In over sixty years of racing, Formula One has seen thirty-two champions, and fifteen of them have more than one to their name. Of course, there are many more drivers who have gone down as the nearly-men, coming an agonising second, never to return to the upper echelons of Formula One again. Does the fact they’ve failed to seal a championship de-value them from their contemporaries? Is the only way to enter the record books to have been crown world champion?
When we refer to the greats of Formula One, the same handful of names always comes up – Schumacher, Senna, Prost, Lauda, Fangio, to name but five. Between them, they have a staggering twenty-two titles, thus quantifying their place amongst the legends of the sport. To win the world championship more than once is an incredible achievement, and the majority of the all-time greats have managed this. But what about those with just one WDC? Keke Rosberg, James Hunt, Damon Hill and Jody Scheckter may not have the same impact as the likes of Schumacher and Senna, but they have a reputation that isn’t to be sniffed at. It is impossible to compare drivers across generations, and with the new points system, many of the previous record holders are being dwarfed by the post-2009 drivers. The only two records that still have some substance are Grand Prix victories and World Championships. However, they are not exclusive, as with GP victories come World Championships.
One of the greatest ever drivers never to have won the World Championship didn’t even have a lengthy career, and he only claimed six GP victories. Gilles Villeneuve was a driver who created his reputation through his driving style. He made his debut at the British Grand Prix in 1977, and reportedly went off at every corner on his first lap. It wasn’t until he’d ‘completed’ a few laps that he finally set a time. Slowly, the time became quicker and quicker, and it was quickly apparent what he had been doing on the first few laps. Villeneuve had been pushing the car to the absolute limit on every corner, so he could find out just how far he could push. This gung-ho attitude lasted throughout his career, as he came an agonising second to his teammate Jody Scheckter in 1979. His untimely death at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982 ended a career full of potential, and although he never won a world championship, Villeneuve’s driving style and persona has earned him a place amongst the heroes of Formula One. Gilles is proof that you do not need a world title nor many wins to be considered a great. A lot of it comes down to your time in Formula One, and what mark you leave on the sport. Gilles left an impression so great that he is undoubtedly a legend of the sport.
The same cannot be said about his son, Jacques, who burst into Formula One in 1996. He was set to win his first race, until a failure on his car robbed him of a debut win. He did take four wins though, and managed to pip Schumacher to the title in 1997, taking a further seven victories. Two strong seasons would surely set Villeneuve up for a title challenge in 1998? Well, no. In fact, he never replicated his form from 1996 and 1997, and never won another Grand Prix. BAR gave him a couple of podiums, but nothing notable. When he was finally dumped by Sauber in 2006, it drew the curtain on a career that started with a brilliance his father would have been proud of, but ultimately faded away to unveil a mediocre driver. Had Jacques’ attitude been better, then his legacy may emulate that of Gilles, but he wasn’t the most likeable member of the paddock. He frequently had run-ins with Juan Pablo Montoya, an equally hot-headed character, and was jilted by Williams, BAR and eventually Sauber in his career. He may have the title that his father never managed, but his reputation is nothing compared to Gilles. Jacques may be a world champion, but he isn’t a great.
With wins come world titles, but it is interesting to note that Stirling Moss has more GP victories than Jacques Villeneuve, and many other world champions. “Mr Motor Racing” claimed 16 wins, and famously was runner-up to Mike Hawthorn in the 1958 World Championship. Having seen the enigmatic Fangio retire earlier in the year, Moss finally had a chance to become world champion, but was embroiled in a “Battle of Britain” with Hawthorn. They shadowed each other throughout the season, with Moss taking four wins to Hawthorn’s one, and leading almost double the laps (234 to 125). However, Hawthorn was more consistent, and this meant he had a lead going into the final race. Moss finished first, with Hawthorn, having being waved through by Ferrari teammate Phil Hill, coming home P2 to take the title by just a point. However, Hawthorn’s car was adjudged to have broken the regulations, and he was disqualified from the race, handing Moss the title. In an incredible act of chivalry, Moss went to the stewards and insisted that Hawthorn be reinstated.
The appeal was successful, giving the Ferrari driver the crown. Hawthorn retired from motorsport following this, and tragically died just a few months later in a road accident. Although he may have won the title, it was Moss who was the star of the season. The stats can only tell you so much, but this wonderful act of sportsmanship racing spirit, and, most staggeringly, humanity, is why Moss is regarded as an all time great. He may have never won the world championship, but the accolades he received were never of interest to him. Moss wanted to race, and race he did, with incredible success, passion, and pride.
The legacy of Gilles Villeneuve and Stirling Moss proves that you do not have to be a world champion to be a great of Formula One. These two drivers will often occupy many “Top Drivers of All Time” lists, ahead of their contemporaries such as Scheckter and Hawthorn respectively. A lot can be learnt from their actions and their attitude, and as Formula One develops, one can only hope that the sentiment of racing is not lost on the wind…