Greatest Racing Driver Debate

Jim Clark (Lotus-Ford) Zandvoort, 1967 Greatest racing driver debates now would include Michael Schumacher, whose seven world championships eclipse Juan Manuel Fangio’s five, Alain Prost’s four or the three apiece of Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Picquet and Ayrton Senna. But in 1993, during a debate at the National Motor Museum Beaulieu, the vote went to one who raced before there was ever a formal world title, Tazio Giorgio Nuvolari. Above: The Sunday Times 28 February 1993. Click to enlarge. It’s different now of course. There are more races now than there were before. Drivers are technicians, more jet fighter pilots than Spitfire pilots, in computerised toboggans that wouldn’t fly without Playstation controls. Jensen Button, Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel need a deeper understanding of electronics than the visual acuity, sense of balance or natural dexterity vital to drivers who changed gears in mechanical gearboxes and felt the attitude of a car through the seat of their pants. With 1970s technology it was relatively easy to get into a racing car and set a decent back-of-the-grid lap time. I did it myself. Getting on to the front row and racing wheel-to-wheel was different. That needed competitive spirit and raw courage to see where the limits were. You had to go beyond them to find out and that was risky. I wasn’t good at risk. Nuvolari was the bravest driver, which probably swung the jury at Beaulieu. Fangio, Clark and Senna didn’t need valour. They probably didn’t know themselves what made them so good. They just knew everybody else was slower. They could invoke that combination of hand, eye and cool detachment that remains inexplicable even to aviation medicine specialists who analyse aptitudes for space flight. It is what separates a decent back-of-the-grid lap time from a world champion. D-type Auto Union, final flower of the V12 mid-engined 2985cc car of the team Nuvolari drove for. Shown by Audi at a press launch in 2008, this is essentially a perfectly built replica of the Roots supercharged 1939 car, giving 485bhp @ 7000rpm.