Stewart’s helmet livery, with its distinctive Tartan headband.

Whether they know about it or not, every single racing driver today and forever after owes a gigantic debt to Sir Jackie Stewart.  It doesn’t matter which championship series they compete in.  Motor racing will never ever be 100% safe, but thanks largely to Sir Jackie’s courage, dedication, and tireless efforts to the cause of safety in motorsports back when he was an active competitor, as well as his endeavors after his retirement from competition, the sport is immeasurably safer.

In an era where death was a fairly common occurrence in a Grand Prix season, Sir Jackie was a true pioneer.  Undoubtedly influenced by his accident at a rainy Spa-Francorchamps in 1966, Stewart became a passionate crusader for driver safety.  Many of his contemporaries, and some from previous eras, derided Stewart’s efforts to make auto racing safer than it was; likewise, he was branded a coward by old-school members of the motor racing press corps.  All of his critics asked, “weren’t danger and the possibility of dying in a racing car part of the allure of the sport?”

Some even asked this most unbelievable of questions:  “Didn’t he (Stewart) want to die in a racing car?”

Stewart, of course, was far more sensible than these romantic yet misguided observers and participants.  He saw motor racing not as a bloodsport that extracted its toll in lives and grievous injuries, but as a test of skill, talent, and courage.  Somewhat ironically, Stewart’s courage is most in display in his crusade to reduce the mortal dangers that all racing drivers faced.  His willingness to absorb all the slings and arrows of misguided criticism – even outright disgust from some quarters – for his quest speaks of a courage far greater than that required whenever he stepped into his Tyrrell’s cockpit.

Some may object to the following description, but I truly think and feel that Sir Jackie is a type of Messianic figure:  He took upon the crushing gigantic burden largely by himself, sacrificing a good measure of his own comforts, for the betterment of all those to follow in his footsteps.  Thanks to his willingness to carry that particular cross, we (the people who truly love the sport) somewhat take for granted the many advances today’s racers now enjoy:  Seatbelts, the HANS device, safety barriers at the circuits, run-off areas at dangerous corners worldwide, ever-safer racing cars are just some of the fruits of Jackie Stewart’s crusade for safety.  Where before you could have as many as a dozen or so racing drivers lose their lives in racing incidents, the rare story of a single racing fatality inspires such shock and disbelief today.

As far as legacies go, Sir Jackie Stewart’s is almost impossible to match.

Given his monumental contributions to the relative safety of modern motorsports, it might be easy to forget that Sir Jackie was a brilliant racing driver.  Though I don’t think statistics are the end-all, be-all, Stewart’s career numbers are impressive:  27 Grand Prix victories out of 99 races (for an astonishing strike rate of 27%, which roughly means he won slightly better than one out of every four Grands Prix that he contested); 17 pole positions from his 99 starts; 15 fastest race laps; 43 appearances on the podium; 359 career World Championship points (earned during an era when 9 points was the maximum possible score, and there was an average of 11.5 Grands Prix per season).  He won the Drivers’ World Championship three times in his nine-year career (in 1969, 1971, and 1973), and finished second twice (1968 and 1972, to Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi, respectively).

As breathtaking as Jackie Stewart’s career statistics are, they really aren’t the reason why I rate him so highly in my personal countdown of favorite F1 drivers.  You see, Jackie is as famous for his approach to driving – both racing and on the road – as he is for his monumental achievements as a multiple champion and race winner.

As with Niki Lauda (and two more, yet-to-be-disclosed, drivers in this countdown), the hallmark of Stewart’s approach to driving is smoothness.

Here’s what Stewart himself once said about driving a racing car:  Well I think a racing car is something very special, almost in the breed of an animal. Not only is it like an animal it’s also like a woman. It’s very sensitive, it’s very nervous, it’s very highly strung. Sometimes it responds very nicely, sometimes it responds very viciously, sometimes to get the best out of it you have to coax it and almost caress it, to get it to do the thing you want it to do and even after you done all these things and the car is doing exactly as you want it to. It will immediately and with no warning change its mind and do something very suddenly and very abruptly.

Stewart’s words are poetic, eloquent for their straightforwardness.  Anyone lucky enough to have had seat time in a very powerful and responsive automobile, even racing go-karts, would appreciate the essential truth in Sir Jackie’s brief discourse.

And that’s a huge part to why I have Sir Jackie so high up on my personal favorites list:  His driving style, so smooth and precise, is poetic in its own way:  There is very little waste, just the purity of technique applied to making the racing car go forwards as quickly as possible.  He never looks like he is struggling, as all racing drivers do, even as he fights to keep his car right on the knife edge of control.

That he makes it look so easy is nothing short of genius.

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