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Clash of the Titans: Formula One and its All Time Greats

It seems that Formula One racing has finally gained a foothold in that all important money market known as the United States—and not for lack of trying. Like an unrequited lover over the years, Formula One (or F1, as it’s known) has made many-an-overture to seduce America with its superior form of racing, only to be shunned for the simpler but more exciting Indy Car and NASCAR formats, where accidents are still prone to happen, and most races are done on an oval track which allows officials to bunch up the cars if one starts getting too far ahead. In other words—like the high-scoring games of basketball and football in place of soccer, it’s a sport made for television and fans. And much like those examples, the actual fan numbers pale in comparison. 

Soccer is easily the most-watched sport in the world, no contest there. Number two is Formula One with an average of 87 million people tuning in for every race. To put that in some context, the NFL Playoffs average about 20 million viewers a game. We’re talking 87 million people every single race. That’s big money. Despite this overwhelming popularity, F1 never wet the interest of the American fanbase—that is, until most recently.  

So, who are the top ten giants of this sport? 

One thing that always gets brought up is how impossible and unfair is it to compare eras, and this is doubly true for Formula One, where the technology and safety of the sport have changed so drastically over the years. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were no aerodynamics to speak of at all, and the tracks were lined with barbed wire, bales of hay, concrete walls and trees. I’ll say that again—racetracks with high-octane fuel were lined with bales of hay and barbed wire. Think on that for a second. Back then, three or four drivers died on average every year. For a sport!! Can you imagine any other sport with such a high death rate taken for granted?

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Carbon Fiber, which single-handedly cut the death rate enormously, wasn’t used until  1981. The introduction of the flexible fuel tank halted rupturing of the tank in accidents—meaning no fuel spillage, in turn meaning no fire. This has worked remarkably well and, with the exception of last year, when a car literally got cut in half in a freak accident and caught fire—from which the driver, Grosjean, managed to walk away—there hasn’t been a major fire in an F1 car since the 1980s.

There hasn’t been a fire-related death since 1986. Clutches have been disposed of in favor of semi-automatic paddle-shifting gearboxes. Drivers now brake with their left foot and don’t need to heel-toe or change gears with one hand—which at a tight circuit like Monaco, required about 46 gear changes per lap, which is about 3,500 changes over the race. That’s 3,500 manual gear changes in one race, which explains why Senna’s hand was often bleeding and blistered at the end.  

“Crashing in 1960 meant almost certain death. Getting in a crash now means missing out on championship points.”

Conversely, drivers today need to be a lot more fit than they did in the 1960s, where on any given race they will easily pull an average of four or five lateral G forces under braking, and up to six in cornering. They also have to concentrate on hundreds of other, very technical and complex, often-computer related aspects to the car—as opposed to just the driving. And then there’s the issue of how drivers race today vs in earlier eras.

With cars becoming safer every year, drivers started to behave differently; putting wheels where they never would have dared; bullying other drivers out of corners in ways that have become standard, but which in another era would have been unthinkable—because crashing in 1960 meant almost certain death. Getting in a crash now means missing out on championship points. Obviously, when the stakes on lives are that high, you behave differently towards your fellow racers.  

ayrton senna and alain prost on LEO edit
Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost

The changes in technology and safety are not the only factors. The other is the rise of television. The so-called modern era of Formula One is the televised era—basically beginning in 1976 during the famous Hunt-Lauda rivalry—when Grand Prix went from being an enthusiast’s hobby to a global multi-billion-dollar phenomenon.

Sponsorship and television audiences brought in their own set of problems, and the rise of Bernie Ecclestone—the man who owned the television rights to Formula One… which basically meant he owned Formula One. One could write an entire piece on how this affected the sport and changed the character of the racing driver, but we’ll leave that for another time.

Suffice to say, that the modern era coincides with the rise of safety in the sport, and that if I were to draw a line within the televised era, it would be the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994. Before that, the cars had been manual up until 1990, when Ferrari invented the semi-automatic gearbox, and the circuits were still incredibly fast without too much concern for safety (the cars were safer, but the circuits often were not). After that, everything slowed down, safety was put first and the world of racing truly entered the computer age. 

Below, we give you the all-time greats.

1950-1975

JUAN MANUEL FANGIO

The absolute master. The undisputed genius of Grand Prix racing and winner of five World Championships—a record held until Schumacher in the 2000s. He raced in multiple cars and won in all of them, from Alfa Romeo to Mercedes to Maserati to Ferrari, and his ratio of race entries to race wins is a truly astonishing 46% win ratio! For comparison, Senna and Prost have a 25% win ratio, and even Clark trails with 34%. Fangio also managed to single-handedly stop the great Stirling Moss, aka Mister Motor Racing, from ever winning a Formula One World Championship. No easy feat.  

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JIM CLARK

Probably the most naturally gifted driver of all time. A man who would’ve won a race in a milk cart if you’d put him in one, and certainly the smoothest driver of all time. The little on-car-camera footage we have of him driving is incredible to watch and admire at just how easy it all seems, using the whole road and never fighting the car once. The man whom three-time world champion Jackie Stewart describes as hands down the greatest driver of his era. His career was cut short by a tragic accident in a Formula 2 test, but at the time of his passing, he led in most wins and most pole positions ever achieved. He also had time to fly over to America and quietly win the Indy 500. Oh yes, and he was primarily a sheep farmer.

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Photo by Alvis Upitis/Getty

JACKIE STEWART

Probably (or definitely) the most important driver to come out of F1 because of his decades-long crusade for safety in the sport. The death of Ayrton Senna aside, it is Stewart who, more than anyone else, the sport should thank for keeping its drivers alive today. It was he who made it his mission to force the sport into dealing with safety as a real issue, setting up a drivers’ union and threatening to boycott races if safety wasn’t made an absolute priority. The stance made him hugely unpopular with other drivers and fans alike, who called him a coward and accused him of taking the fun out of the sport. But what fun is there in watching your fellow drivers burn to death in jet-fuel because they’re trapped in a car?

The fact that Stewart was also a three-time world champion proved that all the talk about cowardice was nonsense. Stewart was consistently winning races with his genius for smooth precision and was in a league of his own, none more so than at his greatest triumph at the notorious Nurburgring in 1968—by far the most challenging, dangerous and downright horrifying Grand Prix track ever invented. Stewart himself named it “The Green Hell,” and it barely describes just how demanding the track really was. At 14 miles long with 172 corners per lap, the Nurburgring was by far the longest track ever raced on. So long, in fact, that it would have different weather conditions at different parts of the circuit. Trees lined the road, often without barriers. The cars would lift off the ground coming over hills, and the G-forces were so strong going down the hills, it became near impossible to lift your foot off the accelerator to brake. Here, and in the atrocious conditions of fog and pouring rain, with visibility often down to a 100 yards, Stewart raced what may be the greatest race in F1 history, winning (and beating legend Graham Hill) by an astounding and scarcely believable four minutes. No wonder he was known as The Flying Scot. 

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1976-1994

NIKI LAUDA

If the term ‘true grit’ means anything, it means Lauda. No one, and I mean NO ONE, in the history of the sport has had bigger balls than Niki Lauda. Nobody has ever been harder, nobody has shown more courage. At the perilous Nurburgring in 1976, defending world champion Lauda lost control of his car, drove into the trees, got hit by another car and caught fire. Luckily, he was dragged from his car, but by the time he got to the hospital, he was given the last rites. The severe burns to his face and head, and the inhaling of burning toxic fumes which scarred and damaged his lungs, made it unlikely he would survive the night. He did survive. And after only 6 weeks, and missing only two races, he put himself back in a Ferrari at Monza and continued to race for the championship. At the end of that Monza race, when he removed his helmet, his balaclava had completely soaked through, red with blood because his wounds and burns hadn’t properly healed yet.

He would end up losing the 1976 championship to James Hunt by only one point, but would go on to win two more championships in his career before becoming a mentor to the likes of Prost and, later, Lewis Hamilton. He was also one of the most intelligent men to have ever sat behind the wheel of an F1 car, always his own man, never one to back down, never one to censor himself even if it meant pissing off the sponsors, and was apparently the only driver whoever managed to out-smart Bernie Ecclestone in a contract negotiation.

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Photo by Rainer Schlegelmilch

GILLES VILLENEUVE

A controversial choice in that he never became World Champion (he is, in fact, the only driver on the list not to have won a World Championship), and everybody knows that when it comes to listing the greatest driver ever to not win a world championship, it’s  Sterling Moss! And maybe that’s true. And maybe it should be Moss. But I associate Moss with a lot of other categories of racing, like winning the thousand-mile Mille Miglia Italian road race, and he also raced for a reasonably long time and still never won the F1 title (damn you, Fangio!). Whereas Villeneuve died early in his career and is associated purely with F1. He lived and breathed it. And frankly, there may never have been as spectacular a driver to watch as the great Gilles. His audacity as a racer was an inspiration to future champions, never settling for the position even if not in the points, fighting tooth and nail no matter what—even if his back tire was missing (who needs four wheels?), or his nose cone was broken and riding up so high it actually blocked his view (who needs to see?).

The battle with Rene Arnoux at the French GP in 1979 is perhaps the most famous racing battle captured on film, and it was for second place. Nobody even remembers who won that race. Il Commendatore himself, Enzo Ferrari, compared him to the great pre-F1 legend Tazio Nuvolari, and everyone agrees that had he lived,  Villeneuve would certainly have been champion of the world. Forza Gilles!

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Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

ALAIN PROST

The Professor—a name he didn’t particular like but admitted was befitting his calculated approach to racing. In the era of the fat-wheeled, bare-boned, turbo-charged monsters like the McLaren MP4/2, with drivers fighting for grip and doing outrageous overtaking maneuvers, Prost was something of the old-school—modeling himself on heroes like  Clark and Stewart, who believed that the smoothest drive was always the fastest and preferably leading from the front. It made for boring racing, but it won championships—and with four world titles to his name, Prost proved that theory right. But perhaps even more influential, was his partnership at McLaren with Niki Lauda, who taught the young Prost that winning the race at all costs was not actually the be-all and end-all. One should always keep an eye on the actual championship. Why fight tooth and nail for first and potentially crash or blow a tire or—much more likely in those days—have some kind of mechanical or engine failure, when second or third or even fourth will do for this race you’re struggling in. After all, getting some points is always better than not finishing and getting no points at all—a philosophy that his great rival, Senna, wholeheartedly disagreed with.

In 1984, Prost, like all young racers, wanted to win every race and, of course, didn’t look after his car to go the distance. In the end, his teammate Lauda beat him for the world championship by half a point—the slimmest margin ever recorded in F1. Prost learned from his mistake and The Professor was born. He never set up his car for qualifying,  preferring to concentrate on the race, even if that meant losing out on pole. He always looked after his tires and fuel consumption, often starting a race in a more measured pace, preferring to leave something in the tank (literally) for a last charge towards the end of the race when his competitors’ tires were on their last legs and without grip. And when push came to shove, he was also a hell of a race driver too. After all, there’s a reason Lauda called him the toughest opponent he’d ever faced.

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AYRTON SENNA

Fast. Charismatic. Driven. Highly intelligent. Fast again. And absolutely ruthless. A determination to win at all costs that had not been seen before and has seldom been seen since. A belief that it was his God-given right to win. A man of supreme self-confidence and strong will. Off the racetrack, Senna was ethical and extremely generous; a man who cared about others and the state of his country. A man who gave away millions of dollars to the young and poor of Brazil. But put him in a race car and he had a take-no-prisoners style that ushered in a new era of racing. The undisputed rain-master of his or any era.

At Estoril in 1985, in only his second year, Senna not only won his first Grand Prix in heavy downpour conditions but actually lapped the entire field, except for Alberto, who came in second—over a minute behind him. Senna would continue to use his genius for wet-weather car control to put in some stunning performances, perhaps most famously at Donnington in 1993. Starting in fifth position in a far inferior car, Senna managed to weave his way through the field to first in less than one lap, and then comfortably held that position for the rest of the race. But he wasn’t just fast in the rain. He was fast everywhere, every time. And I mean FAST, with an incredible 61 pole position under his belt, always finding the grip, always on the limit. At Monaco in 1988, he famously out-qualified the great Alain Prost, on the same team, by an unbelievable 1.5 seconds. 

Racing drivers are not famous for being philosophical, but Senna spoke in ways that made him seem cut from a completely different cloth. His speed, his unparalleled concentration, his level of fitness and his overall mystic—not to mention his three world championships—place him in everyone’s top ten. The tragedy of his shocking death on live television in 1994 procured him much-deserved icon status that has only grown over time, and so one tends to forget the darker, uglier aspects of his racing character and career. The fact that he almost put Prost into the pit wall at Estoril in 1988. His reneging on a handshake deal (again, with Prost) about not overtaking on the first corner at Imola in 1989. And of course, the outrageous, extremely dangerous and—in many opinions at the time, including Jackie Stewart’s—unforgivable decision to drive straight into the back of Prost at top speed without even trying to brake, endangering both their lives just to secure his second world championship. How do you race against a man willing to not only put his own life at risk, but also yours, deliberately, just to win—or in this case, to stop you from winning? Nobody had ever seen such ruthless and callous behavior in the sport before, but without a doubt, Senna opened the doors for the likes of Schumacher and others, who would be willing to do anything to win.

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NIGEL MANSELL

Probably the second of our somewhat controversial entries, but here’s the thing: Nigel Mansell was a runner up twice before finally clinching the world championship in 1992, and surely would’ve won it again in 1993 had Williams re-signed him instead of opting for Alain Prost (who went on to win). Mansell went off to do IndyCar instead and won that championship, being the only person to win both IndyCar and F1 championships in the same year. He was also one of the all-time great overtakers the sport has ever seen, often tricking the car in front with dummy maneuvers at 180mph. The ultimate bulldog spirit. A racer through and through. And as for his runner-up years, in the final laps of the final race in 1986, all he had to do was finish the race in the points and he would’ve won the championship, but his rear tire exploded dramatically (and cinematically) at Adelaide through no fault of his own, ending his challenge.

All told, Mansell was a potential three, possibly even four-time champion instead of the one-time champ that he became. Add to this that he was racing against such formidable opponents as Senna, Prost, and Piquet at the height of the turbo era, when cars were unwieldy beasts churning out in excess of 1,400 horsepower (the modern-day Porsche 911 GT2 RS produces 700  HP), and it becomes apparent that Mansell is more than just a one-time champ. He’s a  force of nature. There’s a reason, after all, that the Italians dubbed him “Il Leone”.

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1995-PRESENT

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER

Probably the most famous dominant force that has ever been. Lewis Hamilton has finally broken Schumacher’s record and is technically the most dominant force now,  but Schumacher came up in the Senna era and continued racing in a time wherein weaving and overtaking was still allowed. He was the last of the manual titans, and the first king of the truly modern era.

However, his seven championships are problematic. His first win in 1994, Schumacher’s car was found to have traction-control based “launch mode” capabilities, allowing his car to not wheel spin on takeoff from a standing start (as in, at the start of a race or after a pit-stop). The team claimed that it had to be programmed from an outside computer and that Schumacher could not launch it himself… but still. Pretty suspicious. Less suspicious is the fact that Schumacher side-swiped into Damon Hill, snapping his axle and effectively ruining his race—which secured Schumacher the championship. One can only imagine what penalties he would suffer today, but back in 1994, he was given a trophy. And there are other such incidents of interest. His teammate being forced under team orders to relinquish the lead to him in the final laps of a race. Schumacher “parking” his car on the road in Monaco in the final minutes of qualifying, so everyone’s times were ruined as they had to circumnavigate his car. And so on. BUT. What can’t be disputed is that at least five of those championships were earned fair and square, and that he also made the frankly bold decision to leave Benetton—his championship-winning team from 1994 and 1995—to go to Ferrari, which hadn’t won a constructor’s championship since 1983 and hadn’t won a driver’s championship since 1979! Schumacher came to Ferrari when they were a joke and vowed to put them back where he thought they belonged. Over four long years, he worked tirelessly with them until they not only started winning again but became completely dominant for six straight years. Since his departure from the sport and Ferrari, they have only won two more championships. The results speak volumes. 

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LEWIS HAMILTON

And so, we come to the current emperor. Hamilton is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all time. He may, in fact, be the GOAT. It’s easy to dismiss the statistics and claim more races are run now, or that his car is better, or this or that reason—but the fact remains that, statistically, he is the greatest of all time. Even his ratio of wins to entries is up at 36%, superseding Clark, and outperforming Schumacher’s ratio of 29%. It is also worth taking note of a few other factors before dismissing him to the Vettel pile of “he only had the best car”. 

First off, in his rookie season, he beat two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso in the same car. Think about that. Alonso is consistently placed in the top tens of all time, and here comes Hamilton as a rookie and beats him in the same team, with the same equipment. On top of that, his opponent at Mercedes for many years was Nico Rosberg, no slouch himself who has also won a world championship. Then there’s the fact of Hamilton’s clean driving record, which is, for the most part, pretty stellar. Off the track antics aside, and whether you like him or loathe him, it is undeniable that Hamilton belongs in the top five of any list, and probably at the top.

lewis hamilton on LEO edit

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