Generational battles in F1

Written by: Oskar Yigen, Edited by: Daniel Yi

Ever since it became clear that neither Sebastian Vettel with Ferrari nor Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes were able to defeat Sir Lewis Hamilton over a season and stop the now 7-time world champion’s streak of dominance, most F1 fans have been of the opinion that only two drivers on the current grid possess the ability and potential to take a title away from the reigning champ in a straight fight; Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. But as the latter is currently out of the picture due to Ferrari’s poor performance, only Verstappen in the Red Bull is left. With both Mercedes and Hamilton being at their absolute peak in terms of performance during the 2020 season, it seemed to be a tall order for the Dutchman to put up some sort of fight before the season-opener in Bahrain took place.

However, the original major 2021 regulation changes were postponed and pushed back to 2022 due to the outbreak of Covid-19. The 2021 regulation changes had two main purposes; firstly making it easier for cars to follow one another closely, thus creating better racing, and secondly slowing down the cars, as the governing bodies were getting concerned about the decreasing safety levels as a result of the amount of load that the sheer speed of the 2020 cars were putting on the Pirelli tires (demonstrated by multiple incidents during the 2020 season). This was done by removing parts of the floor and diffuser at the rear-end of the cars, calculated to subtract approximately 10% of the cars’ downforce. 

Many spectators – including myself, I must admit – believed that 2021 would simply be a continuation of Mercedes’ dominance. However, that hasn’t turned out to be the case as the regulations – most likely on purpose – have been made to favor teams using a high-rake concept (like Red Bull), and thereby disadvantage teams using a low-rake concept (like Mercedes). This leads to a mouth-watering prospect, a battle between two polar opposites; the young, hungry competitor in Max Verstappen, challenging the established champion, Lewis Hamilton. Both very much considered drivers of the absolute best caliber, so one can be certain that they’ll be fiercely trying to prove themselves as superior to the other. Why is this so? Because as often seen before in F1 history, this might be their only chance to go head-to-head with another extraordinary driver. Hamilton will be trying to solidify his position as the greatest driver of all time (statistically), fully knowing that Verstappen has the ability to challenge that status. Both drivers know that in case Verstappen does manage to get anywhere close to Hamilton’s levels of success, these few years where the two of them (hopefully) have somewhat equal machinery and will be absolutely crucial to the future assessment of their ultimate abilities, especially in comparison to one another. From a fans’ perspective, this seems too good to be true. But in fact it isn’t so. Generational battles like this have taken place multiple times throughout the history of Formula One. In this article, I’ll take you through some of the greatest: 

Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher

Photo: The Race

Schumacher vs Alonso, 2006

During the 2004 season, spectators of F1 were – much like during the 2020 season – getting pretty tired of seeing Ferrari and Michael Schumacher running away with win after win, title after title. Likewise, the FIA feared that this repetitive pattern was going to ‘’scare away’’ fans, who’d simply find it too boring. As they’ve done multiple times before and since, they took action into their own hands and changed the regulations regarding tyre usage for the 2005 season. Tyre changes during pit stops were banned, unless required due to a puncture or changing weather. Ferrari, who were the only front-running team to use Bridgestone tyres (as opposed to the Michelins that all of their rivals used), were quite screwed over by this. Bridgestone tyres weren’t capable of running an entire race distance on only one tyre set in competitive fashion. Therefore, for the 2005 season, the young Fernando Alonso and Renault took the championship after a battle with Kimi Räikönnen in his rapid, but unreliable McLaren.

However, for the following 2006 season, the tyre regulations were revoked, and tyre changes during pit stops were once again allowed. Schumacher and Ferrari propelled straight back into the picture, but Renault had also managed to build on their 2005 success and produced a car that was on the same level as the Prancing Horse’s challenger, even without the unfair advantage it had over Ferrari in the previous season. And so, the stage was set for the experienced and decorated Schumacher versus the inexperienced but fast Alonso. 

Alonso started the season strongly and took four consecutive wins. Schumacher immediately responded though, winning the next three races. After Alonso’s late engine failure in the Italian GP and a subsequent win for Schumacher at the Chinese GP, the two drivers level on points before the penultimate race of the season. However, in the following Japanese GP, it was Schumacher’s turn to suffer an engine failure which handed Alonso the race win and a ten point lead in the standings going into the final race of the year in Brazil. After yet more bad luck for Schumacher, Alonso and Renault secured their second titles. The Spaniard became the youngest (at the time) single and double world champion. The result also marked the end for Schumacher, as he was – quite scandalously, in my opinion – booted out of the Ferrari in order to make room for Kimi Räikönnen, even though the German was still clearly amongst the best drivers on the grid.

Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher

Photo: Twitter

Senna vs Schumacher, 1994

Some reading this might be confused by my inclusion of Ayrton Senna vs Michael Schumacher, since it actually never happened – not for long, that is. Because when a young, fierce Schumacher for the first time had a car capable of challenging for a title with his Benetton in 1994, Senna tragically lost his life only three races into the season when he crashed for a yet unknown reason at the San Marino GP. Therefore, this duel between what many now consider the two greatest drivers of all time, sadly never took place for more than two races. But, there is still a reason I decided to include that short battle in this list. Even though it didn’t really happen, it sparked a debate about who’s the greater of the two. Thereby deciding who’s the outright GOAT according to many fans, that has been ever since and still is on-going. Everyone has their own opinion, which just goes to show the beauty of Formula One; the discussions are endless. As I’ve pointed out in some of my previous articles, we can never know for certain how good a given driver is, or how much of their performance is down to their car and team. 

Furthermore, these two drivers were both quite essential to the development of F1; Senna by challenging authorities and being one of the most outspoken when it came to passion and mentality, and Schumacher by introducing to F1 the great amount of hard work and discipline which is now considered the basis for any driver who wants to achieve any sort of success in the sport. Even though it didn’t actually take place, Senna vs Schumacher was truly a battle of two titans.

From left to right: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet Sr.

Photo: ayrtonsenna.com

Piquet vs Mansell vs Prost vs Senna, 1986

Try to imagine a championship battle between Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well it wasn’t too good to be true in 1986, where the established and experienced Nelson Piquet driving for Williams took on the challenge from his teammate Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost with McLaren and Ayrton Senna with Lotus. Senna, who was the youngest of the four, most certainly proved his worth and demonstrated his overwhelming amount of sheer speed by taking half of the sixteen possible pole positions throughout the season despite being in an inferior car to those of his direct rivals (Senna’s teammate, Johnny Dumfries, only scored three points for the entire season).

Someone else who was hungry to prove his worth was Mansell, who at the beginning of his career had been, to put it harshly, schooled by his Lotus teammate Elio De Angelis. Subsequently, the Briton had joined Williams for 1985 and was paired up with the then two-time world champion Nelson Piquet in 1986. Considering the reputation that Mansell would gain during the rest of his time in F1, one would imagine that he’d be itching to defeat one of the greatest drivers ever and take the world championship right in front of him. 

The last man in the title fight, Prost, had in quite dominant fashion won his first title in the previous season after his former teammate at McLaren, Niki Lauda retired from the sport. But after having finished second in the championship three years in a row previously, one title wasn’t enough to settle his hunger.

After having swung back and forth for most of the season, the title race went down to the final race in Adelaide, Australia. It looked as though Mansell would take it, running in the third place he needed to secure the championship after a hectic race filled with position changes the four (though for the last race, only three, as it was mathematically impossible for Senna to take it the title) contenders in between. But on lap 64/82, ‘’Il Leone’’, as he would come to be nicknamed by the tifosi (Ferrari’s legendary fanbase) when he drove for Ferrari later in his career, suffered a left-rear tyre puncture – ironically, only a lap after the same had happened to then-race leader Keke Rosberg – which damaged his suspension and forced him to retire on the spot. Out of fear that a similar failure might happen to Piquet’s car, Williams called him in for a pit stop, allowing Prost to take the lead and thereby the provisional championship lead. 

But even then, it wasn’t all settled. Prost was running dangerously low on fuel, and during the last couple of laps Piquet closed in rapidly on the Frenchman. After being fifteen seconds behind with only two laps to go, the Williams driver reduced the gap to just four seconds at the checkered flag. Prost just managed to hold on, pulling over mere metres after crossing the line because he had run out of fuel. A truly dramatic race and an epic season in general.

Niki Lauda and Alain Prost

Photo: F1

Lauda vs Prost, 1984

Amongst all the other great battles to have taken place across F1’s History, Alain Prost vs Niki Lauda often seems to be forgotten by many people. Granted, the short-lived duel wasn’t as fierce as one perhaps would’ve liked, but even so the 1984 championship was decided between them by half a point, the smallest deciding margin between first and second place in any of F1’s 70 driver championships to have been hosted. And whilst the age difference between the two of them was actually ‘’only’’ (in the context of being a generational battle) six years, I decided to include their battle in this list anyway. There are two main reasons for this. First of all, even despite of the relatively small age difference, Lauda and Prost were at completely different points in their careers when they were teammates at McLaren in 1984; It was Lauda’s last year in F1, having already won two titles, whereas Prost – even though he took place in his fifth season – still was at the beginning of his career, eventually going on to drive until 1993. 

As is often the case with battles between young and experienced drivers, it was very much a case of the wise old fox trying to overcome the raw speed of the youngster. On most Saturdays, Lauda found himself completely outpaced by Prost. On race day however, experience and consistency – something which would turn out to characterize Prost for most of his career – gave Lauda the advantage over his French teammate just enough times to take the championship. 

Although Prost was probably devastated by coming second in the championship for the third year in a row, he seemed to learn a lot from watching Niki Lauda. The Frenchman went to win four titles in his career, as I mentioned, characterized by his calculating approach.

Whether or not the battle of Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton will be able to live up to the levels of intensity and drama of the duels on this list is too early to call. But it seems likely, with both the Bahrain and Emilia Romagna Grands Prix presenting the viewers to scintillating action and excitement in both their own way. Most importantly, the two races of the 2021 season that have taken places so far have already hosted two wheel-to-wheel battles and two controversial moments between the two championship protagonists. One thing is certain; if it continues like this all the way until the final race of the year in Abu Dhabi, this list will need to be updated.

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