Journal: Which Motorsport Offers the Best Drivers?

Which Motorsport Offers the Best Drivers?

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 Alex
Sifu Alex(@sifu-alex)
4 years ago

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
4 years ago

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(@beardedarab64)
7 years ago

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(@smilo998)
7 years ago

Motorcycle racing.

Wade Devers
Wade Devers(@wadeforit)
7 years ago

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 at Sebring, racing through 4 classes of night traffic.  Then the ultimate  driver test: 24 hours of The Green Hell.  You think Lewis or Nico have that kind of racing grit? Maybe. But I doubt it. 

D Blane Newberry
D Blane Newberry(@fireguy495)
7 years ago

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’.

Mike Mudge
Mike Mudge
7 years ago

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…… The cars were pure animal horse power.

As for todays racing…I truely miss the F1 V12 scream.

Louis Quiniou
Louis Quiniou(@duddha)
7 years ago

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(@ronaldin)
7 years ago

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
7 years ago

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 period, in no particular order:

Jim Clark won Indy in ’65, the same year he won the second of his F1 titles; he also finished 2nd at LeMans, twice. In addition to his two F1 titles, Graham Hill won Indy in ’66 and LeMans in ’72–a full 10 years after his first F1 title. Phil Hill (F1 title and LeMans win), Jackie Stewart, Dan Gurney (F1 wins including winning in his own car, endurance racing including a win at LeMans, CanAm, TransAm, Nascar, hot rods on SoCal dry lakes–in fact just about everything else with 4 wheels), Jack Brabham, John Surtees (MotoGP championships as well as an F1 title), Mario Andretti (dirt track sprint cars, F1 title, endurance racing, Indy win, &c, &c), Jacky Ickx, et al.

So while I love rally, followed it since the late ’60s, and think those drivers are amazing, no era of rally has ever produced so many drivers of the staggering versatility of the guys from that F1 era.

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa(@genovevo)
7 years ago

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
7 years ago

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 making each and every F1 pilot [ especially those in the 1980 – present era ] look like the One Trick Pony , spoiled rotten little Prima Donna’s that they are

Kevin Camp
Kevin Camp
7 years ago

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
7 years ago

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 that tried to run in formula one and ever had a successful race.

Justin
Justin
7 years ago
Reply to  Marco

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(@notbs12)
7 years ago
Reply to  Marco

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 determine the exact positioning of the car controls while mid-air. When was the last time an F1 car caught some air? The rally cars must be able to land correctly in order to continue making a fast timed stage. (I don’t usually watch rally, but i’m a huge F1 fan, but i concede that rally drivers are the most talented drivers in the world). Specifically, it would be group B in the eighties. Manual transmissions, tremendous power, and blistering speeds, with very low levels of safety.

bozonnet françois
bozonnet françois
7 years ago
Reply to  Noah Spitzer

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
7 years ago

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.

rock
rock
7 years ago

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.

bozonnet françois
bozonnet françois
7 years ago

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 one because of the amazing power of the car in the end of the turbo era.
group C, because of the adition of the three, power and danger of the car, duration of the race.

Sté Phane
Sté Phane(@thewolf)
7 years ago

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 a Turbo F1 in the same conditions.

My preference goes to F1 drivers between 78 and 90. Still admiring rallye drivers and 500cc GP motorcyclists (Mamola, Spencer, Lawson etc…)

Andrew Salt
Andrew Salt(@nacl)
7 years ago

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 have the ability to shut out the obvious and often very visibile personal risk to themselves.

simon
simon
7 years ago

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
7 years ago

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 back in the day and you will understand why these guys are the best! They take every car and drive it like they stole it…

I agree with Patrick too. MotoGP riders are crazy, but their ability just proves my point. When Rossi tried the F1 Ferrari he was only a little slower then M. Schumacher, but failed miserably in a Ralley car.

Guess it is an endless dispute in an era where drivers specialize in one type of racing/driving! For me it was always the WRC drivers…

Thomas
Thomas
7 years ago
Reply to  Michael

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.

bozonnet françois
bozonnet françois
7 years ago
Reply to  Thomas

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

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa(@genovevo)
7 years ago

Ari Vataneni Pikes Peak!

Patrick Frawley
Patrick Frawley(@fastpatrick)
7 years ago

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(@365daytonafan)
7 years ago

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.

Sté Phane
Sté Phane(@thewolf)
7 years ago

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(@jpool)
7 years ago
Reply to  Sté Phane

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

samir shirazi
samir shirazi(@samirshirazi)
7 years ago

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

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson(@andreas)
7 years ago

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 made it more restrictive, in… 2011?

jolocho
jolocho(@jolocho)
7 years ago

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(@jb21)
7 years ago

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(@mgcam)
7 years ago

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 the Jaguar D-Types, Mercedes SLR, Ferrari Testa Rossa’s , Aston Martin DBR among others at places like Le Mans down the Mulsanne pre-chicane were approaching 180 MPH. Try that in the rain with drum brakes and MAYBE a lap belt, nothing else. Bring your Steelies with you.
This series advanced the careers of drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Sterling Moss, Mike Hawthorne, Tony Brooks, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Roy Salvadori, Caroll Shelby, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, The Rodriguez brothers and on and on when they survived…….
Most of these men also drove in other series at the same time just to make ends meet (including F1), but there will never be anything like it again.

Robert
Robert
7 years ago

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(@christophergay)
7 years ago
Reply to  Robert

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(@365daytonafan)
7 years ago

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
7 years ago

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