Formula One drivers are constantly on the limit of what is humanly and technologically possible. Succeeding in such a high-pressure environment is not for the faint-hearted. This SportsAspire article lists some Formula One drivers who are rightly considered legends of the sport.
The Unsung Heroes
Drivers before the age of an official worldwide Formula One Championship, which began in 1950, are often forgotten due to very little evidence being present of the earlier races. Tazio Nuvolari, who never raced in Formula One, is considered by some to be among the best racing drivers of all time. Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the eponymous automotive firm, described Nuvolari as the best driver of the present, past, and future.
Formula One is one of the most popular sports in the world. It started out in the 1950s as a pastime for the elite classes, before slowly gaining more cosmopolitan fame through the years. The cars in much of the sport’s history have been unreliable and extremely risky, before mellowing out in the late noughties. As it gained more acclaim, the commercial side of the sport also grew, and it has now attained the status as a global behemoth, with ties to virtually every major field of industry.
Despite the constant and ongoing evolution in every aspect of the sport, one thing has always gone hand-in-hand with Formula One: Speed!
Speed merchants over the years have always viewed Formula One as the crucible of speed. From the black and white days of Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio to the colorful battles between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, the tussle to go just a bit faster than what is possible (or safe) has defined this exhilarating sport like no other.
Formula One drivers are not just mad speed freaks, though that is indeed the most important criterion; in modern times, they are also increasingly becoming the fittest athletes in the world. Due to the incredibly quick reflexes and mental aptitude required to successfully drive an F1 car, they also have to be quite sharp. Due to the variety of demands placed on Formula One drivers, even being on the starting grid of a Grand Prix is a considerable achievement for most drivers. The achievements of the legends of the game, the best of whom are listed below, can be considered on the scale of Herculean myths and epics.
Here’s a list of the greatest Formula One drivers in the illustrious history of the sport.
Drivers have been ranked from 15 to 1. The inclusion and ranking of drivers is entirely a personal choice of the writer―opinions may differ. The statistics for presently active drivers are correct as of November 25, 2013, and include statistics from the 2013 season.
Greatest F1 Drivers Of All Time
Born: September 28, 1968
Races Started: 161
Pole Positions: 26
Race Victories: 20
Championships: 2 (1998, 1999)
Hakkinen is one of the many successful Finns in F1. He was described by 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher as his toughest opponent.
He started out with Lotus in 1991, before becoming McLaren’s test driver behind Ayrton Senna and Mario Andretti. Following the exit and dismissal of Senna and Andretti, respectively, Hakkinen became McLaren’s lead driver in 1994. He made a stunning comeback after a near-fatal injury during the Australian Grand Prix in 1995, and won the last two titles of the 20th century. His main rival during this period was the then two-time world champion Michael Schumacher, and the pair was involved in many thrilling and controversial battles.
Nationality: British (English)
Born: August 8, 1953
Career: 1980-1992, 1994-1995
Races Started: 187
Pole Positions: 32
Race Victories: 31
Championships: 1 (1992)
Mansell is the sixth most successful F1 driver in terms of race wins, and is the only one in the top 10 to have won only one world title. He is the most successful British driver by race wins. He is also the only racer to simultaneously hold Formula One and Indy Car titles, having won the latter in 1993, a year after his sole F1 title triumph.
Starting out with Lotus in 1980, Mansell really came into his own around the end of the decade, racing competitively for Williams and Ferrari. His 1992 Williams car is considered among the best F1 cars of all time, and he set several records (since broken) with it, including the most number of pole positions and wins in a single season, and winning the title with the most races left.
Nationality: British (English)
Born: January 7, 1985
Races Started: 129
Pole Positions: 31
Race Victories: 22
Championships: 1 (2008)
Hamilton is the first black driver to start an F1 race. He was nurtured and educated in the McLaren Youth Driver Support Program, and made a sensational debut for them in the 2007 season. Taking the motoring world by storm, the 22-year old rookie finished second, finishing a single point behind the champion, Kimi Raikkonen. In the next season, he went one better by becoming the youngest world champion in history.
After spending 6 years with McLaren, he switched to Mercedes Benz in 2013. After his first race victory in the Mercedes, he became the first Brit to win a race in a Mercedes factory car since Stirling Moss in 1955.
He is often described as the fastest current Formula One driver; when equipped with the same car as incumbent world champion Sebastian Vettel on the popular BBC show Top Gear, Hamilton drove around the Top Gear test track more than one second faster than Vettel.
Born: July 13, 1918
Died: May 26, 1955
Races Started: 32
Pole Positions: 14
Race Victories: 13
Championships: 2 (1952, 1953)
Ascari is a legend in motorsport. He was one of the early masters of F1, along with legends such as Fangio and Nino Farina. Farina and Ascari are the only Italians to win the Formula One World Championship, and Ascari remains the last to achieve the feat.
Ascari raced for Ferrari, Maserati, and Lancia, winning his titles with the former. He holds the record for the highest percentage of races won in a single season, winning 75% of the 8 races in 1952.
Born: January 18, 1950
Died: May 8, 1982
Races Started: 68
Pole Positions: 2
Race Victories: 6
Gilles Villeneuve is often considered as one of the fastest drivers of all time―maybe even the fastest―without having won the World Championship! His natural talent and breathtaking driving style endeared him to fans, and his searing pace allowed him to get into positions utterly improbable in his often-inferior cars. The pinnacle of his talent came in the final race of the 1979 season. Confined to the second spot in the World Championship, Villeneuve won the rain-impaired race by over 48 seconds! In qualifying, he had set by far the fastest time, outstripping his own teammate and confirmed World Champion Jody Scheckter, by an astounding nine seconds!
Villeneuve was killed in a crash during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982. He is remembered as one of the most unfortunate, yet quickest racing drivers of all time.
Born: July 29, 1981
Races Started: 216
Pole Positions: 22
Race Victories: 32
Championships: 2 (2005, 2006)
Fernando Alonso shot to the world’s attention by breaking Michael Schumacher and Ferrari’s seemingly unstoppable series of world titles in 2005. He went on to consolidate his position in 2006, becoming the youngest double champion in the history of the sport. After a turbulent year at McLaren, he rejoined Renault, and then joined Ferrari. He has courted many controversies during his career. He was heavily involved in the ‘spygate’ scandal that revealed McLaren’s possession of secret data gathered by Ferrari. He was involved in the 2008 ‘crashgate’ controversy, where, possibly without Alonso’s knowledge, Renault ordered his teammate to crash, with the resultant developments favoring Alonso, who went on to win the race. In 2010, his teammate, Felipe Massa, was cryptically ordered by Ferrari to let Alonso past. The violation of the rules banning team orders resulted in USD 100,000 fine.
In Ferrari colors, Alonso finished second behind the unstoppable Sebastian Vettel in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
Born: February 22, 1949
Career: 1971-79, 1982-85
Races Started: 171
Pole Positions: 24
Race Victories: 25
Championships: 3 (1975, 1977, 1984)
Lauda’s career is a testament to the heroic nature of Formula One. He first emerged as a world beater in his days at British Racing Motors (BRM). His BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni had moved on to Ferrari, and his praise convinced Enzo Ferrari to bring Lauda to Ferrari as well. At Ferrari, he soon deposed Regazzoni as the lead driver, and won two of his three world titles. He suffered a terrible injury in the 1976 German Grand Prix, and lost out on the title race. Despite winning the title in the following year, he left Ferrari due to various issues, and joined Brabham. In 1979, he left Brabham to run his charter airline company, Lauda Air.
Lauda returned to F1 to fund his airline company, and joined McLaren. In his title-winning 1984 campaign he became the first and as yet, only Austrian driver to win the Austrian Grand Prix. His third title came 7 years after his second, which is a record that is still intact.
Nationality: British (Scottish)
Born: March 4, 1936
Died: April 7, 1968
Races Started: 72
Pole Positions: 33
Race Victories: 25
Championships: 2 (1963, 1965)
Jim Clark is one of the most highly regarded racing drivers in history. The scale of his achievements went far beyond the mere statistics of 33 pole positions and 25 race victories, both of which were records at the time. Clark achieved these numbers in fewer races than all the contenders, and was possibly the most naturally talented and quickest drivers in F1 history. Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari have a higher winning percentage than Clark, and only Fangio started on pole for a larger share of his races.
Clark’s partnership with Lotus genius Colin Chapman and his revolutionary, aerodynamic cars is the stuff of legends. He served up some of the very best drives in racing history, including his 1963 victory at Spa-Francorchamps. Having started eighth on the grid amid wet conditions, Clark had lapped all but one driver by the end. The one driver racing on the same lap as Clark, the legendary Jack Brabham, had fallen more than five minutes behind him!
Clark was killed in a racing accident on the Hockenheim ring in 1968.
Nationality: British (Scottish)
Born: June 11, 1939
Races Started: 99
Pole Positions: 17
Race Victories: 27
Championships: 3 (1969, 1971, 1973)
Jackie Stewart is one of the few 3-time winners of the F1 World Championship, but is one of the most respected drivers in history due to his campaign to increase safety measures for racing drivers.
Stewart won his titles with BRM and Tyrell, but won widespread and belated acclaim for his tireless efforts to increase driver safety. Measures taken for granted in the modern era, such as seat belts (Stewart was the first driver to insist on wearing seat belts), six-point harnesses, fire-resistant clothing, and pit walls were introduced by Stewart. Ironically, his movement to introduce such measures was severely opposed by fans and administrators in F1 at the time. In his own words,
When I was a driver, it would have been far easier to keep quiet about safety. I’d have been a much more popular world champion if I’d said what people wanted to hear me say. I might not have been alive, mind you, but more popular.
Born: July 3, 1987
Races Started: 120
Pole Positions: 45
Race Victories: 39
Championships: 4 (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013)
It is always risky to include current racing drivers in compilations of the greatest drivers in history, but Sebastian Vettel’s achievements warrant a high place on such a list. Vettel has been breaking records ever since his first victory at Monza in 2008. During the course of that victory, he became the youngest driver to start on pole position, the youngest to achieve a place on the podium, and the youngest to win a race.
Having started for Toro Rosso, he moved to Toro Rosso’s senior team, Red Bull, in 2009. He finished second in his debut season for Red Bull, and won the next four world titles on a trot. His 2011 win was one of the most dominant championship victories of all time. His 2013 championship included two record-equaling runs, one of 9 consecutive race victories, and one consisting of 13 race victories in a single season.
Born: February 24, 1955
Career: 1980-1991, 1993
Races Started: 199
Pole Positions: 33
Race Victories: 51
Championships: 4 (1985, 1986, 1989, 1993)
Alain Prost is best remembered for his rivalry with Ayrton Senna, but his own incredible achievements are often overlooked. Prost is one of the most successful drivers of all time, statistically only bettered by Fangio and Schumacher, and he also beat Senna more often than is portrayed.
Prost’s driving style was extremely smooth, conserving his tires and brakes early on in races so that he could make late charges. His relaxed, seemingly lethargic style concealed a terrific speed, which he employed by coasting into corners and achieving the perfect exits. He was renowned for his racecraft and ability to extract the very best out of his car in race conditions, but he also had the ability to set blisteringly fast qualifying laps. His relaxed, cerebral style of driving earned him the nickname le professeur.
Despite his undeniable talent, Prost became embroiled in, and is notorious for, various controversies throughout his career. He was alleged to be favored by the French president of Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile and Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Jean-Marie Balestre; this alleged link was crucial in his infamous 1989 and 1990 tussles with Ayrton Senna. Prost also earned the ire of Nigel Mansell, when he had his car swapped for the Brit’s superior model in 1990.
Juan Manuel Fangio
Born: June 24, 1911
Died: July 17, 1995
Career: 1950-51, 1953-58
Races Started: 51
Pole Positions: 29
Race Victories: 24
Championships: 5 (1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957)
Fangio was the first true legend of Formula One, peerlessly dominating the first decade of F1. Winning 5 F1 World Championships is no mean feat in itself, but doing so while competing against the likes of Alberto Ascari and Stirling Moss is absolutely otherworldly.
In terms of percentages, Fangio is arguably the greatest race driver in history. Competing in the much shorter F1 seasons in those days, Fangio won 24 of a mere 51 races entered, and started on pole in an astounding 29 of them! His record of 5 world titles wasn’t broken until the early 2000s, when Schumacher’s unstoppable Ferrari march eclipsed it. He also gave F1 probably the greatest drive ever witnessed, in the 1957 German Prix. Emerging from a botched pit stop almost a minute behind the leader, Fangio drove an unbelievable race to win in the end―in the 10 laps after the pit stop, Fangio broke the lap record at the Nürburgring 9 times!
Fangio was also regarded for being the ultimate gentleman, and also for his longevity. All of his world titles were won after the age of 40, with his last title at the age of 46 establishing him as the oldest driver to win the F1 world title.
Born: January 3, 1969
Career: 1991-2006, 2010-12
Races Started: 307
Pole Positions: 68
Race Victories: 91
Championships: 7 (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)
Statistically the best Formula One driver in history, Michael Schumacher not only ruthlessly dominated an era, but also reinvigorated a flagging Scuderia Ferrari to their first driver and constructor’s championships in more than 15 years.
Already a world champion twice over, Schumacher was lured to the burgeoning project at Ferrari in 1996. After a series of near misses, Schumacher and teammate Eddie Ervine won Ferrari their first constructor’s championship in over 15 years. The next year, Schumacher won the Scuderia’s first driver title in 21 years, the first of a record-breaking 5 straight titles.
Like all champion drivers, Schumacher was often embroiled in controversy. He was involved in title-deciding collisions with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, and attracted criticism for Ferrari’s strategy of prioritizing Schumacher’s results over his teammates. Rubens Barrichello was most often the victim of the latter, having to sacrifice several results to accommodate a better result for team leader Schumacher.
Schumacher returned to F1 in 2010 with Mercedes, but his sojourn was largely unsuccessful.
Born: March 21, 1960
Died: May 1, 1994
Races Started: 161
Pole Positions: 65
Race Victories: 41
Championships: 3 (1988, 1990, 1991)
Ayrton Senna is the great romantic hero of Formula One, and one of the greatest enigmas in the sporting world. His ruthless will to win, blinding speed, and unbelievable driving ability marked him out from the rest, but his untimely death during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix added an inevitable sheen to his glittering career.
Senna is famous for his no-holds-barred rivalry with Alain Prost. While Prost won due to an inimitable combination of natural skill and the extreme ability to play the percentages, Senna was committed to winning every time he sat behind the wheel. He was arguably the most dedicated racing driver of his time, and was fiercely competitive when racing. He was famous for his seemingly unending ability to produce blinding qualifying laps. It took Michael Schumacher more than 10 years to break Senna’s record of pole positions, and Schumacher drove in almost twice the amount of races as Senna.
Senna preferred to set a blistering qualifying time and lead from the front, an art he had perfected, but he was also legendary when fighting to make up places. And when it rained, he was absolutely untouchable. A fitting example of both can be seen in his 1993 victory at Donington. Fifth at the first corner, Senna took the lead by the end of the first lap, and went on to lap all but one driver. Damon Hill was the only one driving the same lap, albeit almost a minute and a half behind the Brazilian.
Senna and Prost will always be mentioned together due to their inextricably linked careers. Their fierce, unapologetic rivalry reached its peak in 1989 and 1990. At the Japanese Grand Prix in 1989, Prost and Senna collided, with the former retiring. Senna asked the marshals to push his car onto the track, pitted for repairs, and went on to win. Controversially, he was disqualified, handing Prost the title. Senna got his revenge the next year, in one of the most acrimonious starts to an F1 race. Senna was to start on pole position, but right before the race, the pole position was moved to the ‘dirty’ side of the track, which had less traction, on the insistence of Jean-Marie Balestre. Second placed Prost, as expected, had the better start, and led Senna into the first corner. However, Senna, enraged by the unfair decision, had already confessed his determination to carry on with the racing line into the first corner regardless of the consequences. Inevitably, Senna and Prost crashed, Senna winning the world title this time round.
Senna was a national hero in Brazil due to his massive donations to the poor, and his death, occurring after a crash at the high-speed Tamburello corner at the Imola circuit, was mourned all over Brazil. He remains the last driver casualty in Formula One.
In the olden days, F1 was the modern equivalent of the gladiatorial ring. Due to the efforts of visionaries such as Jackie Stewart, Ayrton Senna, and famous F1 medic Sid Watkins, modern F1 drivers are protected in innumerable ways. While some claim that this takes away from the inherent excitement in Formula One, the sport has remained one of the most popular and exiting sports in the world.