Journal: Which Motorsport Offers the Best Drivers?

Which Motorsport Offers the Best Drivers?

Avatar By Yoav Gilad
December 8, 2014
40 comments

Photography by Federico Bajetti, Andrew Schneider, and courtesy of Ferrari North America

For me there is one answer: Formula One. I grew up watching NASCAR and, once a year (Memorial Day), Cart or IRL or whatever open-wheel racing is called in the US this week. And so when I first encountered Formula One I was blown away–”you mean cars can turn right too?!” It was an epiphany to say the least.

But I didn’t seriously start watching F1 until I was in my mid-twenties and by then Michael Schumacher was dominating the Euro-centric sport. Fortunately, I was already a tifoso and so Schumacher’s success meshed quite well with my street-car inclinations. And now I’m equally excited by consecutive four-time Weltmeister Sebastian Vettel’s arrival at the Scuderia.

One of the nicer aspects of the internet is more readily accessible motorsports. It seems hardly a week passes without Ken Block gyrating some car around a series of stationary objects in the middle of some very busy city (Los Angeles, last time). And apparently, he honed some of his skills driving, get this, some type of race car off-road! Apparently, rallying as it’s known was invented by Finns to escape violent charging moose and involves a move called the ‘flick’ (the moose just can’t change direction as fast a car with the hand-brake pulled up suddenly. On the car, not the moose).

Now, obviously I’m joking but growing up, rallying’s status approached rumor because there was no actual proof (in the US) that it existed. But I don’t think there is one absolute right answer. I believe that the quality of driving and drivers is constantly shifting. So we’d like to know:

Which motorsport (and in what era) offers (or offered) the best drivers?

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Sifu AlexMarkAbbed IdrissIan MilesWade Devers Recent comment authors
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Sifu Alex
Sifu Alex

Top of the game is FIA WEC and F1. The drivers that have done both must be the best. for instance Mark Webber did La Mans the WEC and was a 9 times F1 champion.

Mark
Mark

When Colin McRae got into a formula car he seemed to enjoyed it greatly. When Senna got into a wrc rally car he seemed stunned and a little afraid of the gravel tracks. Comparing two different type of tracks are a bit difficult it feels

Abbed Idriss
Abbed Idriss

I would have to say that F1 from the 80’s offered the best drivers. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and others. In order to be world champion in those turbo, low downforce monsters you had to have a level of skill not seen in or required by ANY motorsport today.

Ian Miles
Ian Miles

Motorcycle racing.

Wade Devers
Wade Devers

Rally certainly would be at the top, but Rally is almost difficult to compare to other racing. Those guys are on another level of crazy in the skill and fearlessness departments. Talk about “in the limit”. F1 for sure. Limited laps of sheer speed and finesse. Ultimate fitness meets an amazing level of racing craft.  But for me, the spot on my list goes to sportscars. Specifically, LM Prototype racers. Imagine the challenge of 24 hours in a Group C at LaSarthe. Or Kristensen’s epic 4-stint drive in the rain piloting the R8 Protoype. Or Johnny O’Connell in a C6R… Read more »

D Blane Newberry
D Blane Newberry

I agree with the any racing is great comment. Current Indycar in the US is some fantastic racing. Open wheels, turning in both directions, hungry aggressive international drivers, and (sadly) relative obscurity preventing diva status of those drivers. Just sayin’.

Michael Mudge
Michael Mudge

I don’t care if it’a snails or jet planes, a race is a race. My favorite form of auto racing has come and gone. That would be the Trans-Am and Can-Am cars from the mid 60’s. I was in my teens and 20’s then and the sound of rolling thunder, the shaking of the ground, created an explosion of excitement and terror. That would be the parade lap….. I was at Laguna Seca the year Jim Hall lapped the second place car in his Chaparral and what great moment that was. Dan Gurney in his Mclaren M6 and the Lolas……… Read more »

Louis Quiniou
Louis Quiniou

I think the 80’s were the best days of motorsport. Formula One produced some fearsome figures and the introduction of electronics amongst other stuff produced some crazy combination of cars and drivers. Group C, IMSA GTP, GTO, GTU were fantastic cars with crazy figures for Sportscars racing. The amount of development and input of the manufacturers was awesome and finally Touring Car racing was at its peak with the DTM or ETCC having many youngsters playing it hard in those categories and many of whom would end up in F1 in the early 90’s.

ronaldo eduardo
ronaldo eduardo

Rallye in the 80s
Gran prix in the 30s
Endurance(targa Florio, carrera panamericana, 1000 miglia, etc) in the 50s
Formula 1 between 95/2008 and 70 to 82

Ed Levin
Ed Levin

The question has no answer–merely argument. But it helps to have the perspective of following racing for over half a century. So if the question is what era/series had the best drivers, I think you can make an argument for the F1 drivers of the decade from the early ’60s to early ’70s. It was an era of fewer F1 races in a season, so F1 drivers also raced and won in F2, sports cars, sedans & GT cars, as well as at Indy and even stock cars. Here’s a brief cross-section of some of the F1 drivers of that… Read more »

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa

Well, 25 comments and nobody (if I read all of them well) talks about Dakar. Now it’s a big branding/politics/tourism experience, but in the 80’s and 90’s it was a really hardcore experience… Stephane Peterhansel? I ‘just’ won 11 titles, 6 in bikes and then 5 already in 4×4…

TJ Martin
TJ Martin

There is only ONE answer that goes beyond personal bias and opinion . Rally …. Period ! THE best driver ever ? Walter Rohrl ! Again … Period ! By results , history , statistics and general consensus .. There was nothing the man sat in that he didn’t win in … be it Road Racing .. WRC .. Pikes Peak etc . Not to mention he was one hell of a ski racer back in the day and still one serious bicyclist to be reckoned with ! Walter Rohrl … with the sole exception of John Surtees Herr Walter… Read more »

Kevin Camp
Kevin Camp

Most racers from the 1950s through the early 1970s raced in numerous series from sports cars to formula cars to rally cars and in the US drivers came up racing midgets and sprints to stock cars, Indy cars and the incredible CanAm monster machines. Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Stirling Moss, John Surtees, Phil Hill, Mark Donahue, George Follmer, and Gilles Villeneuve just to name a few. These guys were fast in everything.

Marco
Marco

Don’t forget that rally drivers have a co-driver at his side that is continually giving navigation notes about what lies ahead, where to turn, the severity of the turn, and what obstacles to look out for. A rally driver could even drive blind with his co-driver next him. That’s why a rally driver is so fast. But in formula one there is no co-driver for the pilot…In rally, before every race, they do a drive run along the road to take navigation notes. It’s not just start you engines and race to the unknown…Finally I don’t remember any Rally pilot… Read more »

Justin
Justin

So you are saying F1 has no one telling them where to go or saying that they dont research the track before they race? 😀

Noah Spitzer
Noah Spitzer

Yes, they have a co-driver telling them where to go, but that is the first time they encounter the route. Any circuit race the driver goes around each corner many times. Also, rally stages are inherently on loose surfaces. The car has much less downforce, tire grip, and surface traction than any tarmac cars. The drivers must have immediate reflexes, as usually, if they run off the course, they can plummet down a cliff, hit spectators or trees, or any other obstacle directly next to the track. In terms of the actual car control, rally drivers must be able to… Read more »

Francois Bozonnet
Francois Bozonnet

i think that Marco is in the true in the way that sometimes rally drivers learn the road till they can run it with closed eyes. i remember the san remo rally 1985, with walter rohrl. he practised the stage several time and it was the reason why he has win this race. but the co-driver cannot predict what happen after a jump, or after a turn under the rain, the snow…

Bill
Bill

The best era would be the 70’s thru the early 80’s. By that time, aero tech was evolved pretty high and turbo’s were very prevalent in WEC, rally, and F1. As a result, the cars were blisteringly quick, but had 3 pedals and no power steering. Plus, the contract requirements weren’t as extreme as today, so drivers could drive in many different disciplines.

antoni millson
antoni millson

rally, amongst the 4 wheel vehicle sports.

it’s simply just more difficult + less forgiving than hard circuit racing. no practice, no repetitions, just on the road + do it. fast.

the 80s were the big years that brought a huge evolution in rallying + to car design + production. 4wd + turbos. audi, lancia, fiat, then later subaru, peugeot + others… + the cars we drive have benefitted hugely.

Francois Bozonnet
Francois Bozonnet

i wan’t everybody to take a look back in the 80’s and try to remember the car who ran in the group C as porsche 962, sauber c9 and jaguar. i think that the driver was not far behind the rally driver of the same period…Stefan Bellof in the porsche and is time lap at the nurburgring was a great performance withe a car who has no electronic system. in any categories, the 80’s gave us the best driver of all time.. in rally because car was fast and dangerous and also because the races were long and difficult. formula… Read more »

Winston Wolfe
Winston Wolfe

Fair quotes about WRC drivers who can adapt different conditions. Still, except during the GroupB era, no rallye driver had to master the monsters like F1 or LMP. On the other hand, Reutemann who was among the best F1 driver or its era, but never worldchampion, scored an astonishing 3rd place in the Argentina 1985, for a one off with Peugeot, a sole rallye test in 1980 with a 131 Abarth, and 3 years after he retired from F1. I can bet anyone that none of Röhrl, Salonen, Vatanen or Stig could have scored a 3rd place in Monza with… Read more »

Andrew Salt
Andrew Salt

For me its rally drivers, whether amateur or professional. Having seen most types of motorsport in the flesh, I was emotionally knocked out the first time I saw a rally car go past as I watched from the side of a narrow mountain forest dirt track in Wales. I couldn’t believe how fast these guys and gals were driving sidways with life-ending drops off to the side of the bends. Slightly off-topic I know (i.e. not “drivers but “riders”) but Isle of Man TT and Dakar two-wheel racers (again both sexes) are complete nutters with outstanding skill that seem to… Read more »

Simon Potter
Simon Potter

Don’t get me wrong, what formula 1 drivers do is amazing, but do they drive or survive?
WRC Rally in my books are todays drivers, maybe formula 1 days of the past but in the last couple of decades its Rally.

Michael
Michael

Walter Rohrl and Sebastien Loeb are probably the best drivers history has ever seen! Going fast around a circuit with “never” changing conditions is one thing and some engineer making your ears bleed, because you are not treating your tires nicely. Belting a car through the forest or the mountains is a different story!!! Just have a look at the ballet type foot artistry the guys in WRC perform. One could probably teach a bionic monkey to go fast around a circuit….good luck programming it for the Ralley Monte Carlo 🙂 Just check the Audi S1 that Walter Rohlr drove… Read more »

Thomas
Thomas

Sure are Walter Rohrl and Sebastien Loeb the best drivers of all times! But not to forget Hannu Mikkola, Rauno Aaltonen, Ingvar Carlsson and and and.

Francois Bozonnet
Francois Bozonnet

and do not forget henri Toivonen and his amazing monte carlo 1986 and RAC rally 1985…it was amazing.

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa

Ari Vataneni Pikes Peak!

Patrick Frawley
Patrick Frawley

I’d argue that top-line motorcycle racers are the real kings. Riding a bike is by nature more difficult than driving with all the extra demands of balance and body movement and orientation, race bikes are often fearsomely difficult and unforgiving creations, and competition is even closer and edgier. The best – Hailwood, Agostini, Roberts, Doohan, Rossi, Marquez – are on another plane in terms of control and competitiveness.

Put a good bike racer in a race car and he’ll usually be very close to competitive; the same isn’t true in reverse.

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange

Valid point. In the context of this discussion there has to be mention of John Surtees the only man to win world titles on two and four wheels.

Winston Wolfe
Winston Wolfe

When Rossi tested the Ferrari F1, he was however far from close to be competitive. And Johnny Ceccoto didn’t achieve much on 4 wheels.

Jimmy Pool
Jimmy Pool

True about Rossi, but I’d bet he was more competitive than a lot of rally drivers would have been.

Samir Shirazi
Samir Shirazi

50’s & 60’s Formula one
80’s WRC
90’s Formula one
& Karting for ever

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

I agree with the majority here. While all professional racing certainly require talent, rally drivers seem to be able to adapt to different kinds of motorsport in a better way than most other groups. And while it’s certainly somewhat of a cliché, I’ll probably agree with Mr. Lange on this one. The Group B cars were called “too fast to race” for a reason. Ridiculous amounts of horsepower, with crude mechanics (by today’s standard) and no assists what so ever. However, I’d argue that Group B era is very closely followed by the WRC era before they changed it and… Read more »

jolocho
jolocho

for me it’s a toss up between F1 and WRC drivers. Top rally drivers can adapt most surfaces and situations. Top F1 drivers are like computers that can reliably produce fast times and hit the same apexes on a track, and if necessary adjust with precision.

I was bummed when Sebastien Loeb wasn’t able to drive in the Bahrain GP in 2009(?) due to red tape. We’ve seen F1 drivers in rally cars, the opposite would’ve been interesting. Maybe the sand on the track would’ve made him feel at home.

JB21
JB21

Rallying, in the mold of WRC – varied surfaces, conditions, etc. You know what I mean if you’ve done track days. It’s so easy and predictable, but trying to drive flat out on mountain winding roads (even if the road is closed) is just something else entirely. I do think what F1 drivers do in a rain is massively special though.

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant

I’ll give rally drivers their due, but for me it has to be those that drove in the World Sportscar championship of ’50’s &60’s. Safety in today’s driving series (any of them) is a primary concern (rightly so) and tremendous advances make driving in those series a fairly safe proposition. Strapping oneself into today’s cars with driving suits, full helmets, full roll cages, 5 point harnesses, HANS devices, fire suppression systems and whatever else still requires a good deal of courage, but I can’t imagine doing it in 1955-65 without nearly all of that being available. The speeds approached by… Read more »

Robert
Robert

The Canadian-American Challenge Cup or Can-Am, was an SCCA/CASC sports car racing series from 1966 to 1987, the cars were awesome and the racing awesomer.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay

I would say that the heyday of IMSA GTP was the closest we have seen to those days of Can-Am.
Good times.

Although I follow, attend, understand, enjoy, and appreciate LMP1, it just aint the same.

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange

Definitely rally is the Motorsport that produces the best all round drivers. Rally drivers such as Vic Elford moved successfully into racing but there are not many racing drivers have moved into Rallying with any success (think Kimi). As to which era, that’s tougher, but as the Group B cars were the maddest and scariest rally drivers ever seen, it has to be the drivers that mastered these beasts as the best?

Andy
Andy

I would say WRC of the 2000es…. and also the WTCC back when the Alfas and later Seats ruled….