Who Is the Best F1 Driver of All Time?

James MortimerAnalyst IDecember 1, 2008

The world’s premier motor sport has seen some truly remarkable men in the last century of all nationalities, many with different impacts—but whose record stacks up the best?


Statistically, German Michael Schumacher is the greatest F1 driver, with seven world championships, including most constructers (car makers) titles, race victories, pole positions, points scored and biggest title winning margins.  He has won the most races in a single season—and remains the only F1 driver to have a full season of podium finishes in 2002. 


While motor purists would argue that the German’s competition was not fierce—it was his turning around of Ferrari in the late nineties that began his legend.  The traditional heavy v12 of the Ferrari struggled against the smaller more efficient v10’s of other cars, and the performance of the pit crews were inferior to the then big teams of Benetton (whom he won titles with in 1994 and 1995) and Williams.

He proclaimed that the new model Ferrari 412T would win championships—and in 1999 Ferrari won the constructers title before Michael began his remarkable run of five consecutive world titles.


If the German iceman had one weakness, it was his attitude at times—and his desire to push the code of racing to the limits; with numerous drivers belligerent with his driving style, which would often run illegal lines to dominate on the track.


The Brazilian Ayrton Senna had similar traits.  The three time world champion was the charismatic and had a daunting presence on and off the field and brought Formula One racing to an entire new audience. 

Like Michael, he was an incredible wet weather driver—an attribute more the impressive for the glass like handling of the Formula beasts, especially when taking 200 km/ph turns.  His death at the San Marino 1994 Grand Prix further increased the impact of the great man, and dominated sports media unlike any other event the world had seen.


The only man to match the Brazilian race for race in this era was the great French driver Alain Prost, whom maintained the greatest single rivalry the sport has ever seen.  Prost won four world titles, with his last coming in 1993 as Schumacher came into the scene.  The first technical driving specialist of the sport—some argue he was unlucky not to win the titles from 1982 to 1984.


Prost’s achievements are put into even greater perspective when considering his adversaries over this golden age of racing.  As well as Senna, Brazilian Nelson Piquet won three titles over this period.  Damon Hill, Jean Alesi, John Watson, and Keke Rosberg, all once in a generation drivers, played second fiddle to the French racer. 

He then came back in 1993 and won his last title despite the brilliance of one of the greatest British F1 drivers Nigel Mansell—who won the 1992 title by a then record 52 points.


Scotsmen Jim Clark can lay claim to the throne of the greatest driver in the sport.  Clark was a dominator in the 1960s forming a great collaboration with team owner Colin Chapman—and for all of the speed of his cars, their tenuous nature restricted the flying Scotsman to only two world titles.

Clark was involved in a terrible accident in 1961 when his Lotus collided with the Ferrari of Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips.  Wolfgang was killed along with 15 spectators in what was a racing tragedy.


Clark’s real claim to fame was his ability to drive any car.  As well as being World Champion in 1963 and 1965, he also won the Indianapolis 500, the British Touring Car Championship, and came third in the 24 Hours race of Le mans.  He tragically died in 1968 in a Formula Two race at the Hockenheim ring in Germany.

But the Grandfather of Formula one racing is Juan Manuel Fangio—the Argentinean genius to whom all great drivers are compared.  He won five World championships, including four consecutive titles from 1954 to 1957.  He won his titles with four different teams, and while he only achieved 24 wins, a number surpassed by many drivers, he accomplished this in just 51 races, a strike rate unmatched by any other driver in history.


But the fact that he won his first championship at the age of 40 is the greatest statistic considering his best racing years were behind him.  His greatest foe Stirling Moss, remarked that Fangio was in a different league to all the other drivers—and he set the standard for racing etiquette.


I watched many of Schumacher’s racers, and he was no doubt a force beyond anything the sport had seen—but there were factors that aided his reign.


But if going beyond pure statistics, I would select Juan—as his strike rate and switching of teams indicates a dominance that was no aided by race advisers, ascendant cars or aggressive team orders.