The Ten Greatest Formula One Drivers Of All Time

In order to enter the world of Formula One racing, a team has to be the best, a car has to be the best, and the driver has to be among the best in the entire world. Period. In order to be in our list of the Top 10 Greatest F1 Drivers of All-time, a pilotte has to have at least one world championship—with one notable exception.

JUAN MANUEL FANGIO

The greatest Argentine to turn a wheel and for many, the best there ever was, JM Fangio won his fifth World Driving Championship at age 46! Keep in mind that, back then, “safety equipment” consisted of a cloth helmet and a windproof cigarette lighter. This maestro from Balcarce honed his chops via dirt rally racing in his homeland, before going to Europe and making his mark in all manner of automobile competition. From open wheelers to racing coupes, Fangio’s exploits captured the world’s attention…sometimes to his detriment. In fact, on the eve of the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix, Castro-backed forces kidnapped the driver and held him so as to promote their cause. While many of his contemporaries perished before they hit their 30th birthdays, Fangio lived until age 84.

Five World Championships; 24 Race Wins

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER

There are many feats in sports that appear unbreakable. Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak comes to mind, as that’s stood for over a half-century. Another was Juan Manuel Fangio’s five World Driving Championships. That is, until a plucky young German named Michael Schumacher came along in 1991. This fair-haired kid from Kerpen stunned the F1 fraternity by easily challenging the likes of Senna and Prost upon entry to the sport. Just three years after his debut, he won his first World Championship, for Benetton. The next year came another championship. A switch to Ferrari later in the decade proved magical: he won the WDC in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. Michael Schumacher holds most of the records for a Formula One driver, including most race wins, most pole positions, most fastest laps, most points scored, and most races won in a single season. Off track, Schumacher is an ambassador for the UN, and after the 2004 Asian Tsunami, he donated a whopping $10 million to storm aid.

Seven World Championship; 91 Race Wins.

AYRTON SENNA

For many racing fans, there is only one “Best Driver Ever,” and that’s the late, great Brazilian ace, Ayrton Senna da Silva. A scion of a wealthy Sao Paulo family, Ayrton Senna literally kicked-in the door of F1 and announced his presence by humbling everyone on the track at age 24. It was only after he left a floundering Lotus team and switched to McLaren-Honda that things really took off. Partnered with Alain Prost, this duo was the most successful pair ever, in an F1 team. Senna stormed to the most pole positions to date and the “most fastest laps” to date. He also racked up three World Driving Championships and won legions of fans, from South America to Japan and the world in between. Known as the “Master of Monte Carlo,” for his record number of victories  at the Grand Prix of Monaco, Senna was killed in 1994, after his tire deflated at high-speed; he crashed into a wall at over 180 mph. After Ayrton Senna’s death, it was discovered that he donated a substantial amount of his estimated $400 million fortune to children’s charities.

Three World Championships; 41 Race Wins.

ALAIN PROST

Dubbed “The Professor,” due to his cool, calm and collected driving style, it seemed, on many occasion that Alain Prost was traveling slower than everyone else on track. He wasn’t: he was usually faster than his rivals and that mastery of the tarmac meant that Prost was so smooth, his car avoided histrionics in the way of tire squealing and “drifting.” It’s said that Prost should’ve won the World Driving Championship at least six times, so close were a few of his “losing” seasons (he lost the championship to Niki Lauda by just half a point one year). However, some think that Prost was further motivated to “go faster” when he partnered with Ayrton Senna. Truly, The Professor’s seasons with McLaren were pure magic…yet when Prost helmed his own F1 team, post-retirement, things didn’t go as well and he was forced to shutter operations in 2002.

Four World Championships; 51 Race Wins.

NIKI LAUDA

Truly the bravest, toughest, “most successful outside of F1,” and ugliest (his own opinion) F1 driver is Niki Lauda. An Austrian, Lauda is best remembered for suffering a horrific crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. Lauda was so severely burned (his eyelids and right ear were melted away) that he received last rites from a priest. Amazingly, Lauda returned to his Ferrari’s cockpit just six weeks (!) after the accident. The driver then finished second in the championship standings..! The following year, Niki won another World Driving title. After he retired (with a third WDC trophy), Niki Lauda started Lauda Air, which blossomed into a successful passenger carrier, serving the world from a base in Vienna. As if owning an airline wasn’t enough, Niki was wooed back to F1 by Ford, who hired him to oversee their ill-fated Jaguar Formula One team in the early-200s. Nowadays, the Lauda name is back in lights: a screenplay about the 1976 F1 season has just been put into production; Rush will be probably be directed by Ron Howard.

Three World Championships; 25 Race Wins.

SIR STIRLING MOSS

He is the greatest driver never to win a Formula One World Driving Championship yet Sir Stirling Moss will always be on any list of “great F1 drivers.” The son of a racecar driver (his father placed 14th in the 1924 Indy “500”), Stirling, like his sister Pat, was born into speed. At around age 19, Stirling had his father buy him a Cooper racing car, and the young pilotte soon demonstrated an innate ability to go fast. Moss went on to dazzle in F1 and he placed second in the WDC from 1955 through 1958..! In addition to Formula One, Stirling Moss raced rally cars and endurance machines, becoming the first foreign driver to win the 12 Hours of Sebring, in 1954. The next year, Moss fashioned one of the most legendary drives in automotive history, when he won the great Mille Miglia, setting a record time for the now-outlawed cross-country Italian event. For perspective, Juan Manuel Fangio finished in second…30 minutes after Stirling. Moss was also a “sporting gentleman” and a patriot—he preferred to race in British machinery and some say that stymied his success. Although Sir Stirling Moss retired from top-level competition in 1962, following an accident that left him in a coma, he only recently announced (in June of 2011) his complete retirement from racing. At age 81.

Zero World Championships; 16 Race Wins.

NELSON PIQUET

There’s something about Brazil that produces some of the best drivers in the world. To wit, the USA has only had two World Driving Champions (and one of ‘em wasn’t born here), whereas Brazil can boast the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi (two-time WDC), Senna (three-time champ), and Nelson Piquet, a three-time winner of the F1 crown and the only driver to win the WDC in a BMW-powered machine. Nelson didn’t exactly come from poor beginnings; his father was the Minister of Health of Brazil in the early-1960s. Piquet began in secret at 14; his father just didn’t think it appropriate of his son to race automobiles. Like the old saying goes, a “good thing can’t be kept secret,” and the lad won the Brazilian karting championship just five years later. Soon, Nelsinho was in Europe, breaking Jackie Stewart’s British Formula Three records. From there, Piquet vaulted to F1. Only 10 years after his first karting championship, Nelson Piquet won the F1 title, with Brabham. Two years later, in 1983, the Brazilian won another crown with Brabham. His final WDC was with Williams, in 1987.

Three World Championships; 23 Race Wins.

JIM CLARK

He was born to a farming family in Scotland, but a bucolic life in Fife, tending to sheep that sleep wasn’t in the cards for Jimmy Clark. Early in his racing career, Clark finished second to a driver named Colin Chapman. Impressed by the plucky lad, Chapman would go on to establish one of the most legendary racing teams in history, Lotus, and he took Jim Clark for the ride. Clark scored his first F1 points in 1960 but didn’t win a race until two years later. The next year, things “clicked” for Chapman and Clark and the skinny Scot won his first championship. In ’65, Jim Clark captured the F1 crown again, and that same year he made history for becoming the first driver to win the Indianapolis “500” in a mid-engine car. (He’s also the only driver to win both that race and the F1 title in the same year.) Jim Clark is considered to be one of the ultimate “Renaissance men” in racing, finding success in F1, Indycars, NASCAR, rallying, and touring cars. At age 32, Clark was killed in a Formula Two race at the Hockenheimring in Germany.

Two World Championships; 25 Race Wins.

FERNANDO ALONSO

Ask a typical sports fan to list the “greatest Spanish racing drivers” and you’ll probably be met with blank stares. Spain produced some notable wheel-turners, however, Fernando Alonso put the county on the “F1 map” when he became F1’s youngest World Driving Champion in 2005, at age 24, driving for the Renault team. At age 25, Alonso did it again and won the championship in 2006. However, such precociousness is standard form for Fernando, who won his first karting championship when he was 12. An interesting fact: Alonso used to live in Switzerland, which is where most F1 drivers reside, due to high tax rates in their homelands. Yet, ‘Nando grew homesick for Oviedo, Spain, and recently move back there, to be with friends and family. The estimated “hit” that Alonso’s bottom line will take, due to taxes? $50 million.

Two World Championships; 27 Race Wins.

MIKA HAKKINEN

Another nation that has produced way more than its fair share of great wheelmen is Finland, Russia’s neighbor and home of Santa’s reindeer. Yet, this small, frigid land gave us such greats as F1 World Driving Champions Keke Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen. The other man from Finland to win big in F1 is Mika Hakkinen, who mainly drove for McLaren-Mercedes. Known for his blonde locks, a bright smile, and a jocular attitude, Mika is considered to be the only driver who could go toe-to-toe with legend Michael Schumacher…and triumph. In fact, Schumi himself said that Hakkinen was the man he respected most in his driving career. Mika first gulped “speed” at age 5, in a go-kart, and by 18, he’d won five karting championships. Hakkinen went on to win the British F3 championship before entering F1 with Lotus. He spent just a year at the English squad before joining McLaren for the rest of his F1 career. In 1993, his first race for the team, he out-qualified his teammate, Ayrton Senna. Mika won it all in 1998 and 1999. Now, the 43 year old competes in German Touring Car racing and remains a spokesman for longtime sponsor Mercedes-Benz.

Two World Championships; 20 Race Wins.

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