Who is the greatest racing driver in history? It’s a question that evokes arguments amongst fans, drivers and journalists alike. Ask F1 folk and they are likely to argue for the likes of Schumacher, Prost, Senna, Clark and Hamilton. IndyCar fans would probably go with the Andrettis, Unsers and Castroneves of the world. WRC followers would find it difficult to look past Loeb, McRae, Rohrl and company. And in our corner of the motorsport world, I’d personally struggle to choose from Kristensen, Ickx, Bell, McNish or Brundle.
Most people name the above based on statistics – races won, titles claimed, win percentages. Some of those legendary drivers hold unbelievable numbers in those categories – be it 9 Le Mans wins, 91 F1 Grand Prix wins, 9 consecutive WRC titles, – and others will argue you can’t compare different eras. In the early days, there were fewer races to rack up those numbers, you were equally likely to be killed as you were to finish, reliability was poor and so forth.
It’s a question that’s unlikely to be answered, but for me personally, a measure of a racing drivers greatness is their ability to perform on multiple stages – different types of cars in different types of category. The likes of Moss, Clark, Hill, Andretti and Mansell all competed – and won – in different categories across their careers – IndyCar, F1, and Sports Cars amongst them.
Each of those disciplines has a crown jewel – Indy 500, Monaco GP and Le Mans 24 respectively. To date, only one man has won all 3 of those and claimed what has become known as motorsports Triple Crown – Graham Hill. That puts him up there in the greatest driver ever conversation for me, and it would seem that at least one man would agree – Fernando Alonso.
- Indy 500 Best Result: 24th (DNF -2017)
- Monaco GP Best Result: 1st (2006,2007)
- Le Mans 24 Best Result: N/A (Entered 2018)
Fernando Alonso is a fantastic racing driver. A two time Formula One World Champion at the age of 25, the Spaniard ended Schumacher and Ferraris 5 year stranglehold on the title, and was touted as the man who would go on and break the records set by the German.
Over a decade on from that, he has come close several times, but not added to that tally. At the age of 35 he appeared to make peace with the fact he would not beat Schumacher’s record of 7 titles – and announced that he would be missing the 2017 Monaco GP to compete in the Indy 500 instead, in order to become the second racer to complete the Triple Crown, an accolade that would write him into the history books and ensure he’s spoken about for years to come.
His two Monaco GP victories came at the height of his powers, winning it for the first time on his way to his second title in 2006 with Renault, before following up the following year in his single year at McLaren-Mercedes.
Whilst his sole (to-date) Indy 500 appearance ended with an (ironic) Honda engine failure, he put in an excellent performance, qualifying 5th and leading 27laps, before his engine blew with 21 laps to go. Alonso received a standing ovation from the crowd as he exited his car, and would later be given Rookie of the Year honours. Its almost certain that he will be back to have a crack at Indy, and as I write this McLaren boss Zak Brown is at Detroit in the IndyCar paddock with the teams new hire Gil de Ferran, with rumours suggesting they are investigating a McLaren based entry for the 2019 season.
Back to this year though, and Fernando will be taking his first tilt at winning Le Mans, and is arguably in the best seat in the house in one of the factory Toyota Hybrids. Despite Toyotas habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, if they are ever going to win the race the super season must surely be their best shot – and the #8 Toyota that Alonso is sharing with Buemi and Nakajima is one of the favourites, and is my pick for the LMP1 and overall honours (and you can read more about the LMP1 battle in our preview).
Of course, Alonso only holds one jewel currently, and there are two other drivers in this year’s field who could potentially etch their name on the crown as well.
- Indy 500 Best Result: N/A
- Monaco GP Best Result: 1st (2009)
- Le Mans 24 Best Result: N/A (Entered 2018)
Britain’s Jenson Button (also known as Benson Jutton for Super GT followers, and Axecoh Battoh for English readers of Russian press releases) took a fantastic Monaco GP victory back in 2009 on his way to a fairytale WDC with Brawn Mercedes – and famously put his car in parc ferme after crossing the line, rather than going to the grid as is traditional for the top 3 at Monaco, and then had to run back for the podium ceremony.
He is also taking part in Le Mans 24 for the first time, entering LMP1 with SMP Racing. Keen followers of theracingline.net will (hopefully) have seen our Super GT coverage, and will know that Jenson and teammate Naoki Yamamoto are currently leading the standings, so he has form in endurance racing and sharing seats. Again, I’ve picked them for a podium finish, and it will be difficult for the new breed of privateer LMP1s to go up against the factory Toyotas and win. But stranger things have happened at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
I would say its next to impossible that Jenson would take the triple crown though – he has lost two close friends in IndyCar races in Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson, and has previously admitted that the series “scare’s the shit out of me”.
Juan Pablo Montoya
- Indy 500 Best Result: 1st (2000, 2015)
- Monaco GP Best Result: 1st (2003)
- Le Mans 24 Best Result: N/A (Entered 2018)
Some people say that the triple crown is Indy 500, Le Mans 24 and the F1 World Championship, and to date, this really hasn’t mattered as Graham Hill won all 3 as well, and both Alonso and Button won Monaco and a WDC. However, general consensus these days is that it is the 3 races, and JPM is the only current active driver to hold 3 of the jewels, putting him firmly in position to get his name on that list.
Montoya won the Indy 500 as a rookie back in 2000, as Chip Ganassi Racing became the first CART team to cross over to the (then) IRL and take victory at the speedway in a one-off race. The following year he crossed the Atlantic to take Jenson Buttons vacant seat at Williams-BMW and became a firm fan favourite.
His Monaco GP victory came in his 3rd season and was a very hard-fought won. Montoya started 3rd on the grid and made his way to 1st through clever pit strategy, and despite the cars behind him clearly having more pace, he held on to win by just 0.6s in one of only 4 F1 races in history to have zero on track overtakes.
Two and half years later he would recross the Atlantic and take a tilt at NASCAR, where he won 2 races, both road courses, in 9 years. He then went from NASCAR, back to IndyCar in 2014. he had an outstanding season in 2015, adding his face to the Borg Warner trophy for the second time, with a dominant performance in leading 167 of the 200 laps at that year’s Indy 500. From that May race Montoya would go on to finish second in the IndyCar championship, level on points with Scott Dixon who was crowned the winner on countback.
During his time in IndyCar, JPM dabbled in sportscars, being one of the many drivers who cross disciplines each January to take part in the Rolex Daytona 24 Hours – and it turns out he’s quite good in a sports car, taking overall victory in 2007, 2008 and 2013.
For 2018 Montoya joined Penske, as they brought their Acura to the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar championship, and will be joining the Le Mans 24 grid in the #32 LMP2 of United Autosports.
For the triple crown, you must win Le Mans overall, and not just take a class win, which makes the chances of him winning the crown this year very very slim. However, I’ve already said Le Mans has a habit of throwing up surprises, and it was only last year where we came within an hour of an LMP2 car winning overall – and 6 of the top 7 positions were occupied by the LMP2 class, all finishing ahead of the first Toyota home.
It would be a massive surprise for a repeat of that this year, and there are a lot more P1 privateers in contention this year. But they are all new cars and have only competed in one 6 hour race, with all of them hitting issues at one point or another. That combined with Toyota’s propensity to find ever more tragic ways to not actually reach the top step, means it is at least a possibility.
Whilst I have picked the #32 Ligier to take the class win, that’s more a case of lead enough horses to water and eventually one of them will drink, and it would take a lot for them to even beat the Oreca’s in the field, let alone all the P1s as well – and you can read a more in-depth preview of the P2 battle elsewhere on our site. Could we see JPM back next year for a full-blown LMP1 tilt at the Triple Crown? I would certainly love to see that.
The 2018 editions of Indy 500 and Monaco GP took place in the last weekend of May, but no one moved any closer to the crown.
Current Renault F1 factory Nico Hulkenberg won Le Mans back in 2015 but has yet to even finish on an F1 podium in 141 starts – an unwanted F1 record. However Renault are looking stronger as each year goes on, and it’s not out of the question that Hulk could win Monaco. If he did that, would he take a tilt at Indy?
LMP1 Porsche stalwart Brendon Hartley won the 2017 Le Mans and then found himself out of a drive a few weeks later as the team announced their withdrawal at the end of the season. It looked likely he was going to compete in this year’s Indy 500 as he signed a deal with Chip Ganassi to compete in the full season – but then Toro Rosso came knocking and he found himself in F1 instead.
Toro Rosso with Honda power was always unlikely to win this years Monaco GP, and in the end he was taken out by hometown hero Charles Leclerc who suffered brake failure. This was probably Brendon’s only chance at Monaco, as there are already rumours the team are looking to replace him after perceived poor results. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in IndyCar next year, but his chance at the triple crown has probably passed.
From the active IndyCar drivers who have won the 500 its hard to see anyone making their way to F1 – 2016 winner Alex Rossi is probably the only one with a shot, but he has already been chewed up by the series once.
From active Le Mans winners, Hulkenbergs fellow 2015 winners Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy probably represent the best chances of making it to F1, although again that’s extremely unlikely in my opinion, as both are well-paid factory drivers, and any F1 drive is likely to require them to pay the team.
So what about current F1 drivers? Nico Rosberg has won Monaco 3 times but seems very happy in retirement. Daniel Ricciardo added his name to the list of Monaco winners this year, whilst 4 x World Champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel are both multiple Monaco winners. At this point its hard to imagine them making their way to compete in either the Pays de La Loire or Speedway, Indiana.
But then, 10 years ago we’d have said that about Fernando Alonso.