Michael Schumacher ahead of Lewis Hamilton

Who is The Greatest F1 Driver in History?

I feel qualified to make a list of the best Formula 1 drivers ever because I’ve been watching Formula 1 for as long as I can remember. A love of driving and racing runs in my family. My Uncle was a safety marshal at Silverstone for many years. Yes, it can be boring at times, the present day being one of those times given Red Bull’s complete and utter dominance both this and last year, but it can also produce the type of excitement and drama that borders on disbelief – see Lewis Hamilton’s first title win in 2008, or the epic 2021 battle between Hamilton and Max Verstappen. It truly is the pinnacle of motorsport. It always has been.

The first real championship battle I experienced, and was drawn into, was Schumacher vs. Hill in 1994, ending in heartbreak for me as I supported Damon. I’ve witnessed many great drivers ply their trade over the last 30 or so years, and read up about or watched highlights of many more – but who is the greatest? Often a subject of fierce debate amongst Formula 1 fans, I present my top 5 drivers.

My list of the Best Formula 1 Drivers

  • 5th – Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso Greatest Spanish Formula One Driver

Formula 1 World Champion in 2005 and 2006, the Spaniard, driving his iconic blue and yellow Renault, helped end Michael Schumacher’s and Ferrari’s long stranglehold on Formula 1. A break in the twilight of his career saw him compete in other motorsports like endurance racing and IndyCar, but he returned in 2021 with Alpine and is now back for his twenty-first season with Aston Martin. At 41 years of age, he is the oldest driver on the grid, yet remains as sharp and competitive as ever with five podiums from the first seven races.

I rate Alonso highly because of his car and race craft. No matter which team he drives for, and he has driven for many, he always manages to extract the maximum – and often more – from his car. Similarly, no matter the race or weather conditions, he’s a tactician and an opportunist, and almost always seems to make the right decisions that improve his position.

He’s been agonisingly close to more title wins too. In 2007, whilst driving for McLaren, he lost out to Kimi Raikonnen by a single point, whereas, behind the wheel of a Ferrari, the 2010 and 2012 seasons saw the title race go down to the wire, with Fernando losing out on both occasions to Sebastian Vettel. When he finally decides to call it a day in Formula 1, he will no doubt go down as one of the best drivers to have ever graced the sport, given his competitiveness across teams and eras, his skill and his longevity.

  • 4th – Juan Manuel Fangio

Juan Manuel Fangio Argentine Formula One Legend

Fangio was a late starter – especially by today’s standards – with his first race coming at the age of 37. By the time he won his fifth and final World Drivers Championship, he was 46. Nobody has won more Formula 1 drivers titles with more teams than Fangio’s four – Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari. Known as “El Maestro” and loved by his peers, he was an elegant and graceful racer on track and a noble and humble man off it.

Some of his statistics speak for themselves and remain unmatched to this day: he competed in 51 Grands Prix, starting from the front row in 48 of them, whilst he won almost half of the races he competed in (24). In fact, he has the highest win ratio of any F1 driver in the sport’s history – 47%.

Whilst it is difficult to compare a driver from Fangio’s time to those of today and more recent years, given the differences in cars, tracks, the sport in general, driver training and nutrition, etc, it cannot be denied that the Argentine’s achievements rank him as one of the best.

  • 3rd – Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna Formula One Legend

Winner of 3 World Drivers Championships driving his legendary red and white McLaren, the charismatic Brazilian holds a special place in the hearts of many Formula 1 fans due to his skill, brilliance and extreme passion, along with his unfortunate early death at the age of 34 in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, held at Imola.

41 race wins and 65 pole positions accompany his 3 titles.

Senna also is renowned as one of the most excellent wet-weather drivers the sport has ever seen, winning 59% of the rain-affected races he took part in. He arguably produced F1’s best-ever performance in the heavy rain at Donnington Park’s 1993 European Grand Prix, winning by almost a minute and a half, lapping all but one other car.

I’m confident that if Senna’s life had not tragically been cut short that day at Imola, he would have gone on to have many more successes in F1 and likely have resided at the top of this list – and plenty of others.

Who is better: Schumacher or Hamilton?

  • 2nd – Michael Schumacher

Formula One Great Michael Schumacher

Formula 1, and indeed Ferrari, are synonymous with Michael Schumacher. The German behemoth won back-to-back world titles in 1995 and 1996 at Benetton, but it was his 5 consecutive titles at The Prancing Horse from 2000 to 2004 that propelled him to legendary status in the sport. As well as bringing F1’s best-known team their first drivers’ championship since 1979, nobody else has ever won 5 titles in a row.

He won 56% of the races held during that stretch (48 of 85). He was untouchable. In his dominant 2002 season, he finished on the podium in every race (third only once, first or second every other time). There was an air of inevitability about him winning when he raced. Just like Senna, he was also exceptional in the wet.

With 91 Grand Prix victories and 68 pole positions to his name, Schumacher sat atop the sport by himself for 15 years until he was just surpassed, in my opinion, by…

  • 1st – Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton Formula 1 Greatest Driver

With a joint-record 7 world titles to his name, Lewis Hamilton is always in the conversation when it comes to F1’s greatest-ever driver. He edges ahead of Schumacher for me by virtue of having more race wins and more pole positions than anybody else – 103 of each.

He won his maiden title in 2008 in the most dramatic fashion, overtaking Timo Glock for 5th place on the final corner of the last lap as rain had started to fall at Interlagos, home of the Brazilian Grand Prix, meaning he snatched the championship from Ferrari’s Felipe Massa by a single point. It was only his second year in the sport, and in doing so he became (at the time) its youngest ever champion. Not only that, but he had missed out on winning the title in his debut season the year prior by a single point. It’s fair to say he hit the ground running in F1 and has pretty much continued in the same vein ever since. After 5 trophyless but competitive seasons, courtesy of Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel’s dominance, Hamilton, now at Mercedes, would go on to triumph in 6 of the 7 seasons between 2014 and 2020.

Not content with being involved in one of the most exciting and dramatic championship finales the sport has ever seen, he repeated the feat in 2021, this time losing out on the last lap at Abu Dhabi to Max Verstappen in highly controversial circumstances. An 8th world title would have put him clear at the top of F1’s roll of honour. Still, at 38, Hamilton has a few years left in him physically, so if he can stay hungry and Mercedes can provide him with a car to challenge the currently superior Red Bull, I doubt many in racing circles would bet against him making the top spot all his own.

And like the two drivers below him on my list, he too is a master when the rain is falling!

Do Schumacher and Hamilton like each other?

It’s hard to separate these drivers. They each have 7 World Drivers’ Championships to their name, but Hamilton edges ahead on race wins, having 103 to Schumacher’s 92. Hamilton’s career started a year after Schumacher retired, but Schumacher returned a few seasons later to race for Mercedes, where Hamilton ultimately replaced him. They competed against each other for 3 seasons, but difficulties with the car meant Schumacher never reached his previous heights.
It’s hard to put Schumacher vs Hamilton head to head, but do they like each other? Certainly, there is mutual respect between the pair. Hamilton said it was “an incredible honour” and “I don’t think anyone, and especially me, didn’t imagine that I’d be anywhere near Michael in terms of records” when he equalled Schumacher’s race win record.
Early in Hamilton’s career, Schumacher remarked “he’s a quality driver” and went on to say “he’s clearly got the right racing mentality.” Whether they like each other is hard to say, given their limited time together in the sport, but the two legends of modern Formula One certainly recognise each other’s quality.

The Best F1 Drivers not to make the list

Honourable mentions go to Sebastian Vettel and Alain Prost, each a World Drivers Champion four times, along with Max Verstappen, a two-time World Champion – a third this year is, in my opinion, a certainty and merely a matter of time – and the sport’s youngest ever race winner at the age of 18 years and 228 days when we won the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.