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The 10 best F1 drivers of all time

How do you choose the best driver of all-time?

Ranking the best Formula 1 drivers across the championship’s 73 years is not a simple task. No matter which system we use, there will be upset, angst and lots and lots of discussion… and that’s great.

That’s the best part about this kind of question - it stirs endless debate as everyone brings their own perspective and biases.

Not to spoil the conclusion, but there is no definitive answer. The sport has changed so much since the first organised Formula 1 season in 1950.

The cars are different, the tracks are different, the amount of races has changed.

In 1950 the series consisted of just seven races and included the Indianapolis 500 as a points-paying event (even though none of the European-based teams entered), but the rest were all in Europe.

Fast forward to 2023 and the drivers competed across 22 grand prix, all around the world.

Cars are now faster, more reliable and drivers are fed endless amounts of data, but there is also more expected of them as the competition level has increased as the money invested has risen to stratospheric levels.

So, how do you choose the best driver of all-time? Is it the driver with the most wins? The most championships? The highest winning percentage? The driver who left the biggest mark on the sport? The most starts?

Well, we’re going to factor all these elements into our assessment and hopefully come up with a list that won’t create too many arguments… but should inspire some great debate.

What is F1? What does it stand for?

F1 stands for Formula 1 (or Formula One), which is the highest class of single-seat, open-wheel racing cars in the world. It’s considered the pinnacle of motor racing competition due to its history. 

Is there an accepted 'best' F1 driver of all time, or is it debated? 

In a word, no. Asking who the best F1 drivers of all-time are is a bit like asking who is the best musician of all-time? So much will depend on your own perspective, your age and where and when you grew up.

Ask someone under the age of 30 (and plenty over that age) and they’ll say Taylor Swift is the greatest human being to ever sing a song. Alternatively, ask a baby boomer and they’ll probably say The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.

So, how do you define F1’s best drivers? Well, as explained earlier we’ll look at all the relevant data - wins, championships, pole positions, race starts, etc - and cross-reference that with the impact a driver had on the sport, from a competitiveness point-of-view, as well as factoring in the cars they drove and the era they drove in.

What gets someone a spot in the F1 hall of fame?

Quite simply making it to F1 is a massive achievement. Anyone who’s ever hopped into a go-kart for a race has dreamed of racing in F1, so to become one of the 20 (on average) drivers that get to race is something that should be celebrated.

But to be remembered and make the hall of fame, or even this list, requires sustained success at the top level. To be considered one of the greatest of all-time you need to win a lot of races and it helps if you win more than one driver’s world title (but that isn’t a deal-breaker, as you’ll find out).

 

10. Sebastian Vettel

  • Sebastian Vettel Sebastian Vettel
  • Sebastian Vettel Sebastian Vettel
  • Sebastian Vettel Sebastian Vettel

Championships: 4

Wins: 53

The German prodigy had such a meteoric rise through the junior formulas beneath F1 that when he reached the top he was already in demand. Both BMW and Red Bull wanted Vettel because they could see his potential.

After making his F1 debut in a one-off injury replacement with BMW at the 2007 US Grand Prix, Red Bull ultimately won his long-term services and he quickly asserted himself in the sport. He graduated from Red Bull’s development team, Toro Rosso, to its primary Red Bull Racing squad by the start of 2009.

There he partnered Australia’s own Mark Webber and finished runner-up in the ‘09 driver’s title. He went one better in 2010, scoring his maiden championship, which made him the youngest F1 champion (a record that still stands). 

Vettel went on to win the world championship in ‘11, ‘12 and ‘13 as he took advantage of Red Bull Racing’s technical dominance. Which is the reason he doesn’t make it any higher on our list, because for all his talent (and Vettel had loads of it) he ultimately wasn’t able to repeat his success with Ferrari in the second half of his career. 

While he occasionally earned the ire of Australian F1 fans for his clashes with Webber, Vettel’s laid back personality made him a fan favourite. Having burst onto the scene in his youth, he retired at the end of the 2022 season at just 35 years old.

 

9. Jackie Stewart

  • Jackie Stewart Jackie Stewart
  • Jackie Stewart Jackie Stewart

Championships: 3  

Wins: 27

The ‘Flying Scot’ as he was affectionately known is still a common sight at F1 races, more than six decades after he made his grand prix debut.

While modern fans will know him from television and perhaps his short tenure as an F1 team boss (Red Bull Racing can trace its lineage back to Stewart Grand Prix), for an older generation he was simply an ace.

Despite offers from multiple other teams, including the leading Lotus outfit, he made his F1 debut with the BRM team in 1965, partnering two-time world champion Graham Hill (father of 1996 champion, Damon). It didn’t take him long to get up to speed, winning a race in his first season.

By ‘68 he was driving for the Tyrrell team, where he had spent his formative seasons in junior categories, and the combination immediately became the one to beat. He claimed the ‘69, ‘71 and ‘73 world titles and notched 27 grand prix victories - the most of anyone up to that point in the sport’s history (a record that stood until 1987).

But Stewart’s impact on the sport was more than just being quick on the track, he was a leading advocate for safety at a time when the sport was horrifically dangerous.

He loudly campaigned for improvements to cars, tracks, spectator areas and driver equipment and the result of those efforts is countless lives saved over the decades.

Sadly, one of the lives he couldn’t save was his Tyrrell teammate and protégé, Francois Cevert, who was killed during practice for the 1973 US Grand Prix. Stewart retired immediately, failing to take the start for what would have been his 100th grand prix.

At the time of publication he is the oldest living grand prix winner.

 

8. Stirling Moss

  • Stirling Moss Stirling Moss
  • Stirling Moss Stirling Moss
  • Stirling Moss Stirling Moss

Championships: 0

Wins: 16

No, that isn’t a typo. Eighth place on our list goes to a driver who only won 16 grands prix and never claimed the driver’s world championship. And yet Sir Stirling Moss was undoubtedly one of the most gifted drivers to ever sit in a racing car.

Moss’ statistical record simply does not do his talent justice and while he was immensely talented in a variety of cars (and his sister, Pat, was a talented rally driver in her own right) for this list we’re only measuring him on his F1 success - and there’s still plenty of that.

His F1 career really took off in 1955 when he was hired to partner Juan Manuel Fangio in the Mercedes-Benz grand prix squad. He was runner-up to his Argentinean mentor in ‘55, ‘56 and ‘57 and then Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn in ‘58.

He then finished in third place in the championship in ‘59 and ‘60 to Australia’s own Sir Jack Brabham and again in his final season in ‘61.

But all these close calls don’t fully explain his talent, only drives like his remarkable victory in the ‘61 Monaco Grand Prix can do that.

In that particular race his Lotus-Climax was seemingly no match for the more powerful Ferraris (that would go on to claim the world titles) but Moss made the difference.

Driving one faultless lap after the other, complete with his legs exposed as he’d had the side bodywork panels removed to cool him, Moss held off the chasing pack of Prancing Horses to make his place as the best driving talent of the day, carrying his slower car to a win.

Unfortunately, his career was cut prematurely short after a serious accident in early ‘62 left him in a coma for a month. He recovered but never raced in F1 again and died, aged 90, in 2020.

 

7. Alain Prost

  • Alain Prost Alain Prost
  • Alain Prost Alain Prost

Championships: 4  

Wins: 51

In a recent interview with <i>Motorsport</i> magazine the Frenchman made a telling statement, saying: “It sounds like a joke but I’m completely underrated!”

While it may come across as arrogant, in many respects it’s hard to argue he’s wrong. Often seen as ‘the villain’ of his era, Prost raced wheel-to-wheel with Ayrton Senna (who appears later on this list) and Niki Lauda (a three-time world champion, who only narrowly missed the cut).

Not only raced against, but beat them both in identical cars. He also won F1 races for four different teams - Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Williams - across his 12-year career.

Nicknamed ‘The Professor’ for his methodical approach, Prost was the master of setting up his car for the longer grands prix of the ‘80s and ‘90s that generally didn’t feature refuelling.

Still, when the time called for it, he would fight hard against whoever challenged him, most famously Senna. 

The pair were the undisputed best drivers in F1 in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and went head-to-head in ‘88 and ‘89 at McLaren, each winning one world title a piece.

Prost did his best to try and revive Ferrari’s flagging fortunes in the early ‘90s before taking a sabbatical in ‘92 only to return in ‘93 with Williams and claim his fourth and final championship before retiring for good.

Prost won one in every four grands prix he started and claimed pole position 33 times and the fastest lap 41 times in his 199 race starts, proving he could be quick over one lap when he needed to be.

He attempted to transition to team ownership, running the Prost Grand Prix squad from 1997 until the end of the 2001 season.

 

6. Jim Clark

  • Jim Clark Jim Clark
  • Jim Clark Jim Clark
  • Jim Clark Jim Clark

Championships: 2

Wins: 25

A farmer by birth, but a racer by nature. Clark’s star burned brightly but briefly, which is why his record doesn’t truly reflect his greatness.

In a similar way to Michael Schumacher’s relationship with Ferrari or Max Verstappen with Red Bull, Clark was Lotus’ undisputed star. As the British carmaker went toe-to-toe with Ferrari (and Brabham, BRM, Cooper, Porsche, Maserati and others) in the competitive ‘60s, Clark led the way.

He won the ‘63 and ‘65 championships when the sport’s rules allowed 1.5-litre engines, but when they switched to bigger 3.0-litre engines, Lotus was caught out by Australia’s own Brabham-Repco combination. In ‘67 Lotus debuted a new Ford-Cosworth engine, the DFV, which would soon become the must-have engine in F1.

Tragically, Clark was never able to exploit it, dying in a crash while competing in a Formula 2 race at Germany’s Hockenheim circuit in April 1968. At the time of his death his 25 wins and 33 pole positions were the most in the sport and he would have surely added to those tallies, and his driver’s titles, had he lived longer. 

As it is, he has a winning percentage of a remarkable 34.25 per cent of all the races he competed in. Coming at a time when reliability was poor, that is a staggering achievement and a testament to his immense skill.

 

5. Max Verstappen*

  • Max Verstappen Max Verstappen
  • Max Verstappen Max Verstappen
  • Max Verstappen Max Verstappen
  • Max Verstappen Max Verstappen

Championships: 3

Wins: 54

If you watched F1 in 2023 you might be thinking fifth place is a bit low for Verstappen, but given his age it’s fair to say he’s got plenty of time on his side to rise up this list - and likely top it one day.

He’s already the youngest driver in F1 history, he debuted at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne at just 17 years old. He’s the youngest F1 race winner, too, scoring his first triumph at 18 at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

However, he had to wait until the ripe old age of 24 before he could win his first world title.

Since then he hasn’t looked back, as he and the Red Bull Racing team have become the most dominant force in the sport. In 2023 he won 19 of the 22 races held and rarely looked threatened.

Verstappen was destined for racing from birth, as both his parents were former karting stars. His father Jos reached F1 during the ‘90s, and groomed his son to exceed his modest success from his youngest days. That he has done, and more, notching up 54 wins and 98 podium finishes from just 185 grand prix starts.

At the start of the 2023 season he’ll only be 26 so if he maintains his current trajectory there’s no reason to think he won’t break just about every record in the books.  

 

4. Ayrton Senna

  • Ayrton Senna Ayrton Senna
  • Ayrton Senna Ayrton Senna

Championships: 3

Wins: 41

Arguably the most iconic personality F1 has ever produced. He was fast, raced hard and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, which is why he was the hero to an entire generation of drivers.

His talent was obvious from very early in his career, even during his first season with the unfancied Toleman team. At the very wet ‘84 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna’s skill in the slippery conditions saw him scythe through the field and finished second.

After some more learning years with Lotus, he finally ascended to the sport’s best team at the time in 1988. That year he and Prost engaged in an almost-private duel for the F1 title, the pairing winning all but one race as they duked it out. Senna ultimately triumphed to claim the first of his three world championships and his ruthless attitude eventually drove Prost from the team.

Senna won the title again in ‘90 and ‘91 before the Williams team took its turn as the team to beat. He would join Williams in ‘94 with the expectation of adding to his world titles, but was killed in a crash in the third grand prix of the year at the Imola circuit.

It robbed the sport of its brightest star and denied us a true head-to-head contest between Senna and his heir apparent, Michael Schumacher. 

Senna was renowned for his raw speed, claiming a then-record 65 pole positions - a stunning 40 per cent of the races he started.

But Senna had a ruthless streak, as his controversial clashes with Prost demonstrated, and his desire to win blurred the lines of good sportsmanship at times which has forever shifted the nature of racing in F1.

 

3. Juan Manuel Fangio

  • Juan Manuel Fangio Juan Manuel Fangio
  • Juan Manuel Fangio Juan Manuel Fangio
  • Juan Manuel Fangio Juan Manuel Fangio

Championships: 5

Wins: 24

The original F1 superstar. Grand prix racing pre-dates the F1 championship’s formation in 1950, but when the sport became organised, Fangio was in the right place at the right time.

Driving for the fancied Alfa Romeo team he claimed runner-up spot in the first season before clinching the title in ‘51.

He missed the ‘52 season and had an uncompetitive Maserati in ‘53 but then went on a run claiming four consecutive championships from ‘54 to ‘57.

What made it more impressive is he did it for different teams - Mercedes in ‘54 and ‘55, Ferrari in ‘56 and Maserati in ‘57. 

After a patchy ‘58 season he retired from F1 racing and it would take until 2003 for Michael Schumacher to beat his tally for five world driver’s titles.

While Fangio was famous for his mechanical sympathy, which was needed to help get the less-reliable ‘50s cars to the chequered flag, he could also turn on the speed when necessary.

The most famous example of this was the 1957 German Grand Prix, when a strategic pit stop for tyres went wrong and left him needing to make up 50 seconds on the leading Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

Fangio proceeded to break the lap record multiple times and lapped the 20km circuit a mind-blowing 11 seconds a lap faster than the Ferrari drivers could manage.

He passed both Hawthorn and Collins on the penultimate lap to win the race and, in doing so, secure his final title. To make it even more impressive, he was 46 years old, making him the third oldest grand prix winner of all-time.

While his 24 wins may seem low by modern standards, he has the highest winning percentage of any driver in the sport’s history, a scarcely believable 46 per cent - nearly half the races he competed in.

 

2. Michael Schumacher

  • Michael Schumacher Michael Schumacher
  • Michael Schumacher Michael Schumacher
  • Michael Schumacher Michael Schumacher

Championships: 7

Wins: 91

Schumacher was the prototype for the modern F1 driver. Taking elements of Prost’s meticulous preparation, Clark’s blinding speed and Senna’s ruthless focus on winning, the German became the undisputed king of the sport between the eras of Senna and Lewis Hamilton from the mid-1990s until the 2010s.

Schumacher was a talented driver in his pre-F1 days but when he made a one-off appearance with the then-new Jordan Grand Prix in 1991 he immediately became the hottest property in the sport.

He was signed by the Benetton team and it was quickly moulded around him, resulting in him becoming both a race winner then world champion in 1994 and again in ‘95.

At that point he was free to sign a new deal and opted to take Ferrari’s big money offer to try and help the Italian team win its first world title since 1979.

It took a few years, but with the help of former Benetton team manager, Ross Brawn, the German driver and Italian team became an unstoppable force.

He won the driver’s championship again in 2000, ‘01, ‘02, ‘03 and ‘04 and notched up 91 wins before he stepped away from the sport at the end of the 2006 season.

However, that wasn’t the end of his F1 story and he made a less-successful comeback with the Mercedes-AMG team between 2010 and ‘12 before finally calling time on his career.

Schumacher is a polarising figure due to his willingness to cross the line in the pursuit of success. He controversially crashed into both Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve when he was fighting both for the ‘94 and ‘97 titles, respectively.

His attempt to knock Villenueve out of the race was deemed so unsporting he was retrospectively disqualified from the ‘97 championship.

Sadly, in December 2013 Schumacher was injured in a skiing accident while on holiday with his family and was placed in a medically induced coma. His family has kept his health private since then but he has been cared for at his home since 2014.

 

1. Lewis Hamilton*

  • Lewis Hamilton Lewis Hamilton
  • Lewis Hamilton Lewis Hamilton
  • Lewis Hamilton Lewis Hamilton

Championships: 7

Wins: 103

Love him or hate him, Sir Lewis Hamilton is perhaps the least controversial choice to top this list. From a statistical point-of-view he has the most wins in F1 history (103), the fourth highest winning percentage (31 per cent), the most podium finishes (197), the most pole positions (104), the second most fastest laps (65) and, of course, the equal most number of driver’s championships (seven); tied with Schumacher.

Hamilton was famously scouted by McLaren as a 13-year-old and made his debut with the British team in 2007. He was expected to be the junior partner in the team to Fernando Alonso, who was joining McLaren as the reigning back-to-back world champion.

Instead, Hamilton immediately proved a match for Alonso and very nearly won the driver’s title in his rookie year; finishing runner-up to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

The following year he won his first world title with McLaren-Mercedes but the team’s competitiveness wavered after that and he decided to leave the team at the end of the 2012 season.

In what would prove to be one of the shrewdest moves in F1 history, Hamilton joined the Mercedes-AMG team and after another lean year in 2013, the German team nailed the new-for-2014 regulations and became the sport’s team-to-beat.

Hamilton won the championship in ‘14 and ‘15, finished runner-up in ‘16 and then won again in ‘17, ‘18, ‘19 and ‘20. He was also in contention for the 2021 title, only for it to finish in controversial circumstances as Verstappen passed him on the last lap of the race.

Hamilton’s ability to extract the best from his car saw him win at least one race every season he competed in until 2022. His pole positions underline his raw pace, with 104 poles from 332 starts at the end of the ‘23 season.

Undoubtedly his run of success was helped by the technical superiority of his Mercedes car, but the best teams tend to attract the best drivers (Clark/Lotus, Senna/McLaren, Schumacher/Ferrari and now Verstappen/Red Bull).

Whether he can add another title to his record, with either Mercedes-AMG or Ferrari in 2025 and beyond, remains to be seen, but regardless, Hamilton has earned his place at the top of this list with his already-remarkable career.

 

* denotes active driver, so statistics are correct at the time of publication.

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