Ayrton Senna vs Michael Schumacher

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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.