Features - News Feature

AUGUST 7, 2002

Schumacher versus Fangio


Juan Manuel Fangio, German GP 1956
© The Cahier Archive

Who was the best fighter pilot of all time? Was it Manfred von Richtofen with his 80 "kills" in World War I or was it the virtually-unknown Erich Hartmann, who shot down 352 planes in World War II? And how do these men compared to Colonel Yevgeny Peplyaev who shot down 23 planes in Korea, when aerial warfare had moved on to jet fighters?

Who was the best fighter pilot of all time? Was it Manfred von Richtofen with his 80 "kills" in World War I or was it the virtually-unknown Erich Hartmann, who shot down 352 planes in World War II? And how do these men compared to Colonel Yevgeny Peplyaev who shot down 23 planes in Korea, when aerial warfare had moved on to jet fighters?

The most important premise of any article claiming to compare different achievements from different eras is that the one must realize that the whole concept is entirely pointless and thus nothing you will read from now on has any basis in fact. There is no science which can measure greatness. Statisticians, who will usually claim that they can calculate anything, can use their magical numbers to come up with theories about most sports using something called "standard deviation", an advanced mathematical theory which can prove that a sportsman is significantly better than stars of another generation. Cricket statisticians have used this to show that Sir Donald Bradman is head and shoulders above all other challengers and similar calculations have been done with baseball and football in the United States of America.

Standard deviation, in simple terms, measures the spread within different sets of numbers. In other words, it is a measure of how much the numbers differ from each other, calculated using the "average" difference of each number from the average of the group. Are you following?

The good news is that you do not need to understand because standard deviation doesn't work in motor racing. The problem is that there are machines (the cars) involved and, from time to time, they break down and that skews the statistics. If one could produce an average figure of non-finishes in a racing career that would make life easier but some drivers are lucky and some are not; some know how to look after machinery and some do not. There is no such thing as an average figure for non-finishes. And so there can be no such thing as a calculation of greatness.

This pointless exercise is, therefore, as crazy as trying to compare the political achievements of Winston Churchill and William Gladstone or arguing whether Hannibal was a better general than George Patton. An actor can win a fistful of Oscars and pull in more money than his peers, but is he a better actor?

All we have to go on is the fact that Juan Manuel Fangio won 24 of his 51 Grands Prix and five World Championships. Michael Schumacher has competed in more than three times the number of GPs that Fangio managed and he has won less than three times Fangio's total. But he too has won five World Championships.

One can work out the percentages but if we do things like that we find that Damon Hill is one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever known and, without wishing to be unpleasant to Damon, not even he would claim that status. The importance of the machinery involved is also an issue. And it means that all one can safely say is that men who won five World Championships consistently beat the opposition they faced. It is all relative. A World Champion has only to beat those he races. If they are a mediocre bunch his job will be easier. Keke Rosberg won the World Championship in 1982 having scored only one Grand Prix victory. Nigel Mansell had to win 30 Grands Prix before he reached the same goal.

One must take into account the advantages and disadvantages in each generation. Fangio had to survive and yet be brave enough to go on winning. It was a balancing act. In the 1950s you could die because of a mechanical failure. If your mechanic had a bad day, you could go home in a box. And yet the very fact that so many drivers died helped Fangio. Those who came up to challenge him were less experienced. The men who survived were more likely to survive as time went on. There are similar theories based on statistics in World War I when young officers went to the Western Front. If they survived a few weeks the probability was that they would survive the war because they learned how to survive. It was not what you did that was important, it was what you did not do that mattered.

Survival is not an issue these days. The cars are so safe that even incompetence will not kill you. Technology has replaced heroism and taking risks is a completely different matter. If one is looking for a comparison it is like trying to compare the men and women who flew the Atlantic in the early days with those who fly the Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird" spy planes which travel at more than 2,300mph and can fly the Atlantic in an hour and a bit.

There are skills involved in coping with speeds which were unimaginable in the old days. The modern Grand Prix driver is doing things much faster than his predecessors ever dreamed of doing and there are many more things to think about. In the old days the best drivers could drive around problems and still win races but the modern Grand Prix car is such a sensitive piece of equipment that one can lose races if the set-up is not perfect. Thus the ability to work closely with engineers to create the winning machine is much more important than ever before and Schumacher is a master of that art.

There are also pressures outside the car which would have appalled Fangio and his generation and there are issues of fitness and mental attitude as well. Today racing drivers have to be incredibly fit, both mentally and physically. This was not the case in the old days. One has only to look at the photographs of beefy Froilan Gonzalez to see that the physical demands were rather less severe in the old days. Today one has to be completely committed to the task, as being a Grand Prix driver means that your life is completely taken over by racing. You race, you test, you do promotions and there is not much time for anything else. You have to be dedicated and you are not easily forgiven for having an "off" day.

Michael Schumacher, German GP 2002 © The Cahier Archive

And yet how can one compare the dedication of Michael Schumacher to the resolve that was needed to get back into a racing car after losing friend after friend in accidents. Jackie Stewart faced that dilemma in his career and he walked away after 99 Grands Prix and 27 victories.

While the modern racing driver has more tasks to perform when he is in the racing car, he is also getting a lot more help than was the case in the old days. Fangio drove his own strategies. He did not need (and could not have) banana-munching engineers, backed up by number-crunching technicians to call his race for him. He did what he felt was right.

There is, once again, no way to compare the two.

One should also note that the passage of time warps realities or perhaps one should say, that history casts people in a light which at the time they didn't perhaps deserve. Enzo Ferrari is now considered to have been a god amongst men but in his day he was a wheeler-dealer in much the same way as a Frank Williams or a Ron Dennis. Time has given Ferrari a certain status in history and perhaps it has done the same for Fangio.

Perhaps not. In his later years Fangio was the personification of quiet, understatement. He had all the records and he did not need to show them to the world and so he acquired a certain poise - perhaps grace is a better word - that one cannot imagine seeing in a modern racer. He was the ambassador of the sport and yet he was different to all the old racers. He seemed somehow bigger than them all.

Ayrton Senna reached a point in his career where he was on the edge of that same kind of greatness. He had become a much more rounded character than in his youth, and his greatness came across to those around him. It was a magical thing, an aura perhaps, which none of the other modern racers have.

Perhaps Schumacher will attain a similar state one day. Perhaps as time goes by he will become the great ambassador for motor racing and his more cut-throat acts will fade into the mists of time as will the suspicions about some of the cars that he drove when he was younger. One can tell that Michael's aim these days is to not only beat records but to win the respect of his critics.

He is doing that now so perhaps the best way to end the Schumacher-Fangio comparison is to say that the story is not over yet and that the two men cannot be compared - for the moment...