Friday, March 17, 2006

Qualifying king - Schumacher or Senna?

Michael Schumacher's statistical dominance of Formula One racing is hardly news. By pretty much any objective standard you care to employ, he's already proved himself the most successful driver the sport has ever produced. But after taking P1 on the grid in Bahrain, he's now just one away from clinching the last of the major statistical records to have eluded him so far - that of the late Ayrton Senna's 65 pole positions.

Not that the seven-times world champion needs to break this final record to prove himself, of course. He's already taken 84 victories from 231 race starts. By contrast, the next most successful driver, Alain Prost, managed ‘just’ 51 wins from 199 races. Schumacher has taken more fastest laps (69), enjoyed more visits to the podium (143), scored more championship points (1256), led for more laps (4769) and led for more distance (22,469 kilometres) than any other driver in the history of the sport.

Despite all of the above, many will regard this final record - and the relative time it has taken Schumacher to reach it - as clear evidence that this is one area where he can't match the mercurial Senna. The Brazilian racked up his 65 poles in the 161 races that preceded his tragic death at Imola in 1994. Schumacher has needed almost half as many races again to reach the same mark.

Not only is that a considerably better ‘strike rate’, Senna taking pole on average every 2.5 races during his career, versus one pole for every 3.5 race starts for Schumacher - but the Brazilian was also empirically better able to ‘over-qualify’ relatively poor cars. In his first season with a front-ranking team, driving for Lotus in 1985, he managed to score seven poles, although the car's disastrous reliability only allowed him to turn one of those into a victory. The following year he bettered that with no fewer than nine pole positions for Lotus, although he emerged victorious at the end of only two of those races.

And in 1988, by now driving for McLaren, Senna put in what was possibly the greatest ever qualifying lap - taking P1 at the tight and twisty Monaco circuit with a time 1.4 seconds faster than the second-placed man - Alain Prost, who was driving an identical car. Gerhard Berger's third placed Ferrari was 2.7 seconds down on him. It was the most dominant qualifying performance in the recent history of the sport - and Senna later confessed that he had felt himself to be having a strange, out-of-body experience while he was doing it.

Schumacher has long claimed to be unconcerned with the statistical records that he is breaking - and he's long since proved himself the most successful Formula One driver of all time. But when it comes to qualifying, the black art of extracting the absolute maximum from a car over a single flying lap, many will argue that - 66 poles or not - it's still the one place he will have to defer to Senna.

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