When Sebastian Vettel is crowned world champion for the fourth time in a row – be it in Suzuka or in India in a fortnight’s time – he will join Juan Manuel Fangio (1954 to 1957) and Michael Schumacher (2000 to 2004) in a unique subset of champions who have taken the crown on four consecutive occasions. But which of them most embodied the disparate factors that generate sporting icons? Which of them was the best?
Whose upbringing most befitted a champion?
None of the trio came from backgrounds that suggested future-champion status. Fangio’s parents were Italian immigrant potato farmers in Balcarce, Argentina. The fourth of six children, he was called “El Chueco” meaning bandy legged and first demonstrated his sporting prowess as a footballer before dropping out of school in his early teens to become a mechanic. Schumacher, too, came from humble beginnings. His father, Rolf, was a bricklayer who went on to run a kart circuit in Kerpen, Germany as a means of helping his two sons to race once they had discovered the sport. Vettel, from Heppenheim in Germany, hailed from a middle-class family, initially had aspirations to be a singer before he discovered racing and was the best educated of the three.
How did they race?
Fangio knew the dangers in pushing his machinery too hard at a time when cars were far less reliable than they had become by the Vettel era, and a great deal more mechanically fragile. Accordingly he would push very hard early in a race, establish his domination, then win at the lowest possible speed. Schumacher, by contrast, liked to destroy his opposition and, like Vettel, would frequently push to set the fastest lap late in a race just for the pleasure of the achievement and to rub home the point. Winning was crucial to all three but both Schumacher and Vettel, to varying degrees, belong to the “win at all costs” school. Ralf Schumacher admits that his brother had no qualms about doing whatever was necessary to win even when they were youngsters karting, while Vettel says he is aggressive, impatient and private.
How did their driving styles differ?
Fangio was renowned for his ability to be millimetre perfect lap after lap, and drove in the era when the four-wheel drift was not only hugely popular but also essential to go really quickly. Schumacher was outstanding for his ability to drive a ‘pointy’ car, where the front end had massive grip which enabled him to turn it into corners very quickly, and then to sort out any resultant oversteer on the exit. That’s the fast way to go. Vettel is a combination of the two, with a smoothness allied to that same preference for a car that goes where he points it and has a stronger front end.
What were their individual strengths?
Fangio used to compete in long-distance races in Argentina, and frequently chewed coca leaves which acted as a stimulant to keep him awake. He developed phenomenal endurance, until the one time he overdid things, when he broke his neck in an accident at Monza in 1952, showed him where his limits lay. Both Schumacher and Vettel allied phenomenal speed to an ability to lead their teams and motivate the personnel to toil to the Nth degree, and their understanding and exploitation of the technology at their disposal was crucial in helping to guide the development of their machinery and thus their on-track success.
How do their talents compare?
All three drivers possessed phenomenal natural speed and talent. In Fangio’s case it was evident to pre-war French ace Jean-Pierre Wimille, who was instrumental in pushing his cause in Europe. With Schumacher, his path to F1 via sportscar racing disguised his ability initially, though those within the Sauber Mercedes team who ran him raved about his talent. Even Christian Horner at Red Bull admits that it took Vettel time to mature, but the result is the most rounded and complete driver currently on the circuit. Overall, however, Fangio was generally supreme more than Schumacher and Vettel, and where they have been beaten by team-mates, the one occasion when the Argentine was beaten was in the 1955 British GP when he may subtly have gifted the win to Stirling Moss.
Who was most popular with their peers and fans?
Fangio was universally popular. Arguably Alberto Ascari was the only one who could genuinely beat him, and though Moss and his Vanwall team-mate Tony Brooks could do that at times from 1956 onwards, Moss remains adamant that the Argentine was his master. Initially, Mika Hakkinen was Schumacher’s one serious rival, though later Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso could beat him before his first retirement. His ruthless tactics against Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, in 1994 and 1997, made him unpopular. At times, Vettel has had run-ins with the likes of Alonso, and with team-mate Mark Webber, with whom he collided in Turkey in 2010 and then beat against team orders in Malaysia this year. The fans revered Fangio, whereas both Schumacher and Vettel have been booed on podiums.
Who contributed most to their machinery?
Fangio drove in an era when the cars mattered much less than they do today, and when the ability of the driver was a much more significant part of the performance equation. In his time he won with Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari. Schumacher’s qualifying performance for Jordan on his debut at Spa in 1991 immediately raised the team to a new level, and with Benetton and later Ferrari he was instrumental in delivering victories. The jury is still out on whether Vettel is a one-trick pony who can only win because he has the best car (his 2008 win for Toro Rosso notwithstanding), and his detractors believe that he needs to demonstrate the same ability for another team before he can be regarded as a true great.
Who displayed the greatest loyalty?
Fangio had absolutely no qualms about leaving one team for another he perceived to be better, though his switch from Alfa Romeo to Maserati was forced by the former’s withdrawal, and likewise his switch to Ferrari for 1956 by Mercedes’ departure. But he dumped Ferrari for Maserati in 1957. He would simply take the best option available and uniquely won his five titles for four different manufacturers. Schumacher jumped ship immediately from Jordan to Benetton in 1991, but persevered with the latter until the time came to move to Ferrari for 1996. Thereafter he remained loyal to the Prancing Horse until his first retirement in 2006. Vettel did one race for BMW Sauber as stand-in for Robert Kubica in 2007, then joined Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso before going to Red Bull from 2009. He has been there ever since.
How did their philosophies differ?
Fangio was the most gentlemanly and sporting of the three, and though he was far from a pushover in competition, he always showed decorum in close battle. Moss never did discover whether the Argentine gifted him victory in that 1955 British GP, and Fangio had the grace never to comment either way. He remained fundamentally humble, adhering to the philosophy “You must always try to be the best without believing that you are”. Schumacher was always happy to stretch the rules, and his innate arrogance always came through in his on-and off-track behaviour, as Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve or Rubens Barrichello will testify. Vettel, too has demonstrated arrogance at times, though he is always at pains not to do so off the track.
How did the eras in which they raced differ?
Comparing drivers across eras is always a fraught business for so many reasons, not the least of which are the levels of personal danger, the machinery and the social mores of the day. In Fangio’s time, driving errors were often punished by death, and he saw rivals such as Ascari, Harry Schell, Peter Collins, Eugenio Castellotti, Jean Behra, Luigi Musso, Onofre Marimon and Pierre Levegh perish while racing. The Schumacher era, by contrast, largely rode the crest of the renewed safety campaign after the deaths at Imola in 1994 of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, and accordingly drivers felt more able to take risks in the knowledge that the strength of their cars would protect them. Vettel is one of many beneficiaries of that campaign.
So who is the greatest of the three (though not necessarily the greatest ever)? Such things are always subjective and depend so much on the philosophy of the questioner. But, for me, Fangio remains a shining example of how to win with skill, style and grace.