However, there is a subtle distinction to be made between this feat and that of Schumacher in '95. Much of Michael's triumph was derived from outperforming the Williams drivers who were not of the absolute front rank. That could not be said of Senna's 1991 adversary, Nigel Mansell, one of the fastest and most fiercely combative drivers of all time.
So how did Ayrton achieve that? In the cold, hard light of analysis, it was because Mansell retired from the first three races of the season with a litany of technical problems while Senna had waltzed to three consecutive wins. Mansell hit dominant form midseason while, for the balance of the year, hugely improved Honda horsepower kept Senna in competitive play against the Williams' superior chassis. Genius though Senna was, that was not the crucial element of his final title.
It's unfortunate for Mansell that his '92 championship is recalled for the huge superiority of his Williams FW14B, as this casts a misleading light on his true level. With slightly better luck, he could have won the '86, '87 and '91 titles, too.
While it's true that McLaren's Alain Prost triumphed in '86 in a slower car against the Williams-Hondas of Mansell and Nelson Piquet, this was for a different reason altogether. It was neither a case of him outdriving the principal opposition (like Schumacher in '95) nor having better reliability (like Senna in '91, Niki Lauda in '77, Denny Hulme in '67 (LEFT) and Graham Hill in '62). Instead, it was because the two guys in the faster car took points off each other throughout the year, whereas Prost, partnering a struggling Keke Rosberg, took the majority of McLaren's points.
“Keke's style was not suited to a turbo car,” says the McLaren MP4/2's designer, John Barnard, “while Alain's was perfect. He'd set it up in a way that, to any other driver, felt like it had major understeer. But he had a way of getting the car into the corner early which for a turbo was fantastic, because it meant he could get early on the power and we could give him some traction. Keke, by contrast, was last of the late brakers and really liked to turn the car very quickly. To do that you need a setup that's a bit light on rear grip – and that just wasn't the way with these cars.”
Prost did a brilliant job, no question. But there's nothing to suggest he was performing to a significantly higher standard than the in-fighting Williams guys. The team dynamics just worked in his favor.
By the start of the 21st century, we had the combination of the best driver in the best car: Michael Schumacher and Ferrari won all the championships from 2000 (RIGHT) through '04. But in '01 the identity of his biggest future challengers became clear in the performances of rookies Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen and by '05, this duo was locked in a titanic fight for the championship for Renault and McLaren, respectively. The McLaren MP4-20 was a fantastically fast device and Raikkonen routinely stretched it to its limits: In Barcelona, he sprinted away from Alonso at such a rate that in 25 laps he'd built enough of a lead to pit for new tires and rejoin still ahead of the yet-to-stop Renault. But crucially, in the early part of the season, McLaren had difficulties in getting the tires to “turn on” in one-lap qualifying. It was a shortfall that Alonso punished with three devastating wins in the first four races. That, coupled with a certain fragility of Raikkonen's Mercedes-Benz engine in subsequent races, allowed Alonso a points cushion that he skillfully managed throughout the season, in cunning cohorts with strategy ace Pat Symonds.
Even within the few occasions in Formula 1's history the title hasn't been won by the guy in the fastest car, it's rare that the decisive factor was a man-over-machinery feat of genius. More usually it's been for prosaic reasons of reliability, badly conceived scoring systems (Mike Hawthorn, with one race win, would not have beaten Stirling Moss, with four, to the '58 title by any of F1's subsequent points systems), divided team points by rivals (as well as Prost vs. the Williams drivers in '86, see also Lotus vs. Jackie Stewart in '73) or, in a couple of cases, a young ace making more errors than an experienced older hand in a car close enough for that to matter – for examples, Ferrari's Niki Lauda losing out to McLaren's Emerson Fittipaldi in '74 or Raikkonen getting even for Ferrari 33 years later against McLaren's rookie Lewis Hamilton.
All of which just underlines in red how Formula 1 is still a team sport, however much we may be excited and inspired by the deeds of the guy at the wheel.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the November 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.