The grandest motorsport heroes (of the past 2 decades)
This article is part of the "(of the past 2 decades)" series I decided to write for myself (and for you - if you are patient enough to read through them), recapping what was going on in the world from 2000 to 2020. A weekend of motorsport was a classic leisure time activity for the 20th century human - whether it was about racing or watching others race. That remained luckily unchanged in the first part of the 21st century, as we were able to crown many fine men (and women) on the throne of speed. But who were the most noteworthy? Let's find that out!
10) Kenan Sofuoglu
Sofuoğlu with his Kawasaki team. Photo courtesy of Giorgio Minguzzi.
Ever heard of Turkish racing drivers or motorcyclists competing at the top level? Well, if no, maybe it is time to pay more attention, because Kenan Sofuoğlu’s career was one real fairy tale. He was born into a motorbiking family as the youngest of three brothers. His oldest brother was a champion in a domestic Turkish national championship, but passed away at the age of 24 due to a tragic accident. His other brother also died a few years after due to injuries suffered in a motorcycle race. So there Kenan was left as the sole child still alive in this motor racing family and to show life he is not one to mess with he became a dominating force in the Supersport series scooping up 5 World Championships. I’d advise everyone against downplaying the importance of that series, as Supersport may not be the most prestigious championship, but beating top riders coming from established motorcycling nations from top motorbiking countries all around the world is a respectable show on its own. And such achievements are important in jump-starting the motorsports scene in a country, which Sofuoğlu clearly did, as now there are more and more talented Turkish racers following in his footsteps.
What earned him hero status: Turkish national pride.
9) Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima
Nobuhiro Tajima was a household name in Japanese domestic off-road events, but he started out his international career as a works driver for Suzuki, developing rally cars. Rally cars of the slowest possible kind, that is. Although they achieved relative success together, cars like the Suzuki Baleno Wagon were never poised to become racing legends. But Tajima and Suzuki also started challenging the Pikes Peak Hillclimb race, eventually winning it. And they kept building the craziest Suzukis on Earth, racing them and winning with them in the early 2000s, coming to a sum of 8 victories and many records breaking times. Throughout the years Tajima became the master of the course and he stood with the event even after Suzuki left, switching to electric cars. Currently at the age of 69, Tajima no longer participates, but using his experience gathered in motorsport he started developing EVs for the road. And I think an EV company trademarked by Mr. Tajima’s excellence is one all motorsport loving people can cheer for.
What earned him hero status: Crazy fast Pikes Peak racer.
8) Yvan Muller
For a short period of time, WTCC attracted the best touring car drivers. Only a few could best Muller.
Touring car racing isn’t necessarily the fastest motorsport on Earth, but it is definitely very competitive. It has a high turnover rate, meaning there are fresh young talents every year and some of them probably won’t make it for long as they will either run out of money or get fed up with being pushed around by faster competitors. Yvan Muller was once such a rookie too, but he sticked to the genre and was dedicated to learn from the best. He started out in the French and Italian Touring Car Championships and quickly stepped up to the BTCC, which was considered the top tier of touring car racing around the millennia. A steady learning process born his first championship title in 2003, but as FIA opened up the World Touring Car Championship, he moved on with many fellow BTCC drivers and remained amongst the best ever since. There was no year when he wasn’t in contention for the driver’s title up until 2016 when he decided to retire. Although as we know that was a lie, but is it a surprise from cunning old Yvan? No, it isn’t – known for a bit dirty racing style he has both speed and a bag full of tricks, so anyone who can beat him has the bragging rights.
What earned him hero status: Became a touring car benchmark.
7) Vladimir Chagin
Sergey Savostin (left), Semen Yakubov (center) and Vladimir Chagin (right) don't look like your regular fast guys.
Something completely different – but definitely not easier. Off-road truck racing is not a discipline motorsport fans used to commemorate, but it is worth to take a moment off the regular categories, as it is clearly a genre where the co-operation between men and machine is key. Russian KamAZ became dominant in the past two decades and Vladimir Chagin played a huge part in it. Known as an extremely humble person, Chagin is not your typical extravagant playboy, but rather a hard-working simple man. When Chagin arrived at KamAZ, the state-owned manufacturer was struggling after the fall of the Soviet Union and in the Dakar rally, they were regularly beaten by the Tatra team headed by Karel Loprais. But the way Chagin developed the truck and the team turned the wheel of fortune. And of course, he was also blisteringly fast. Nowadays he is the team principal and take cares that a newer generation of Russian crews keep winning the truck category at the Dakar. So far, he is quite good at it.
What earned him hero status: Lots of work and lots of sand.
6) Petter Solberg
A WRC and 2 WRX titles are not a bad pedigree for anyone on four wheels, but Petter Solberg is such a fun and passionate character that he would probably have secured a place on this list even without those wins. He understands that motorsport is more than just what happens on the track from clock to clock and is very engaging with fans and rivals alike, treating them as part of his family.
It is noteworthy that his career was almost over in 2008 after Subaru announced that they are leaving WRC and the Norwegian received no contract as a works driver from any other manufacturer. Yet – showing excellent business skills - Solberg took matters in his own hands and started his own team, scoring unusually high for a privateer with years old technology against the newer cars of the works teams. Since then he modified and fine-tuned his cars himself and is known to love this job, so maybe after his retirement from professional racing - which took place in 2019 - it is time to shine as a team principal or performance car builder? As a real showman he has also organized many rally shows with his brother, Henning and his son, Oliver (who is en route to the WRC by the way) earning him the nickname Mr. Hollywood.
What earned him hero status: Being the perfect motorsport role-model.
5) Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton used to show up in various designer clothes at FIA's year end gala. But that's how he rolls.
Coming out of McLaren’s development programme Lewis Hamilton was already a karting legend by the time he earned his seat in the team of Ron Dennis. Everybody knew he was coming, but not many thought the new generation of British motorsport will be so fast. In fact, so fast that he was a championship contender in his first year already and didn’t slow down ever since, breaking countless records and becoming the most prized driver in modern age Formula 1. Although having received many harassments due to his ethnic background, Hamilton is also a fan favourite for his somewhat cocky, but down-to-earth behaviour on and off the track. He isn’t shy to speak his mind, but never exceeds the boundaries of respect. However, the most brilliant thing about him is that it’s not really possible to compare his personality or racing style to any other driver from before. Some say he’s a bit of Villeneuve or Senna, but in reality, he is pretty unique, something motorsport never truly seen before. He is a kid raised into the role of being a motorsport hero and he seems to perfectly fit in and enjoy this career.
What earned him hero status: Talent management done right.
4) Tom Kristensen
Kristensen with the 2003 winning car, Bentley Speed8. Which was a camouflaged Audi R8. Photo by Stu.G.
While many great drivers showed their skills in endurance racing in this 20 year, one that really endured was that of Tom Kristensen’s. He was a classic formula car dropout, who climbed the one-seater ladder but was unable to secure a seat in Formula 1, so in 1997 he was signed to drive an LMP car for Reinhold Joest’s team with Stefan Johansson and Michele Alboreto instead. His two teammates formed an F1 team by Ferrari in the ’80s already, so this was a remarkable entry into the world of Le Mans with the best tutors around. Kristensen won on his first 24 hours occasion already. He did attempt to get into touring cars, but he achieved no breakthrough result in BTCC or DTM, thus mainly focused his attention to compete in Herr Joest’s Le Mans squad collecting a total of 9 first places in the French event. While the importance of Le Mans decreased a lot in recent years, manufacturers still think of it as a prestige race and pour millions of dollars to achieve victory. Kristensen’s achievement will likely be long standing as the currently active top drivers have a win count of only 3.
What earned him hero status: 9 wins for Mr. Le Mans.
3) Michael Schumacher
A typical early 2000 Formula-1 podium. Jean Todt cried a lot in those days from the happiness.
In the past few years the news about Michael Schumacher were unfortunately not related to his achievements, but to his accident that left him in a mysterious health issue. Let’s put that aside for a moment and go back to 1994, when he first became World Champion. One more title followed with Benetton, but the rest of the ’90s were mixed with Grand Prix wins and Grand Prix failures for Schumi. He had to wait until 2000 to find his big form again with the famous Ferrari-Jean Todt-Ross Brawn trio. By some it is titled the most boring part of F1 history.
7 Driver's Championship title is a record still unmatched, but Hamilton is inching closer.
There was a season when McLaren was able to challenge them, but the team shaped the races the way they wanted to. There was no question who wins, no mistakes were made. If they wished to go with 4 pit stops while everyone else did 1 or 2 they were free to do so. Schumacher even had time for a coffee before everyone else finished. In one year, he was crowned World Champion before the usual summer break. The victory stint lasted until 2005 when a young Spaniard arrived in a blue-yellow Renault. But that’s another story, Schumacher ended up collecting 7 World Championship titles and the 5 he collected after 2000 will probably be the ones he remains most known for. Absolutely crushing the field in the classic barcode-liveried Ferraris.
What earned him hero status: Formula One domination.
2) Sébastien Loeb
In the beginning. The little Saxo proved to be an excellent stepping stone.
A popular fun fact about Loeb is that he used to be a gymnast set to go to the Olympics before trying his luck in rallying. If that tells one thing about the man is that he is extremely precise with every corner and every flick of the car. He has a very distinctive driving style from top rally drivers of the early 2000s like Colin McRae who drove more intuitively. Loeb does not simply goes around a corner – he engineers every inch of the corner. Though that does not mean he is simply an asphalt-specialist like Gilles Panizzi was, he is just as fast on gravel and beats the flying Finns on home soil with his on-the-point turning angles.
2006 was an odd year, as Citroën entered the aging Xsara WRCs through satellite team Kronos Racing. Loeb was injured for the last four rounds and was unable to start, but still won the Driver's title by a margin of 1 point.
That however is not solely his own virtue, in his Citroën junior years he was given cars like the Saxo Kit Car and the C2 S1600, both extremely handy FWDs that are ideal to learn high level rally driving. And of course, there was Daniel Elena – his co-driver -, who throughout the thousands of kilometres and millions of corners aided Loeb in his nine WRC titles. Yet there was more to his career than just rallying – he also has an impressive track record in GT racing, rallycross, touring cars, has a Pikes Peak overall win, an overall 2nd from the Dakar Rally and an overall 2nd place from Le Mans.
What earned him hero status: Cleanest driving style in his domain.
1) Valentino Rossi
A Mugello Grand Prix is the most sacred event in a year for the tifosi, as it is the holy land of Valentino Rossi.
Not simply a hero for many, but a superhero. While Rossi has not achieved the championship count of former GP riders, Giacomo Agostini or Ángel Nieto (that would be impossible in the current format), he became a legend of the same calibre. Many people dispute his racing style, but can’t dispute that his name sold millions of motorcycles, tyres, energy drinks, apparel and even cars. You could have Lorenzo, Marquez or Hayden win the championship, but Rossi remained the ace. His team colours and helmet design are recognized all around the world even by those who do not follow MotoGp. And his most passionate fans? They would kill for Rossi – which sometimes can be an issue – but the fan club and Rossi himself is behind many charitable deeds as well, trying to show good example.
If you awaited a four-wheel specialist to top this list don't be put off either, for Valentino loves cars as well.
While Rossi seems to be past the zenith of his career, he gave the audience unforgettable memories such as his move to Yamaha and first win at the South African GP, his ceremonial preparation for a ride, fights against Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau, Loris Capirossi or Casey Stoner, superb non-racing materials shared from his Supermoto ranch and all those classic victory celebrations full of authentic Italian body language. The whole man is just such a lovable character that perfectly summarizes the passion of motorsport everybody is after. Watching Rossi race is uplifting and motivating, especially after a hard week at work.
What earned him hero status: Proof that motorsport can still be entertaining.
Sébastien Ogier, Stéphane Peterhansel, Jonathan Rea, Sebastian Vettel, Marc Marquez, Fernando Alonso, Anyone that races the Isle of Man