In just one month, Formula 1 returns when the championship kicks off in Australia on March 15th. Expectations are that Mercedes will retain their dominance from last season, thanks in large part to their PU106B power units and the fact they have Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, last season’s champion and runner-up, driving for them. Of course, the other teams haven’t stood still over the off-season and we all look forward to seeing what sorts of improvements other constructors have done in an effort to catch the champions. Will Ferrari be more competitive after engine development and the addition of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel? Can Lotus jump up the ranks after dropping engine supplier Renault for Mercedes? Will McLaren be a shock contender after taking on Honda as an engine supplier and building the most experienced driving team in the field by bringing in Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button? Only this upcoming F1 season can answer these questions.
Amidst all of these questions concerning the upcoming season, old questions concerning F1, its constructors and drivers continue to dominate forums and discussions. Probably the biggest question which shows no signs of ever going away concerns the best or greatest driver of F1. Take a look around and you’ll see internet forums full of “Prost vs Senna” and “Schumacher vs Fangio” debates. No matter what side of a discussion you take, the reasons for and against a certain driver being crowned ‘the best’ are numerous. Chassis and engine technology, rules and regulations, points systems, track development – they all make comparing any two drivers who never raced against one another very difficult. In an interview with the website Autosport, MotorSport’s editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck gave the most straightforward reason why determining the greatest is impossible, which you can see here. Specifically, while trying to explain why seven-time champion Michael Schumacher can’t be considered the greatest, Roebuck stated that the German never raced against other great drivers in an equal car. This argument was repeated by others, such as Ken Tyrrell, and pretty much means any ‘greatest’ debate is a never ending black hole for F1 fans.
While this article makes no claims concerning the greatest drivers ever, it does, nonetheless, rank current and former F1 drivers based on success. Using Championship titles as a benchmark can be tricky because not all titles are equal. The number of races in a campaign and the points system for winning has changed over the years making comparisons harder. That said, we’ll stick with Championships for this ranking and use Grand Prix victories as the tie-breaker. Yes, there are still problems with that ranking system as well and we all likely have disagreements over the following 16 drivers. No matter though, because in the race world winning is winning – and second place is just the first loser.
16 Alberto Ascari – 2 Championships (13 GP wins)
Italian racer Alberto Ascari kicks off this list with two Drivers’ Championships in 1952 and 1953. Given these were won in the era dominated by the great Juan Manuel Fangio, this was no small feat. That said, racing purists will always place a small asterisk beside Ascari’s titles because they were both won during seasons where drivers raced to Formula Two specifications meaning F1 cars and races were not counted in the World Championship. Nonetheless, Ascari did well, edging out Fangio in the 1953 season and becoming the last Italian to win a Drivers Championship.
15 T14. Emerson Fittipaldi – 2 Championships (14 GP wins)
From 1970 until 1980, Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi raced in the Formula One Championship. In his first season, Fittipaldi won the US Grand Prix but had to wait two more seasons before he won again. In 1972, not only did he win five races but he also claimed the Drivers’ Championship with his Ford-powered team Lotus car. Runner-up in 1973, Fittipaldi returned to the top by winning the 1974 championship. He followed up the ’74 campaign with another runner-up performance in 1975 – the season which saw his last race win at the British GP. At the peak of his F1 career, he caught everyone off guard in 1976 by leaving McLaren to race for his brother, Wilson Fittipaldi’s team. He never won another race or came close to a Drivers’ Championship after that.
14 T14. Graham Hill – 2 Championships (14 GP wins)
Tied in championships and wins, Graham Hill edges out Emerson Fittipaldi for 14th position thanks to attaining one more podium finish in his career. Hill raced in F1 from 1958 until 1971 when he was killed in a plane crash. The father of future F1 champion Damon Hill, Graham won 14 Grand Prix over his career and secured two F1 titles. Racing fortunes took a turn for the better when Hill and Owen Racing made the switch from the Climax inline four cylinder to the BRM V8 engine in 1962. The next four seasons saw 10 GP wins, the 1962 championship and three consecutive runner-up results. Hill would have to wait until 1968 to taste victory again thanks to the Ford V8 which powered his Lotus to another championship and three race wins.
13 Mika Hakkinen – 2 Championships (20 GP wins)
Like Lex Luther to Superman, Mika Hakkinen was, in a way, one of the few racers who could seriously trouble Michael Schumacher on his rise to fame at the end of the 1990s. In addition to showing he could match Schumacher on more than one occasion, the Finn also claimed back to back titles in 1998 and 1999. This was made all the more impressive given the somewhat unreliable nature of his Mercedes V12 powered McLaren. In any event, 1998 to 2000 was the peak of this Finn’s career with the two titles, a runner-up position and 17 of his total 20 career GP victories.
12 Jim Clark – 2 Championships (25 GP wins)
Jim Clark raced from 1960 to 1968 and would have likely raced longer if not for the crash that took his life in April 1968. The Scottish racer drove his entire F1 career with Team Lotus and enjoyed his greatest success in 1963 and 1965 where, with the help of a very good Climax V8 engine, he took home the championships. Clark was known to be an aggressive driver who pushed his cars well beyond what other drivers were comfortable with. Even in pouring rain, he was known to aggressively lap opponents. His driving style won him 25 GP victories(tied with Niki Lauda) and also a record 8 Grand Slams for winning, achieving pole position, setting the fastest lap time and leading the entire race all during a single GP.
11 Fernando Alonso – 2 Championships (32 GP wins)
Fernando Alonso has been in F1 since the 2001 season. The 33 year old rose to fame in the 2005 and 2006 seasons thanks to back-to-back championships which knocked Michael Schumacher back into the runner-up position. Since 2006, the Spaniard has failed to win another championship and struggled last season with Ferrari and the new 1.6L turbocharged power unit. For the upcoming season, Alonso finds himself with McLaren who are using the new Honda engines. While another Drivers title may be a stretch, it would be tough to bet against Alonso increasing his GP victories given his experience and winning mentality. That said, one wonders if Honda have their act together enough to compete with the other teams who all have one more year of experience developing the V6 power units.
10 Lewis Hamilton – 2 Championships (33 GP wins)
Last season, Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t even have been on this list and was #7 on the ranking of overall driver GP victories. As we head into the 2015 season, the British racer and current champion has jumped up the ranks thanks to a fantastic 2014 season. In the V8-era, Hamilton was consistent, winning one championship and never finishing outside the top 5. With the switch to Mercedes’ V6 turbo power unit, the Englishman looks unstoppable, racking up 11 GP wins last season alone. Only 30 years old, Hamilton looks set to continue his winning ways. Given Mercedes’ superb power unit and Hamilton’s history of consistency, the Englishman could easily find himself in the ‘three-championship club’ come the end of the 2015 season.
9 Jack Brabham – 3 Championships (14 GP wins)
Sir Jack Brabham was a three time F1 champion and F1 team founder. Racing was such a part of Brabham’s DNA that he raced his own team car to victory in 1966 – becoming the first and only person to do so. In 1959 and 1960, Brabham enjoyed title success and seven GP wins while racing for Cooper. Success eluded the Australian for several years until 1966 when he won four more GP and the championship while racing for his own team, Brabham Racing. The final four years of his career would see him only claim three more GP wins to bring his total to three championships and 14 race wins.
8 Nelson Piquet – 3 Championships (23 GP wins)
One of the most consistent racers on this list, Nelson Piquet won 23 GP over his career. One look at his career and you can see he achieved these victories and three championships using a wide variety of engines. Reliability was definitely something which dogged his career. Considering the trouble he had with the BMW S4 turbocharged unit, it’s amazing he claimed the 1983 title against Prost and his Renault V6 turbocharged car. After the 1987 win, Piquet raced for another four seasons but only managed to notch another three Grand Prix victories, ending with the total of 3 championships and 23 race victories.
7 Niki Lauda – 3 Championships (25 GP wins)
Thanks to the 2013 hit film Rush, Niki Lauda is known to just as many people outside of F1 as within the F1 fan community. Lauda approached racing in a very technical and logical manner – something you can see today in how he deals with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes AMG Petronas. Lauda’s 25 GP wins are scattered over the course of his career, helping him take home the championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and again in 1984 with McLaren. He may be famous for his fiery crash on the Nurburgring but he is also one of the few who could tame what Jackie Stewart labelled the “Green Hell,” lapping the infamous German track in under seven minutes in 1974.
6 Jackie Stewart – 3 Championships (27 GP wins)
Like Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart had one of the shorter F1 careers, at only nine years. Nonetheless, from 1965 to 1973 Stewart tallied 27 victories and claimed the championship in 1969, 1971 and 1973. The 1967 season was the only campaign in which the Scot failed to win a Grand Prix. What also separates Stewart from many other racers is that he went out on a high, winning the championship in his final season. His last victory in that title-winning season, fittingly, was at the Nurburgring, a track which was extremely difficult and dangerous and personally terrified Stewart every time he raced on it.
5 Ayrton Senna – 3 Championships (41 GP wins)
Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna finds himself at #5 on this list – blasphemy to many race fans. Senna was one of the best-known F1 drivers thanks to his aggressive driving style and epic battles with teammate Alain Prost. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, his life was cut short following a fatal crash at Imola in 1994. Many consider Senna the greatest because he achieved his championships and 41 victories with cars which were often unreliable. Just as many fans counter this claim by arguing that Senna’s cars would have been more reliable if he hadn’t pushed them so hard. Regardless of the stand you take, his impressive record is deserving of a high position on any list.
4 Sebastian Vettel – 4 Championships (39 GP wins)
From 2010 to 2013, Sebastian Vettel owned the F1 world. The German driver took home four consecutive championships and 34 GP victories over this period. At the start of last season, Vettel’s total GP victories stood at 39. Heading into the 2015 season it sits unchanged. The four-time champion had a great deal of trouble adjusting to the new cars last season and soon saw himself fall behind teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull Racing pecking order. Many argue that Vettel’s sudden drop in form proves the Renault powered Red Bull racer was the sole reason for the four consecutive victories. In fairness, most other drivers were having just as much, if not more, trouble competing with the champions. A switch to Ferrari doesn’t necessarily mean a 2015 Drivers’ Championship, but it may potential lead to a few more GP wins.
3 Alain Prost – 4 Championships (51 GP wins)
Alain Prost’s career spanned 13 seasons, 6 constructors and four different engine types. He often gets lost among the Senna vs Schumacher debates, but this French driver is considered to be one of the best, if not the best F1 driver ever. During the V6 tubro-era, Prost was king, winning two championships and three runners-up. It was during this period he put in a performance which fans use to ‘prove’ he was the greatest. In 1986 Prost’s McLaren was not the fastest car of the season yet he raced with enough raw talent and skill to grab the title. Championships aside, Prost held the GP victory record for several years.
2 Juan Manuel Fangio – 5 Championships
If the Dos Equis guy was a racer he’d be Juan Manuel Fangio. Sure, Fangio’s 24 GP victories don’t initially make him stand out from the rest, but the Argentine’s 5 championships put him head and shoulders above most others. All of this is made even more impressive given the era he drove in. Using cars with narrow wheel bases, narrow tires, front mounted engines, no electronics, no driver aids, no roll-over protection and manual transmission, Fangio grabbed 29 pole positions and 24 victories from 52 races (46% win percentage). In eight seasons he won five championships and was even kidnapped in Cuba in 1957, one of his championship seasons. Fortunately, his captors let him listen to the race he missed and they all became friends afterwards. Move over Dos Equis guy.
1 Michael Schumacher – 7 Championships
When you look at Michael Schumacher’s statistics you probably wonder how on earth a debate exists concerning the best F1 driver. Statistically, he is untouchable. Having notched 68 poles, 155 podium finishes and 91 race victories over his 19 season career, Schumacher definitely knew how to handle a car. Yes, he enjoyed a long spell with the fastest and most reliable car, but you could somewhat counter those points with the fact that the car didn’t drive itself. An arrogant cheater? Indeed, there were times that Ferrari and Schumacher ‘bent’ the rules or displayed poor sportsmanship. In fairness, you’d be hard pressed to argue that most others on this list were 100% squeaky clean when it came to sportsmanship over their entire careers. Regardless of whose side you’re on, having seven Drivers’ titles and 40 more GP victories than the closest rival (Alain Prost) surely crowns Schumacher as the most successful F1 driver of all time.