Ranking the Top 10 Qualifiers in Formula 1 History
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With Sebastian Vettel threatening to tear up the record books as he continues on his current winning spree, the question as to whether he is one of the quickest drivers of all time still remains.
Of course there is no question that he is one of the great racers, but one of the true benchmarks for out-and-out pace over a single lap has been during qualifying.
The format has changed markedly over the years from the early days of long timed practice sessions to the luxury of bespoke qualifying machines that differed from Sunday’s race cars and expendable qualifying tyres.
There is some doubt as to whether qualifying today carries as much importance with drivers now often choosing not to set a time on the quicker but faster wearing Pirelli tyre for the benefit of race strategy, as we saw with Vettel at this year’s Chinese Grand Prix.
But Vettel is a man who clearly loves being on pole as demonstrated by his six poles this season. Lewis Hamilton is also renowned for his pace over a single lap and has also bagged five poles this year.
So where does the pair stand in the grand scheme of the one-lap wonders? Here are the top 10 most successful qualifiers in F1 history taking a percentage from their poles achieved according to number of attempts.
*Stats taken from FORIX
10. Damon Hill—Qualifying Attempts 122, Poles 20: 16.39 Percent
After an inauspicious debut season in 1992 when he only twice managed to drag his uncompetitive Brabham onto the back of the grid, Damon Hill enjoyed the luxury of the quickest car on the grid between 1993 and 1996.
Hill claimed his first pole at the 1993 French Grand Prix but would only secure one more that season as teammate Alain Prost started from the front on 13 occasions. 1994 saw two more poles but it was in 1995 and 1996 that Hill’s Williams was truly the class of the field and he started from the front on 16 occasions with nine of these coming in his championship winning season.
It may surprise many that Hill edges out Jochen Rindt and Alain Prost in the poles percentages.
9. Jackie Stewart—Qualifying Attempts 100, Poles 17: 17 Percent
The first of "The Flying Scot" Sir Jackie Stewart’s pole positions came at the 1969 Monaco Grand Prix, but he would only score one more despite winning six races en route to his first world championship title.
In fact all of Stewart’s poles came between 1969 and 1973, during which time he would secure two further titles and win 27 races. His most successful qualifying season came in 1971 when he was on pole in six of the 11 races.
Although Stewart will always be known as a better racer than qualifier, he did compete against some extremely good qualifiers including Jochen Rindt, Jacky Ickx and Ronnie Peterson.
8. Lewis Hamilton—Qualifying Attempts 155, Poles 31: 20 Percent
Lewis Hamilton’s five pole positions so far in his first season with his Mercades team goes to prove that he has lost none of the pace he was renowned for during his time at McLaren.
In his first two seasons in F1, Hamilton stunned all with his raw pace in cementing 13 pole positions. His first came at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix and he would score five more that season compared to teammate Fernando Alonso’s two.
The gripping 2008 season saw Hamilton and rival Felipe Massa split six poles apiece in their titanic title tussle and even against the might of the dominance of Brawn in 2009 and Red Bull and Ferrari from 2010-2012, Hamilton added 13 more poles including a surprising seven during his final season with McLaren.
7. Michael Schumacher—Qualifying Attempts 308, Poles 68: 22.07 Percent
Michael Schumacher’s damp squib of a comeback from 2010-2012 takes some of the gloss off what was a quite remarkable qualifying record.
Schumacher ended his F1 career with 68 pole positions to his name, more than any other driver in history.
The first of his poles came at the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix only one race after one of the greatest one-lap exponents of all time, Ayrton Senna, lost his life in San Marino.
Despite rival Damon Hill arguably driving the quicker machinery in 1994 through 1996, Schumacher still managed 14 pole positions. But it was during his glory years with Ferrari in winning his five drivers’ titles that Schumacher really began to smash the record books.
Had he not opted to return to the sport, he would have left with a pole percentage of 27.20 and been a place higher up the list.
6. Stirling Moss—Qualifying Attempts 67, Poles 16: 23.88 Percent
Even when racing against the might of the great Juan Manual Fangio, Stirling Moss was regarded as one of the quickest drivers in the sport.
Moss secured his first pole position in the 1955 British Grand Prix at Aintree and also set the fastest lap en route to winning his home grand prix. However, there remains doubt as to whether or not Fangio was in a generous mood that day against his Mercedes teammate.
A further pole and fastest lap came at Silverstone in a Maserati a year later, although this time Fangio was the victor. Two more poles followed in 1957, the latter after he switched to Vanwall where he scored three more the following season following Fangio’s retirement.
Moss achieved a total of eight further poles split between Cooper and Lotus in 1959 and 1960 before his final pole came in Monaco in 1961 before his career was cut short after a life-threatening accident at Goodwood.
5. Sebastian Vettel—Qualifying Attempts 116, Poles 42: 36.20 Percent
The all-conquering Sebastian Vettel has taken his tally of career F1 pole positions to 42 following his six this season and will surely add to this before the year is out.
His first came driving for Toro Rosso at a torrential Monza in 2008 on his 22nd attempt, and the young German went on to record his first F1 victory.
After the floods of Monza, Vettel opened his own floodgate of pole positions. Four followed in 2009 as Vettel battled against Jenson Button’s Brawn, but it has been over the past three seasons that his star has shone most brightly, with Vettel securing no fewer than 37 poles.
Although Vettel clearly enjoys the best machinery in the field, he has dominated teammate Mark Webber in both qualifying and race stats and only four great drivers stand ahead of him.
4. Ayrton Senna—Qualifying Attempts 162, Poles 65: 40.12 Percent
The next driver in Sebastian Vettel’s sights is the great Ayrton Senna.
The first of Senna’s 65 pole positions came driving his black and gold Lotus at a wet Portugal in 1985, and he went on to display a mastery of the wet by winning his first grand prix.
An impressive 15 further poles for Lotus followed during his three-year stint with the team despite Senna clearly driving a car that was not the class of the field.
But it was during his time with McLaren that Senna showed what a master of the single lap he really was—the Brazilian ace secured 13 poles to teammate Alain Prost’s two en route to his first title in 1988.
Although Prost nicked the title in controversial circumstances the following year, it was Senna who again proved the qualifying master with a further 13 poles. Ten poles followed en route to a second title in 1990 and eight in 1991 when he won the last of his three titles against Nigel Mansell’s Williams.
Who knows how many more poles the great Brazilian would have gone on to achieve, as he had started at the very front in every race of the 1994 season leading up to that tragic day at Imola.
3. Alberto Ascari—Qualifying Attempts 32, Poles 14: 43.75 Percent
The name Alberto Ascari has become synonymous with Ferrari, and the legendary Italian secured the first of his pole positions in the 1951 German Grand Prix a race after Jose Frolian Gonzalez had become the first Ferrari driver to do so.
Nonetheless, it was Ascari who then became the dominant Ferrari force over the next two seasons, extending his pole streak to 13 in winning back-to-back world titkes.
His final pole position came driving a Lancia D50 in Spain in 1954, and he was killed a year later in Monza driving friend Eugenio Castelotti’s after taking his Ferrari 750 Monza for a run without his lucky blue helmet.
2. Jim Clark—Qualifying Attempts 72, Poles 33: 45.83 Percent
The dominant force of the mid 1960s, Jim Clark secured 33 pole positions in 72 qualifying attempts. Only Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Sebastian Vettel and Juan Manuel Fangio have more to their name.
Clark utterly dominated the 1962 season in terms of raw pace over a single lap, recording six pole positions and setting five fastest laps. Yet it was the more consistent Graham Hill who claimed the title.
The following year, however, was to be Clark’s with seven poles and seven victories helping him to the first of his two world titles. Five poles followed in 1964 but Clark finished a disappointing third in the title behind John Surtees and Graham. However, the Scot got back to his winning ways in 1965 with six further poles and as many race wins.
Eight more poles followed over the next two years including six out of the final eight races in 1967.
Clark began the 1968 season with a bang, claiming pole position, setting the fastest lap and winning the season opener at Kyalami. Alas it would be Clark’s last F1 outing as he was killed shortly afterwards in a non-championship Formula 2 event at Hockenheim.
At the time of his death, he had won more Grand Prix races (25) and achieved more Grand Prix pole positions (33) than any other driver.
1. Juan Manuel Fangio—Qualifying Attempts 51, Poles 29: 56.86 Percent
Although Sebastian Vettel may have already set his sights on countryman Michael Schumacher’s tally of pole positions, race wins and world titles, one record he will surely never get close to is Juan Manuel Fangio’s strike rate of starting from pole in the majority of F1 races he drove in.
Fangio started from pole in four of the seven races in the inaugural F1 season in 1950 but was pipped to the title by Giuseppe Farina.
The Argentine claimed the first of his five titles the following year with five poles and although he missed out in 1952 and 1953, Fangio was utterly dominant from 1954-57 in claiming four consecutive world titles amassing 19 poles in the process.
The last of Fangio’s poles fittingly came at his home grand prix in Argentina in 1958 and he also set the fastest lap although great rival Stirling Moss claimed victory. He competed in only one more race in France before retiring from the sport.