Top 10 F1 rivalries ranked: Senna, Schumacher, Hamilton and more
Formula 1 eras can be defined by some of its biggest rivalries between drivers, often boiling over and becoming bigger talking point than the actual racing. Here’s a run through of the top 10 F1 rivalries.
Formula 1 has had its fair share of driver rivalries since the first world championship in 1950.
Some have been fought out fairly, others have been filled with controversy, many have been brief, while a handful have been almost career-long. The best have decided world championships.
For this list, we’ve picked out F1’s biggest rivalries, taking into account the ferocity of the fights, their longevity, the number of battles and their impact on the sport.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collide on the opening lap of the race at the 2016 Spanish GP
Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Photographic
10. Lewis Hamilton vs Nico Rosberg – 2013-2016
Combined world titles: 8
Combined F1 wins: 123 (up to and including the 2021 US GP)
Lewis Hamilton is already regarded as one of the all-time greats, while Nico Rosberg would probably struggle to get into most people’s top 20 drivers. And yet a combination of factors, including a mighty effort from Rosberg, meant the German became only the second team-mate to beat Hamilton across an F1 season. It won him the 2016 crown.
The two had competed against each other since karting and become friends. Hamilton tended to have the upper hand and that largely continued as Mercedes became the dominant F1 force at the start of the turbo-hybrid era.
Hamilton had finished ahead in their first season together in 2013, despite Rosberg’s greater experience with the team, but things stepped up a notch with the title on the line.
Rosberg could sometimes beat Hamilton and was often close in qualifying, but his racecraft, tyre preservation, wet-weather ability and improvisational skills tended to be weaker. Hamilton took the 2014 and 2015 championships, with 21 wins to Rosberg’s 11.
Tension had increased between the duo thanks to various flashpoints, including their battle in the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix, Rosberg’s ruining of Hamilton’s final qualifying effort at Monaco that year, and contact at Spa.
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In 2016, Rosberg used everything at his disposal to take the fight to Hamilton, creating disruption within the team that only a handful of people know the details of. That, combined with some poor starts from Hamilton and some unreliability on the Briton’s side of the garage was just enough for Rosberg to take the title in a tense Abu Dhabi finale.
Along the way there had been more serious clashes, most notably on the first lap at the Spanish GP (above), which resulted in two smashed Mercs in the gravel, and on the final lap in Austria, when an overly defensive Rosberg caused contact that led to him crawling home fourth with a damaged car as Hamilton won.
In their four years as team-mates, Hamilton scored 1334 points to Rosberg’s 1195, but it wasn’t enough to stop Rosberg taking the 2016 crown by five points.
Ambition achieved, Rosberg announced his shock retirement. That clearly irritated Hamilton, who was forever denied the chance of revenge.
Nelson Piquet is followed by Alan Jones during the 1981 Monaco GP
Photo by: David Phipps
9. Alan Jones vs Nelson Piquet – 1980-1981
Combined world titles: 4
Combined F1 wins: 35
Practical joker Nelson Piquet and straight-shooting Australian Alan Jones were unlikely to be friends even before they became title rivals in F1’s first ground-effects era.
Piquet had already served notice of his ability in the junior categories when he was thrust into the role of Brabham team leader on Niki Lauda’s sudden first retirement in 1979, while Jones could have been that year’s champion had the Williams FW07 been perfected sooner and been more reliable.
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With Gilles Villeneuve usually out of the picture thanks to uncompetitive Ferraris, Jones and Piquet were often the drivers to beat in 1980 and 1981. Jones, who took five wins to the Brazilian’s three, beat Piquet to the title in 1980 after a controversial clash in the Canadian GP, that year’s penultimate round.
Piquet and Brabham turned the tables in 1981, some poor luck and the odd mistake for Jones making his Williams team-mate Carlos Reutemann Piquet’s biggest threat in the points. Indeed, Reutemann disobeyed team orders as early as round two in Brazil to win ahead of Jones.
There was still time for some Jones-Piquet drama. After some harsh words were exchanged following a contretemps at Zolder, Jones closed on leader Piquet at the Monaco GP, whereupon the Brabham crashed into the barriers.
Piquet’s lacklustre fifth at the Caesars Palace finale was not as poor as Reutemann’s drive to eighth, so the Brazilian took his first world title. Jones won the race comfortably before his shock (first) retirement from F1, ending a rivalry that would surely have continued into 1982 given his replacement Keke Rosberg’s time at Williams.
Jim Clark on the podium with his winners' trophy alongside team-mate Graham Hill after the 1967 United States GP
Photo by: David Phipps
8. Jim Clark vs Graham Hill – 1962-1968
Combined world titles: 4
Combined F1 wins: 39
Jim Clark and Graham Hill finished in the top two in the world championship on three occasions – 1962, 1963 and 1965 – and were leading contenders in two other campaigns (1964 and 1967). They battled to take over from Stirling Moss at the top of the sport: Clark won, but Hill perhaps deserves more credit for often being the driver to take the fight to F1’s new benchmark.
Clark and the Lotus 25 usually set the pace in 1962, but the Hill/BRM P57 package was more reliable and snatched the title at the season finale in South Africa. Clark dominated in 1963, but Hill and John Surtees battled the Scot for the crown the following year.
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Another mechanical failure robbed Clark in the Mexico City decider and Hill clashed with Surtees’s team-mate Lorenzo Bandini, so Ferrari took both titles.
Clark and Lotus were largely out of reach again in 1965, though Hill won the Monaco and United States GPs for the third consecutive season.
Hill joined Clark at Lotus for 1967. The record books show that Clark took four wins and Hill none in the new Cosworth DFV-engined 49, but that does not reflect how competitive Hill was. He took three poles to Clark’s six and led six of the races, but Hill suffered terrible luck and unreliability kept him from the top step of the podium.
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Unlike most of the drivers on this list, the Clark/Hill contest extended to several other arenas, including the 1966 Indianapolis 500, which Hill won. It was also Hill that picked up the beleaguered Team Lotus following Clark’s death at Hockenheim in April 1968, going on to secure his second drivers’ crown.
PLUS: Graham Hill’s 10 greatest races
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, crash out of the race
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
7. Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen – 2017-present
Combined world titles: 7
Combined F1 wins: 118 (up to and including the 2021 US GP)
It’s too early to say just how great an F1 rivalry this could be. Until 2021, the battles between F1 benchmark Hamilton and pretender to the throne Max Verstappen were largely just skirmishes.
And they weren’t playing the same game – Verstappen was shooting for occasional race wins with Red Bull while Hamilton had his eye on the greater prize of the world championship thanks to the consistent strength of the Mercedes team.
But the limited technical changes brought in for 2021 evened the fight between the two squads, sparking a proper title fight between the two. Both have made mistakes and scored some superb victories.
They’ve also got physical. Hamilton had tended to make sure the two stayed in the race when battling the aggressive Verstappen but changed his approach at the British GP – and the result was a Red Bull in the wall and the Dutchman in hospital.
Verstappen was then judged to be more to blame for the clash that put them both out of the Italian GP and there were other lesser moments, such as the unnecessary ‘race’ between the two during free practice at the US GP.
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How the two continue their battle in the near future is as compelling as their 2021 title fight, whoever comes out on top.
Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton at the 2007 F1 drivers' photo before the Brazilian GP
Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / LAT Photographic
6. Lewis Hamilton vs Fernando Alonso – 2007-present
Combined world titles: 9
Combined F1 wins: 132 (up to and including the 2021 US GP)
This combo should be higher up this list. Fernando Alonso is arguably the only driver of their generation that Hamilton hasn’t decisively got the better of on-track. But unfortunate or unwise career decisions have often left Alonso fighting with mediocre equipment, leaving us with the occasional frisson of what could have been, such as their fight in the 2021 Hungarian GP.
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It started more promisingly, though. At the beginning of 2007, Alonso was a double world champion, the driver who had ended Michael Schumacher’s reign, while Hamilton was the sensation of the junior categories. Paired at McLaren, they provided a sensational storyline to the season and ended the campaign on equal points, Hamilton edging it on second-places countback.
But that was for the runner-up spot, as their fight allowed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to snatch the drivers’ title at the season-closing Brazilian GP.
Alonso didn’t get the number-one treatment he had expected after joining from Renault, creating tension within the team. That was usually between Alonso and the McLaren management rather than between the two drivers, but things did boil over at the Hungarian GP.
Hamilton failed to let Alonso past on track as agreed and the Spaniard retaliated by waiting in the pits long enough to prevent Hamilton getting a final run. Alonso went quickest but was then handed a five-place penalty, gifting pole (and the race) to Hamilton.
Alonso was also involved in the McLaren-Ferrari ‘spygate’ saga and the relationship between him and the team chiefs deteriorated to the point that he returned to Renault for 2008.
Alonso joined Ferrari for 2010, with Hamilton paired with Jenson Button at McLaren. Alonso and Hamilton often starred over the next three years but neither was able to defeat Sebastian Vettel in Adrian Newey’s series of brilliant Red Bulls.
Since 2014 Hamilton has always been a championship contender with Mercedes, while Alonso struggled with uncompetitive Ferraris and McLarens before heading off to win the Le Mans 24 Hours (twice), the World Endurance Championship and have an assault at the Indy 500.
So far in 2021, his Alpine machinery has only rarely allowed him the chance to fight Hamilton. Will the 2022 rules reset give us one last opportunity to see these titans battle it out?
Michael Schumacher leads Damon Hill at the 1994 Australian GP
Photo by: Motorsport Images
5. Michael Schumacher vs Damon Hill – 1994-1998
Combined world titles: 8
Combined F1 wins: 113
Damon Hill never expected to be leading the Williams team in 1994 but, like his father Graham at Lotus 26 years earlier, he was thrust into the role following the death of F1’s established star.
Michael Schumacher had already shown himself to be the driver that would challenge Ayrton Senna before the Brazilian’s death at the San Marino GP. He duly looked in command in F1, but Williams and Hill rallied.
While Hill rose to the occasion and Williams developed the FW16 into a more manageable machine, Schumacher and Benetton clashed with officialdom. The German lost second at the British GP, victory at the Belgian GP and wasn’t allowed to contest the Italian and Portuguese GPs, all of which Hill won.
Schumacher won on his return to at the European GP, only for Hill to brilliantly win the wet Japanese GP to go into the Australian decider just one point behind.
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Hill chased Schumacher relentlessly in Adelaide, the Benetton finally leaving the road before recovering just ahead of the Williams. When Hill went to pass, Schumacher turned in. The ensuing contact put the Benetton in the barriers but the Williams was too damaged to continue and Schumacher became champion.
Schumacher and Benetton were too strong for Hill and Williams in 1995, but the Briton still won four GPs and again finished second in the drivers’ table.
With Schumacher joining an underperforming Ferrari for 1996, Hill swept to the 1996 world title from Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve but lost his drive anyway.
Thereafter, Hill was rarely in a position to fight the ever-improving Schumacher-Ferrari axis with Arrows and then Jordan, but there were still some notable skirmishes, including the 1997 Hungarian GP and 1998 Belgian GP.
PLUS: Damon Hill’s 10 greatest F1 races
Niki Lauda and James Hunt at the 1976 Monaco GP
Photo by: David Phipps
4. James Hunt vs Niki Lauda – 1975-1977
Combined world titles: 4
Combined F1 wins: 35
A rivalry between friends. James Hunt and Niki Lauda came through the junior ranks at the same time and even lived with each other before being involved in one of F1’s most dramatic title fights in 1976.
Hunt had scored his first world championship GP win at the 1975 Dutch GP by absorbing pressure from Lauda’s Ferrari, but that season had largely been about the Austrian taking his first world title.
Race of my life: James Hunt on the 1975 Dutch GP
When Emerson Fittipaldi left McLaren, Hunt got an opportunity he hadn’t expected and made the most of it. Lauda dominated the early races of 1976, taking four wins and two seconds from the first six races.
The season was full of drama. Hunt was excluded, then reinstated, from victory in Spain, he won the British GP on the road only to lose it later, and then came the German GP at the Nurburgring.
Lauda’s near-fatal crash at a circuit he had already described as too risky gave Hunt more momentum.
When Lauda made his unbelievable comeback for the Italian GP Hunt had closed the gap and two consecutive wins in Canada and the United States meant the McLaren man was just three points behind heading into the Japanese finale.
In appalling conditions Lauda withdrew, Hunt led, then dramatically recovered after a late pitstop to finish third and take the title by a single point.
Hunt was impressive but unlucky in 1977, when Lauda bounced back to win his second title, but thereafter things went downhill and the Briton retired after the Monaco GP in 1979.
Four months later, Lauda did the same in Canada, but he would return in 1982. He then took a third crown in 1984 after another friendly fight that almost made this list, with Alain Prost.
Top 10: Niki Lauda’s greatest F1 drives
Mika Hakkinen after crashing out of the race, is passed by Michael Schumacher at the 1999 San Marino GP
Photo by: Rainer Schlegelmilch
3. Michael Schumacher vs Mika Hakkinen – 1998-2001
Combined world titles: 9
Combined F1 wins: 111
While Schumacher had perhaps found Damon Hill a tougher opponent than expected, it was Mika Hakkinen who was the German’s sternest rival. The Finn had searing speed and, though he lacked Schumacher’s racecraft, Hakkinen was the biggest hurdle as Ferrari tried to win its first drivers’ title for two decades.
The two had crossed swords before the 1998 F1 title fight – including at the 1990 Macau GP, when a late clash denied Hakkinen victory. The pace of the McLaren MP4-13 initially seemed out of everyone’s reach in 1998, but Schumacher and Ferrari responded to make a fight of it.
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Schumacher took the championship contest to the final round at Suzuka but a disastrous event, including stalling on pole, handed the race and crown to Hakkinen.
The 1999 season was shaping up as a repeat until Schumacher’s leg-breaking crash at Silverstone. After missing six races, he returned to aid team-mate Eddie Irvine’s title bid – and spectacularly took pole by nearly a second in Malaysia – but Hakkinen held firm to become a double champion.
Schumacher and Ferrari finally got the job done in 2000, the championship being decided in a Suzuka duel that the German would later pick as the race of his life.
Thereafter, the Schumacher-Ferrari steamroller just got stronger. Though Hakkinen managed two fine wins in 2001, bad luck and flagging motivation kept him out of the title contest and he retired from F1 – initially temporarily, then permanently – at the end of the season.
Hakkinen often lost out to the robust Schumacher in wheel-to-wheel battles but he came out on top in arguably their most famous encounter. At Spa in 2000 Schumacher edged Hakkinen towards the grass approaching 200mph in their fight for the lead before the McLaren brilliantly overcame the Ferrari as they both lapped Ricardo Zonta in a dramatic move to win the Belgian GP.
Nelson Piquet leads his team-mate Nigel Mansell during a race-long battle for the win in the 1986 British GP
Photo by: Sutton Images
2. Nigel Mansell vs Nelson Piquet – 1986-1991
Combined world titles: 4
Combined F1 wins: 54
When Piquet joined Williams for 1986 he was a double world champion and believed he had number-one status alongside incumbent Nigel Mansell. But Mansell proved a more formidable opponent than expected and Frank Williams’s serious car crash contributed to the team allowing the duo to battle it out.
The two were evenly matched in 1986, Mansell taking five wins to Piquet’s four and they each scored a brace of poles. Mansell looked set for the title before his infamous tyre blowout in the Adelaide finale, which allowed McLaren’s Prost to steal the drivers’ crown despite the Williams dominance.
Piquet’s comments outside of the car did not go down well with Mansell and information sharing became a problem. Piquet won both the 1986 Hungarian GP (different differential) and 1987 Italian GP (active suspension) with technical advantages that he’d not shared with his team-mate – or that Mansell had not embraced, depending on your point of view.
Following an enormous crash during practice for the San Marino GP, Piquet wasn’t the same and Mansell had the upper hand for most of 1987. Somehow, despite winning six times to Piquet’s three, Mansell lost the title – the matter settled in the Brazilian’s favour when his team-mate suffered back injuries in a Japanese GP qualifying crash.
Piquet joined Lotus for 1988 and then Benetton in 1990. He was only an occasional top contender, while Mansell went on to take the crown with Williams-Renault in 1992 after a stint at Ferrari.
There was one final duel for victory at the 1990 Australian GP, Piquet taking one of his finest victories to deny a charging Mansell following a hard-but-fair late fight.
While the rivalry was a fierce one, Mansell and Piquet generally kept things clean on-track, unlike the top duo on this list…
Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at the 1988 Australian GP
Photo by: Ercole Colombo
1. Alain Prost vs Ayrton Senna – 1985-1993
Combined world titles: 7
Combined F1 wins: 92
This has to be number one. The battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost is the most fierce, controversial and famous in F1 history.
Due to death, injury or retirement, F1 greats rarely square off against each other for very long, but Prost and Senna’s careers overlapped considerably. Prost took his first world title in 1985, the season in which Senna scored his maiden world championship grand prix victory, and became the Brazilian’s target and focus.
The rivalry really began when Senna joined Prost, already a double world champion, at McLaren for 1988. Prost initially welcomed the new challenger but was soon to change his mind.
Aside from the fact they were fighting for the title in McLaren-Honda’s dominant MP4/4, tensions heightened when Senna edged Prost towards the pitwall at the 1988 Portuguese GP. Senna brilliantly won the title at Suzuka and finished 8-7 ahead on wins, though Prost scored more points (before dropped scores).
PLUS: Ayrton Senna’s 10 greatest Formula 1 races
Things deteriorated considerably in 1989. Prost felt Senna reneged on a non-overtaking agreement on the first lap of the San Marino GP and generally became frustrated at what he saw as overly aggressive wheel-to-wheel moves by Senna. The toxic atmosphere meant they could no longer work together and Prost felt Senna was getting preferential treatment from engine supplier Honda.
Ahead of the 1989 Japanese GP Prost, who had already decided to join Ferrari for 1990, stated he would no longer jump out of the way and duly turned in when Senna dived to the inside at the final chicane. The ensuing contact put Prost out, but Senna got going again, pitted for repairs and won, only to be disqualified for the way he rejoined the circuit.
After bitter arguments Prost was confirmed as world champion and he then helped lift Ferrari’s game to be Senna’s main opposition in 1990. A largely brilliant title contest was ruined when Senna drove into Prost at high speed on the opening lap of the Japanese GP to secure the crown, and the war of words continued into the following season.
Following his sacking by Ferrari, Prost took a sabbatical, and engineered his way into the pacesetting Williams-Renault package for 1993. Senna put in one of his greatest campaigns for McLaren, but Prost secured his fourth world title and retired.
Between 1985 and 1993, Senna and Prost won all but two of the world titles. During their time at McLaren, Senna won 14 times to Prost’s 11 while the Frenchman scored more points.
Once Prost had retired, relations improved and Senna is reported to have missed his former rival as he became the old guard against the up-and-coming Schumacher in 1994. That duel never got the chance to develop due to Senna’s death at the 1994 San Marino GP.
Ayrton Senna followed by Alain Prost in the 1993 British GP
Photo by: LAT Photographic
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