First class for Fernando

Back in the mid-80s when I first started on Radio Pacific with Tim Bickerstaff, there was generally very little to talk about between the end of the Formula 1 world championship and the start of the New Zealand summer series. Good old Tim came up with the idea that I could rate the best Formula 1 drivers of all time from one to twenty – and spread it over a couple of weeks so as to generate some interest.

Frankly I always struggle with such lists – irrespective of the sport. How possibly can Stirling Moss be compared to say Jackie Stewart, or Alain Prost to Alberto Ascari. Or Lennox Lewis to Muhammad Ali, or Bjorn Borg to Rod Laver…So I suggested an aeroplane seating system – say half a dozen in first class and another fourteen in ‘business’. Bickerstaff liked the idea and we were away. I have been thinking about that ‘seating plan’ concept since the announcement that Fernando Alonso is not going to be in Formula 1 in 2019, and the alleged comments made by 1979 world champion Jody Scheckter that the Spaniard is overrated. I guess it is logical at about this time to consider where Alonso sits.

In my view – the first class section in 2018 has Tazio Nuvolari, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Moss, Jim Clark, Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton with such as Gilles Villeneuve, Ascari, Bernd Rosemeyer, Stewart and Niki Lauda in the queue for an upgrade. There are some obvious omissions but ‘first-class’ bound Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher don’t make the plane because they took each other out in the departure lounge…and South Africa’s only world champion is firmly in ‘business class’. I doubt Scheckter’s position will get much support but perhaps he thinks he’s been underrated by historians . Of course if the measuring device was simply done on championships and race wins then Moss would lucky to make ‘business’ so I give little regard to ‘the stats’ – as in Schumacher is better than anyone ever because…

Alonso was world champion twice – and they were back to back, early in his career. It looked like this kid was going to break a lot of records but for various reasons, it didn’t happen however he was less than ten points off five titles. But that’s irrelevant to me – Moss makes my ‘first class list’ yet he famously never won the world championship – and in any event, I can’t rank Alonso any higher than his notional seating position at the very front of my imaginary plane.

We are told Alonso is off to Indy – whether to just do ‘the 500’, a handful of races or the entire series is not yet known but, now that he’s won Le Mans, it is inevitable that reference will be made to this so-called ‘Triple Crown’…which doesn’t actually really exist. But if it did, the first thing that needs to be determined is ‘what is it?’ When Graham Hill shared the winning car at Le Mans in 1972, he became the first person to win motor racing’s three biggest races – and frankly that’s debatable – but he’d won the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, and now the Le Mans 24 hours. The term ‘triple crown’ was coined – it sounded good but was, and remains, entirely unofficial.

In the late 80s I can recall Mario Andretti’s return to Le Mans being explained because of his alleged desire to also win the ‘triple crown’ – but because he’d not triumphed around the streets of Monaco, the ‘triple crown’ was then rationalised by some as being for winning Le Mans, Indy and the world championship. As well as winning the world championship twice, Alonso has won Monaco twice so irrespective of what comprises the non-existent ‘triple crown’, he’s two-thirds of the way there.

If he does go back to Indy, and he does win – expect the ‘triple crown’ phrase to be liberally chucked around, mostly by people who can’t quite define exactly what it is…which will be partly to do with the fact that it’s a dreamt up thing. It doesn’t actually exist.

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