F1 Racers in the Top 25 from Ferrari, Lotus, Renault, McLaren, BRM and More
In forming my opinion on the dicey subject of the 25 best F1 drivers in history, I choose to consider the entirety of the individuals I’ll be judging.
The history stretches back more than 60 years during which there emerged a multitude of great drivers.
Judging on driving alone would be difficult because of transient greatness, sometimes by factory team drivers, sometimes one-trick-pony types, and sometimes reliable, consistent journeyman drivers who never do anything noticeably great but earn points, support team-mates, and contribute knowledge to the development of successful cars.
The worst part of this job was paring it down to just 25 because there is greatness in every Formula One driver.
25) Fernando Alonso Is Spain's Only F1 World Champion Driver ... Twice.
Mario Andretti (father of Michael, grandfather of Marco, uncle of John).
Spain produced its first F1 world champion in 2005 in the person of Fernando Alonso. He had to beat multiple title winner Michael Schumacher in the decade that saw the German ace almost beyond defeat.
Under the tutelage of Flavio Briatore in 2003, Alonso drove his Renault to his first pole and on to the win. Fortunately for Fernando, the Renaults of 2005 and 2006 were superior, which led the skillful Spaniard to two world titles.
Alonso's undeniable prowess on the track was often not evident in his off-track behaviour. He had what might be seen as a sissy-fit in 2007 when with McLaren and he had the impression that he was being sabotaged for the benefit of new star team-mate Lewis Hamilton. Given Hamilton's relationship with team boss Ron Dennis, it could be true.
Alonso returned to Renault where the cars were suffering from lack of pace, and by the end of 2008, he'd pulled the team up to a competitive level. In 2010 the Spanish ace moved onto the much vaulted Ferrari team, only to find that the Scuderia too was not up to the pace of the winners.
24) 10. Mario Andretti Was Winner in Many Varied Forms of Motor Sports.
Mario Andretti (father of Michael, grandfather of Marco, uncle of John).
Born in Italy and raised in the USA, Andretti might be one of the greatest racers ever, and in a variety of forms of motor-racing.
He had proven himself before he entered F1 in 1968 at the Watkins Glen track in New York State. He immediately sent the message of what was to come when he put his Lotus on the pole.
Although his early years in F1 were inconsistent, he won for Ferrari at the 1971 South African Grand Prix. The Italian-born American drove for the Parnelli team in 1974-1975, but Colin Chapman's uniquely designed Lotus is the car that took Andretti to the world championship in 1978.
Mario's contribution to the development of Chapman's design helped him score no less than 6 victories en rout to the title. Before Andretti left F1 for good, he took pole position in a Ferrari at the 1982 Monza race, and continued to win Indycar races until he was 52, 11 years later.
Six. Jackie Stewart: 27 Victories with 3 F1 Drivers' Championships.
Long since retired, the wee Scot continues to work to improve the sport and the lot of the drivers. Sir Jackie Stewart won three world championships with skill and talent that was so smooth that he appeared to be not driving near the limit.
Of course, championships are not won at speeds less than the limits of adhesion. Jackie scored 27 victories because he drove with his brain as well as his talent, his quick mind forming strategies second by second through each lap.
In 1969, Stewart won the Monza race with a spectacular last lap run that took him to the front because of a strategic decision to use a gear that gave him superior top speed. In 1958 Jackie Stewart won the German Grand Prix in a drenching rain storm that proved the breadth of his ability. Working with Ken Tyrrell helped raise the Scot to the pinnacle.
He won titles with Tyrrell driving a Matra, a Tyrrell, and even an inferior March chassis. Jackie Stewart's legend is indelible.
22) Nigel Mansell Whom the FerrariTifosi Dubbed Nigel Mansell 'Il Leone'.
Nigel Mansell started slow in F1 and finished very, very fast.
Mansell's Formula One career began at a slow, plodding pace with Lotus until 1985 when he joined Sir Frank Wiliams' team.
The following season the British driver seemed destined to win the title at Adelaide when his left rear tire blew on lap 63 of 82 laps. In '86 Nigel crashed during practice at Suzuka and took himself out of contention for that season's championship.
During the next four years, Mansell was plagued by under-performing rides, but his prodigious drives in weak steeds earned him enthusiastic support of the tifosi who love Ferrari yet dubbed Nigel Mansell 'Il Leone'.
In 1992, Mansell's Williams FW14B was so swift in his hands that he had the title in his pocket by August, with a bunch of races still to run.
21. Kimi Raikkonen Won Ferrari a Driver Title but Hates the F1 Publicity Game
Derided by some and beloved by others for his off-track behaviour, Kimi Raikkonen followed his independent path relentlessly.
He finished his premier Grand Prix in the points with his Sauber, followed by nine victories in five years with McLaren. In 2005, the Finn scored seven wins, but reliability problems in the team's cars early in the season permitted Alonso to get too far ahead in his Renault to be overtaken for the title.
His talent showed in his incredible run at Suzuka from the 17th grid slot to victory, with a pass on Fisichella on the last lap. Ferrari acquired Kimi's services with a huge paycheck in 2007, where he won the title with wins in the final two races of the season while Hamilton took himself out of contention with a ridiculous misjudgement.
Finally fed up with F1's criticism of his off track behaviour, even that he enjoyed an ice cream bar in the pits after failing to finish a race, Raikkonen dropped F1 to go rallying, and to build his own Nascar team.
20) Mika Hakkinen Won Two World Driving Championships.
Hakkinen / McLaren
The 1990s proved to be a fertile time for the Finnish hero while he was driving for McLaren. His rare talent enabled him to sometimes defeat Michael Schumacher and earned Mika Hakkinen two world driving championships before the end of that decade.
In 1995, he crashed mightily during practice at Adelaide, Australia and his life was saved by a tracheotomy at the trackside by the emergency medical team. Mika's excellent physical condition enabled him to come back as strong as ever, as proven by his championship victory in 1998 following a desperate wheel-to-wheel duel with Michael at Suzuka.
Hakkinen earned a second championship in '99 in spite of a season fraught with flaws and errors, most notably at Monza. However, his remarkable skill enabled him to finalize his championship with a prodigious drive in the Japanese Grand Prix. At Spa in 2000, Mika Hakkinen again dueled with Schumacher.
The German super-driver forced the Mika off the track at 200 miles an hour, only to have the Finn execute a magnificent pass to take the victory in what is remembered as his greatest ever.
19) Sebastian Vettel, the Youngest Ever F1 Champion, Drives for Red Bull.
Sebastian Vettel is a gifted F1 driver.
As if heralding resumed German dominance in F1, young Sebastian Vettel is inevitably compared with Michael Schumacher, seven-time world champion and incomparable record-breaker.
While with Toro Rosso, Vettel is the top flight’s youngest ever to score championship points. Youngest also to win a race and be in the running for champion in just his first full season, and winner of the championship in 2010 with Toro Rosso sister team Red Bull, when he was only 23 years old.
He’s good in the wet, he’s good in the dry, he’s great at qualifying and then makes the most of his many pole positions with many victories.
At first his youthful temperament threatened to turn fans against him, but it was merely his iron determination to be champion. With the championship in his pocket, and the probability that more will come his way, Vettel appears to have matured into the mode of world champion with welcome maturity.
18) Riccardo Patrese: Won Monaco '82, Mexico '91 over Mansell, Was a Great #2
Patrese / Renault
Fans were thrilled to see the finish of the Monaco Grand Prix in 1982, which Riccardo Patrese won in spectacular fashion.
He was also able to soundly defeat Nigel Mansell in Mexico in 1991. Unfortunately, such drives were rare for Patrese, and his greatest value was as a skilled and disciplined number two.
Evidence of his value to a team is that his team-mate won the championship on three occasions. For a time Patrese bore the stigma of a reputation for reckless driving and the death of Ronnie Peterson before he was cleared of blame.
In time he became a driver to reckon with when he left the Arrows team for that of Brabham where he was regularly outdone by team-mate Nelson Piquet. Finally, the reliable number two team-mate retired in 1993.
17) Alain Prost Drove F1 Brilliantly with Talent and Intelligence.
Alain Prost ... 'Le Professeur'
A little guy with immense intelligence, Alain Prost earned the nick name 'le professeur'. His smarts combined with skill and courage won him four world championships.
From 1981 to 1983 Prost struggled to win races in the Renault that could not be relied upon. In 1984, teamed at McLaren with Niki Lauda from whom he learned to be shrewd as well as swift, Prost used the wisdom to earn two titles in succession.
When Ayrton Senna joined the McLaren team, it sparked an inferno of mutual disdain that led to prodigious on-track battles. In 1989, at Suzuka, the warring team-mates collided, resulting in a world title for 'le professeur.'
In 1990, Prost was driving for Ferrari when he and Senna again slammed together and Ayrton took the title this time. Alain left the Scuderia to take a year sebatical after which he returned for a single year with Williams in which he earned the 1993 title – his fourth.
16) Keke Rosberg Replaced Alan Jones at Williams.
Keke Rosberg (father of Nico)
A perfect storm of circumstances came together for Keke Rosberg, the first Finn to win the world championship, and he won it with just one race victory—his first in the top flight—at Dijon in Switzerland.
He had replaced Alan Jones who was retiring from Williams in 1982. The only driver that could have prevented Rosberg's title, Didier Pironi crashed his Ferrari to end his race and his career.
In 1985 Keke set a qualifying lap at Silverstone that was so fast it stood unbeaten for 17 years. He came third in the championship in '85, the only season in which he won more than a single race.
The Finn was leading the Australian Grand Prix in a McLaren when he retired from both the race and from his career.
15) Juan Manuel Fangio Set Standards for Drivers from the Beginning of F1.
Juan Manuel Fangio ... “Il Maestro”
A driver so stunningly great that even people who were not motor sport fans knew the name Juan Manuel Fangio. Early in the history of Formula One, the Argentinean earned the label “Il Maestro” by winning five world championships and almost half of all the races he started.
Fangio's brilliance enabled him to acquire drives for Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari. He won championships while driving each of these great marques.
The five-time champion is credited with the greatest F1 Drive of all time: Nurburgring, 1957 where Fangio was seen to push himself and his Maserati like never before, breaking his own record lap after lap.
He overcame an unreasonably long pit stop to catch and then pass two Ferraris for the win. Grand Prix cars of Fangio's era were bigger, heavier, harder to drive and more dangerous than any in this century. That helps to underline the greatness of Juan Manuel Fangio.
14) Nelson Piquet Sr. Drove Brabham, BMW, Williams, & Lotus
Nelson Piquet Sr. (father of Nelson Piquet Jr.)
In 1979 the Brazilian driver showed great talent in some qualifying runs that moved Bernie Ecclestone, then with the Brabham team, to offer Piquet the position of lead driver.
Nelson Piquet proved to be a superior test driver as well, and his technical feedback when working with celebrated designer Gordon Murray enabled the team to transform the failure-prone BMW Turbo into a victor. Piquet made a financially rewarding move to the Williams team but was unable to shine when compared to team-mate Nigel Mansell.
His performance was further tarnished when he suffered a massive hit at Imola. At the same time, Nelson's skillful contribution to the development of the active suspension enabled him to win a third championship. Although his time with Lotus were dreary, he spent two years with Benneton, where he scored three more victories.
He left Formula One and entered the Indianapolis 500 where both his legs were smashed in a severe crash after which he stopped racing for good.
13) Stirling Moss: The Greatest F1 Driver to Never Win a Championship.
Stirling Moss ... simply the best!
A paradigm of greatness in the view of most of his colleagues of the cockpits, Stirling Moss is the one who assumed the throne of the “best driver in the world” upon the retirement of Juan Manuel Fangio.
In 1955, Fangio, the Argentinean great, was Moss’s team-mate at Mercedes-Benz. Young Moss learned well from Fangio and soon was able to match the master with great talent. In addition to F1, Moss excelled in most every form of motor racing and won most of his 16 F1 victories in inferior cars.
He wished to drive only British cars, and might well have won the championship with Scuderia Ferrari that was dominant at the time. Moss had signed to at last drive for Enzo Ferrari the following year but a horrendous crash at Goodwood in 1962 forced his retirement.
Stirling Moss ranks high on the list of greats because he’s the best driver to never be champion, and even now in his 80s he successfully races his vintage “Birdcage” Maseratti. He is what the Germans call a “mensch”, a good and proper man at all times.
12) Jack Brabham First Drove for Cooper Then Created Brabham F1 Cars
Jack Brabham first drove for Cooper then created Brabham F1 cars
'Black Jack' Brabham was so nick-named for his generally morose countenance although he was often brilliant on F1 tracks.
After he learned his craft in Australian midget races and hill-climbs he earned a ride in a Cooper F1 car in England. While with Cooper, Brabham scored two championships in a row in seasons 1959 and 1960.
Jack soon created his own “Brabham” team, for which he won another championship in 1966. Brabham was best known as a brilliant technician, and was sometimes criticized for his brutally aggressive driving style. However, his style won him that third championship in his own car at the age of 40.
Don't Agree with My Selections? Try It Yourself... It Is TOUGH!
A Fan of Grand Prix since the age of 14... 60 years ago.
It was terrible to have to leave out so many greats. My conclusion is that anyone who gets into a Formula One car and races it is great.
I was limited to 25, and there are some fabulous stars that I had to leave out: Jacques Villeneuve, Gerhard Berger, Albert Ascari, Mark Webber, Jenson Button, and on and on...
11) Graham Hill Drove British Cars: BRM, Lotus, to 2 Titles.
Graham Hill drove only for British teams.
With the look of a typical British actor from a 50's black & white movie, Graham Hill filled the British role by starting every one of his 176 F1 championship races in British cars. He won 14 Grands Prix and two world championships.
He drove a BRM to his first title in 1962, after leading that team from obscurity to prominence. His second world championship was earned in a Lotus, after he created a cohesive team behind him following the tragic death of Jim Clark.
Hill's graceful style belied his brilliant speed, and reputedly left his race cars in such good condition they needed much less restorative work than was the norm for F1 cars. Possibly this stemmed from his earlier career as a mechanic.
Throughout the 1960s his talent kept him always in contention, and his love of racing saw him continue to compete until he embarrassed himself with failure to qualify for the 1975 Monaco Grand Prix – an event that he'd almost owned in the '60s. Later that same year Graham Hill was killed in a plane crash.
10) Dan Gurney: First to Win Championship Races Driving for 3 Different Teams
Dan Gurney - the only Amercan in F1 in his own American car.
Formula One cars in the early 1960s were fragile, with small 1.5 litre engines squeezing out tremendous speed and power—a form well suited to America's great road-racer, Dan Gurney.
The handsome hero had been victorious for both Porsche and Brabham, and his greatest win was in the 1967 Belgian race at the wheel of his own car, the Anglo-American Racers Eagle- Weslake. Gurney is the first driver to win championship races driving for three different marques.
Perhaps innovation is in the Gurney genes: he was the first to add a metal strip to a car's wing to aid downforce, and is said to have originated the tradition of spraying the Mumm's Champagne all over the people on the podium.
The genetic impulse might have stemmed from his grandfather, who was the inventor of the wheeled stretcher known everywhere as—what else—the Gurney.
9) Phil Hill: The First F1 World Champion to Emerge out of the USA.
Phil Hill drives to the F1 Championship in his Ferrari.
The first world champion to emerge out of the United States of America, Phil Hill was a successful sports car racer before he entered the top flight.
In F1, his spirit of sportsmanship was evidenced in 1958 during the Moroccan Grand Prix when he allowed Ferrari team-mate Mike Hawthorn to pass him and win the drivers' championship. Hill continued to drive for Ferrari and scored his first GP win at Monza in 1960.
The victory was tainted, however, by the fact that the British teams had boycotted the event because of its banked turns. In 1961 Hill earned the world championship, and again there was a pall over the achievement.
His team-mate, Wolfgang von Trips had suffered a fatal crash at Monza, prompting some to believe that von Trips' absence cleared the way to the championship for Phil. However, research shows that Hill was a wheel-to-wheel equal of his team-mate. Phil Hill did not win any more F1 races, and enjoyed many victories in sports cars until 1967.
8) Jim Clark Was Often Fighting with 3-Litre Brabhams in a 2-Litre Lotus.
Jim Clark was a "natural" and Lotus gave him great cars.
He was one of those gifted drivers who is genetically suited to racing. Jim Clark and Lotus designer Colin Chapman enjoyed a unique friendship that saw “The Flying Scott” usually in the cockpit of the fastest car.
He won two titles, and might have won more had his rides been more reliable. Clark's superior skill often found him in a two-litre Lotus fighting it out with three-litre Brabhams in the '66 Dutch Grand Prix, but not beating them to titles.
That same year saw him win the USA Grand Prix in a difficult BRM. When Chapman made the Lotus 49, it seemed like it was created for Jim, so brilliantly was he able to drive it.
It was almost inevitable that Clark would have become the 1968 world champion had he not lost his life in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim.
7) Emerson Fittipaldi Was F1's Youngest Winner in a Lotus.
Emerson "emmo" Fittipaldi in his Lotus.
In 1970, the brilliant Brazilian became Formula One's youngest ever winner, just a year after seeking an autograph from Graham Hill.
Emerson Fittipaldi had become a fellow F1 driver of a Lotus where his smoothness and great speed in 1972 made him the youngest world champion. The following year Emerson moved over to McLaren and brought them their first championship in 1974.
He then co-ran his own team with his brother and they achieved no success, so he finished his decade-long F1 career and moved to a new career in CART.
Fittipaldi continued to be a winner until he was 49, taking the Indy Car title in 1989, as well as 2 victories at the Indianapolis 500.
6) John Surtees a Multiple Grand Prix Champion in F1 and on Motorcycles.
Surtees earned a podium finish in his 2nd race and a pole in his 3rd.
Lotus provided the British racer with his first four-wheel Grand Prix vehicle. John Surtees had won several motorcycle championships before he moved to F1 in 1960.
When he drove his Lotus to a podium in his second race, then earned the pole in his third race, Ferrari decided they needed him. He won the title in 1964, but a crash in a Can-Am car in '65 almost closed the curtain on his career.
This observer was there at Mosport Park near Toronto, Canada when John's Lola T70 vaulted over the guard rail and plummeted down into a deep crevasse that leads to a tunnel under the track to the infield. The Lola landed upside down on top of the British driver. He survived but spent three months in recovery.
Surtees became disenchanted with technical and management people at Ferrari and quit the Scuderia in 1966. He went on to score victories in Coopers and Hondas, and burned with the desire to do things his own way. He worked his own ways for three years with his own team, but success did not go his way.
5) Gilles Villeneuve Was Reputedly Enzo Ferrari's Favourite.
Gilles Villeneuve (father of Jacques)
The brilliant French Canadian was reputedly Enzo Ferrari's favourite, even though he won only six of his 67 F1 races, and zero world titles.
In 1979, at Watkins Glen New York during practice for the US Grand Prix East under a drenching downpour, Villeneuve lapped almost 10 seconds faster Jody Scheckter, his team-mate and newly-crowned world champion.
While qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982 a massive crash took Gilles Villeneuve's life which caused much grief to Enzo. Eulogizing his late team-mate, Scheckter said: "I will miss Gilles for two reasons.
First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known."
4) Niki Lauda Impressed with Some Great Drives for BRM and Ferrari.
Niki Lauda was severely burned in a crash, recovered and continued his career.
When he entered the Top Flight, Niki Lauda was not taken terribly seriously because his performances in Formulae 3 and 2 were not especially impressive.
However, he did impress with some great drives for BRM in 1973 and was invited to join Ferrari. The Scuderia had not won a championship 11 years 'til the Austrian challenger earned the title in 1975 after he usurped the team's No.1 position from Clay Regazzoni.
The following season Lauda almost ended his career - and his life – in a massive wreck at Nurburgring. He came back in '77 to again win the title with Ferrari. Disenchanted with the politics within the Scuderia, Niki retired in 1979, only to return for a four-year run with McLaren where he earned his third world title.
He might well have had a hat-trick of three championships back to back had he not suffered the 1976 disastrous Nurburgring wreck.
3) Ayrton Senna Was Almost Worshipped Posthumously.
Ayrton Senna was a fast, brutal competitor.
Although almost worshipped posthumously, the fact is that Ayrton Senna was a brutal competitor who seemed to believe it was inappropriate for anyone to drive faster than him.
To be sure, his record is impressive: running ahead of the pack in the rain at Donington Park and Estoril, and half-a-dozen victories at the very punishing Monaco course.
Political discord in the McLaren team led to mutual hatred between the Brazilian star and the French “professor,” Alain Prost.
The animosity culminated in a collision between the two at Suzuka, which might forever taint the great man's reputation. He was killed at Imola in 1994.
2) Michael Schumacher Has Incredible Achievements as a Formula One Driver.
Michael Schumacher (brother of Ralf)
When one observes the incredible achievements of Michael Schumacher as a talented Formula One driver, it looks like he is inevitably the best.
However, I remember also the many unsportsmanlike acts he pulled, and by my standards he was his own worst enemy. It's impossible to take away from Michael his brilliance in winning 72 Grands Prix and seven world crowns.
Nor is it possible to overlook some of his tactics: demanding that his Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello move aside so he could steal the win for himself, then try to force Rubens onto the top podium step as though that would equalize the atrocity.
Schumacher was also seen to attempt to prevent Jacques Villeneuve from winning the title by running into his car and knocking his own out instead. In Monaco he kept Fernando Alonso from earning the pole position by deliberately blocking the Spaniard's pole-winning lap.
Michael Schumacher's brilliance on the track and his leadership ability in the team and his contributions to car development show him to be one of the greats.
1) Lewis Hamilton Was Raised in the McLaren Team to Win Titles.
Lewis Hamilton is brilliant on the track, not so good off the track.
Brought along by Ron Dennis of McLaren since he was a lad of ten showing great talent in karting, Lewis Hamilton blazed a path to F1 with titles and championships in Formula Renault UK, F3 Euro Series, and GP2.
The young British driver, amateurishly managed by his father, was rushed onto the top flight with the McLaren team. Twice world champion Fernando Alonso was his team-mate, leading many to expect the rookie to founder in comparison.
Lewis' podium finish in his debut F1 race spelled finish doubtful expectations. His first F1 victory soon followed in Canada, with a seconds win a week later in the USA. A rookie champion appeared to be in the making for the 2007 season until Hamilton got in his own way and messed up.
The following year he won the debut race of the season and four more victories led him to the 2008 title. Hamilton's driving is usually brilliant, sometimes immature, and becoming ever better as he matures and moves on without his father's faulty guidance.
Hamilton's worst failing is that he's a bad winner, showing more ego and arrogance than one expects to witness in Formula One.