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.

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14 Dec 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 8)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 14/12/2011

Welcome to the next in our continuing series of my personal top F1 drivers, a list of grand prix pilotes who captured my imagination best and for whom I have the strongest feelings.

To recap, spots #10 and #9 went to Nigel Mansell and Jean Alesi, respectively.

We pick up our countdown with an absolute legend.

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

Few drivers in modern Formula 1 are as beloved, as revered, as the late Gilles Villeneuve.

Gilles' orange-red and midnight blue helmet livery.

My favorite F1 journalist, the great Nigel Roebuck, once wrote that to praise another driver was almost anathema for grand prix pilotes.  But Niki Lauda, himself a three-time World Champion, once said of Villeneuve:  “Gilles was the perfect racing driver, with the best talent of all of us.”

It takes an extraordinary driver for someone of Lauda’s stature and undeniable place in the pantheon of F1 greats – I hate myself for leaving him out of my own personal Top 10 list – to be granted such a lofty accolade.

But Gilles was far more than just an extraordinary driver.

Gilles was…  Gilles.

So much has already been written and said of Gilles that adding anything original to the discussion is difficult.

I saw precious little of Gilles.  I was a wee youngster when he was at full flower.  But as someone who loves Formula 1, I have obviously read much about what I missed; thankfully, there are also enough of his performances captured on film that you can see for yourself just how inadequate the written word can be in trying to capture the essence of Gilles the racing driver.

His car control was on the level of the seemingly divine.  Grand Prix cars, even the fairly primitive ones Gilles drove in the late 1970s-early 1980s, have always been designed to take corners at speeds that would terrify most people just watching.  But when you watched Gilles do his thing, fully sideways with the outside rear tire riding the curb at corner exit, you had to wonder just how much raw talent, how much sheer feel Gilles must have had to keep his Ferrari just under control.All drivers who make it to Formula 1 know how to dial in opposite lock, to steer the car using the throttle, to drive sideways.  But only those with the purest driving talent could do so time after time, corner after corner, lap after lap, without ever stuffing the car into the barriers.

Gilles sliding his Ferrari 126C2 in Long Beach.

In the almost thirty years I’ve been watching Formula 1, I can think of just maybe three or four drivers whose raw talent and ability took my breath away.  Gilles is on that list.

Gilles always said that he drove the way he did not necessarily to please the fans.  For sure the people watching on TV or, better yet, seated at a grandstand at any Grand Prix circuit, loved Gilles’ spectacular driving style.  Gilles argued that if his driving style was so attractive to watch, it was because he had to drive his car that way in order to be fast enough.

How did his Ferrari race engineer, Mauro Forghieri, put it?  Ah, yes, Forghieri said Gilles “had a rage to win.”  It didn’t really matter if he was fighting for 1st place or 10th place; if he and you were fighting for position, Gilles was determined to beat you.  You could see it in his classic battle for second place (it wasn’t even for outright victory in the race!) against René Arnoux at Dijon-Prenois in 1979.  The two banged wheels, went off the circuit a couple of times, yet neither man gave up.  At the end, which saw Villeneuve beat Arnoux to the finish line, both men embraced.

Here is their great contest: 

Indeed, Gilles had that almost maniacal devotion to the gods of victory.  But what marked Gilles as a superior man was his sense of honor, both on and off the track.  Roebuck wrote on more than one occasion that Gilles was one of only maybe two or three drivers who he had never caught in a lie.  Considering Roebuck has crossed paths and spoken to literally hundreds – maybe thousands, even – of racing drivers during his decades covering motorsports, that’s quite a strong statement.  And on the track, well, Keke Rosberg had this to say about Gilles the racer:  To Gilles, racing truly was a sport, which is why he would never chop you.  Something like that he’d look on with contempt.  You didn’t have to be a good driver to do that, let alone a great one.  Anybody could do that.  Gilles was the hardest bastard I ever raced against, but completely fair.  If you’d beaten him to a corner, he accepted it and gave you room.  Then he’d be right back at you at the next one!  Sure, he took unbelievable risks – but only with himself – and that’s why I get pissed off now when people compare Senna with him.  Gilles was a giant of a driver, yes, but he was also a great man.

Rosberg’s appraisal of Gilles goes some way towards explaining why Gilles was crushed, absolutely devastated, after the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, when his Ferrari teammate, Didier Pironi, stole the victory from him on the penultimate lap of the race.  Gilles was following long-established Ferrari tradition which dictated that, should the Scuderia find its cars running 1-2, the drivers would hold station and not attack one another.  Entering the second-to-last lap, Villeneuve, already marginal on fuel, was in front of Pironi.  Didier pounced on the run down to the Tosa hairpin and took the lead.  Villeneuve gave chase, but Pironi rebuffed him and held on to win.  Gilles was distraught and furious beyond description, both with Pironi’s duplicity and with the team’s lack of support in the aftermath of the race at Imola.  Gilles swore to friends such as Alain Prost (and to Roebuck himself) that he would never again speak with Pironi.  He had even strongly considered leaving Ferrari, the team with which he made his name in Formula 1.

Tragically, Gilles suffered fatal injuries during qualifying at the next race, the Grand Prix of Belgium held not at the beautiful Spa-Francorchamps, but at boring Zolder.  Gilles set out on his final qualification run in an effort to beat Pironi’s best time and misjudged an overtaking maneuver on Jochen Mass.  Gilles’ Ferrari clipped Mass’ March, sending the scarlet car into the air before it crashed back down to earth like an out-of-control aircraft.  The violence of the crash destroyed the Ferrari and sent Villeneuve flying into the catch fence.  He died shortly after.

I was all of seven years old when Gilles was killed, but I do remember hearing the news of his death.  I can’t say I was already a huge fan of F1 at that age, but I did watch coverage of the races and the highlights packages back then.  As I grew older, my love and fascination for the sport only grew, and as it did I devoured as much of the sport’s history and legends as I could get my hands on.

Gilles Villeneuve the racing driver died before I truly became a fan of Formula 1.  But Villeneuve the legend, and, more importantly, Gilles the great knight of honor and virtue, will live forever with me.

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