Formula 1's Greatest Driver: The Unanswerable Question

Matt HillContributor IIIMarch 14, 2011

VALENCIA, SPAIN - AUGUST 24:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Ferrari takes the chequered flag as he claims victory during the European Formula One Grand Prix at the Valencia Street Circuit on August 24, 2008, in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
Peter Fox/Getty Images

This piece is about one of the most commonly debated questions in Formula 1: Who is the best driver ever to grace the sport?

Formula 1 is a sport with many years of history and many of the greatest drivers ever. The sport is commonly thought to have been founded in 1950, but that is a myth. The 1950 season was the beginning of the FIA world championship, but there were many years of competition before that.

The sport of grand prix racing began before the first World War and the first race to take the name "grand prix" was a race in Pau in 1901.

The stars of the pre-1950 era include Nuvolari, Rosemeyer and Caracciola to name just a few. Tazio Nuvolari is the most well-known of the pre-war drivers, and his performance at the 1935 German Grand Prix is one of the greatest pieces of driving ever.

For the purposes of the piece I am going to stick to post 1950 drivers only, due to my lack of knowledge of the pre-1950 drivers and the racing of that era. So this is my top three—the podium if you will—of the greatest drivers in Formula 1.

Before anyone starts shouting at me remember, this is just one bloke's opinion.

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No. 3Michael Schumacher

Statistics: 7 World championships, 91 wins, 68 poles, 154 podiums

Michael Schumacher, in terms of pure statistics, obliterates all others. He is one of the fastest and most ruthless drivers in Formula 1. His desire to win caused some of the most memorable moments in Formula 1 history, in both good and bad ways.

He won the drivers championship five times in a row again, another record. Due to this the period between 2000 and 2004 is often referred to as "the Schumacher era." Michael Schumacher is a true great of the sport.

In 1994, he won his first world championship, but as become commonplace throughout his career, it was controversial. There were rumours of illegal driver aids, illegal fuel rigs and the car being run too close to the ground in an attempt to get an aerodynamic advantage.

At the Australian Grand Prix in 1994, there was again controversy when Michael hit Damon Hill, putting both of them out of the race and giving Schumacher the championship. With Michael, this controversy in particular destroyed his reputation in Britain with many people.  

In 1995, though, he was the class of the field and decimated everyone else and won the championship with ease. It was during the 1995 season that he did something that many considered to be madness. He left the Benetton team and went to the struggling Ferrari team.

Now most people would do what they can to stay or to move to a winning team. Michael left a winning team and went to one that was in real trouble. In 1996, Michael dragged round the pretty awful Ferrari F310 to positions it never should of been in. At the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix, there was so much rain a boat would of been more use than a car and yet Schumacher seemed totally at ease.

This is the first part of the Spanish Grand Prix of 1996. I know this is actually part 3 but the first two are just build up 

He was going up to six seconds a lap quicker than the rest of the field and won the race by a mile. This is just one example of his talent.

Other examples of his brilliance can include the 1995 Belgian Grand Prix, the 1997 Monaco Grand Prix, the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix, the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix and the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix, just to name a few.

Sadly there are many examples of his bad side as well, the 1997 European Grand Prix, the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, the 2002 United States Grand Prix, the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix and the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix.

That's what is such a shame about Schumacher. All the talent he has and all of the amazing things he has done and yet some people all they will remember is his flaws. Many people consider this comeback a stupid idea and are actually enjoying watching Schumacher struggle.

My view of the comeback is that, this is a man who is so in love with the sport he just couldn't take being away from it.

I wish Michael all the best for 2011 and hope it is a more successful year and once again he can show his abilities.

No. 2Ayrton Senna

Statistics: 3 World championships, 41 wins, 65 poles, 80 podiums

Many people believe Ayrton Senna is actually the greatest driver of all time. There is no doubt, Ayrton Senna is a very common choice for the greatest ever.

He competed in a very competitive era of Formula 1 with drivers such as Prost and Mansell, and his untimely death robbed us of the chance to see him compete fully against Schumacher.  Despite being against all of these talents, something about Ayrton Senna made him that little bit more special.

On a one lap basis in particular, I feel that Senna would be the fastest man in Formula 1. He could just find that extra 10th or two-10ths out of nowhere and sometimes he just re-wrote the rulebook of what is possible.

At Monaco in 1988 he took pole position by 1.4 seconds from the next fastest man who was Alain Prost in a identical Mclaren. He was 2.7 seconds faster than third place man Gerhard Berger in the Ferrari.

This is footage of Senna in Jerez in 1990. Just watch the commitment, speed and the quickness of his reactions.

But it wasn't just his one lap qualifying speed that makes Senna so amazing. Senna could produce the same across a race.

The most famous of these was at the European Grand Prix at Donington Park in 1993. This is the first lap of the 1993 European Grand Prix. If you don't watch any other footage of Formula 1 in the rest of your life watch this.

Remember, Senna is an under powered Mclaren-Ford and he is chasing Schumacher in a Bennetton, Prost and Hill in the all conquering Williams Renault and Wendlinger in a Sauber.

These are two of the best examples of why Senna was such an amazing talent.

His rivalry with Alain Prost is one of the most legendary rivalries in the history of the sport. The battle between them pushed the both of the two levels of intensity and aggression not really seen before or since.

There was a mutual respect between the two, but there contrasting styles of driving and their massive desire to win meant the two often pushed each other both off and on the track. When it came to world championship deciders between the two, the results were often spectacular.

In 1989 Senna and Prost crashed at Suzuka, when Senna tried to pass the Frenchman at the chicane and Prost shut the door very firmly on him. Despite Senna restarting he was later disqualified and Prost took the title. This is footage of that particular incident.

In 1990 it was the other way around when Prost get ahead of the start Senna put his car on the inside heading into Turn One and took both himself and Prost out of the race guaranteeing the world title for the Brazilian. This is footage of the rematch.

Despite this obvious ruthlessness and commitment on the track, off it he was a true gentleman. He was a strict Christian and he gave millions to charities in his native Brazil to help the poor. This made Senna a person who many found hard to understand.

Senna was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994. He may no longer be with us, but he will always be remembered. 

No. 1Juan Manuel Fangio

Statistics: 5 World championships, 24 wins, 29 poles, 35 podiums

He produced great drives and such strong performances that he can be put up there with Senna and Schumacher. He avoided all the controversies that followed Schumacher and Senna. This is why Juan Manuel Fangio is my personal choice for the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time.

The 1957 German Grand Prix is one of the most legendary performances in the sports history. At the Nurburgring Nordschleife, possibly the most difficult and dangerous track ever used in Formula 1, he came back from nearly a minute behind the leaders and won the race. In the process of doing this he smashed the lap record 11 times. Here are brief highlights of this monumental performance.

Fangio was able to take himself to that level that only a few can. He dominated the early years of Formula 1, except 1952 when Fangio didn't compete and 1953 when Ascari managed to continue his dominance from the season before.

Fangio won the world title four times between 1954 and 1957 and was the man to beat. In 1957 when he won his final drivers championship, he was 46 years of age. When people were questioning Schumacher's return in 2010, Michael was 41 years of age, a young man in comparison.

Fangio was as good as Schumacher and Senna and avoided all of the politics. He has to be my choice for the best ever.