Winning in circuit racing becomes that bit easier if you start from the front, and claiming a pole position is something that requires intense concentration and bravery on a scale most of us can’t even imagine. Oh, and probably a sharp intake of breath too.Some drivers did and continue to do this better than others – but who’s the best of all time?
We asked four stars from motorsport’s past and present to share their thoughts. Here’s what they said.
Easy answer: Ayrton Senna. He had a psychological need to see his name at the top of the timesheets every single time he got out of the car and figured that if he could be fastest in every session and start from pole, he’d outpsyche his opponents and win the race before it had even started. That worked pretty well for him [28 times during his F1 career, in fact – Ed]. He’d focus all that energy into one lap, and more often than not, he could maintain that concentration for longer too.
Damon Hill once told me that the difference between having Senna and Alain. Prost as team-mates was that Ayrton had to prove a point every time he was behind the wheel. Alain would work from the first moment to get his car right so that he could out-drive everyone when there were points up for grabs. If Prost out-qualified Senna by a significant margin, like at Paul Ricard in 1988, you knew you’d barely see Senna on raceday – his head wouldn’t be right.
Matt Neal (Three-time British Touring Car Champion)
It sounds like a cliché to say Ayrton Senna, and I always like to go against the grain, but the Brazilian was just so good that I can’t; not this time anyway. With his outlook on racing and his willingness to flaunt personal safety, it was kind of obvious that he’d look for any attempt to get to the front, even to the point of being quite clinical and calculated.
I’d put Michael Schumacher and Nigel Mansell right up there too. Mansell was, if anything, even more balls-out than Senna and had the knack of the active suspension Williams [in the early 1990s] to the point where I think he’d even have beaten the Brazilian had they been team-mates.
But overall I’d give it to Senna. I think it’s important to remember that while we generally think of qualifying when we talk about the best driver over a single lap, Senna’s best one lap came in a race; that famous European Grand Prix at Donington Park in 1993 when he overtook Schumacher, Hill and Prost – all current or future world champions – to take the lead.
Fabrizio Giovanardi (European, Italian, Spanish and British Touring Car Champion)
I spent nearly 20 years racing touring cars and there were some guys who were fantastic over one lap in those machines. But Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport, so to be classed as the king of a qualifying lap in one of those cars is the ultimate accolade. With that in mind, my choice is Ayrton Senna.
Most top-level drivers are capable of doing a perfect lap in a perfect car, but how often in a racing career do you have that? Senna was one of the very few who could do it in a car that was not right on the money. The only driver I’ve ever seen come close was Nigel Mansell for out-and-out commitment. I vividly recall watching him qualifying the Ferrari at Silverstone – 1989 or 1990 – and absolutely throwing the car around Stowe and Club, two corners that were massively quick before they re-did the circuit. Sensational. He wasn’t able to do it as consistently as Senna though.
Bernd Schneider (four titles in DTM)
I don’t like commenting on drivers I haven’t competed against, but I was in Formula One in 1988–1990, just when Ayrton Senna was having his peak period, and I can tell you he was very fast over one lap; probably not any faster than Michael Schumacher became, but with so much more intensity. It seemed to matter to him to be on pole far more than it did to Michael, and he’d put that extra pressure on himself to do the lap, more than anyone else before or since.
What was extraordinary was his personality. In the car it was aggression, all or nothing, ‘get out of my way’. He had principles, but he had lots of compassion and you could only see this side to him out of the car. There was one incident at Suzuka when I had a crash and hurt my arm – I thought I’d broken it but I hadn’t – and I was in a lot of pain. I’m sitting down and suddenly Senna – who I didn’t even think knew my name – came in and started asking me how my arm was and if I’d be okay to race. I don’t know whether showing your emotions – good and bad – is a good thing or a bad thing for doing an amazing lap; it probably depends on the individual. It worked for Senna.