In the pantheon of great drivers, there’s a special wing reserved for the heroes who seemed, on occasion, to transcend the laws of physics. Parnelli rather than A. J. Senna rather than Prost. Junior Johnson rather than Richard Petty. They weren’t necessarily better drivers. Consider, for example, the cult that still envelops the memory of Gilles Villeneuve, beloved less for his six Formula 1 victories than for three-wheeling around Zandvoort or finishing second at Dijon after his titanic battle with René Arnoux. At some level, maybe it’s nothing more than public relations. In 1968, Jackie Stewart won in the driving rain at the Nürburgring by more than four minutes – surely, one of the greatest performances in grand prix history. But because he was the ingrate who lobbied so brazenly for greater safety and better pay, he’s usually remembered as the mercenary to Jim Clark’s saint.
Science tells us that there’s a maximum speed that every car can take every corner on every track. But somehow, sometimes, some drivers seem to exceed those limits. The urtext of magical realism, racing-style, was Tazio Nuvolari sneaking up on a faster rival in the Mille Miglia in 1930 by speeding through the darkness without headlights. But no less improbable was Sam Hornish, Jr., making up an entire lap at Indy after a late-race penalty and then taking the lead of the 500 in 2006 after the final corner of the final lap.
It’s watershed moments like these – sights that seem implausible, even when you see them with your own eyes – that define eras in motor racing. The incomparable Bernd Rosemeyer taming an unwieldy Auto Union with a sixteen-cylinder engine behind him. Bill Vukovich, inflexible and indefatigable, winning Indy by nearly three laps on a day so hot that a driver died of heat prostration. Juan Manuel Fangio scaring even himself at the ‘Ring in 1957, his last GP win. Dale Earnhardt, Sr., scoring his last win, at Talladega, using his otherworldly ability to “see” the draft to make up seventeen places in the final four laps. Wild man Ari Vatanen erasing an eight-minute penalty to win the Monte Carlo Rally at the height of the Group B madness. Alex Zanardi, Mr. Donut himself, putting a capstone on CART’s glory years with The Pass in the Corkscrew.
The shadow of Michael Schumacher, the most unromantic of all Formula 1 greats, looms over contemporary motorsport. Thanks largely to his example, racing is increasingly about crunching data and setup and team building, and the differences between drivers have dwindled to mere tenths of a second. When everybody is equal, unfortunately, the sport becomes an exercise in engineering, and races degenerate into parades.
But sometimes the certainty of science can be trumped by the vagaries of nature – in the torrential rain at Fuji in last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, for instance, or in tricky wet/dry conditions at Monaco a few months ago. Was it a coincidence that both races were won by wunderkind Lewis Hamilton? Maybe it’s time we started reserving space for him in the pantheon of transcendental drivers.