Great Rivalries: Racing's Best Rivalries

Getty Images The Cahier Archive
Sean McCabe

Rivalries fuel our passion for motorsports. A race is a zero-sum proposition, after all, and for one to win, another must lose. Intellectually, we can appreciate the many skills showcased in racing - strategy, driving technique, engineering excellence, and so on. But emotionally, what energizes us most is drama, and drama demands competition, and competition is the by-product of rivalries. Rivalries between nations. Rivalries between manufacturers. Rivalries between teams. And most dramatic of all, rivalries between drivers.

There's nothing in racing more riveting than the sight of two great drivers in two equally matched cars going wheel-to-wheel without being hindered by team orders, pit blunders, or backmarkers. Think of Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward swapping the lead fifteen times during the 1960 Indianapolis 500. Or imagine the epic duel between Georges Boillot and Christian Lautenschlager in the French Grand Prix of 1914, the French patrician in the blue Peugeot battling the German mechanic in the white Mercedes, braving dust and gravel for more than seven hours for the honor of the countries that would be fighting each other in World War I less than a month later. The race ended with Boillot sobbing next to his broken Peugeot and the crowd at the finish line in Lyon greeting Lautenschlager's unexpected win with stony silence.

But great rivalries are about more than on-track competition, no matter how fierce. You also need an element of personal animosity to raise the stakes and ratchet up the tension. Richard Petty and David Pearson were the two most successful stock car racers of their era - they finished 1-2 in sixty-three Grand National and Winston Cup races - but there was little hostility between them. Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, on the other hand, still don't like each other, and twenty years have passed since their last head-to-head race. That's what you want in a rivalry - something polarizing, something that forces you to choose sides. Democrats or Republicans. Yankees or Red Sox. Less filling or great taste.

Ironically, some of the most vicious rivalries - family feuds, you might call them - grow out of a single team. Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi at Ferrari in 1982 are the most notorious example of toxic teammates (see page 57). It's a miracle that Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodríguez didn't kill each other during their two years racing Gulf Porsche 917Ks. (The lasting image of their rivalry was the two of them slithering through Spa's Eau Rouge side by side in 1970, in the rain, with no more than an inch between their powder-blue prototypes.) And in 2007, there was the Fernando Alonso versus Lewis Hamilton contretemps at McLaren, which not only supplied the media with a never-ending supply of entertaining fodder but ultimately cost both of them the Formula 1 championship.

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