Joe-Pinions: Sports

10 Jan 2013 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 4)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 10/01/2013

A new year, a new blog post!

We march on towards the top of this list with the driver who occupies the # 4 slot of my personal top 10 F1 drivers.  But before we do that, let’s look at the list thus far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

We’re now in rarefied air, since any one of at least three of the remaining four drivers on my list would probably be tops on other peoples’ lists.  Remember, though, that my top 10 does not include the sport’s first 5-time world champion (the great Juan Manuel Fangio) or Michael Schumacher (a 7-time world champ who will never be one of my favorites).  So you can rule these two out.

The remaining four drivers on my personal list are all World Champions, of course, accounting for eleven titles between them.  But it’s not a simple matter of going by sheer numbers of titles won as far as ranking them.  I freely disclose that this entire list is more subjective than objective.

But that’s the fun of such a list, isn’t it?

So, then, the driver who sits at # 4 on my top ten list of F1 drivers is:

4.  Jim Clark

Before Senna, there was Clark.

Jimmy Clark, the youngest of five children born to Scottish farmers (and the only son), was universally lauded as the preeminent driver of his era, the benchmark, the one whose natural talent to drive racing cars was far in excess compared to everyone else.

I never saw Jimmy race – he’d been dead a full seven years before I was even born – but no other driver from before my time as a fan of the sport has captured my imagination as he has.

By the time fate ended his rule as the greatest Grand Prix driver of them all, he was the record holder for victories (25, from 72 starts, for an incredible strike rate of 34.72%!) and pole positions (33).  Jackie Stewart broke his record for GP victories in 1973, and it took twenty-one years until Ayrton Senna took the lead of the all-time pole positions list at the United States Grand Prix in 1989.

But it isn’t the magnificent statistics of his achievements that inspired my admiration for Jimmy.  Rather, it’s the sheer style of his driving and the beauty of his humanity which make Clark one of my all-time favorites.

Jimmy Clark:  2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Jimmy Clark: 2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Though I never saw him in his prime, there is thankfully enough film of him around to confirm just what everyone said about the way he drove:  He was the smoothest driver out there.  Jackie Stewart himself said of his fellow Scot, “Jimmy was absolutely a great driver, so smooth and understated when he drove yet went so fast.”

That is a huge part of my admiration for Clark.  That smoothness of technique blended with his spectacular speed against the stopwatch creates the illusion that this incredibly difficult and dangerous activity is something mere mortals could do.  To me it is the supreme magic trick, a mark of the work of the greatest masters.

And Jimmy was definitely one of the very best.

He drove anything and everything:  NASCAR stock cars; touring cars; sports cars; open-wheeled formula cars.  He even indulged in some rallying.

Just watching him at work, it’s easy to believe that Jimmy was born to drive racing cars.

In this onboard footage, observe just how slow and deliberate Clark is at the controls of his Lotus 25 at Oulton Park.

There is nary a hint of oversteer anywhere, or any other big steering corrections; he never locks the brakes up, never misses on any of his gear changes.  There are no curbs at the corner apexes, but even if there were the Lotus would never have clambered all over them as is the style today.

Big deal, right?

Then you look at the car – very obviously primitive compared to what today’s pilotes have under them – with its lack of downforce-producing wings, the narrow treaded tires, the lack of seatbelts (!), the aluminum monocoque chassis construction (carbon fiber was almost two decades away), the super-soft suspension, and you just cannot help but marvel at just how prodigious Clark’s natural talent and sheer feel must have been.  Granted, everybody else raced in similar cars, but Jimmy drove away from most of them, most of the time.

An interesting thing about Clark:  More than once he’d been asked about the secret behind his speed.  What made him quicker than everybody else?  How did he do it?  Sheepishly, Jimmy would often shrug and smile, confessing that he truly didn’t know how to answer that question.  He basically just got in the car and did his thing.

If driving a racing car is an art form (and it is, in my opinion), then Jimmy Clark was definitely Leonardo da Vinci in the cockpit.  The impression one gets when watching the great master at work is that his was a light touch.  When Clark is in his car, working hard but making everything looks so calm and gentle, it’s as if he is trying to paint in da Vinci’s sfumato technique:  What you see is beautifully delicate and fine, almost ethereal.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

There is nothing harsh in Clark’s driving.  Even when he three-wheels his Lotus Cortina around corners, it never looks brutal.  Instead, it all looks natural, as if that’s how Lotus Cortinas should behave whilst attacking bends.

His ability to go so obviously quickly and yet look like he was out for an easy Sunday drive was a very rare gift indeed, and this made him a hero to many drivers, including Stewart, Senna, and Prost, themselves charter members of many a fan’s personal pantheon of F1 gods.

And yet, for all his prodigious natural ability, Jim Clark was a gentle, shy man.  He had a predilection for biting and chewing his fingernails (a nervous habit shared by one other driver on this list, in fact).  He was never bombastic, never one to cultivate attention to himself, never arrogant.

Nigel Roebuck, easily my favorite F1 writer of all time, once shared an anecdote featuring Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and a host of other Grand Prix drivers.  The story goes that, one day at the paddock at Monza, Jackie was very animatedly talking about how on one of his laps around the frighteningly fast Curva Grande, his Matra’s throttle stuck open.  These days, the Curva Grande is a straightforward corner, easily flat in a Formula 1 car.  But back in the mid-1960s, it was a frightening corner that tested a driver’s courage and will.  Anyway, obviously Jackie survived his moment without crashing his car; all he suffered was a huge helping of sheer fright.  His coterie of mates, of course, reacted with applause.  With impeccable timing, Clark then reportedly said, “Are you saying, Jackie, that you normally lift off there?”

It says much that someone with an ego as huge as Jackie Stewart always looked up to Jimmy.  Jackie once said, “We became known as Batman and Robin. And there was no doubt who was Batman and who was Robin.”

It wasn’t just his fellow drivers and competitors who looked up to Jimmy.  Colin Chapman, boss of Lotus, the only team for whom Clark ever raced in Formula 1, admired Clark like no other driver.  Their first encounter, in fact, was in a GT race at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day in 1958.  Chapman won that race, with Clark (at that time still very much an amateur) finishing in second.  Chapman was so thoroughly impressed with the young Scot that he offered Clark a ride in one of Lotus’ Formula Junior cars.  So began what is probably still the most famous driver-team owner relationships the sport has ever seen.

The Chapman-Clark collaboration was obviously fruitful; how else would you classify the entirety of Jimmy Clark’s professional career?  Two World Championships (1963 and 1965), his record-setting tallies in pole positions and victories, a famous win in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, all in seven and a half years as a professional.

His death at Hockenheim in an otherwise inconsequential Formula Two race on April 7, 1968 shook all of auto racing like very few accidents have.  More than a few drivers have been killed or maimed whilst driving a Lotus, but as Nigel Roebuck tells it, the mere mention of Clark’s crash was enough to move Colin Chapman to tears.

No one knows for sure what happened to Clark – most say that Clark could not have made a mistake even in the wet just past the old Ostkurve where he went off, that the fatal crash must have been caused by a mechanical failure or a deflating rear tire.  What is beyond dispute, though, is that everyone – EVERYONE – who had any emotional or psychological investment into auto racing was devastated.

Racing drivers are abnormally brave people, but Clark’s death forced them to confront their own mortality in a manner they perhaps never had to before.  Chris Amon‘s words spoken in reflection say it all:  “If this can happen to Jimmy, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”

When I think of Jimmy Clark, I often think of all the words that were spoken or written about him.  But I also think of him in pictures.  My all-time favorite photograph of a racing driver, in fact, is of Clark, taken by Jesse Alexander.  It is a candid shot of Jimmy right after his first Grand Prix victory in Belgium, won at the mighty Spa-Francorchamps in all its 8.76-mile uncut glory.

Jesse Alexander's iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s photo is not of a man pleased with winning his first-ever Grand Prix, but of a haunted soul.  It might surprise you to hear that Jimmy hated Spa-Francorchamps like he did no other track.  Much of his hatred for Spa could be traced to 1960.  In just his second-ever Grand Prix, Clark finished fifth (and in the points) at the mighty Belgian track.  Unfortunately, two of his colleagues – Chris Bristow and teammate Alan Stacey – were killed in separate accidents at the same race.  Clark had actually almost run over Bristow’s decapitated body at the fearsome Masta Kink, a flat-out left-right in between houses that is still considered one of Grand Prix racing’s most daunting corners.  No wonder Jimmy is absolutely joyless during a moment where countless other drivers would have been celebrating wildly.

For all his seemingly otherworldly talent behind the wheel of a racing car, Jimmy Clark was a simple, straightforward person.  It’s no surprise at all to read and hear that his contemporaries not only respected him like they did no other rival, but considered him a friend.

There will probably never ever be another Jim Clark in Formula 1.  And that is probably how it should be.

26 Sept 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 10)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 26/09/2011

Last time I listed a few drivers who didn’t quite make my list of top 10 F1 drivers.  Those guys were a mix of typical selections made by people who pick “best of” lists (Fangio, Ascari, Moss) based on reputation and achievement and drivers who probably would never have been considered anywhere close to the top of any lists bar the ones that are most subjective.

The drivers who didn’t quite squeak into my top 10 provide a handy illustration of the nature of this particular countdown:  It relies not so much on statistics or any other kind of “objective” metrics as it does on more subjective criteria.  This list is intended more as an enumeration of my favorite Grand Prix pilotes, not so much as arguments for these drivers’ places in the ultimate “best ever” lists.

(I will have to confess, however, that my top driver is often underrated in such lists.)

Anyway, I’m invoking the writer’s privilege here of shifting tactics a little bit.  Instead of listing the #10 thru #7 drivers as I had originally intended, I’ll be devoting one blog post per driver.  So today’s post will be exclusively about the #10 driver in my personal top 10 drivers list.

With all that preamble all dealt with, let’s see which driver gets the tenth spot.

10.  Nigel Mansell

I have to confess something.

I’m not a Nigel Mansell fan.

I was never a Mansell fan.

Two things I will admit, though, are that I wished that he had given Ayrton Sennaa stronger challenge in 1991, and that I was genuinely happy to see him finally earn the world championship that he’d been chasing for his entire career the following season.

Mansell's distinctive helmet livery, as done during his Ferrari years (Photo courtesy of anf1blog.com)

To be perfectly honest, Mansell never really captured my imagination on a consistent basis.  He started his Formula 1 career as a Lotus driver, the last grand prix driver personally recruited by Colin Chapman himself.  He drove a small handful of races as Lotus’ third driver in 1980 before earning a full-time ride with the team the following year.  His stay at Lotus was unremarkable in terms of results, scoring five podium places (five 3rd places) in four years, no wins, and 38 world championship points.  He did score his first career pole position while driving for the team in 1984, at the Dallas Grand Prix, the season’s ninth race.

But while Mansell’s results ledger whilst at Lotus was respectable at best (Lotus was in the doldrums in the early 1980s, the prelude to one final, all-too-brief resurgence after Mansell’s departure at the end of the 1984 season), he was acquiring a reputation as one of grand prix racing’s most dramatic performers.  Mansell wasn’t good enough to rise above his rivals in the early 1980s, but more often than not he grabbed his share of attention for how he went about his racing.

Mansell was dramatic not in the way Gilles Villeneuve or Ronnie Peterson were before him, or Jean Alesi afterwards.  His contemporary and 1985 teammate, Keke Rosberg, was more similar to these other drivers than Mansell was.  These drivers had dramatic driving styles, a flamboyance and flair that was spectacular and very easy for spectators to appreciate.  Mansell wasn’t dramatic in the way he drove; rather, he was just simply dramatic.  You watched him, and you remembered not impressions of his style behind the wheel, but specific moments, the high points of a narrative.

For instance, even before he became a Formula One driver, you remember hearing about the time when he and his wife sold their house and most of their other possessions just so he could continue racing.  You remember the story of his Grand Prix debut at the 1980 Austrian Grand Prix, when his Lotus’ fuel cell leaked into the cockpit and gave him significant (and painful) chemical burns to his lower body and legs.  You remember the time when he took his first career pole, but ran out of fuel in Dallas in 1984; I can still see him pushing his empty Lotus to the line, then collapsing with considerable theatrics into the tarmac as soon as he crossed the line.  And I’ll never forget how he qualified brilliantly for the Monaco Grand Prix earlier that final season with Lotus, overtook pole sitter Alain Prost early in the race, then threw the race away after losing traction on some painted street lines on the way up to the Casino Square.

He left Lotus and joined Williams in 1985.  Mansell was a bit of an unknown quantity at the time; his years with Lotus were rife with unreliable cars and erratic performances.  On occasion, Mansell’s performances teased you with hints of brilliance; there was no doubt that he was a fast, fearless driver who was capable of great results when inspired.  Too often, though, he would make critical errors and remove himself from contention.  And he never was a threat to win the world championship, with his best finish in the final standings being 9th, in 1984.

His Williams years saw him begin to blossom.  In 1985 he took his first two Grand Prix victories, winning the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch and the South African Grand Prix at the mighty Kyalami circuit back-to-back.  He finished 6th in the Drivers’ World Championship that year, almost doubling his career world championship points total in one year (he scored 31 in 1985; as mentioned earlier, he had earned 38 from 1980-1984).

1986 proved to be even better.  Now teamed with Nelson Piquet (Rosberg moved to McLaren for 1986), he won five Grands Prix.  He lost the drivers’ championship at the last race, the victim of a spectacular tire failure in the closing laps of the Australian Grand Prix.  He was cruising at a safe fourth place when the tire burst on the Brabham Straight, running in a position that would have earned him enough points to clinch the title no matter what eventual champion Alain Prost and teammate Piquet did.  Yet fate deigned to not smile on him.

The following year saw Mansell emerge as an even stronger contender.  This time, the championship battle was, for all intents and purposes, an all-Williams affair.  Prost and Senna were also in play, but in reality neither of them had a car that was as consistently good as the mighty FW11B.  Mansell won the most races (six), but frustratingly also fell victim to more car failures than his other co-contenders (I remember him losing a wheel nut in Hungary, causing him to retire).  He also occasionally made some bad decisions on the track, too, such as when he made a poorly-judged overtaking maneuver on Ayrton Senna at Spa-Francorchamps.  The ill-advised pass saw both Mansell’s Williams-Honda and Senna’s Lotus-Honda spin off into the gravel trap at the les Fagnes complex.  All told, Mansell retired from four of the fourteen Grands Prix he contested.  That’s 25% of a full Grand Prix season lost to retirements.

But wait:  4/14 does NOT equal 25%.  That’s because the 1987 season featured sixteen races.  Mansell ran only fourteen on account of his accident during the 1987 Japanese Grand Prix.  He made a mistake in the Esses and crashed his Williams-Honda, injuring his back and therefore ensuring that he would take no further part in the final two races.  He lost his chance to beat teammate (and now fierce rival) Nelson Piquet, who lifted the champion’s laurels despite winning half as many Grands Prix as Mansell.  Piquet did not score four times, but showed excellent consistency by finishing second seven times, thereby outscoring Mansell very easily (73 (Piquet actually scored 76 total points, but he had to drop 3pts due to F1’s rule of taking only the best eleven results of the season into account) vs 61).

Mansell and Williams lost their Honda engines in 1988; consequently, they were relegated to the status of also-rans in the year of total McLaren domination.  Mansell’s contract with Williams ended at the end of 1988, and though the team wanted dearly for him to return, he had another option to consider.

Ferrari came knocking, and Mansell could not refuse the call.  1989 saw him teamed with Gerhard Berger, driving the beautiful John Barnard-designed Tipo 640, the first Formula One car fitted with the now-ubiquitous semi-automatic gearbox.  The transmission was a brand new innovation, and inevitably it suffered through some serious teething troubles (pun not intended) throughout the 1989 season.  Nevertheless, Mansell took a memorable victory in the year’s first Grand Prix (in Brazil), forever endearing himself to the Ferrari tifosi, who grew to love him.  They even christened him il Leone, the Lion of England driving one of their beloved red cars.

Though Mansell could only finish 4th in the final standings (earning 38pts and winning only two grands prix), he continued to burnish his growing stature even further.  Not only did he win on his Ferrari debut (incidentally, Murray Walker famously said that Mansell was the first driver in Formula 1 history to have a five wheel-change pit stop, as Mansell also changed his steering wheel – which housed some of the electronic control mechanisms for the revolutionary semi-automatic gearbox in his Ferrari – along with the four tires at one of his pit stops in Brazil), but he also pulled off one of the most exciting overtakes ever captured on video.  Watch his breathtaking pass of Ayrton Senna in the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix as they both came up to lap Stefan Johansson:

1990 saw him paired with Alain Prost.  Initially pundits thought that they would be a strong combination for Ferrari, but in reality Mansell was no match for his more accomplished new teammate.  Prost won five races to Mansell’s one.

What I remember of Mansell from 1990 are three huge moments.  First, I’ll always remember his overtake of Gerhard Berger on the outside of the fearsome and dangerous Peraltada corner, the wickedly fast fifth gear final corner of the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico.  To me, this is THE signature positive Nigel Mansell moment.  It demonstrates Mansell’s audacity, his sheer chutzpah, that so few drivers in the history of motorsports have.  The second moment from Mansell’s 1990 that I will never forget is his retirement announcement at the end of the British Grand Prix.  Borne from the frustration of having yet another race-ending car failure (this despite his Ferrari being sat on pole position for his home race), he theatrically threw his racing gear (gloves, balaclava, helmet) into the crowd and then convened an impromptu press conference to tell the press and the world that he was quitting F1 at the end of the year.  This shows Mansell’s unparalleled flair for the dramatic.  Finally, I will always remember the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril.  Mansell beat his teammate Prost to the pole, then pushed Prost towards the pit wall at the start.  This dropped Prost down the order, eventually finishing in third, but crucially behind title rival Ayrton Senna.  By this time Mansell’s relationship with Prost had soured badly, with Mansell accusing Prost of indulging in intra-team polemics a bit too much. Mansell took his only win of the 1990 season and seemed ready to go into retirement.

Not long after the end of the 1990 season, however, Mansell had a change of heart and decided he wanted to continue on in F1 after all.  Some people theorized that he staged the retirement announcement to terminate his contract with Ferrari without penalty whilst secretly arranging another ride.  Luckily for him, Williams decided to jettison Thierry Boutsen, thereby allowing Mansell to return to the team with which he had his greatest successes.  Now driving the Williams-Renault FW14, Mansell entered the 1991 Formula 1 season with optimism.

Though the FW14 had a few teething problems (again, due to a new-for-Williams semi-automatic transmission, ironically repeating his experience with Ferrari in 1989), by mid-season Mansell and the Williams-Renault were the combination to beat.  He won three consecutive grands prix in the middle of the season, and ended up the year with two more victories, bringing his career total up to 21.  He was Ayrton Senna’s strongest challenger for the 1991 title, but Mansell lost far too many points to Senna due to his car’s unreliability and his own mistakes:  I’ll never forget Mansell stalling his Williams exiting the hairpin in Canada just a few hundred meters from the end of the race, costing him the win, as well as his mistake in Japan that saw him sliding out into the gravel trap because he tried to follow Senna too closely, which cost him critical front downforce.

1992, though, saw Mansell finally winning the world championship he had so fiercely desired.  Armed with an evolved FW14B now featuring a fully-reliable semi-automatic gearbox and stunningly effective active suspension which controlled the car’s sophisticated aerodynamics, Mansell dominated the 1992 season.  He reduced grands prix to demonstration runs.  He won nine grands prix (then a record) and took the pole position an astonishing fourteen times, a record that still stands to this day.

Mansell won his one and only F1 Drivers World Championship in 1992 (Photo courtesy of carazoo.com)

But it’s not so much for Mansell’s dominance on the track that I remember his 1992 campaign.  I remember three classically Mansell moments:  His duel with Ayrton Senna in the closing stages of the Monaco Grand Prix, his last-corner crash-and-feign-injury shenanigans early in the Canadian Grand Prix, and his dramatic retirement (again) press conference at Monza just before the Italian Grand Prix.  In Monaco, Mansell had to pit late in the race for what he suspected was a slow puncture, which lost him the lead of the race to Ayrton Senna.  Senna drove a masterful defensive race for the remaining laps, precisely placing his McLaren-Honda on the piece of the track that Mansell needed to execute the overtaking maneuver.  At Montreal, was not on pole position for the first time that year and was again chasing Senna when he botched an overtaking maneuver going into the final third gear right-left chicane; Mansell then feigned unconsciousness for a few laps, staying in his Williams (perhaps trying to force race officials to halt the race, therefore possibly giving him the chance to rejoin with a healthy car) while the field roared past at full racing speed.  Eventually, Mansell was persuaded to climb out, whereupon he told anyone who’d listen that Senna had “pushed him over” into the gravel trap, when video replays showed no such thing had occured.  Finally, when it became clear that Alain Prost was returning from a year’s sabbatical and joining him at Williams for 1993, Mansell decided he didn’t want to team with Prost and announced he was calling it quits at the end of 1992.  So much drama surrounding just one person.

Mansell’s ultimate retirement from Formula 1 was postponed, however.  He went to the USA to compete in CART in 1993 and 1994 (winning the championship in his first try), before returning for a few events in 1994 as Damon Hill’s teammate.  He even managed to win the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, his final victory.  He finally ended his grand prix career the following year with McLaren (a truncated season which saw him either quit or get dismissed due to the McLaren-Mercedes’ poor performance).

It’s impossible to be indifferent to Nigel Mansell:  You either love him and his racing, or you don’t.  My own feelings about Mansell are not as clear-cut; it’s not a case of just black or white.  Mansell takes my breath away in ways few drivers ever have.  When he pulls off such brave maneuvers (like his epic Peraltada overtake, or his “Silverstone Two-Step” in 1987, or his awesome battle against Jean Alesi in a Suzuka monsoon in 1994) he is almost unique.  But then I don’t care for his penchant for excessive dramatics.  I could do without his Brett Favre-like prima donna tendencies vis-a-vis retirement.  I don’t care for his theatrics.

Here’s my bottom line as far as Nigel Mansell is concerned:  I respected his great bravery tremendously, but I could do without his tendency to indulge in melodrama on and off the track.  He will always be considered as one of Formula 1’s most colorful and memorable characters, but apart from his prowess at overtaking (which, to me seemed more a function of his bravery exceeding his rivals’ and not so much an indication of his transcendent skills), there is precious too little of Mansell for me to give him more than just the respect he is due.

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