Motor racing: Great cars, but how great are the drivers?

David Tremayne finds that a grid based on ability does not look like the real thing
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"QUITE honestly, I think there is a lot of trash in Formula One when you are considering drivers," Peter Collins suggested. He knows what he is talking about, too. Since the collapse of Team Lotus, which he fought to take back to its former glory in the early Nineties, the man who helped so much to build Nigel Mansell's career has become a key element in the Gillard International karting team, racing in a discipline where the sheer talent of the drivers is perhaps more to the fore than in Formula One.

Collins, also a past manager of the Williams and Benetton teams, identified three key ingredients that great drivers need as he mused over drawing up a hypothetical grid of the top drivers in the game. Natural speed and ability; racecraft; and desire. "The hunger to win is so important. Right now, for example, I'm not seeing enough of it in Damon Hill. When a driver gets into the right situation he can keep that desire. But when he loses it, it can be very hard to find."

Of the current crop, he naturally put Michael Schumacher at the top. "What separates him from others is that he is a total winner. He has an iron psychology bred from his innate arrogance. He's a very tough customer and has that supreme belief in himself that sets him apart. He has a lot of natural skill and he is just relentless, and many others just don't know how to motivate themselves to the same level. Like Mansell, he detests being beaten. And I believe he had Ayrton Senna rattled long before Imola in 1994. Senna discovered there was a man out there that he was not convinced he could beat."

Collins' second choice is Mika Hakkinen, whom he introduced to F1 at Lotus. "Rain or shine, Mika races hard. He doesn't have Michael's total range of skills, his mental acuity, but he does have a fantastic amount of speed and natural flamboyance. Michael may have a better understanding of what a car actually does, but Mika rarely crashes. He races to a high level of performance."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen also scores well. "Purely on talent I'd put him third. You see in races that he does effortless quick laps, and he doesn't go off these days. His driving flows well, though I don't think he understands the level of focus and commitment needed to win regularly in F1. Michael does. Heinz-Harald lacks his mental acuity."

Fourth is another former Collins student, Johnny Herbert. "You can't rate Mika and not rate Johnny, after their days together at Lotus. Johnny is every bit as good, maybe better. Mika might get to the quick lap sooner, but Johnny is very quick too. There are few drivers who race as well as he does; he is a fantastic tactical driver, as he showed last year in Spain and Canada. He's very smooth, and deceptively quick. If he were in a McLaren he'd be giving Hakkinen a much harder time than Coulthard is."

Fifth is a surprise, the rookie Alexander Wurz. "He has that solid Austrian character, and he's talented and quick. He has a very good career ahead of him. His style isn't flamboyant, but it's effective and efficient, with good mental control. Confidence without arrogance."

In choosing Jean Alesi at sixth, Collins evinces frustration. "He has tremendous car control and for all his faults he's a damn good race driver who can bring a car home. He's very quick, but impatient. I just wish I could put him with a tough coach. He could be so much better."

Coulthard is only seventh: "a focused, professional who performs at 100 per cent of his capability. But I think that capability is maybe 99.4 per cent of Mika's or Johnny's. I've never believed that he is really quick. Is his mental capability greater than his driving ability?"

Eighth places brings in Giancarlo Fisichella of Benetton. "He's a good natural talent, though I'm not convinced of his brilliance. He is fragile emotionally. In that respect the strongest Italian I have ever known is Alex Zanardi. I still worry that Fisichella lacks Alex's ability to bounce back. I think he retreats too much to the benches when things go wrong. Maybe he needs more time."

It's a surprise too to see the reigning world champion Jacques Villeneuve down in only ninth place. "He has a lot of balls and self-confidence, but there's an anger in him that doesn't know what it wants to do. He can be an unusual character, and like Irvine he lacks finesse. These new cars need that. He's like a man trying to write with boxing gloves on."

And finally. Irvine? Hill? "No, neither does anything to excite me. I think Mika Salo has done a terrific job. From day one he was on the pace in F1, but has been limited by his machinery. He's like Johnny. He races hard without mistakes, brings it home and does a good job. He's not conspicuous, but give him a good car and he is very quick."

Ten for the road: The Collins guide to how the leading drivers rate

1 Michael Schumacher

The all-round best driver, with fabulous self-belief and an enduring hunger.

2 Mika Hakkinen

He is fast and generally mistake-free, but just not as smart as Schumacher.

3 Heinz-Harald Frentzen

Smooth, quick and effortless, but again he lacks Schumacher's mental abilities.

4 Johnny Herbert

Very quick, very smooth - and very under-rated.

5 Alexander Wurz

The phlegmatic new kid on the block with a very bright future ahead of him.

6 Jean Alesi

Still extremely quick and a good finisher, but with a style that is often too impatient.

7 David Coulthard

Stylist, good racing brain - but not ultimately quick.

8 Giancarlo Fisichella

Another impressive newcomer, but one with question marks against his psychological resilience.

9 Jacques Villeneuve

The champion is definitely fast, but he lacks finesse and is too full of quirky character traits.

10 Mika Salo

Quick, smooth, capable - and almost completely overlooked and ignored.