Fangio, Senna head a list of Formula One century greats

Who is the century's best Formula One driver?

Who is the century's best Formula One driver?

"That is surely the easiest question I've ever had to answer," replied Stirling Moss, regarded as the best driver never to have won the F1 season crown. "Juan Manuel Fangio."

The same question posed to Ken Tyrrell, whose F1 team competed for almost 30 years until he sold out to British American Racing after the 1997 season, got a slightly different reply.

"I find that's an impossible question," said the 75-year-old Tyrrell. "You can only say who is best at the time. "To say that Fangio is better than Ayrton Senna is ridiculous."

Several facts are indisputable. Fangio, of Argentina, was F1's first great driver, its only five-time world champion, and he came from an era when drivers wore leather helmets, gloves, no seat belts and carried smaller egos than they do now.

"He was a five-time world champion and he drove for five different manufacturers," said Moss, a 70-year-old Briton. "He was important because he was a star, but he was also a very humble man."

Fangio, who drove in eight F1 seasons before retiring in 1958, overlapped five years with Moss in the mid-1950s. In three of those ('55, '56 and '57) Moss finished second to Fangio in the overall standings. In 1958 he was second to fellow Briton Mike Hawthorn, who was killed in 1959 in a car accident.

"He is the man who cost me being a world champion," said Moss, who teamed with Fangio at Maserati and Mercedes. "But we were great friends."

Moss was one of the pallbearers when Fangio died at 84 on July 17, 1995. The two shared a long friendship despite a stubborn language barrier.

"He was Argentine and I'm English and our talks were limited by my poor Italian," said Moss of Fangio, whose family emigrated from Italy. "But we communicated. He was a great artist behind the wheel and he was a wonderful gentleman."

Moss talked about Fangio's "balance and concentration." He recalled how Fangio, well into his 40s when he was dominating Formula One, would follow him bumper-to-bumper in many races.

"He would allow me to follow him and take in as much as I could do of his technique and so on. That meant an awful lot."

"If Fangio were driving today, he would win just like he did then. The same way I believe that Roger Bannister would still hold the mile record if he were running."

Tyrrell, who saw Fangio near the end of his career, listed a half dozen drivers along with the South American who have dominated their eras: Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost, Senna and Michael Schumacher, who is the only active driver on Tyrrell's list.

"I couldn't say that any one of them was better than the other unless they were driving the same car at the same time, which is impossible," Tyrrell said.

They all share one characteristic, however - "bravery."

"To be a great Formula One driver you have to have it," Tyrrell said. "But if you ask these guys they'd say they're not brave."

Fangio won 24 of his 51 grand prixs (47.1 percent), far and away the best win-to-race ratio. Clark was almost at good with 25 victories in 72 (34.8). The other five won about one of every four races: Schumacher (27.6 percent), Stewart (27.3), Prost (25.6), Senna (25.5) and Moss (24.2).

By comparison, three other drivers who are three-time world champions - Niki Lauda, Jack Brabham and Nelson Piquet - won a far lower percentage: Lauda (14.6), Piquet (11.3) and Brabham (11.1).

Some were exceptionally quick, which Schumacher can be on a single time-trial lap. Others like Stewart, who won the world title three times for Tyrrell (1969, '71 and '73), were doggedly persistent.

"Jackie would turn a quick lap - maybe not the quickest - but then he would wear you down lap after lap with his consistency," Tyrrell explained.

In 50 years of F1, carburetors, four-cylinder Ferraris and six-cylinder Maseratis have given way to injected V-10 engines. The roly-poly bodies of mid-century have turned lean and mean as a fighter jet. Safety, an afterthought in Fangio's day, has become a major preoccupation as television beams the image-conscious sport around the world.

The ethics have also changed.

"Fangio would never do anything dirty," Moss said, turning his attention to Senna, who died in a crash May 1, 1994, in the San Marino Grand Prix.

"Senna certainly would do dirty things - and did," Moss added. "But things are different today. In my time, automobile racing was a profession for gentlemen, then it became commercial, and now it's just a business."