Another Formula 1 season is just around the corner, and while fans are no doubt continuing to wallow in boredom at the lack of high-speed circuit action in one of the fastest motorsports on the planet for now, this list might just sate their appetite for now.
Memorably, Lewis Hamilton was the clear winner at the top of the Drivers' Championship in 2015 with 381 points to his name, which was a full 59 ahead of his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg. Indeed, the pair were streets ahead of everybody else as they came home in pole position in 16 of the 19 races in 2015.
The British driver was in exceptional form all season long as he drove close to perfection throughout, and it had his technical team purring over the team transmission on more than one occasion. His dominance was remarkable, but he's not been the first F1 champion to take home victory with such incredible talent to back up his hunger for success.
Examining, and ranking, the cream of the crop would not be an easy undertaking, but we've never been ones to shy away from a challenge here at TheSportster, so get ready for a break-neck ride as we do exactly that. In an effort to produce a balanced piece, we've obviously opted to prioritize the number of titles won, years of experience racked up on the road to a breakthrough season, third-party opinion as well as a number of eye-catching statistics and facts.
Perhaps most importantly of all, though, is to remember that this list aims to zone in on talented F1 drivers who always looked more at ease than a thousand hours behind the wheel could possibly have made them - those who exhibited a naturally exuberant flair for the feel and thrust of an F1 engine, even in the heat of battle. With that, drivers who excelled before 1950 have been excluded so there’s no room for the likes of Tazio Nuvolari, for example.
Let us know your own thoughts down below, we're always open to a good ol' debate.
15 James Hunt
Frankly, James Hunt is one of the most underrated drivers in the history of F1, often getting overshadowed by Niki Lauda’s impressive achievements. People often recall Hunt's overzealous life along with his exuberant rock n' roll extracurricular activities that often involved a pretty full-on pre-race night of partying and intoxicated socializing (he once slept with 33 stewardesses). While his gung-ho, outlook made for entertainment, it also took away from his excellent driving ability to a large extent.
His one world title might well pale in comparison with the likes of Mika Hakkinen and Graham Hill, but his ability to overcome adversity and dislike from the masses, as well as the fact he succeeded despite admitting that he never liked racing tells a story of its own about just how talented he really was. He drove with energy, and he deserves his spot on our list.
14 Emerson Fittipaldi
A two-time world champion in 1972 and 1974, Emerson Fittipaldi was, at the time of his first title, the youngest to win it, a record that stood for an impressive 33 years and something that paid testament to how good he was at just 25 years of age.
He was a smooth driver who knew the limits of his car and was in tune with how best to manipulate its movements through some tricky chicanes and pacey straights. He is often best characterized as a precise driver who, not unlike Alain Prost, was very calculated in his efforts to be the best he could. Although he was blessed with an innate talent, he also had to work hard on improving it, especially as he was competing against some of the most impressive names around.
13 Alberto Ascari
The great Enzo Ferrari once said that Alberto Ascari “had a precise and distinctive driving style” and although his period of dominance arrived long before the big money of today’s modern incarnation, the effect he’s had on the sport is evident. After all, he has the second-highest win percentage in history, behind only Juan Manuel Fangio.
With two drivers’ titles to his name, the impressive Italian only achieved a fraction of what his talents would have allowed had he not been killed in a tragic accident in 1955 after switching from Ferrari to Lancia. In truth, he really was a majestic motorist who left his mark on the sport having inspired by virtue of some pioneering driving.
12 Nelson Piquet Souto Maior
It all began for Nelson Piquet Snr. when a love for the world of karting took hold in the early years of his immensely successful career. In the miniature models, zipping around tracks at break-neck speed, the Brazilian exhibited a pure propensity for mastering four wheels, beating opponents and taming the undulating surfaces that he came up against along the way.
A triple world champion, he brought his youthful brilliance to the fore time and again and proved that not only was he a talented driver who instinctively knew how to steer his car to 60 podium finishes from 204 races, but that he was also a consistent character who had the backbone to achieve some amazing feats of navigation. Who could forget the way he masterminded the first-ever turbo-powered title win back in 1983 – it took some raw talent to do that and it won’t be forgotten.
11 Jim Clark
Had his life not been cut cruelly short at the age of 32, Jim Clark could have made his talents build as many as three titles. As it turned out, the gifted Scotsman managed to nab two world championships before a tragic reported suspension failure impacted catastrophically on his tires causing him to crash at Hockenheim.
His admirers know all too well that if it had been any other sort of a mishap, Clark’s outstanding skill behind the wheel would have been more than enough to avoid a fatal crash, such is the confidence his fans continue to bestow upon his magical legacy. Noted for his unique approach to cornering which meant he would brake much later than most as well as drifting through the apexes, his eagerness to find new ways to shave seconds off his times really highlights just how clever a driver he was.
10 Fernando Alonso
You just know someone is a special talent when they start excelling by the age of three. That’s precisely the way it was with Fernando Alonso. Just a nipper, barely having mastered walking, he was learning the ropes in the exciting world of karting when he was gifted the present of a hand-me-down kart. The rest, as they say, has been history as the Spaniard has taken two world titles. Despite the fact that not much has happened for him since his most recent piece of no.1 silverware back in 2006, he has always been considered a truly special talent.
Described as “a tenacious streetfighter” by some, it would be a shame to see him depart the sport on a low, struggling with McLaren because it’s easy to see why he would offer so much to a better team because he is, and always will be, a superb driver capable of doing some impossibly amazing things with almost any car.
9 Jack Brabham
The late Sir Jack Brabham was far more than a driver. He was an inventor, a mechanic and a world-class act. In 1966, he won the World Championship title in a car he built himself, and is the only man in the history of the sport to achieve such a feat. It’s a record he will likely hold forever as the intricacies of engineering has developed to such a point that it now requires a whole team of experts.
Back in Brabham’s heyday, however, he was the genius of the F1 world and he managed to combine a brilliant knowledge of driving with a special talent for mechanics as he crafted a unique rear-engine BT19. Nicknamed ‘Black Jack’, he really shone when allowed to put his own stamp on proceedings across his haul of three titles. Whether it was by over-taking his opponents by way of smart driving or by forging his own machine to pilot, he really was an exceptional force who leaves a lasting legacy.
8 Jackie Stewart
Before round-the-clock coverage came about, Formula 1 had to earn its reputation as an elite pursuit, purpose-built for only the most brave and skilled of men. Back then, in the Technicolor days of mystery, it was the likes of Jackie Stewart who helped drive it into the record books. After all, it has always been a dangerous endeavor even for the most skilled of technicians, and it was even doubly so in the 1960's when Stewart was starting out. He even lost some of his closest friends to its lethality.
In all, he claimed three glorious drivers’ titles for himself and 27 wins, making him one of the most successful champions around. Navigating track after track with increasing expertise, he knew how to guide his vehicle wherever he wanted. In short, he is more than deserving of praise as one of the most talented. Add this to the fact he campaigned for increased safety and it’s clear his fingerprints remain all over the improvements that have helped make the sport such an enthralling, and increasingly safer, contest.
7 Lewis Hamilton
In late 2015, Lewis Hamilton equaled Ayrton Senna’s haul of 41 Grand Prix wins when he took victory in Japan before going on to collect a few more. Considering the brilliant Brazilian was his childhood hero, that was definitely a huge personal milestone. Indeed, it underlined precisely how focused he has always been on achieving goals. Somebody else might have felt a little treacherous surpassing an idol of theirs, but Hamilton remained uber-respectful, and yet still rightly chuffed with himself.
The reigning champion now has three world titles to his name and at just 30 years of age, he can still go a long way yet, something his previous 87 podium finishes clearly attest to. Whether or not he has it in him to better the record that’s already been set by Michael Schumacher remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the British driver has managed to get where he is now as a result of some scintillating performances, hard work and pure talent sculpted in the right manner.
6 Alain Prost
His fearsome duels with Ayrton Senna might well dominate the conversation about Alain Prost but there can be little doubting that Prost knew how to get people talking of his own accord. Their rivalry certainly brought Formula 1 to the masses, but Prost was an incredibly talented driver, something his four World Championships clearly attests to.
Bestowed the moniker of “The Professor” at the peak of his powers, he was one of the most intelligent drivers around. Boasting an incredible array of race day manoeuvres, he was lightning quick around the track, but also an astute observer of the rules and regulations which often kept him onside with the FIA as well as earning him plenty of opportunities to get into pole position – 51 of which he converted into race wins. A supreme talent who worked hard to move outside his natural strengths.
5 Sebastian Vettel
One of the most accomplished drivers in the history of the sport, Sebastian Vettel has carried himself with an air of authority around some of the globe’s most challenging tracks and he has amassed the highest points tally in the history of F1 racing. Not a bad statistic to hold as your own.
The German has already picked up four titles and is in an exclusive club of just four drivers to have recorded at least that many. He might have been blown out of the water by Lewis Hamilton during the 2015 season, but he has the experience and the know-how to put up more of a fight in 2016, and he’ll be aiming to better the three pole finishes he managed last year. Indeed, rising starlet Max Verstappen has singled him out as a role model to emulate, underlining just how gifted the four-time champion is truly regarded.
4 Niki Lauda
Driving an F1 car to victory is always a truly testing challenge of skill, determination and bravery. Nobody knows that better than Niki Lauda who became involved in one of the most harrowing and violent accidents in the history of the sport when his automobile caught fire during one lap of the German Grand Prix Nurburgring in 1976. Disfigured as a result and incredibly shaken by the initial incident, any normal person might have given up, recoiling at the thought of returning to action.
Not Lauda, though, he returned a few months later showing everyone precisely why he should be regarded as one of the most resourceful and masterly drivers of his era. Incredibly, he won the majority of his three titles after the flames almost took his life and he refused to give in, building on the tidy, consistent driving style that helped him marry safe speed with scintillating success all around the world, something epitomised by his 25 wins across 13 seasons.
3 Juan Manuel Fangio
Astonishingly, Juan Manuel Fangio won five world titles at the pinnacle of F1. His track record speaks for himself and although his exploits happened long ago, it’s refreshing to remember that his feats of class continue to earn the praise of pundits and fans everywhere. His passion for motorsports began when he opened up his own garage after World War II and after earning rave reviews for some phenomenal long-distance dirt-track victories in South America, he was eventually afforded an awesome opportunity at the top level.
His ability to manoeuvre the car in all sorts of conditions (which often bore a close resemblance to futuristic spacecrafts) sprang from his many years as a master motorist. He might only have recorded 24 victories but "El Chueco" has the highest win percentage in history, and that’s not something that should be overlooked in a hurry.
2 Michael Schumacher
The skiing tragedy that befell Michael Schumacher back in 2013 was felt by countless people both inside and outside the world of motorsport. Seeing such a talented star impeded so violently in the prime of his life was a hammer blow to his family and friends but also to the fans he had won during his long stay at the top. What he has left, however, is a phenomenal legacy that will span more than a lifetime.
Capturing as many as seven drivers' titles and 91 victories along the way (the most-ever so far), the gong-hungry German left an indelible mark on his field as he became the most successful in history. During the 1990's and noughties, he dominated track after track as he stole one pole position after the other, leaving his opponents eating his dust from the ferocious wheel spin of his masterful performances. He helped carry the torch lit by Ayrton Senna and ensured the sport continued to stay popular with a characteristic flair for winning.
1 Ayrton Senna
When the famous Brazilian died at just 34 years of age back in 1994 at the Tambarello corner during the San Marino Grand Prix, the world of sport, and not just F1, had lost a true hero and a really iconic person who genuinely managed to transcend his sporting sphere. He became one of the most charismatic and eccentric personalities to ever grace the driver's seat of some of the best engines around (though he also wrestled with some troublesome machines). What's more, he backed it all up by dominating with a series of three drivers’ crowns by the time he had turned 31.
His fiery rivalry with Alain Prost certainly added to his appeal, but it was his supreme talent as a perfect pilot that really kept the intrigue going long after his zingy quotes had been scribbled down. Because while it marked him out as more than just a formulaic driver, he wouldn't have earned half the reputation he did if it hadn't been for his ability to master chicanes, tame the most difficult of corners and clock up superhuman times. A legend in the truest sense of the word deserving of his no. 1 spot on our list who shone from the get-go, especially on wet surfaces.