Every F1 fan has a favourite driver, an icon they support due to their success, their driving style, or sometimes just their general demeanour off track. This often makes it difficult to objectively view one driver as the ‘best’.
When thinking about all-time greats, there is Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, to name just a few. However, what separates those in this list that can be considered great from those that can be considered the greatest?
Well, seeing as all of these drivers have at one point been the best in the sport, in essence, it comes down to consistency. To be looked at as F1’s all-time best, a driver must have delivered consistent success throughout their career and not just in their peak years, with this success most commonly measured in the form of World Championship titles.
Here Alonso falls short, with only 2 Drivers’ Championships to his name, despite the fact that some may argue that questionable team moves denied him more. Likewise, although Vettel may have won 4 world titles, his career has lacked the same consistency of some of the other elite drivers in this article, with his rising number of individual errors costing him dearly in recent years.
Furthermore, Clark and Senna, on the basis that their potential was tragically cut short, cannot be considered. It may seem harsh to rule these two out on this ground, especially as both of these drivers showed unrivalled form in their respective generations, but unfortunately their untimely deaths meant their full greatness was not achieved. However, it is easily one of the safest sporting assumptions to make in saying that these two drivers, had they been able to continue to compete, had the absolute potential to set records the likes that have never been seen before.
Now we come to Prost, Lauda and Fangio – three drivers that are all debatably in contention for the title of ‘best of the best’. Prost displayed outstanding talent in his consistent challenging of Senna. Likewise, Lauda’s rivalry with James Hunt will forever go down in F1 folklore, especially after his remarkable recovery from the dreadful accident Lauda had at the Nürburgring in 1976. Lauda’s title win after a 2-year hiatus from the sport wins him further plaudits.
However, the presence of such rivalries is evidence that the pair did not dominate F1 in the same manner as Fangio, who was a five-time world champion in the space of eight active years in the sport. The oldest world champion ever, in arguably the most challenging time to be an F1 driver, Fangio is certainly a more compelling case than either of Prost or Lauda to be the greatest of all time.
Nonetheless, on the basis that five world championships is not seven, and 24 wins is not 95, I just can’t justify ruling in his favour. As dismissive as that sounds, especially as Fangio was likely denied more world titles simply because the Drivers’ Championship only began when he was already relatively old (in motor racing terms), his numbers are just inferior to the pair that I am about to mention.
Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. The two drivers that most debates around F1’s all-time best boil down to. Both have won 7 world championships; Schumacher has won 91 races and Hamilton 95. How then, do we choose between them?
Well, Hamilton has had the most pole positions and has retained a rarely seen clean track record. This latter point is especially relevant when noting the questionable tactics employed by Schumacher: his “mistake” at Rascasse corner in 2006, preventing Alonso from taking pole, as well as his “collisions” with Championship rivals Damon Hill (in 1994) and Jacques Villeneuve (in 1997) – only one of which he was punished for.
The dominance of the respective teams that these two raced for must also be considered. Schumacher’s 2000-2004 Ferrari was the fastest car on the grid for those years, whereas Hamilton’s Mercedes may seem consistently the fastest but, when looking at the performances of Valtteri Bottas in the same car, one can see that there was clearly competition in the form of Red Bull and particularly Ferrari in 2017 and 2018. Dominating in the face of this adversity is another factor that sets Hamilton apart.
A lot of drivers have dominated F1, it is the nature of the sport. What makes Hamilton so special is his consistent ability to perform at the top level, at a time of constant technological developments and rule changes, against strong competition, all without having to resort to questionable tactics in order to win. Hamilton may feel that he needs that 8th world title to truly cement his legacy, but, for me, he is already the Greatest Of All Time.