The 2011 Formula 1 field is deep in talent. But can it compare to the greatest grid lineups of the mid-'60s and early '80s? Sir Jackie Stewart, three-time World Champion an a student of the sport across six decades, thinks so.
“I think it's the best field ever," he says. "Absolutely. I think the animal is exactly the same. I don't think Sebastian Vettel is any different from what Jim Clark was, or Graham Hill was, or Jack Brabham was, or people who won the World Championship more than once. These drivers are the same – all the same desire, focus, commitment and God-given talent that has been developed to the highest level.”
Stewart is certainly a man who's earned the right to an opinion on the matter and, looking at the current grid, it's hard to disagree with him. The sheer quantity of world-class drivers is almost overwhelming: Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel (in alphabetical order) are at the head of that pack, with the proviso that the currently incapacitated Robert Kubica was of a similar stature, if not yet track record. But just behind that group, Jenson Button, Mark Webber and, arguably, Nico Rosberg are all capable of beating them in the right circumstances – as Button emphasized recently with that stunning from-the-back victory in Montreal.
They each have their strengths and weaknesses and the sheer intensity of competitive pressure they can apply to each other has brought the traits of the top guys into sharper definition than in previous eras. Hamilton is the wildcat racer just dripping with talent, the one most likely to pull off the outrageous move, who can improvise a lap time from even a bucking bronco of a car, the guy who gave us an Ayrton Senna-like demonstration of outrageous superiority in the rains of Silverstone 2008.
But he's also the one most likely to find trouble – either on-track or off. Some see that trait as immaturity, but that implies it will in time be tamed. In fact, that hair-trigger emotional release is just the way he's wired up and is also what makes him great. The one thing that may prevent him fulfilling all his potential isn't that. Rather, it may be the apparent turning of his head by the celebrity company he keeps. Sport and showbiz – with its lifestyle, its poisonous neediness, the vacuous way it celebrates and positively reinforces celebrity-hood – make a bad mix.
Alonso is almost as naturally gifted, has a warrior spirit and a much shrewder feel for what's required at all levels. When he's locked onto a target – either on-track or in a title campaign – he's a heat-seeking missile that will not be diverted. But emotion can take him, too – witness his skewed reaction to rookie Hamilton's speed alongside him at McLaren in 2007 – and if his cause is seemingly hopeless, he has a tendency to lose focus.
Vettel is super-smart and applies that intelligence to a high raw ability and is becoming ever-better on a steep trajectory, but is still more impressive from the front than in fighting through or defending. Button has a near-miraculous feel for grip in changeable conditions and has what Stewart describes as “the cleanest and smoothest way of driving of any of them,” but is over-sensitive to changes in chassis balance.
Any one of these guys is capable of winning a championship. Some, the truly great ones, can win races that shouldn't be winnable. With the exception of the one who is recuperating, all are in competitive machinery – and it isn't often in F1 that so many drivers of this standard have occupied the best seats.
Compare this abundance of talent to much of the immediate post-Senna era when only Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen seemed able to challenge the other without the benefit of a superior Williams, or that four-season gap between Juan Manuel Fangio's retirement and the full emergence of Jim Clark, when Stirling Moss was head and shoulders above the others (with the exception of Tony Brooks) and it's clear that some Formula 1 eras simply have more strength in depth than others.
From his emergence in 1968 as a title contender, Stewart from one race to the next had to contend with Jochen Rindt, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx – a formidable bunch. Later, he had Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson making his life difficult, not to mention an increasing push from teammate Francois Cevert and continued challenges from Amon and Ickx.
The era just before that – Clark's – was arguably even stronger: John Surtees, Brabham, Hill and Dan Gurney could all keep Clark on his toes and were all drivers pretty much guaranteed to win grands prix given even half a chance. Clark, statistically, was by far the most successful of the bunch but, genius though he was, he did have the benefit of the greatest designer (arguably of all time) focused almost totally on him for seven years. Surtees did not enjoy such a machinery advantage – although he could have, had he chosen differently at the end of 1960 – yet he several times demonstrated he was of a similar caliber, often having the measure of Clark at the Nurburgring or whenever it rained.
Surtees' first drive of a racing car was in a Le Mans Aston Martin at Goodwood, taking it around there faster than it had ever gone before, a feat he repeated when Vanwall then offered him a test of its F1 car! In his first car race, a Formula Junior event, he took pole in his Cooper – ahead of Clark's Lotus. He was then on pole for his third F1 grand prix. After walking out on Ferrari partway through 1966, he joined the works Cooper team, where the incumbent driver was Rindt – whom Surtees proceeded to outpace immediately and for most of the rest of the year. Surtees, then, was a giant of a driver and Gurney, too, had days when he seriously captured Clark's attention. He would occasionally beat him in the theoretically slower Brabham and famously pressured the Lotus driver into an accident at Brands Hatch in the 1965 Race of Champions.
No one would question Fangio's stature as one of the handful of all-time greats, and for many he remains absolutely the greatest. When he revealed the full extent of his mastery – Nurburgring '57, most famously – it verged on the mystical. It is taking nothing away from such performances, though, to note that there were fewer great drivers there with him than faced by Clark or any of the current generation. Alberto Ascari was at a similar level until his death in 1955 but Moss' greatest years were still ahead of him when Fangio retired. “There were plenty of good drivers,” said Moss recently, “people like Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, but not that many great ones. You have to remember, motor racing was a far smaller, more marginal thing back then with far fewer people coming into it than later on, so of course you didn't get the same depth. I think had someone like Mike arrived in a later era, he wouldn't have stood out.”
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.