Could Michael Schumacher have beaten Juan Manuel Fangio ? Would Ayrton Senna have been able to match Jim Clark. Would Alain Prost have seen off Tazio Nuvolari ?
Its an age old question - are today's heroes as great as those that came before them. In some sense, it is a futile question too. In the final analysis, we will never know for sure. Michael Schumacher will not awaken one morning to find himself in 1952, at the wheel of a Ferrari Dino, ready to do battle with Ascari, Farina and Fangio. While the question may be ultimately unanswerable,. I think it is interesting enough to look at more closely.
There are many older motor racing fans who would answer in a second: Today's drivers are as nothing compared to the legends of the past. Little more than overpaid PR men for large corporations driving overpowered, computer controlled go karts round bland, unchallenging, featureless circuits.
One could dismiss such comments as the mere nostalgic ramblings of old men, who miss their own youth as much as any perceived 'golden era' of motorsport. Nonetheless, they have a point. Who could look at today's mickey mouse Nurburgring and not feel that it represents little real challenge when compared with the fearsome 14.5 mile Nordschliefe that it replaced. These days people talk of Spa Francorchamps at the ultimate test of a driver., but good though it is, it is hardly the challenge that the nine mile original was. Of course, there have always been mickey mouse circuits. The original Silverstone was even less interesting than the current circuit, and the Le Mans Bugatti circuit, scene of Grands Prix during the 1960s is scarcely more memorable than today's Hungaroring. All the same, it seems reasonable to note that most of the really challenging circuits have steadily been removed from the F1 calendar. Of the great historic F1 circuits, only Monaco remains in use in something approaching its original format. Indeed, it could be argued that the challenge of driving a 1200BHP mid-eighties Turbo car around Monaco ion qualifying was perhaps the greatest test of skill and nerve that ever faced any driver of any era.
It is not only the circuits which have got easier to drive. The pre-war Mercedes of Carraciola and Rosemeyer produced as much as 600BHP, transmitted through skinny crossply tyres bolted onto a car with frighteningly primitive brakes and suspension. Compared with today's F1 cars, with their traction control, automatic gearboxes and 'launch control', they were vastly demanding to drive. Indeed, David Coulthard recently drove a Mercedes W196 and came away amazed that anybody had been able to race the car in anger, so difficult was it to drive. And it should be remembered that Coulthard tested the car on a billiard table smooth modern circuit, and not a one of the rough, ill-surfaced tracks than many pre-war Grands Prix were held on. Jacques Villeneuve drove a Lotus 49 around Monza and remarked that while it was fun to drive, he would have had second thoughts about really trying to push for a time in the car for fear of his own safety. Michael Schumacher drove a 1983 Ferrari and went on record as saying that if F1 were still as dangerous now as it was then, he would not be competing in it.
This brings us to another charge levelled at modern drivers. Namely that while the greats of yesteryear risked life and limb competing in motorsport, modern drivers are in danger of nothing more serious than the embarrassment of having their silly lapse of concentration broadcast live across the world on television. Certainly F1 is a lot safer than it once was, but its hard to see how this can regarded as other than a good thing. While some may find romance in the idea of young men risking their lives every weekend in pursuit of victory, a humane person would surely regard it as progress that these days, most racing drivers live long enough to retire. For sure, drivers in the past took risks that would horrify a modern F1 pilot, but they did so in a very different world. Drivers of today know that if they leave motorsport in one piece, they have every chance of living to an old age. Grand Prix drivers of the 1920s, 30s, 50s and 60s, having lived through, and in many cases, fought in, at lest one World War, might have had a more fatalistic attitude, and been more than prepared to risk their lives doing something they loved. They may, after all, have believed that, even if they hung up their racing gloves, it was far from certain that they would live to grow old anyway. In any case, the fact that motorsport is undeniably safer does not mean that today's drivers re any less talented, whether or not one wishes to regard them as less brave.
If racing cars are undoubtedly safer and easier to drive than they once were, and the circuits on which they are raced present less of a challenge, what, if any, are the challenges that a modern F1 driver faces that their predecessors never had to ?
A Lotus engineer once commented that Jim Clark used the same basic set up on his Lotus 49 throughout the whole of the 1967 season. These days, a driver could never get away with such n approach. Instead, a driver must play an active part in fine tuning every aspect of a car's set-up to each particular track. Such adjustments can be worth vital tenths of a second, so often the difference between pole and seventh or eighth on the gird. To do this well, drivers need not only to be technical boffins, they also need to have an excellent feel for exactly what the car is doing on the track, and how small changes to the car affect its performance, not to mention the ability to relay all this information back to the team's engineers in such a way that they can improve the car. Lotus and McLaren greatly valued Senna's expertise in this area, and much of the transformation in fortunes at Maranello over the last few years has been attributed to Michael Schumacher's feedback on the car. Certainly, Moss and Fangio didn't have to spend their qualifying hours looking at telemetry traces, trying to decide whether to lower the front ride height by another millimetre or two, or if another degree of front 'wing' might improve the car through slower corners
Another argument that can be used to defend today's drivers is that the sport itself is much more competitive than it once was. In the 1930s only a small proportion of people in even the world's richest countries owned cars at all. International motorsport remained largely the preserve of aristocrats and rich dilettantes well into the 1960s. This is, of course, still true to some extent today. For obvious reasons, motorsport, unlike boxing, football or athletics, is unlikely ever to be a route out of the ghetto, the township or the sink estate. Nonetheless, many more people can afford to compete in motorsport today than forty years ago. To reach F1 at all now, one must stand out from a crowd of thousands of young hopefuls in go-karts. Forty years ago, the pool of talent from which F1 drivers were drawn was much smaller. Could it be that is was correspondingly shallower ? Were legends like Nuvolari and Fangio made to look much better than they were because the quality of their opposition was so poor ? If not then why was it that Fangio was able to dominate the sport in his mid-forties, several years after a modern Grand Prix driver would be considered over the hill. Is it possible that even a relative journeyman in modern Grand Prix racing, such as Olivier Panis, or even, God forbid, Gaston Mazzacane, could have humiliated a past legend such as Alberto Ascari or Jim Clark ? Heresy ? I would argue not; Simply idle speculation that can never be proved one way or the other.
Denis Jenkinson, interviewing Ayrton Senna about the qualities that make a great driver for the 40th anniversary edition of Autocourse, is at one point moved to comment "It's amazing, the basic qualities required to drive a racing car quickly haven't changed in thirty years". And perhaps its true. For all the changes in the tracks, the cars, the selection procedure required to get to Formula One, the emphasis on fitness, perhaps the art of making a motor car go quickly around a closed circuit really hasn't changed that much at all.
Were the drivers of times past the equals, or the betters of those of today ? One could fantasise as to how this issue could be settled. Some kind of Grand Prix of champions in Valhalla…. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jim Clark, Michael Schumacher, Jochen Rindt, Stirling Moss, Juan Fangio, Tazio Nuvolari and Bernd Rosemeyer lining up on the grid in their identical 1986 Williams Hondas, each with nearly 1000BHP on tap. They're preparing to do battle over fourteen laps of the daunting old Nordschliefe circuit in Germany. A few rain clouds loom ominously in the distance. The lights turn from to red to green. And they're away…….
To return to racing lines.