Who is the Best Driver in the World (Part 1 of 2)?
Unlike many other sports, in motorsport it is hard to determine who the best driver in the world is right now. For example, in football, you can argue over how many goals a certain player has scored. In tennis or golf, there is a ranking to determine “the world number one.” Yet it is hard to draw comparisons in a sport as wide and varied as motorsport, and perhaps pointless to even try.
Many fans believe that F1 drivers are simply the best in the world. It is easy to see why with the likes of a certain Sebastian Vettel – already a two times Formula One champion having recently just turned 25 years old. What about Fernando Alonso? The Spaniard is also a two times champion and has been the runner up in the championship twice.
It is hard to ignore Michael Schumacher from the debate either. The seven times champion is statistically the most successful F1 driver ever and many of his records are unlikely to be ever beaten. Yet his detractors argue the odd controversial moment in his career, such as taking Damon Hill out on the way to the 1994 title, taints his success.
It is clear then that there are many great drivers in Formula One. Despite this, history shows that these drivers aren’t always successful when they try other forms of racing.
There are numerous examples to clearly demonstrate this, but you only have to look at how Kimi Raikkonen struggled in the World Rally Championship. The 2007 F1 champion left Formula One at the end of 2009 to try his hand at rallying, yet his best result in the two years he entered the WRC was a sixth place. In fact, he’d end most events either in a ditch or upside down.
Formula One is often associated with the term “pinnacle of motorsport” – and yet the simple fact of the matter was that Raikkonen never fully adjusted to the demands of the World Rally Championship. Does that make him any less of a driver?
Additionally, what does that say about the most successful rally driver ever? Sebastien Loeb has dominated the WRC since 2004 – having won 72 rallies and eight titles in the process and currently leads this year’s championship. Furthermore, Loeb has won the Race of Champions three times, finished second overall at Le Mans in 2006, and just last weekend won a gold medal in the rallycross discipline in the prestigious X Games. His domination at the X Games was made even more remarkable as he was racing a car that he’d never experienced before.
It is highly expected that when the thirty eight year old Frenchman finally retires from rallying, he’ll turn his focus back to sports car racing and already owns his own team which runs in the European Le Mans Series.
You’d have to say that marks him out as being one of the very best drivers in the world. Does it matter that he has never raced in Formula One? Certainly he came close to. It was believed he’d make his F1 debut at Abu Dhabi in 2009 for Toro Rosso before the deal fell through. He’d driven F1 cars before and had looked quick and in many people’s minds would have taken to F1 easily had he had the chance to do so.
It begs the question – does diversity become a factor when determining who the best is? On the basis of Loeb’s success you’d have to say so. Simply being a Formula One driver is no longer the be all and end all.
That leads me on to discuss another incredibly diverse driver, who by sheer luck also happens to be called Sebastien.
On the face of it, Sebastien Bourdais doesn’t deserve to be in the running. After all, his F1 career was two years and to say that it wasn’t a success would be quite an understatement. His best result in that time was a seventh place.
Yet since then, Bourdais has reinvented himself – having driven and been competitive in so many different types of racing. Even before his F1 career started he was something of an American racing legend – winning the Champcar title four times. His diverse ability is enviable – having finished second at Le Mans with Peugeot twice in 2007 and 2011 respectively and he even won a V8 Supercar race in Australia last year.
This year, Bourdais is a busy man again dovetailing a part time season in Indycar with more sports car commitments. He also drove the Pescarolo Dome at Le Mans and even sampled a Grand Am Daytona Prototype at Watkins Glen last weekend. One thing that you can rely on is Bourdais being quick in everything he drives – perhaps that is how he ends up racing in such a variety of cars.
In years gone by, Formula One drivers would race in a variety of different disciplines. One week the likes of Graham Hill and Jim Clark could be racing a Formula One car, the next week a touring car and the week after a sports car. Yet in more recent years, understandably, Formula One teams have tried to stop their drivers from racing anything else. The diversity that someone like Loeb or Bourdais therefore displays is something you see very rarely in modern times.
Thanks to all who have suggested names for this piece so far – such is the scale of the topic that I’ll be extending this article to a second part which you’ll be able to read next Friday.
You can follow those who have contributed on Twitter: @ChrisGurton, @james_newbold, @link_heroz, @SophieBaileyox, @Reemus22 and @Huang_Chung. Additional thanks goes to Dan Bates.