The quintessence of motor sport – indeed the ethos of all sport – is its capacity for gladiatorial confrontation. The most extreme example, arguably, is the current fashion for mixed martial arts, which has dived opinion but developed a vast and passionate following in a relatively short time.
Tennis has never been as gladiatorial as it is today, as we have seen at Wimbledon, despite its civilised disguise of stripy blazers and strawberries and cream. And cricket, so often and falsely presented as a metaphor for gentlemanly fair play, thrives on the collisions of individuals inside what is essentially a team game.
In Formula One, rivalry is always most fervent when it is between team-mates. The irony of modern F1 is that Mercedes have attempted to diffuse the intensity of the conflict between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. It is what everyone will be focused on at Silverstone on Sunday . And whatever they say to the contrary, the team and their sponsors revel in the publicity it creates just as much as everyone else.
But even Hamilton and Rosberg cannot approach the greatest rivalry in the history of Formula One between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. The documentary Senna provides a clue to the story, though it is essentially presented from the Brazilian’s point of view. It appeared to stir up an ancient enmity in Prost, who said: “I am very disappointed because it would have been good at my age to have shown to the people, to the world, that it was a little bit different. I know what happened, I know the story.”
Even modern drivers were greatly affected by the deeds of these two multiple world champions – Hamilton worships the spirit of Senna, while Britain’s other world champion, Jenson Button, is a great admirer of Prost’s smooth style. Senna and Prost’s crashes in 1989 and 1990 decided the world championships of those years.
It all started when Senna joined McLaren in 1988. The first big sign there would be trouble came at Monaco when Senna, who was leading his team‑mate, crashed on lap 67 and instead of returning to his team stormed off to his apartment. After the race Prost argued Senna was desperate to prove he was the better driver of the two. Events proved he was right.
The relationship reached its nadir at Suzuka in 1989, when the two crashed to give Prost his third world title. Even when Prost joined Ferrari the feisty competition did not end, but in 1990 Senna ended up with the championship.
Neither was there any love lost in the Williams pairing of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Their most memorable battle came at the 1987 British Grand Prix, when Mansell performed his famous “Silverstone two-step”, selling Piquet a dummy on the Hangar Straight and winning the race as his fuel ran out.
The feuding between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi had extra frisson because they were Ferrari drivers, with all the politics that situation involves. Villeneuve was faster but Pironi was arguably the cleverer driver. That particular war dates back to 1982 but the title that year went to Nico Rosberg’s father, Keke.
Another film, Rush, directed by Ron Howard, told the story of the 1976 season, when James Hunt won the title after a highly charged battle with the Austrian Niki Lauda, the action reaching its climax in the final race at a rain-soaked Suzuka.
The most recent high-profile clash before the Hamilton-Rosberg saga was between the Red Bull twosome of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. Their relationship reached an all-time low when they crashed in Turkey in 2010. The Anglophile Webber had a great deal of popular support but it was Vettel who won the titles.
And now we have Hamilton and Rosberg, once close friends but now locked in a fierce embrace. It might get even worse, whatever Mercedes say.
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