Smaller though the sport might have been then, don't ever underestimate how much bigger was the game. Judging whether you could push harder was to risk a trip to the morgue, not a gravel trap or a vast run-off area. So we're not really comparing like with like, even if the depth of talent of today is self-evident.
In the early 1980s, when the sport was still lethally dangerous, Formula 1 had a comparably deep well of talent to today's. Gilles Villeneuve and Alain Prost were at the vanguard of the super-talents of the emerging generation, populated also by such formidable rivals as Nelson Piquet and Didier Pironi, and yet there were still members of the previous generation – Niki Lauda, Carlos Reutemann, Alan Jones – driving at or close to their peak. Prost bridged this and the Senna era, of course, and it remains a moot point whether the Prost of, say, 1982 would have been so shaded by Senna in terms of all-out speed as he was in 1988-'89 at McLaren. And Nigel Mansell could take on and beat either of them when all was working right in his world. For sheer quantity of would-be champions, the 1981/early-'82 grid stood as a high water mark until very recently.
Some would point to the mid-'70s as comparably good – Lauda, Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Peterson, Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, Reutemann, Carlos Pace, not to mention the tragically truncated lives of Tom Pryce and Tony Brise. But Chris Amon, who made some giant-killing performances in the Ensign in his final season of 1976, has an interesting take on that.
“I wasn't then at the same level of commitment I'd been at in my Ferrari or Matra years,” he says. “I was not performing to the same level and yet I was able to show very competitively against that generation. Which leads me to believe it was not as strong a group as in the late '60s/early '70s when you had Jackie and Jochen and, before that, Jimmy.”
In other words, the mid-'70s era was perhaps so abundantly populated by competitive drivers because it lacked a truly outstanding one.
It has surely just been a matter of chance and circumstance that has made one era a vintage one and another less so, but in looking at F1 history of the last couple of decades, the role of the car manufacturers should not be overlooked. By the 1990s, the junior categories were becoming too sophisticated and expensive to allow guys through on talent alone and, at that stage, the supply began running dry; few of the best junior guys were making it through to F1.
That's largely why Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen had it their own way for so long. Once the car manufacturers began getting seriously involved in the mid-'90s, so the junior driver programs were initiated and suddenly there was a way through. In a previous era, it's quite conceivable that F1 wouldn't have even seen Hamilton or Kubica. Now the manufacturers have left once more, it remains to be seen if the flow can be maintained – although Red Bull and McLaren are to be applauded for doing their part in continuing their own young driver schemes.
Still, we'd best enjoy this huge, current glut of talent while it lasts.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the August 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.