Ranking the Top 10 F1 Drivers of the 1990s
We all like to reminisce about Formula One's "halcyon days," to use a terrible cliche.
Often, our minds will wander to Grands Prix seen in the 70s or 80s (or, in my own experience, pictures and videos of said races).
But consider the 1990s for a moment, if you will.
No driver won the title more than twice, there was a wonderful crossover of generation and, very briefly, we witnessed the best from two different eras fighting wheel-to-wheel.
The header image of this piece is a testament to that.
So, who were the best drivers to grace the 90s?
The decade's world champions grace this list, but there are three non-champions among them as well. One even reaches as high as seventh.
We'd love to hear what you think, and your suggestions for who would take your vote.
10: Jean Alesi
The Frenchman is one of F1’s favourite characters, and makes an appearance on this list despite just one Grand Prix success—Canada, 1995.
But did you know he was on the podium in every Grand Prix season from 1990 to 1998, only a horrendously barren ’99 campaign preventing a clean sweep?
He finished second in the season-opening U.S. Grand Prix in 1990, for Tyrrell, and was second again in Monaco.
That attracted Ferrari, and he spent five years with the Scuderia, racking up 16 podiums.
He was a picture of consistency, if not so spectacular, finishing 7th, 7th, 6th, 5th and 5th in the points before switching to Benetton and ending up fourth in 1996 (with eight podia appearances) and ’97.
A less glamorous end to the decade with Sauber was not fitting for someone who had driven with such passion. Alesi is often regarded as a decent driver who won once when circumstances were right.
But that does him a disservice—he was a lot, lot, better than that.
9: David Coulthard
The second of three non-champions in this list, and the second of three who appear based on their consistency above anything else.
He got his big chance with Williams after Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola, scoring a podium and two fastest laps during the remainder of 1994.
It didn’t take him long to win, victory coming in Portugal 1995, a season which saw him claim third in the standings and finish on the podium eight times with five pole positions.
A switch to McLaren beckoned, and though 1996 was less successful (seventh, with two podiums) he beat the highly-rated Mika Hakkinen to a first Grand Prix win for the outfit when, in 1997, he triumphed at the opener in Australia and then again in Italy.
However, Hakkinen’s peak was higher than Coulthard’s, and the Scot was firmly in the shade in ’98 when he finished third overall behind Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher, and again in ’99 when he dropped to fourth.
8: Jacques Villeneuve
Any driver who comes into Formula 1 and puts his car on pole position on his debut deserves commendation, even if he was driving the best car at the time.
That Jacques Villeneuve went on to win four races, finish second overall and push the more experienced Damon Hill hard for the title is one thing.
But the fact that Michael Schumacher marked him out for special treatment in ’97 proves Villenevue was very, very good in a Williams.
Seven more wins that year had put him just a point behind the German, desperate for a maiden title with Ferrari going into the final round at Jerez.
When Schumacher infamously turned in on him and ended his own race (later being disqualified from the championship for the collision), Villeneuve limped home to the title.
It was far from undeserved, though a much more muted time with the underwhelming Williams team in 1998 brought him down to Earth a bump—and starting the BAR outfit in ’99 did so with a huge, huge crash.
Still, he’s a title winner. And it’s not all about being in the best car—you have to utilise it, too.
7: Gerhard Berger
However, despite Villeneuve’s triumph, I’m putting Gerhard Berger ahead of him in the list.
Ferrari’s woes in the '90s are well-documented—just look at the sorry pictured that is painted whenever you read about Michael Schumacher’s switch to the team in 1996.
Overall highlights include fourth-place finishes in the standings in 1990 and 1991, and third behind the squabbling Schumacher and Damon Hill in 1994.
But look a little deeper and you’ll see that Berger, never in the fastest car, netted a podium every year until he retired in 1997.
That run includes 18 for McLaren between 1990 and 1992 (including three wins), 13 during his return to Ferrari (one more win) between ’93 and ’95 and four for Benetton over the ’96 and ’97 seasons—the latter of which saw him claim the last of his 10 wins in Germany.
Eight pole positions with three different teams, and 12 fastest laps during the same period, point to Berger being a very adaptable, very capable, very, very fast F1 driver.
Had the '90s been kinder, he could well have ended up champion. He didn’t, but that’s not at all to his detriment.
6: Alain Prost
Alain Prost, only sixth in a list? Could there be an element of controversy.
That’s nothing new to the Frenchman, of course, but I digress.
For a man with such an illustrious CV, his twilight years in the early '90s were less fruitful (though it is rather relative).
An acrimonious runner-up honour in 1990 was followed up by a pretty dismal ’91 campaign—no wins, just five podium finishes and fifth overall to show for his final year with the Scuderia.
A year out beckoned, before a glorious swansong in 1993.
Mansell was on his way to Champ Car after Williams had finally hooked up their car, and with Prost stepping in ahead of Senna for ’93, all signs pointed to a fourth title.
And so it proved—seven wins, 12 podiums, 13 pole positions and six fastest laps on his CV from an utterly dominant final season in Formula 1.
5: Nigel Mansell
Our Nige didn’t exactly cover himself in glory during his ill-fated F1 comeback attempt in ’94 and ’95 (pole and victory in Australia ’94 aside, of course).
But his efforts in 1991 and 1992 nudge him just ahead of the other one-time 1990s champions in this list.
He was runner-up in ’91, despite winning five Grands Prix in the second half of the year in a vain attempt to close down leader Ayrton Senna.
Despite that being in vain, it did set him up for the legendary ’92 season that followed.
Mansell and Williams clicked, and the statistics are staggering. Nine wins, 12 podiums, 14 pole positions and eight fastest laps.
That meant he almost matched the tally of the second and third-placed drivers in the final standings.
Mansell’s return may have been short-lived after his Champ Car success in the States in ’93, but it was what he did prior to that which has him etched in F1 folklore.
4: Damon Hill
Damon Hill had the ominous task of leading Williams’ world title bid after Ayrton Senna’s tragic accident in San Marino.
But he stepped up remarkably well for a driver in only his second full season of Grand Prix racing.
He had, of course, already notched up three wins the season previous, and six more in ’94 had him on the brink of the title. And then came Adelaide.
Hill needed a better result than Schumacher, in a season when such statistics would normally have led him to the championship.
Unfortunately for Hill, he experienced firsthand the ruthless nature of the German which would ultimately yield seven world championships.
Battling a superior Benetton in ’95, Hill still won four more races, but it was ’96 (when Schumacher moved to the then less competitive Ferrari team) in which it all, finally, came together.
Seeing off the attentions of his rookie teammate Jacques Villeneuve, he was victorious in eight races and wrapped up the title in Japan.
A bold, and fruitless, switch to Arrows followed in ’97 (though victory was unfairly snatched from his grasp in Hungary), but in ’98 in Belgium he earned Jordan its first win in F1.
A hugely underrated champion and driver.
3: Mika Hakkinen
A near ever-present in the 1990s, thanks to two years spent at Lotus in 1991 and 1992 learning his craft (and scoring an impressive 11 points in his final year with the team, finishing eighth overall).
After earning a move to McLaren, initially as reserve driver, he filled in for the final three races and scored his first podium in only his second outing.
However, it would take him until ’97 to record his first win, suffering behind the all-conquering Benettons and Williams of the mid-90s.
When McLaren did get it right, though, the Finn came to the fore.
’98 was a fantastic season, and in a straight fight with Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen came out on top, notching up eight wins in the process.
He firmly put David Coulthard in the shade during the course of his title-winning seasons, a feat made all the more impressive after suffering a horrendous crash at Adelaide in 1995.
2: Ayrton Senna
Back-to-back world titles in 1990 and 1991, in dramatically contrasting fashion, heralded a fantastic start to the decade for the legendary Brazilian.
His first corner collision with nemesis Alain Prost at the penultimate race in Japan guaranteed him the world title, before starting the following year with four straight wins.
Nigel Mansell mounted something of a fightback, but Senna ultimately won out by a not insignificant total of 24 points.
That would be the last of Senna’s three world titles, as he finished fourth the following season, only narrowly beating teammate Gerhard Berger. The next year, with Prost back in the sport and driving to glory in a far superior Williams, Senna finished runner-up.
He won 21 Grands Prix in just four full season, starting ’94 with three pole positions but sadly no finishes (spinning off in Brazil, crashing at Aida and, of course, suffering that tragic accident at Imola).
Nonetheless, his contributions to F1 in those formative years of the '90s lay down a marker to the drivers that would follow throughout the decade. Only one would surpass it.
1: Michael Schumacher
It’s not indisputable, being one of a trio of double world championship winners during the 1990s. Especially given he was title-less in the second half of the decade.
But it’s more than his two controversial crowns with Benetton in 1994 and 1995; it’s more than the 35 Grands Prix he won after a stunning debut in an otherwise uncompetitive Jordan in 1991.
It’s about everything he drove towards for almost an entire decade.
He won in his first full season and again in ’93—the only non-Williams or McLaren to triumph that campaign.
When Ayrton Senna tragically died at Imola, Schumacher went on to claim a maiden, albeit highly controversial, triumph against an arguably superior Williams in the hands of Damon Hill.
A much more "trick" Benetton guided him to a second title the following season before he switched to Ferrari.
His first win was all about his talent in a car which was flattered throughout the campaign, but the German still notched up three more wins.
Controversy befell him again in 1997 when he was excluded for that collision with the superior Williams of eventual champion Jacques Villeneuve in the final race of the season.
1998 was characterised by a long battle with Mika Hakkinen, which the Finn won in his McLaren, but a championship challenge in 1999 was halted by a leg-breaking crash at Silverstone.
With due respect to Eddie Irvine, the fact he ran Hakkinen so close for the title gives some validation to the theory Schumacher probably would have claimed a third crown.
Hakkinen was inconsistent in ’99, winning five times but not scoring in five races as well. Schumacher ended up 30 points back in the title chase despite missing six Grands Prix.
Despite only losing 20 points to the Finn in that period, different circumstances would have led to different results, though only a brave man would predict exactly what they would be.
Ultimately, Schumacher’s sheer consistency—his ever-presence in title fights is a testament to that—and victory tally stands him above the rest in the 1990s. World-class drivers graced the period, but none as long (with success) as the German.