Many of us like to think we have some sort of driving skill or capability similar to a race car driver. Swerving to avoid obstacles, holding a perfect turn on the on-ramp or accelerating past traffic can make us feel like an Formula One racer. The unfortunate news is that despite those paddle-shifters, the after-market spoiler on the car and the fact you finished first around the Nürburgring on Gran Turismo 5 last night, the vast majority of us do not have and never will have the driving abilities of someone like Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa or Fernando Alonso.
Formula One drivers must laugh in the face of the statistic that says you are more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a car crash than a plane crash. For around an hour and half, they handle speeds in excess of 200 mph, multiple g-forces straining their limbs and necks and have cat-like reflexes to maneuver around other cars. To add a further challenge, all of this is done in a variety of weather, including extreme heat and rain. This is definitely not like your usual 60 mph commute to work.
Over the years, 32 drivers have been killed during the Formula One World Championship. This figure excludes deaths during test drives and non-championship races. If those are included, the figure rises to 49. If it’s so dangerous, why do people do this? The money is good. Formula One drivers can make millions and the yearly salary of the top drivers can easily get into the tens of millions. Yet, money doesn’t seem to be the prime motivation. Drivers appear to be fueled not by money, but by a desire to push the limits of themselves and their cars even if it means death or disfigurement. This characteristic has created memorable moments and legendary figures. These are ten of the most successful drivers in Formula One history – with race wins used as the tie-breaker.
10. Fernando Alonso, 2 Drivers’ Championships
Currently a driver for Scuderia Ferrari, Alonso made his mark in Formula One with Renault F1. It was with the French constructor that Alonso claimed his two Drivers’ Championships in 2005 and 2006, snapping the five consecutive win streak of Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher. At the time, the wins made him the youngest Formula One Champion and double Champion. In addition to his two titles, the Spaniard has claimed 32 race wins, 95 podiums, 22 pole positions and 1,606 career points. His career points tally stands as a Formula One record.
Following his success with Renault, Alonso moved to McLaren in 2007 before returning to Renault for the next two seasons. Since 2010, Alonso has driven for Scuderia Ferrari.
9. Jack Brabham, 3 Drivers’ Championships
Brabham started his racing career in 1948 in Australia and New Zealand. It was not until he joined the Cooper Car Company’s racing team that his Formula One career took off. The Australian won his first two Drivers’ Championships in 1959 and 1960. Taking what he learned about building and racing cars at Cooper, Brabham created his own company, named after himself, in 1962. He won the 1966 Drivers’ Championship which remains the only time a driver has won the title while driving a car bearing their name. Over his career he claimed 14 wins, 31 podiums and 13 pole positions from 128 races. At 87, he remains the oldest surviving Formula One Champion.
8. Nelson Piquet, 3 Drivers’ Championships
Piquet started his career in Formula One in 1978. After racing for Ensign and McLaren, Piquet joined Niki Lauda at the Brabham team. With Brabham, the Brazilian claimed the Drivers’ Championship in 1981 and 1983. After finishing 5th and 8th over the 1984 and 1985 seasons, he moved to Williams in 1986. Piquet claimed his 3rd and final Driver’s Championship the following year. Stints at Lotus and Benetton were less successful, with a 3rd place finish in 1990 being the best result achieved. Over his career, Piquet recorded 23 wins, 60 podiums and 24 pole positions. Apart from Formula One, Piquet also took part in the Indy 500 and numerous endurance races including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 1000km Nürburgring.
7. Niki Lauda, 3 Drivers’ Championships
Lauda’s Formula One career did not begin like most. Having driven in a number of different racing series, he almost bankrupted himself to buy into March, a small Formula Two / One team. The Austrian made his permanent move to Formula One in 1973 by buying his way into the struggling British Racing Motors (BRM) team. The following year Enzo Ferrari, on the advice of one of his drivers, signed Lauda to Scuderia Ferrari. Lauda won his First Driver’s Championship in 1975. His career was almost ended the following year when a crash on the Nürburgring left him with severe burns and internal injuries. Nevertheless, Lauda made his return, winning again in 1977. After a spell with Brabham, Lauda moved to McLaren where he won his third Championship in 1984. Over his career he amassed 25 wins, 54 podiums and 24 pole positions. He also lapped the Nürburgring Nordschleife in a record 6 minutes 58 seconds in 1974. A major achievement as this was before the track was rebuilt.
6. Jackie Stewart, 3 Drivers’ Championships
Sir John “Jackie” Stewart seemed destined for racing greatness. His family members were car dealers and amateur racers. He started his driving career by testing and racing cars locally. Following a period in the lower Formula classes, Stewart made the move to Formula One, undertaking his first full season in 1965 with BRM. He won his first Drivers’ Championship in 1969, driving for French constructor Matra. A move to Tyrell saw him win two more Championships in 1971 and 1973. Over his career, Stewart won 27 races, 43 podiums and 17 pole positions. He returned to Formula One in 1997 as owner of Stewart Grand Prix. Ford bought the team in 2000, turning it into Jaguar Racing. In 2005, beverage company Red Bull bought Jaguar Racing and created Red Bull Racing.
5. Ayrton Senna, 3 Drivers’ Championships
Senna made his move to the Formula One Championship in 1984 driving for Toleman. Three years with Lotus produced no Drivers’ Championships but a move to McLaren in 1988 was the beginning of a successful run. Senna claimed Drivers’ Championships in 1988, 1990 and 1991. Between 1984 and 1993, the Brazilian finished outside the top four of the World Drivers’ Championship only once. Unfortunately, his career and life were cut short in 1994 during the San Marino Grand Prix held in Imola, Italy. Heading into a corner on lap 7, Senna’s car left the track and struck the barrier at 191 mph. Senna’s death shook the racing world and led to new safety procedures and regulations. Even though his life was cut short, he is considered one of the greatest drivers of Formula One. He is the third most successful racer in terms of his 41 race wins. He also claimed 80 podiums and 65 pole positions over a little more than 10 years of Formula One racing.
4. Sebastian Vettel, 4 Drivers’ Championships
Like many drivers, Vettel began his racing career in karting. From there, he moved to Formula BMW, Formula Three and testing for Williams and BMW Sauber. Mid-way through the 2007, Vettel left BMW Sauber for Toro Rosso. Opportunity increased with the new team but no major success was had. In 2009, the German driver moved on to Red Bull Racing. Finishing second in the Drivers’ Championship in his first year, Vettel soon became one of the most dominant forces in Formula One. From 2010 to 2013, Vettel and Red Bull claimed every Driver’s and Constructors’ Championship. Vettel himself has 39 race wins, 62 podiums and 45 pole positions in a career which still has many years left. In addition to records for being the youngest Grand Prix winner (21 years 73 days), winning the most podiums in a season (17) and winning the most consecutive races (9 so far), he also shares the record for most wins in a season (13) with Michael Schumacher.
3. Alain Prost, 4 Drivers’ Championships
Well known for having a fierce rivalries with Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost is one of the greats of Formula One. Having spent a decade karting and racing in Formula Three, the Frenchman moved to Formula One in 1980 with McLaren. Over the following 13 years, Prost won three Drivers’ Championships with McLaren and one with Williams. The victory with Williams in 1993 was even more notable as it came after Prost had taken a year off of racing. Prost also drove for Renault and Ferrari and, while achieving no Drivers’ Championships, finished as high as second with both teams. Over his career he achieved 51 race wins, 106 podiums and 33 pole positions. Prost started his own team; Prost Grand Prix. With success and money in short supply, the venture died out in 2002.
2. Juan Manuel Fangio, 5 Drivers’ Championships
If the Dos Equis guy was a Formula One driver his name would likely be Juan Manuel Fangio. Nicknamed El Maestro, Fangio won five Drivers’ Championships between 1950 and 1958. This record stood until Michael Schumacher claimed his 6th title in 2003. The Argentinean won his Championships with four different manufacturers – Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari – a feat which has not been repeated since. In addition to the 25 race wins, 35 podiums and 29 pole positions, Fangio maintains the highest career winning percentage in Formula One; 46.15%.
In 1958, gunmen loyal to Fidel Castro kidnapped Fangio before he was to race in the Cuban Grand Prix. For a little over a day he was held hostage. His captors let him follow the race on the radio and television. Fangio was eventually released and reportedly maintained a friendship with the two men afterwards. He became the honorary President of Mercedes-Argentina and sold cars as well. Before passing away, a museum was opened in Argentina in his honor. At his funeral, in 1995, one of his pall-bearers was the Formula One legend Jackie Stewart.
1. Michael Schumacher, 7 Drivers’ Championships
A Formula 1 article from September 2006 noted that Michael Schumacher was “statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen.” Considering the other drivers in this list, that is no small feat. The German’s rise to greatness began with Benetton, a team he raced for from 1991 to 1995. In his final two seasons with the team, he won his first two Drivers’ Championships. Scuderia Ferrari quickly snapped up Schumacher following these successes for the 1996 season. Driving the V10 powered Ferrari, Schumacher came to dominate Formula One and won the Drivers’ Championship every year from 2000 to 2004. After the 2006 season Schumacher retired only to return in 2010 as a driver for Mercedes. He retired a second time after the 2012 season. As well as championship titles, Schumacher holds dozens of Formula One records including; consecutive titles (5), race wins (91), largest win-margin (67 points), podiums (155) and pole positions (68). All of this racing success, combined with lucrative sponsorship deals has made Schumacher the richest athlete in the world with a net-value of $850 million.
When most people retire, they get a watch, an award or a dinner out with their co-workers. When Michael Schumacher retired, Ferrari gave him one of 30 specialized, race-specification Enzos, known as the FXX. Does Ferrari post help-wanted ads on Monster?