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How good is Ayrton Senna?

I hate the motoring editor of the Adelaide Advertiser. He's not a bad bloke - when he's sober - but he does make unreasonable demands from time to time.

"G'day mate," he said on the phone the other day, "How's life in Pommieland? Raining is it? Listen, can you do me a piece on how Ayrton Senna compares to the great drivers of all time?"

I agreed without thinking - a dollar is a dollar after all. But, once the phone was safely back in its cradle, I began to wonder about the motoring ed's parentage. What a task. How long is a piece of string? Is Michael Jackson better than Madonna; Are the All Blacks better than the Wallabies? Is Adelaide a nicer place than Melbourne?

Among motor racing folk if you want a good argument these days you suggest that Ayrton Senna is better than Alain Prost. At least you can compare the two. They are racing the same kind of cars at the same time. But what about Juan-Manuel Fangio, the five-time world champion of the fifties. Was he better then than Ayrton Senna is now? Was Ronald Reagan a better American President than Abraham Lincoln?

How on earth can one decide?

There is always statistics. But they can be totally misleading.

In purely mathematical terms Alain Prost is the greatest race winner of them all. His total of Grand Prix wins is massively larger than anyone else. Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Niki Lauda, Juan-Manuel Fangio did well, but Alain is on his way to doubling their scores. Does that make him better than all of them?

How does it compare when you consider that Prost has raced many more times than the early heroes?

In the 1950s when Fangio and Stirling Moss were the great men of racing, there were only seven or eight championship Grands Prix in a season. In those days Fangio won five World titles. No-one is even close to that title. Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost have all won three titles, but Fangio remains in a class of his own.

And what about the opposition? In the 1950s there were, perhaps, less competitive teams in action. In 1950, for example, every race was won by an Alfa Romeo; in 1952 it was an all-Ferrari year; in 1955 Mercedes won all but one race and the following year Ferrari did the same. If you drove for the right team, you racked up plenty of wins.

It can be argued that the 1980s were much the same. In 1984 McLaren won 12 of 16; in 1986 Williams won nine of 16 and in 1988 McLaren recorded the most unbelieveable statistic of them all, winning 15 of 16 races.

You can perhaps make steps forward by suggesting who was the greatest driver of each era, but even if you manage that without hitting each other, how on earth does one compare the different eras?

Juan-Manuel Fangio dominated the Fifties, but Alberto Ascari won nine consecutive races in 1952-53. Who was better?

In the late Fifties Stirling Moss was the man they came to see racing, but he never won a championship. Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Jim Clark won plenty in the Sixties, but each had their years when they could beat the others. In the late Sixties Jackie Stewart emerged but there was Emerson Fittipaldi too. Later it Niki Lauda, then Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost. Dominance is a passing phase -- a question of having the right car at the right time.

Certainly you have to be able to use that car, but anyone who has reached the top echelons of the sport is capable of winning a race in the right car.

But none of this escapes from the important question: How good is Ayrton Senna? Even Alain Prost, for so long the mark against which everyone else wass measured, has had to agree that Senna is special. Special, but not unbeatable.

For some people the art of winning is not the art of being great. For many fans of the 1970s Ronnie Peterson was the greatest, for those who followed the sport in the early 1980s Gilles Villeneuve was special. They won races here and there, but what made them great was the passion they showed behind the wheel, the exuberance of pushing to the limits -- and beyond. It was as if they were hire-wire performers working without safety nets.

Racing is an emotional business -- a competition between people always inspires strong emotion. Personally-speaking, Nigel Mansell is exciting, Gilles Villeneuve was inspiring -- and Ayrton Senna too has his days, when you can see the emotion in his driving. When he took pole position for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, he was exhausted and emotional. He had dug deep to find the necessary to do what had seemed impossible.

Such things have happened throughout the history of motor sport, when men have gone beyond themselves -- beyond the established limits -- and achieved remarkable things. It is at moments such as these that they are at their greatest -- when they cannot be touched by anyone.

Perfection, in whatever form it appears, is always the work of a passing moment. To compare such things is pointless. You must just appreciate them...

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