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Was the 2010 F1 Driver Grid the Best Ever?

Four young lions of the late 80s, from left to right, in order of driving ability: Aytron Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, Sr. Don't let the smiles fool you. Their battles, both on and off the track, were some of the most contentious in the history of the sport. Example: after the race at Spa in 1987, Mansell marched to the Lotus garage and pinned Senna to the wall by his throat.

Many of the usual paddock pundits proclaimed 2010 to be the most exciting season in the past 20 years.  According to some paddock pundits, the 2010 grid was the best ever.  While this assessment seems to be more than a bit hyperbolic, there’s certainly a case to be made for the depth of talent on offer with the current slate of drivers.

Every era has its marquee names and superstars, but within the very front rank there often a benchmark driver for the period.  For more than a decade, Michael Schumacher filled this for his generation.  Prior to him, it was Ayrton Senna, and before Senna it was Alain Prost.  Other names, such as Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio come to mind, as you look back towards the beginning of the modern Formula 1 era, which commenced in 1950.

When Michael Schumacher retired (for the first time), speculation naturally arose as to who the new dominant driver might be.  Many fans looked towards Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen to provide drama in what many supposed would be the great rivalry of the coming decade, with Alonso at McLaren and Raikkonen at Ferrari.

There was a triple irony here, of course: Alonso only lasted a year at McLaren; Raikkonen, who won the 2007 by the skin of his teeth, was generally outclassed during his three year tenure with the Scuderia by his undervalued team mate, Felipe Massa; and the new talent on the scene, who many began touting as the Schumi or Senna of his generation, was the rookie Lewis Hamilton (much to the chagrin of his team mate, Fernando Alonso).

Hamilton went on to win the title in 2008, and his fans began predicting that he would continue to eat rivals for lunch on a regular basis, as long as he had a competitive car.  Easier said than done.  While putting the best driver in the best car is a sure recipe for success, if that putative best driver has a car that’s only second or third quickest, the results are less predictable.  Witness Michael Schumacher’s first five years at Ferrari, when he was always in contention, but was never able to bring home top hoonors, as Ferrari was usually outclassed by either Williams or McLaren during those years.

In Hamilton’s case, he was frustrated in 2009 by the dominance of the Brawn squad, and in the year after by the pace of the Red Bulls.  Hamilton fans will argue that once McLaren is able to get the car right, Hammy will once again assume his rightful fole as king of the hill.  Maybe.

The 2010 season showed that the new norm might be a more generally competitive field, with no single driver being the dominant figure.  While the Red Bulls were undeniably quickest at most venues this year, there were nevertheless five drivers in contention for top honors going into the final leg of the title chase.  Within recent memory, the title rivalry has been generally narrowed down to a duel between two of the front-running hot-shoes.

As Jackie Stewart has alluded to, however, the 2010 season seemed to represent a return to the norm of the late sixties.  When I first began following F1 in earnest, in 1968, the grid was populated with such drivers as Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme, John Surtees, Jack Brabham and Mario Andretti, all reigning, former or future F1 champions at that time. That’s seven title holders in the field.

Also in the pack of 1968 was the great Jochen Rindt, who would win the crown posthumously in 1970, as well as several other great or exceptional drivers such as Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Jacky Ickx, Chris Amon, Jo Siffert, Pedro Rodriguez and Piers Courage, many of whom could have won F1 titles had they been in the right car at the right time.

Some of these names might be more familiar today, had they not been killed in crashes.  Jim Clark, (who was, of course, a household name) died in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim that year; Rindt, McLaren and Courage were all killed in 1970; and Siffert and Rodriguez both died in 1971.  In those days, the risks inherent in motor racing were real and very apparent.  Stewart once said that something like 75 drivers whom he had known personally had been killed during his active career as driver.

As for the class of 2010, is it really the best bunch of drivers on offer since the late sixties, as Sir Jackie contends?  Certainly there is a depth of field that we haven’t in a while (which is certainly causing Herr Schumacher some consternation in his current comeback bid).  But I would contend that we’ve seen equally good clusters of drivers in virtually every decade of the modern era.  The Schumacher era, when Schumi was clearly the best of the best, was perhaps more the exception than the rule.

And while critics now say that Schumacher has never really been challenged by a crop of drivers of his own caliber, it would be well to remember that when Schumi first joined the F1 grid, he faced another group of luminaries, including Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Jean Alesi, Mika Hakkinen and Gerhard Berger.  Six of these men, including Schumi himself, were (or would be) world champs.  Schumacher was immediately impressive going up against these drivers, and frankly I think this group easily equals or outclasses the our current tier one group of Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg and (ahem) Schumi.  To their credit, five of these men, including Schumi again, are f1 title-holders.  Naturally, if Messrs. Massa, Webber and Rosberg have their say, that number will grow.

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