It’s a question that has caused debates, arguments and enthused fact finding between F1 fans for decades. Who is the best F1 driver of all time? Michael Schumacher? Ayrton Senna? Lewis Hamilton? Jim Clark? Graham Hill? Jackie Stewart? Pastor Maldonado? Ok, so definitely not that last one. But the others always come up on lists of all time greats. So can you actually pick out who is the best?
I’m a firm believer of no, you can’t. It’s impossible to say who the greatest F1 driver of all time is. Over 60 years have passed since the first F1 World Championship was won by Italian Giuseppe “Nino” Farina, driving for Alfa Romeo. Since then, 32 different drivers have won championships. Some of them are household names, like Schumacher and Hamilton. Others are less heard of; Denny Hulme, Jochen Rindt and Mike Hawthorn perhaps.
I have seen people comparing the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio to Lewis Hamilton, for example, and it really irritates me. Fangio won five world championships, in 1951, 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1957. Lewis has won six, and is well on the way to winning his seventh, having won in 2008, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. It doesn’t make sense to compare a driver who raced during the first decade of F1 to a driver who has been in the sport since 2007.
Not taking anything away from either of the two drivers, or indeed and driver to win a championship, or maybe not even win one at all. Sir Stirling Moss is often talked about as being one of the greatest of all time, despite not winning the championship crown. Both Fangio and Hamilton are incredible drivers, that’s for sure. But I can’t compare them and say one is the greatest of all time.
The main reason for that is the technology. When Fangio was winning in the ‘50s, cars were used in Multiple seasons. A Maserati he raced in 1954 was also raced in every season until 1960, by various drivers, including Moss. Today however, a team produces a new car every season (with the exception of next year, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic). The cars were front engined, manual, heavy beasts. A total opposite to the lightweight, rear engines hybrid cars of today.
Fitness is also a big issue as well. Now, F1 drivers stick to a rigorous fitness regime and healthy diet, to save as many kilos as they can and keep the car weight down as much as possible. Back in the early years of F1 though, it was common to see F1 drivers with a more portly figure poking out of the top of their low cockpit machines. Gone are the days of seeing F1 drivers walking through the paddock with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths now too!
I agree that you can pick the best driver of a given generation or era. Fangio was arguably the greatest in his, although every driver would have to be incredible, with death almost a certainty if they crashed. No HANS device, super-safe helmet and layers of fireproof clothing for them! Just a leather helmet, some goggles and a race suit. It was common for drivers to be thrown clear from their cars in the event of a crash. Something, thankfully, we don’t see now!
With other generations, each decade had drivers who stood out. The 60s had the successes of Jim Clark and Graham Hill, the 70s had Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda and straight-talking James Hunt. The 80s became the decade known for producing the intense rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, both of whom picked up titles in the mid-to-late part of the decade. The 90s introduced us to a young Michael Schumacher, who picked up two titles at Benetton before re-writing the history books at Ferrari in the 00s after moving there in ’96.
Coming to more recent times, we have had the pleasure of Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, four of the greatest drivers (in my opinion) race each other. Alonso became the driver to end the Schumacher/Ferrari dominance in 2005 and has rightly been named as one of the greatest, alongside Schumacher himself. Sebastian Vettel is a four time world champion, having dominated the sport at Red Bull before going on to have a somewhat disappointing career at Ferrari. Lewis Hamilton, of course, has dominated in recent years for Mercedes, and has become most peoples choice for the greatest F1 driver of all time.
I still maintain that it’s impossible to say who is the greatest of all time. They were all one of the best of their generations. Each generation had a driver, or a few, who stood out more than others. Hamilton, Schumacher, Senna, Alonso, Raikkonen, Clark, Mansell, Fangio, I could go on. Each driver drove cars that were incredibly complex but very different from each other. How would we see Vettel or Hamilton do, driving Moss’s Vanwall from 1958? Or Fangio’s Maserati 250F? I’d love to see an F1 driver from the 70s or 80s drive Vettel’s title winning Red Bull RB6, or Hamilton’s Mercedes W10 from 2019. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely!
So, with the difference each decade brings, it’s impossible to say who the greatest F1 driver of all time is. The greatest of that particular era, sure, but never of all time. I know that the debate will still rage on between F1 fans for many years to come, however. It’s an argument I steer clear of, but it’s good to hear people throw their opinions in the ring as some mention drivers who never won a world championship, but still feature highly on the list and proved themselves to be worthy and talented competitors, like Sir Stirling Moss for example, or Ronnie Peterson.
Well, that just about brings this piece to a close. I just wanted to bring across my views on the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate! As always, stay safe and take care! (And watch our podcast - every Monday at 8pm!)