Ranking the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time, from Fangio to Vettel
Greatness arrives on its own terms, especially in the brutal world of Formula 1 racing. Never has there been a better example than this season's champion, Sebastian Vettel — who at 26, secured his fourth F1 title last weekend in India, beating the rest of the field by nearly half a minute. Yet despite his speed and his domination this season, Vettel often gets booed by F1 fans for lacking the presence of a superstar.
That reaction shows that even in a sport dominated by technology and math, the world of F1 discounts objective measures of greatness in favor of emotional ones. And how do today's modern stars in their computer-powered cars stand in comparison to the manual labors of those who raced decades ago? The answer lies in looking at both the stats and the abstract.
Let’s start with a subjective legend that objectively shouldn’t figure in any list of the greats: Gilles Villeneuve. Amassing six wins from 67 starts and only two pole positions, Villeneuve never won a championship, something dozens of drivers have accomplished. And yet most experts routinely rank Villeneuve among the best. To truly empathize, you need to watch the video below of the 1979 Dijon Grand Prix, battling Rene Arnoux for second place.
More than just a ferocious racer, Villeneuve was unbelievably fast. Jodie Scheckter once said after Villeneuve’s death during qualifying for the 1982 Belgium Grand Prix, “I will miss Gilles for two reasons: First, he was the fastest driver in the history of motor racing. Second, he was the most genuine man I have ever known."
Objectively, all lists begin with Juan Manuel Fangio. The five-time world champion from Argentina boasts an unrivaled win-to-start ratio of 47 percent. “El Maestro,” as he was known, often won with ease. But when he found himself down and out of contention during the 1952 German Grand Prix at the fearsome Nurburgring, Fangio broke the course record lap after lap as he battled his way back through the field, in what remains one of the greatest drives in F1 history. But driving for Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari — the true heavy hitters of his era — the cards were arguably stacked in Fangio’s favor.
Four-time world champion Alain Prost also ranks near the top. But like Fangio, he spent many of his years in the best cars available. Earning the nickname “Le Professeur,” the Frenchman built a reputation for doing exactly what was needed to win a championship, not necessarily each race; if a fifth place finish would suffice, that's where Prost would finish, unwilling to push harder in search of a higher placement.