Ayrton Senna vs Michael Schumacher

Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, 470150

Last week I asked for your suggestions for F1 Fanatic articles. And coming out on top with almost 100 votes was this topic from Tom Bellingham…

It could have been one of Formula 1′s greatest rivalries. Instead, while Michael Schumacher romped to race wins and world championships in the mid-1990s everyone wondered how it might have been if Ayrton Senna hadn’t perished on May 1st, 1994.

Fourteen years on, Schumacher is retired and playing with motorbikes. Between them they scored ten world championships. But how can we compare their careers?

Career stats

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Spa-Francorchamps, 2004, 470313

Starts Wins (%) Poles (%) Fastest laps (%) Podiums (%) Mechanical failures (%)
Ayrton Senna 161 41 (25.47%) 65 (40.37%) 19 (11.80%) 80 (49.69%) 30 (18.63%)
Michael Schumacher 248 91 (36.69%) 68 (27.42%) 76 (30.65%) 154 (62.10%) 23 (9.27%)

Statistics are all-too easily abused so I’ve selected a few that give us clear and indisputable data.

Senna’s prowess in qualifying is well-documented. Although Schumacher set pole position on three occasions more than Senna – the only person to break the Brazilian’s record – he started 87 more races.

It has been suggested of Senna that he concentrated too much on qualifying at the expense of his race speed, which his comparatively lower number of race fastest laps would support.

It’s important to qualify any conclusions we draw about their race performances by looking at the reliability rates of the cars they drove. Despite his much greater number of race starts, Schumacher actually had fewer race-ending car failures than Senna.

Similarly we must also consider how competitive the cars they drove were and this is where the discussion becomes very subjective. For the sake of argument, let’s consider these were the seasons in which each drove cars capable of winning the championship:

Senna: 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994*
Schumacher: 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999**, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006
*Senna died in the third race of 1994
**Schumacher was injured halfway through 1999

Schumacher’s victory total of 91 is staggering and exceeds his nearest rival, Alain Prost, by 40 wins. But, given the same equipment and level of reliability, might Senna have matched Schumacher’s record? I think so.

Read more Michael Schumacher stats here

Team mates

Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, McLaren-Honda, Adelaide, 1988, 470313

Senna: Johnny Cecotto, Elio de Angelis, Johnny Dumfries, Saturo Nakajima, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Michael Andretti, Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill

Schumacher: Andrea de Cesaris, Nelson Piquet, Martin Brundle, Riccardo Patrese, Jos Verstappen, JJ Lehto, Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa

Much is made of the argument that Schumacher ‘never had a real team mate’ and although I have some sympathy for it I do think it can be over-stated.

Senna, for example, vetoed the presence of Derek Warwick at Lotus alongside him in 1986 and the team promoted the far less experienced Dumfries instead. (Not that this practice was unusual even then – Nelson Piquet had barred Senna from joining him at Brabham as a rookie in 1983).

But Schumacher institutionalised the practice of having a dedicated number one at Ferrari. Only the most blinkered fan would argue he would have won as many races between 1997 and 2005 with a Mika Hakkinen or Fernando Alonso alongside him instead of an Eddie Irvine or Rubens Barrichello.

Schumacher never shared a top car with a driver of anything like Alain Prost’s calibre, but we must remember Senna was only partnered by Prost for two years. Their bitter rivalry was unlike anything the sport has seen before or since (Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso included) the spoils were quite evenly split – although mechanical reliability had a substantial say in Prost winning the ’89 title.

The competition

Another aspect of this comparison which, like the competitiveness of their machinery, it hard to assess empirically, is how good their other rivals were.

Were the likes of Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Riccardo Patrese and Gerhard Berger tougher opposition for Senna than drivers like Juan-Pablo Montoya, Jean Alesi, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen were for Schumacher?

Within their teams

What sort of a role did the two play within their teams?

Much has been made of Schumacher’s efforts to reinvigorate Ferrari and, whatever you think of the means by which it was achieved, the results were staggering and are still being felt to this day.

Technicians who worked with Senna raved about the detail and accuracy of his observations about a car’s handling, partiularly in the days when on-board telemetry was in its infancy.

But Senna arguably did little to improve McLaren’s lot in the early 1990s as his high salary demands coupled with the team’s need to purchase engines following the departure of Honda stymied development of the team. Ron Dennis can hardly have been impressed when Senna then offered to race for Williams at no cost…

The controversies

Let’s get one thing clear: neither driver was above taking off a championship rival in a deciding race.

Senna may have only done it once but his willingness to do it at a speed of around 150mph (Prost having taken him out at a comparative snail’s pace the year before) shocked and appalled many.

Schumacher on the other hand had the audacity to try it twice – once with success in 1994, and once without in 1997.

Controversy about Senna was generally confined to his robust methods of defence, something that Schumacher also got quite a lot of criticism for. I do feel that a lot of what Senna got criticised for seems fairly tame by modern standards – his squeezing of Prost towards the pit wall at Portugal in 1988 elicited shrieks of outrage at the time but today we would probably consider it a straightforward defence.

Perhpas in time we will come to see some of Schumacher’s defensive moves including the notorious ‘Schuey chop’ in much the same way? But the brazen and transparent stunt he pulled at Monaco in 2006 will surely not be remembered so kindly, nor the arrogance with which he and Ferrari presumed no-one else would figure out what he was up to.

So which was better?

Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, TI Aida, 1994, 470313

If you ask me which driver I preferred, I can answer quite easily: Senna. Why? Well, when traction control first came into F1 in the early 1990s Senna argued passionately for it to be banned, claiming it detracted from the skill of the driver.

Schumacher never had time for questions such as the sporting merit of Formula 1. He even once admitted that, when he first watched the sport as a spectator, he didn’t much enjoy the experience. I may respect his talent, but as he’s not a fan of the sport I could never really warm to him.

But which was the better driver? That is far harder to answer.

In some ways the two are products of their time. Schumacher perfected the art of strategic racing; Senna was a master at street circuits when they were much more common in the sport.

I still think only Jim Clark could approach Senna in terms of speed over a single lap. However, even taking into account what I’ve written above about car reliability and relative car qualities, I still think Schumacher was fractionally the better driver over a race distance.

But looking at the entirety of their careers, the sophistication of the cars they drove and the opposition they faced inside and outside their cars, for me Senna was the greater driver.

What do you think?

Ayrton Senna biography
Michael Schumacher biography

This topic was suggested by Tom Bellingham. If you’ve got an idea for an F1 Fanatic article suggest it using the “Suggest an article for F1 Fanatic” box and other readers will vote on it. You can also email ideas to Keith using the contact form.

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81 comments on Ayrton Senna vs Michael Schumacher

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  1. Well,

    I think that the stats answer to the question ! Let’s see :
    - About wins, competitors of Senna are not the same than for Schumacher (mansell, prost) !
    - Best lap : depending on technology not on the driver
    - Pole position : this is for me the best indicator, cause it’s depending of the drivers skills only ! It compared the driver with other one and for the same period ! And senna get 40 % of pole position ! He was almost on pole position every 2 races !

    Compare Senna and Prost will be a real debate :)

  2. dave said on 29th May 2008, 13:20

    in response to your new artcile i was wondering if we could create a new stats table for schumacher where we only take his first 161 races. thus the same amount as ayrton senna. I feel this could be a intresting angle that f1fanatic would enjoy seeing, congratulations on the website its a cracker.

    could someon please forward this to the contact us response section as my laptop for some reason will not let me!

    cheers

  3. Great article, and very fair. It’s always going to be an emotional argument, but when you listen to how Senna spoke so passionately and profoundly about his own driving, I kind of get the impression he could have lifted to the challenge of Schumacher.

    I’ve always thought Michael was the more complete driver, in terms of everything in and out of the car, but for raw speed alone it is hard to look past Ayrton.

  4. Although this may sound stupid, I believe that Schumacher was the better racer, but that Senna was the better driver.
    Schumacher could plan his races better, he knew when to push and when to hold back, and he also knew no fear – he proved this in his final race at Brazil in 2006.
    However, if you put them in equal cars, I think Senna would have the edge. Senna got to the top by using his skills as a driver, whereas Schumacher maximised the whole package – his own talent, the car he was given and his technical team.
    Unfortunately, I think that many people choose not to see a reasoned argument, and favour Senna over Schumacher because Senna’s story is much more emotional and romantic than Schumacher’s. Fans of the sport choose to see Schumacher’s felonies and block out Senna’s.
    For me, Senna is the greatest driver in the history of the sport, but Schumacher does not get the respect he deserves as the man who showed everyone in the sport how to win.

  5. Jonesracing82 said on 29th May 2008, 13:31

    for me it’s Senna hands down!
    not only did Senna take on Prost and Mansell, he also took on Piquet in his prime! not to mention Lauda and Rosberg in thier latter years, plus the cars of Senna’s era were much less reliable!
    with the “H” pattern gearboxes he often finished races with a gear missing etc, now, they lose one gear and the race is over!
    it would have been an incredible era and i think Senna would have come out on top!

    • solobizarro said on 12th December 2013, 21:17

      I believe you are the first person other than myself that mentions the “H” gearbox and the higher level of skill it requires. This is why I think Schumy will always be second to Senna, and Prost for that matter.

  6. Scott Joslin said on 29th May 2008, 13:41

    I would not use qualifying as a sole gage of talent. Besides, Schumacher lived in an area where fuel strategy impacted on qualifying pace, and qualifying rules were changing every year plus parc ferme meant that he couldn’t always set the car up for the fastest lap on a Saturday afternoon, he had to consider Sunday as the priority.

    Despite all the stats and the fact they were completely polorised in personality – Senna fiery and emotional and Schumacher cold and collected, I find their careers hard to separate.

    Schumacher should get my vote, but Senna just takes it as he lived in an era when there were multiple world champions racing that he had to over come – Piquet, Prost, Lauda. Schumacher unfortunately – due to no fault of his own raced in the prime of his career when there was a glut of quality.

    Both were ruthless to the extreme, whether it be taking a rival off at 150mph or parting up deliberately to spoil the rest of the fields qualifying.

    Had Senna not been taken from us at Imola, I don’t feel he would have raced on successfully in F1 too long after 1994 anyway to rival Schumacher – but that is another story

  7. Daniel said on 29th May 2008, 14:13

    As a brazilian who grew up watching Senna’s third title and his final years with McLaren, especially 1993, it’s impossible for me to choose anyone else than Ayrton…

    Trying to be rational, I would say Senna was the greatest in the art of taking the most out of the car under extreme conditions (qualifying, street circuits, rain, mechanical gremlins), while Schumacher was the master of strategy…

    For me, if Senna had the right car during more seasons (and had he won the controversial 1989 championship), his statistics would be better.

    By the way: excellent article of yours, one of the best ever of your blog!

  8. Jolene said on 29th May 2008, 14:21

    I agree with Scott.Schumacher had to deal with fuel strategies for race day. Senna was my hero but in all honesty Schumi was the greater driver. I think this topic will be heatedly debated over personal like and dislike of the two and not their abilities. Its almost like trying to compare Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Two different generations, different tools. Rather compare Senna with Prost and Michael with Hakkinen.

  9. Put all statistics aside and let see another side of the question: entertainment! When we seat to watch races we doesn’t thinking just about statistics at all. There something more about it…

    In fact we want to see the best show on earth at 310 km/h. Sorry to say, but any driver was better entertainer than Senna.

    His victory in Brazil in 93, his first lap in Donnington/93, his first Monaco race with a Toleman, the race in Japan that gave him his first championship and many more…

    Donnington/93, Brazil/93, Monaco/84 in all this cases he doesn’t have the best car on grid. In Japan/88 his race recover, coming from 18º, was made in the wet, against Prost, one of the best ever.

    Michael was a bureaucratic. His best pass moves was made through the boxes, against a poor generation of drivers.

    Entertainment, guys! This is what made Senna better than Michael and put him aside Jim Clark.

  10. Steven Roy said on 29th May 2008, 14:37

    I have to go for Senna. Schumacher did everything he could to avoid having a competitive team mate. When he was looking for a move from Benetton as reigning double world champion he could have gone to McLaren and taken on Hakkinen in equal equipment but he dodged that to go to Ferrari and build the team round himself. Ron tried to sign him a few times but refused to give him number one status.

    Senna on the other hand with 3 seasons experience and only a few race wins to his name went to McLaren which at the time was seen as Team Prost and took Alain on head to head and drove him out the door. There is not the slightest chance that Schumacher would have gone to a team with Senna in it and tried to take him on head to head before he won a title and firmly established hi reputation and future financial wellbeing.

    Prost it should be remembered chose to go up against Lauda in equal equipment when McLaren was Team Lauda.

    Schumacher really cannot be compared with these drivers. I am not saying he was not a great driver but these two were a bit above him.

  11. Ago said on 29th May 2008, 14:45

    Schuma.. what?
    I have my own special way to measure great drivers…
    If the guy has got more poles than wins to me he is the kind of guy I like. Of course he’s got to quite a lot of these to be in my list… For me a racer must be quick and taking risks (not with his life or other’s indeed) so he won’t win all the races he leaded on the grid.
    Amazingly the 2 drivers that top my charts are the drivers that I have loved (and I still love to watch on tape, DVD…) to watch racing…

    Senna and Clark the elite drivers!

  12. Diacho said on 29th May 2008, 15:09

    The problem about comparing Schumacher with anyone is the way he achieved his wins. To read or hear Barrichelo about his days at Ferrari is really painful. You can’t compare Schumacher as a driver/racer, because his wins were not about driving/racing but about being alone at the front from 2000-2004. And how many of his fantastic stats are from this period?

  13. Sush said on 29th May 2008, 15:11

    Dave, great idea, please Keith make it so!

    Vertigo, Brazil 2006 should be ignored, it was his last race…. so people got out of his way out of courtesy

  14. dave said on 29th May 2008, 15:16

    sush have u been able to forawrd my message on?? im really annoyed it wouldnt let me lol technology great itll it doesnt work. i have a feling it will be much much closer infact i think senna may edge the statistics with the first 161 reults form eachdriver taken. i think that will give us a better measure

  15. Fernando said on 29th May 2008, 15:46

    Senna is the best hands down in my mind at least. I grew up in Rio de Janeiro in the early 80′s watching Senna as a kid. He was my hero and a true champion, gentleman and a genuine class act. When he perished in 1994 it was a shock to all of Brasil and Brazilians world-wide. Every now and then when I read the articles about Senna it brings a tear to my eye, that he is no longer with us. That being said I am not taking anything away from Michael, as far as stats go he is definitely better. But if you throw in charisma and sportsmanship into that formula, I don’t think anyone is better then Senna, and obviously he was also an incredible driver, that had an unfortunate early departure.

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