As I write this Lewis Hamilton is the Formula One driver with more wins to his name than any other driver. More F1 wins that is; how he stands on actual wins in any form of racing I don’t know but back in the 1960’s and 70’s, Formula One drivers competed in a number of other non F1 races such as Formula Two or Three, Sports Cars, Saloon Cars, Can Am racing and all sorts. Now the F1 driver has an unprecedented tally of over 20 races in a season; making one every other weekend, they don’t have much time for other racing. Either way 103 F1 wins is a pretty impressive total and everything Hamilton wins now is a new record because the previous winner of the most Grands Prix, Schumacher won only 91. Only 91? Well 91 is pretty good too. The previous record holder before Michael was Alain Prost and his total was 51.
Of course, can we really understand a driver’s greatness just from his winning record? F1 racing, like all forms of motorsport is really about winning. In every Grand Prix TV interview, drivers will talk about aiming for a podium, looking to score points but really none of that matters, except the maximum points and the top step of the podium, you know, the one where the winner stands. Hamilton, at the time of writing this has stood there 94 times which is a pretty hefty claim in the all time greatest driver stakes.
So who are the other contenders for the title Greatest Driver Ever?
Juan Manuel Fangio
Alberto Ascari was Formula One’s first ever World Champion but then came Fangio, winning an incredible 5 championships in the 1950’s, a record that stood for 46 years until overtaken by Schumacher in the 1990’s. Like Hamilton, Fangio drove for Mercedes as well as Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Fangio won 24 F1 races out of the 52 he entered, an amazing percentage of 46.15%, the best of any F1 driver.
Clark equalled Fangio’s record of Grand Prix wins and pushed the record up to 26 before he was killed in an F2 event at Hockenheim in Germany. He won only 2 world championships and drove exclusively for Colin Chapman’s Lotus team.
Stewart won his first F1 race for BRM in the 1960’s and then moved to Ken Tyrell’s team in 1968. Stewart was a close friend of Clark’s and was devastated when his fellow Scot was killed. Stewart took the world championship in 1969, 1971 and 1973. He was due to compete in his 100th Grand Prix when team mate François Cevert was killed in practice for the US Grand Prix. Stewart withdrew from the race. Not only was Stewart fast, he was intelligent as a driver and had a great capacity for not only understanding his car but explaining the issues to his engineers. In 1988, he test drove the Lotus Honda of Nelson Piquet who was being soundly beaten by McLaren despite using the same world beating Honda engine. Stewart correctly divined the issues with the car after only one test drive. He took the record to 27 wins before retiring. Today Stewart is one of the elder statesmen of the sport but from what I have read on social media, he is not universally popular. He mentioned recently that neither Hamilton or Vettel are on his personal list of great drivers.
Senna is a controversial driver in many ways. He was killed in 1994 at Imola during Formula One’s black weekend where he and fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger both lost their lives. Senna was dedicated to his profession, completely focussed on taking pole position in qualifying and from there winning races. He had a great natural talent but his ruthless attitude and determination made him few friends. I remember once being at Silverstone and heard him soundly booed although today he is revered as a legend of the sport. Senna won three championships and took the record for wins and pole positions to new heights.
Prost was known as the Professor, a nickname which reflected his intelligence and race craft as well as his undeniable talent. He and Senna enjoyed a fierce rivalry which ended with Prost stepping down from the race winning Williams team rather than accept Senna as a team mate and repeat their toxic relationship from their days at McLaren. Prost won 51 races and four world championships.
Vettel won four world championships but later moved to Ferrari where things have not gone quite so well for him. He has been involved in various controversies over the years. He overtook Red Bull team mate Mark Webber despite a radio message asking the drivers to hold their status as first and second and he was once involved in a wheel banging incident with Lewis Hamilton when he perceived Hamilton had unexpectedly brake tested him. He left Ferrari at the end of 2020 for the new Aston Martin team and has just (July 2022) announced his retirement.
Schumacher is another controversial driver. A hard racer, he won his first championship by pushing Damon Hill off the track in Australia. He moved to Ferrari taking with him the key technical staff from his previous team Benetton and went on to retire after collecting 7 world championships and 91 Grand Prix wins.
Hamilton’s victory in the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix confirms his win of the 2020 championship and came with his 94th win. By 2022 he had upped it to a massive 103 wins. That Turkish race was actually an epic win where he started down the grid due to a poor qualifying performance but kept things together, gradually moving through the field to the top spot.
Hamilton has of course had the best car just like all the other great drivers. F1 is a team sport and the days when a driver could manhandle a bad car to the front of the pack, just with driver skills alone are long gone. Another advantage Hamilton has had is coming straight into F1 driving for the top team which at the time was McLaren. There were no up and coming years for Lewis, no trying hard to show off his talent in a poor back of the grid team.
McLaren’s days at the top have waned in recent years but perhaps Hamilton saw McLaren’s fall from the top coming, which may explain why he moved to Mercedes. Mercedes have brought on board other great talents in both the managerial and engineering fields and today, Mercedes are the undisputed kings of F1. I think Hamilton has a strong claim to be the number one of all time and it’s sad that some people still refuse to admit as such.
Still, any judgement of drivers across the many decades of the sport is bound to include personal tastes. Many would include Gilles Villeneuve in the hallowed halls of the greatest ever drivers. For me he was a good driver, nothing more. Conversely, I always thought Ronnie Peterson was one of the future greats and would go on to multiple championships; sadly, he never did and was killed in 1978 but I have always thought of him as high on the list of great drivers. Nigel Mansell with his one and only championship in 1992 was another great driver. His was not a natural talent. I’ve always thought that like Graham Hill, he was a man who had to work hard for his victories. It was not for nothing the Italian Tifosi named him ‘Il Leone’, the lion. Spare a thought too for Stirling Moss, the greatest driver never to win a world championship. His record of 16 victories stood for a long time as the best of any British driver.
Hats off to Lewis Hamilton then. 103 wins and will take some beating.