Who’s the best Formula 1 driver? Schumacher, Hamilton, Senna & more

It is notoriously difficult to rank Formula 1 drivers. The difference in machinery, competitiveness of the era and context of the times makes direct comparison impossible

Who’s the best Formula 1 driver? Schumacher, Hamilton, Senna & more

But it is possible to pick a selection of the best, each excelling in different ways at different times to illustrate the depth and range of talent that F1 drivers past and present have embodied. From Michael Schumacher's domination to Niki Lauda's sheer force of will to succeed, these are the best drivers to have graced F1 across its history.

Juan Manuel Fangio - the maestro

World championships: 5
Race wins: 24
Pole positions: 29
Fastest laps: 23

The facts speak for themselves when it comes to Juan Manuel Fangio's F1 career.

Five titles in seven years, achieved with four different teams, is a particularly outstanding feat, and it would be almost half a century until another driver won five championships - crucially, at nowhere near Fangio's rate of victories. 24 wins from 51 races - a whopping 47 percent of championship races entered won - remains remarkable, as does 48 front row starts in those 51 races.

Stirling Moss - the best to never win a championship

World championships: 0
Race wins: 16
Pole positions: 16
Fastest laps: 19

It is perhaps one of motorsport's greatest travesties that Stirling Moss never achieved an F1 title.

For four consecutive years Moss finished second in the championship, and in 1957 he missed out to Mike Hawthorn by a single point. Arguably, the answer to why he could never eclipse his rivals in the points standings lies in his all-or-nothing mentality. Moss did not play it safe - he was fighting for the win and had little interest in settling for less just to ensure he brought home some points.

An accident at the 1962 Glover Trophy at Goodwood left Moss in a coma for a month and encouraged him into an early retirement. Without that, the chances are that there would be even more evidence of his greatness.

Jim Clark - the reluctant hero

World championships: 2
Race wins: 25
Pole positions: 33
Fastest laps: 28

The last real amateur racer, competing purely for the joy of it, Jim Clark shunned the limelight and was only interested in winning. From 1962-65, the Scottish ace was only beaten when he encountered mechanical issues and at the time of his death in 1968 - tragically during an F2 race at Hockenheim - he held the record for the most race wins.

An unrivalled talent, Clark was eight miles clear of the nearest competitor in the torrential rain at Spa in 1963, highlighting the bravery of a driver racing in the most dangerous period of motorsport's history.

Jackie Stewart - the safety pioneer

World championships: 3
Race wins: 27
Pole positions: 17
Fastest laps: 15

It might seem an intrinsic part of F1 today, but Jackie Stewart was one of the first drivers to prove that racers can, and should, strive for better safety standards. As a triple champion and dominant force in the sport, Stewart had the credibility needed to change the culture around safety in motorsport. After seeing too many of his friends and colleagues killed doing what they loved, Stewart was a key pioneer in the introduction of full-face helmets, seatbelts, travelling medical units, safety barriers, run-off areas and more.

Outside his quest for safety, Stewart was a prodigious talent on track and was the man to beat throughout his time on the grid, claiming three world titles with Ken Tyrrell's eponymous team as the two formed an irrepressible double-act in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Niki Lauda - the force of nature

World championships: 3
Race wins: 25
Pole positions: 24
Fastest laps: 24

Nobody can doubt Niki Lauda's talent, and the Austrian was already Ferrari's hero for taking the team's first title in a decade before his career-defining accident in 1976.

But ultimately it is his Nurburgring crash that Lauda is best remembered for or, more accurately, his recovery from the incident. With burns, broken bones and severe lung damage Lauda was not expected to survive, never mind make a improbable return to the cockpit a mere six weeks later, where he came 4th in the Italian Grand Prix. His recovery was described by doctors as being achieved by a 'sheer force of will'.

Lauda was still in with a mathematical chance of winning the championship that year, but had pulled out of the extremely rainy Japanese Grand Prix on safety grounds. He came back to take his second title the year after, and then a third several years later after a short retirement. In his later years Lauda held a myriad of different positions in the paddock, latterly helping to guide Mercedes to its recent spell of dominance and was instrumental in bringing Lewis Hamilton to the team. More on that later...

Alain Prost - The Professor

World championships: 4
Race wins: 51
Pole positions: 33
Fastest laps: 41

It was Alain Prost's meticulous style that allowed him to go up against Senna - the bitter feud that he is best remembered for. His secret weapon was brainpower, and possessed a natural precision in his driving which allowed him to become France's first world champion in 1985.

In 1987 he beat Jackie Stewart's record of 27 wins and a year later McLaren won 15 out of 16 races across the season which is testament to both Prost and Senna's skill. Prost remained at the top of his game until his retirement, taking his fourth and final title for Williams at 38 years old.

Ayrton Senna - the one we lost too soon

World championships: 3
Race wins: 41
Pole positions: 65
Fastest laps: 19

One of motorsport's most legendary figures, Ayrton Senna remains the benchmark for raw talent and charisma.

His depth of commitment to a lap and his constant desire to push the boundaries for more has meant that Senna has a special place in the hearts of many motorsport fans. His three titles give a sense of what could have been had he not died at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. A combination of natural speed and restless ambition gave Senna an edge rarely seen.

Michael Schumacher - the dominator

World championships: 7
Race wins: 91
Pole positions: 68
Fastest laps: 77

When considering the best F1 driver, Michael Schumacher immediately springs to mind. He has all the records to support him: the most titles, the most wins and the most fastest laps. Having forged almost a decade of sheer dominance, Schumacher took five consecutive titles between 2000 and 2004.

A combination of dedication and passion - of course, alongside raw talent - allowed Schumacher and Ferrari a period of superiority unlike anything seen in F1 before. While his methods used to assert his dominance were sometimes controversial, Schumacher's uncompromising nature resulted in an impressive record of 91 wins and seven titles that remains unbeaten today.

Lewis Hamilton - the current king of F1

World championships: 6
Race wins: 84
Pole positions: 88
Fastest laps: 47

Lewis Hamilton took the F1 world by storm when he burst onto the scene in 2007, immediately factoring in the fight for the championship and only losing out on the title by one point.

He became the youngest ever world champion in the following season, and what he has achieved in recent years has cemented his place among the pantheon of the true greats. Since the introduction of the turbo hybrid engine regulations in 2014, Hamilton and Mercedes have been all but unbeatable.

Five more titles later, and with a total of 84 wins, Hamilton is rapidly closing in on Schumacher to become the most successful F1 driver ever. On and off the track, the reigning world champion is a global celebrity, turning his hand to music and fashion as well as accepting the mantle as a role model to a generation of young people.

Max Verstappen - the young pretender

World championships: 0
Race wins: 8
Pole positions: 2
Fastest laps: 7

You could certainly argue that Max Verstappen has not yet earned the right to be included on a list such as this.

But the records already claimed by the 22-year-old make him, by age, one of the most successful drivers of all time - and he already has five years of F1 experience. Yet, youth is still very much on his side. He was the youngest ever driver to ascend to the top tier of single-seaters by a significant amount, aged only 17 years and 5 months, and a year later followed it up with the record for the youngest ever winner on his first outing with Red Bull.

The young Dutchman has shown the ruthlessness needed to succeed and has planted himself firmly as the number one driver in the team. Verstappen may have only won eight races but he has had the overwhelmingly dominant Mercedes to contend with, and it begs the question what he could do with at least more parity in his Red Bull car. Perhaps most frighteningly for his rivals, he's still younger than many drivers when they make their debut, and could easily manage another 15 to 20 years in motorsport's upper echelons.

F1 can't expect same "interest" from fans post-pandemic - Todt

Previous article

F1 can't expect same "interest" from fans post-pandemic - Todt

Next article

When will Formula 1 return? The best-case versus worst-case scenario

When will Formula 1 return? The best-case versus worst-case scenario
Load comments
How Brabham’s one-hit wonder was boxed into a corner Plus

How Brabham’s one-hit wonder was boxed into a corner

The Brabham BT46B raced once, won once, then vanished – or did it? STUART CODLING reveals the story of the car which was never actually banned…

The changes Barcelona needs to provide a modern-day F1 spectacle Plus

The changes Barcelona needs to provide a modern-day F1 spectacle

Formula 1’s visits to Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya over recent years have been met with familiar criticisms despite tweaks here and there to the track to improve racing. With the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix largely going the same way, proper solutions need to be followed to achieve F1’s wider targets

Spanish Grand Prix Driver Ratings Plus

Spanish Grand Prix Driver Ratings

Often described as Formula 1's laboratory, the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona gave the clearest demonstration yet of the pecking order in 2021. And it's the key discrepancies from that order which illuminate who is excelling, and who needs to hit the reset button

How Red Bull’s deja vu set Hamilton on the winning path in Spain Plus

How Red Bull’s deja vu set Hamilton on the winning path in Spain

An aggressive first corner move from Max Verstappen appeared to have set the Red Bull driver on course for victory in the Spanish Grand Prix. But canny strategy from Mercedes - combined with the absence of Red Bull's number two from the lead group - allowed Lewis Hamilton to pull off a demoralising reversal

Formula 1
May 10, 2021
The toe-in-water origins of Lotus’s groundbreaking F1 journey Plus

The toe-in-water origins of Lotus’s groundbreaking F1 journey

In the first part of our history of Lotus, DAMIEN SMITH recalls how Formula 1 wasn’t an immediate priority for team founder Colin Chapman – but once he got a taste for it he just couldn’t stop…

Formula 1
May 9, 2021
How Hamilton’s qualifying record compares to Senna and Schumacher Plus

How Hamilton’s qualifying record compares to Senna and Schumacher

Lewis Hamilton has just become the first driver to record 100 world championship Formula 1 pole positions. Time to revisit a debate we discussed when he reached 150 front row starts in 2020.

Formula 1
May 8, 2021
Why sustainability is being mandated by F1 Plus

Why sustainability is being mandated by F1

Continuing to be socially acceptable as public views shift globally is vitally important to the future of motor racing, says PAT SYMONDS - especially in Formula 1, the championship that represents the technological peak

Formula 1
May 8, 2021
The Barcelona practice times that prove Red Bull's title credentials, and heap pressure on Verstappen Plus

The Barcelona practice times that prove Red Bull's title credentials, and heap pressure on Verstappen

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes led the way in Friday practice for the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix, but there was one big encouraging sign for Red Bull. The trouble is, it looks like making good on that gain will require its superstar driver to avoid repeating a mistake made today that left him well down the FP2 order

Formula 1
May 7, 2021