Indubitably, in the 1980s and 1990s, Ayrton was primus inter pares – first among equals – and his track record proves it.
Granted, Michael Schumacher’s magnum opus – 91 grand prix wins and seven world championships – eclipses Ayrton’s three and 41. But no driver has ever had a greater or longer car advantage than Michael did at Ferrari in the first half of the ‘noughties’, and few drivers have ever been prioritised as unswervingly by their teams, as Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa will ruefully confirm.
Besides, Michael started 307 grands prix in his long career, whereas Ayrton started ‘only’ 161 in his cruelly truncated one.
Do not misunderstand me: I am not criticising Michael. He was a fantastic race driver – as anyone who was there to watch him win in Barcelona in 1996 or in Budapest in 1998, as I was, will not need reminding. As I say, I was present for both those victories, and in many ways they will always stand out in my mind as Michael’s finest – rivalled for balls-to-the-wall derring-do only by the final drive of his pre-comeback Formula 1 career, his mesmerising charge from 10th on the grid to fourth at the finish in Sao Paulo in 2006.
However, this blog is not supposed to be about Michael, so I will quit singing his praises now. It is not supposed to be about Ayrton, either, actually, so all I will say further here and now about him is that the one Formula 1 statistic that to my mind knocks all others into a cocked hat is his 65 pole positions from 161 starts.
Do the maths: that is a pole-to-start strike rate of more than 40%, an astonishingly impressive proportion. Okay, Michael scored 68 poles in his Formula 1 career, which is three more than Ayrton did, but he required 146 more grands prix in order to do so. As a result, Michael’s pole-to-start strike rate is 22%, about half as good as Ayrton’s, and we all know that, when it comes to appraising a man’s sheer white-knuckle speed, then it is qualifying to which we should look for evidence to support our arguments.
So, yes, to my mind, Ayrton was almost certainly the quickest Formula 1 driver ever. Certainly, he was the quickest I have ever seen. As I say, though, this blog is not supposed to be about Ayrton. It is supposed to be about Imola – and, having indulged myself by writing about Ayrton (and Michael) for a few paragraphs now, I will now focus on Imola.
Like all Formula 1 insiders, this week I have spent quite a lot of time pondering and remembering Imola, and I have to say I really miss the place. The Formula 1 circus first went there in 1980, while the Autodromo Nationale Monza was being refurbished. Not since 1948 had an Italian Grand Prix been held somewhere other than Monza – in that year it was run at the Parco del Valentino in Turin, in case you were wondering – and it never has been again.
But Imola proved so popular in 1980 that it was granted its own place in the Formula 1 calendar every year thereafter, calling itself the San Marino Grand Prix despite the fact that Imola is not in San Marino, until the curtain came down on its Formula 1 chapter in 2006, in which year, fittingly, Michael Schumacher won for Ferrari.
In 1980, the only year in which the Italian Grand Prix was held at Imola, neither Ferrari nor McLaren provided the star performers, however. The front row was easily locked out by Renault’s René Arnoux and Jean-Pierre Jabouille, their cars’ mighty turbocharged engines prodigiously outgunning the naturally aspirated units used by all their rivals, but the race was won by Nelson Piquet in a Brabham-Ford, both Renaults having been afflicted by mechanical issues.
Ferrari? Eighth (Jody Scheckter) and DNF (Gilles Villeneuve). McLaren? Seventh (Alain Prost) and DNF (John Watson). Even in their fallow years, a certain symmetry tends to bind Formula 1’s two greatest teams, I often think.
As I say, I really miss Imola. We journalists used to stay in a small pensione in Riolo Terme, a small commune in the province of Ravenna within the region of Emilia-Romagna. It is a beautiful little place – indeed I would give my right arm to be flying to Bologna this weekend, for the 2014 San Marino Grand Prix, and staying once again at that little pensione, whose name I no longer recall but whose sights and sounds I will never forget.
Yes, Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola, and, like you, dear reader, I find that extremely sad. I fervently wish he were alive today, aged 55, doubtless every bit as charismatic as ever he was. So, yes, Imola will always be associated with Ayrton’s death, and understandably so, but for me it will also always be associated with the beginning of the European season, with Italy in the spring, with Ferrari, with McLaren, and with the beauty and majesty of the sport of Formula 1 being played out on a wonderful racetrack that I may never visit again but I will for ever cherish having seen at its glorious best.