The path of a legend is paved with obstacles, challenges, and unforeseen battles. For the average person, such tests and strife can be a little too much to take and this often sees most simply give up before things get really tough. For the handful of those who refuse to be beaten, they can go on to carve out the type of legacies and eternal glory that most humans can only dream of.
The parallels between a Formula 1 Grand Prix and life can be uncanny for some people. Not everyone is blessed to have the fastest car in the race or to start at the top of the grid, but it’s what you do on the day that counts. Just one mistake can see you knocked off course, even if you have been cruising up until then. While coasting in the lead, the skies open up and an unexpected storm causes everything to come to a halt.
For the true legends of Formula 1, the comparisons between life and every race can help them to understand their craft on a deeper level. The men who have achieved greatness in F1 have done so at lightning speeds and in cars that are so unbelievably powerful. In controlling such mechanical beasts, these same drivers have stunned the world with their skills, dominating a sport that often appears anything but willing to be tamed.
Not all legends have survived to tell the tales of their greatest exploits. Some have fallen victim to the incredible power and force that earned them their places in the pantheon of Formula 1 gods. At the end of a race, the true greats stand on top of the respective podiums, soaking up the glory (while soaking each other with Champagne). However, it is what got them there that truly counts.
Everyone remembers a winner. The praise, adulation, and romance of winning an F1 championship is something truly incredible. The culmination of performing at a higher level than everyone else is witnessing your name written into the history books, among other great men. We remember winners for their actions in the final act of a race or season, but often overlook what came before the glory.
For every single Formula 1 driver that has ever sat behind the wheel, there has been a long and arduous road that led them to the world’s most prestigious race tracks and courses. There has been blood, sweat and tears spilled along the way. The hours – that turn to days, before turning to years – of commitment, drive, hard work, and grinding to work their way up a ladder that many do not get the chance to climb.
Of course, that ladder is not even on the radar for many young and impressionable kids. Those who have been bitten by the racing bug, however, must start out somewhere. Many drivers who excel in Formula 1 will began their journeys into the sport by racing karts. When choosing a sport to compete in as a youngster, there are fewer that have the same level of cost and expense like auto racing.
Drivers like Lewis Hamilton started off by racing karts. Hamilton was just eight years old when he took his first steps on the racing ladder and eventually worked himself into a position to race what is known as “lower formulae” racing, such as Formula Renault and Formula 3. Hamilton eventually graduated from these lower racing categories, joining F1 in 2007.
Without the years of effort, discipline, and hard work, there is no doubt that Hamilton would not be in the position he is today. This is not to mention the cost these years of (mostly) self-funded racing can set drivers back on their paths to glory. Some drivers who are deemed to have talent from a young age can be sponsored or funded. There are also drivers who come from racing dynasties who are bankrolled in the early stages.
Regardless of how affluent or financially capable a young driver is, the hard work and graft still have to be invested to climb that ladder. Not every driver who attempts to make it to F1 actually does. Most will fall by the wayside. The legends of the sport are the small number of elite drivers who had the skills and attributes to make it to the highest levels of racing in the world.
Even when that figurative ladder is climbed, greatness is not just achieved by making it to Formula 1. This is where the true giants of the sport are separated from the “also-rans” that make up the numbers. There can be years of frustration, close shaves, near misses, and agonizing finishes before a driver can win their first World Championship. Not all drivers hit the ground running, so to speak. It can take time to craft a legacy.
Of course, then there are others who are superstars from their first season onwards. These drivers explode like supernovas on the track, gripping spectators and fans immediately. Even if these stars fail to win their maiden races, they stand out as ones to watch. They are the drivers who – rather being passed the torch – they snatch it from the hands of their rivals, creating a legacy in the process.
Crafting a legacy in F1 takes skills. It involves being an incredible and gifted driver, and one that can make the almost impossible seem easy. It involves the perfect car and a team that gives 100% for the cause. It takes constant practice, intensive effort, and a mind that will not take no for an answer.
In order to create a legacy, of course, a driver must have a number of mental attributes to go with their cardiovascular fitness, physical shape, and, of course, their car. Often overlooked by F1 fans, the mind of a legend is often as important as anything else when it comes to racing.
When you think of the psychology of a legend, what comes to mind? What sets a superstar driver out from an average one? While the right car and team are undeniably crucial to the success of a driver, it is the engine between their ears that can make the difference. The key mental attributes of an F1 legend are vast, but perhaps the most important relate to their strength, desire, and ability to be resilient at all costs.
In racing, a driver will win some and lose some. Even the absolute cream of the F1 crop will taste defeat. What matters is how a driver reacts to the adversity and challenges that come their way. The mind of a legend, if history has shown us anything, is capable of bouncing back and claiming (or reclaiming) greatness.
So, what are the most important mental attributes of a legend? Below, you will find five that are shared by the greatest drivers to have ever raced in Formula 1:
The most venerated legends in F1 history have had a burning desire to achieve, often at any cost whatsoever. Some have had such a dedication to fulfilling their dreams and attaining greatness, that they have lost their lives in the process. Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian icon of F1, summed up what it meant to pay the ultimate price for such relentless ambition, when he died at the San Marino Grand Prix in May 1994.
Without ambition, a driver can never achieve legendary status. Every single day must count for anyone with considerable ambition. For the legend of F1, it is every single second that matters, especially on the track.
As the Sukuma proverb goes, “the wind does not break a tree that bends.” For the F1 legend, breaking down does not always mean engine or electrical failure. The ability to embrace change – which is a constant part of the evolution of F1 – sees the true greats set apart from those who cannot adapt. Whether it is a new car, a new track, a new team, or a new way of racing, legendary drivers have not been frequently pushed back by change.
To adapt, one must be psychologically tough and mentally sharp enough to manipulate any changes into their advantage. In a sport that has witnessed multiple changes over the course of its existence, adaptability is a necessary trait for any successful driver.
If driving a super-fast behemoth of a car at breakneck speeds doesn’t require focus, then we do not know what does. In Formula 1, lives have been lost through accidents that happen as a result of the smallest and most marginal error. In any Grand Prix, the price to pay for an error can be very costly indeed. At very least, even the slightest loss of focus can be the difference between glory and a day to forget.
This focus also applies to a driver’s career and how they handle themselves while at the top of the chain in auto racing. There is no room for a lack of concentration in Formula 1, and every legend of the sport has proven this over the years.
No other sports people on earth are celebrated as much for their reaction speeds than F1 drivers. After all, this is a sport where your brain’s ability to react to stimuli and the actions of others around you can prove very crucial. Any driver considered to be at the top end of talent must have lightning-fast reaction speeds in order to become a winner. There is no other way around it.
For the average person, reaction speeds when driving are also important. Given the speed that an F1 race is contested at, however, drivers need more than just acceptible reflexes. As such, brain training, constant practice, physical workouts, the right diet, and plenty of sleep are a must. Having natural reaction speeds are a blessing to an F1 driver.
Imagine spending years upon years of practicing for something. You wake up, live, breath, and sleep your craft. You have invested everything there is in becoming the best, losing countless friendships and relationships as a result of your passion and drive. Then, your dreams come true. All of the years of hard work pays off, and you win the Formula 1 World Championship. Where do you go from there?
It is easy to think that many average people would be content with this. They would find it easy to slack off and enjoy their success. For the F1 legend, they are never finished. They still seek out a challenge to become the best they can be. Why? It comes down to relentless motivation.
There are many tasks in the world that do not exactly inspire envy. One of them, as we hope you would agree, involves selecting ten of the greatest legends in Formula 1 history. With such a rich tapestry of talent in the sport over the years, it is incredibly difficult to have to whittle it down. Each and every legend in this sport deserves to be recognized for their achievements in F1, after all.
Despite having so many incredible drivers to choose from, we have compiled the following list of Formula 1 legends. In selecting the ten following drivers, we considered a number of varying factors such as success, skills, their impact on the sport, and the legacy they left for F1 fans to admire.
So, without further ado, here are our top 10 legends of Formula 1 (in no particular order):
When we think of the prototypical Formula 1 driver of the modern age, it would certainly not be a description of Alberto Ascari. There was no lean physique, chiseled jaw, or features that even resembled a sportsman in the slightest. However, Ascari was a true standout during his period of dominance in the early 1950’s and will forever be remembered as one of F1’s most significant legends.
The young Ascari followed in his famous father’s footsteps to become a racing driver, despite Antonio Ascari dying in an accident at the French Grand Prix in 1925. Unfortunately for Alberto, he would also lose his life racing (while testing a Scudeiro Ferrari car) in very eery circumstances. Ascari was the same age as his father and died on the same day of the month.
Prior to his death, Ascari was considered one of the most gifted drivers that the world had ever seen. At a time when drivers did not have the wealth of technology at their disposal, Ascari achieved some pretty amazing feats. For example, the Italian won every single Grand Prix from the 1952 Belgian race up until the same race in 1953. He won back to back titles in those years, winning 11 of 13 races prior to the final Grand Prix of the 1953 season.
All in all, Ascari’s win ratio exceeded 40%, which was, for a long time, only second to Juan Manuel Fangio. Still respected and loved by hardcore F1 fans, there will always be a place in the pantheon of legends for Alberto Ascari, despite passing away in 1955 at the age of just 36. As one of Ferrari’s most venerated drivers, Ascari’s legend will certainly live on for years to come.
Alberto Ascari, despite having his career cut short, Ascari won both the 1952 and 1953 World Championships. The Italian finished his career with 13 Grand Prix wins, 17 podium finishes, and 14 pole positions.
Fewer figures in British racing history stand out as clearly and brightly as Stirling Moss, or if you are British, Sir Stirling Moss. The London-born son of an amateur racer is a greatly respected and historic figure of F1, often considered among the best drivers who have ever taken part in the sport. He is usually the only driver never to win a World Championship spoken in the same breath as legends of Formula 1.
No, you have not read that incorrectly. Stirling Moss never won a World Championship in Formula 1. For the often unfortunate Moss, he would finish as a runner-up in four separate seasons and third in the other three he took part in. In a way, things just did not happen for the balding Englishman, who was seen as the natural successor to the great Argentine, Juan Manuel Fangio, who retired in 1958.
A classy operator, Moss was expected to clean up in Formula 1. British fans were enthralled with his presence and confidence. It is fair to say that expectations were very, very high for Moss. For the man himself, he had his own way of doing things, which many believe might have been the difference between winning several championships and having to settle for second and third place, rather than first.
The Englishman had his preferences. Rather than racing for any team, he wanted it to be British ones, and privateer ones at that. In true gentlemanly fashion, Moss deprived himself of the World Championship by allowing Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn to win the title by defending him from claims that he reversed while on the track at the Portuguese Grand Prix. If Moss had failed to speak up, he would have been crowned Britain’s first F1 champion in 1958.
For Sterling Moss, he will forever be known for his sportsmanship and as the greatest driver never to win a championship. He did finish runner-up in four separate seasons, although this is far from the record that he probably deserved. Moss has 16 Grand Prix wins, 24 podiums, 16 pole positions, and 19 fastest laps on his record.
To say Fernando Alonso was born to race might be an exaggeration, but it isn’t far off. In fact, one of Spain’s most beloved sportsmen of the last couple of decades first started racing at the tender age of 3. Of course, he was racing karts – not high powered F1 cars – but nonetheless, he started much younger than others. This early exposure to racing certainly paid off, as the Oviedo-born racer would go down in history as one of the best.
It was very clear from a young age that Alonso was destined for greatness. As the Spaniard began to rack up records – such as becoming the youngest World Champion of all time in 2003 – the world sat up and took notice. Although that record would be broken by Sebastien Vettel the following decade, at the time, it was an impressive feat for the then Renault driver.
Alonso is a modest yet supremely confident driver that had the talent to burn. His exceptional judgment and ability to overcome and adapt. For example, he gained huge attention for finishing fifth at the 2006 Italian Grand Prix in a car that had lost a significant amount of its bodywork. This fighting spirit and self-belief helped to make him one of the most memorable drivers in F1 history.
With two World Championships to his name, many F1 fans and observers would likely argue that he should have had at least four or five. His decision to reject Red Bull prior to their explosive success in the early 2010’s might have proven to be the wrong decision. Sebastien Vettel got the gig instead and racked up an incredible four consecutive titles. For many, Alonso’s talents should have earned him much more in the sport.
There is no doubt that Alonso will be remembered for more than winning two World Championships. He set the record for the youngest ever champion in 2003, at 24-years-old, and also set multiple records in other areas of the sport. Alonso retired with 32 wins, 97 podiums, 22 pole positions, and 23 fastest laps.
When we speak of legends of Formula 1, the name Jackie Stewart will often pop up. Considered by many to be the greatest British driver in the history of the sport – as well as one of the greatest, period – Stewart’s legacy paved the way for many drivers who emerged following his retirement. However, racing fans will always hold Stewart’s name in esteem due to what he did for the sport, not just for himself.
In his prime, which would have been 1968 to 1973, Stewart was the greatest driver on Earth. The Milton, Dunbartonshire-native won three World Championships throughout his illustrious career, with 27 Grand Prix wins in 99 attempts. His dedication to his craft was extraordinary, making him an exceptionally respected and appreciated driver in his time. This respect grew even greater when he began to campaign for changes in F1.
In consideration of fatalities and accidents in the sport, Stewart campaigned profusely for more to be done to protect drivers. The Scot was the first driver to ever wear a seatbelt and worked hard for drivers to wear fire-proof clothing, and to have pit walls and barriers on tracks to make things safer for everyone on the track. These changes would help initiate a move towards more driver-friendly, safer racing.
Stewart was an incredibly gifted driver who utterly dominated when he was on form. There are fewer figures in Formula 1 history that are as respected than the Scot. Stewart was a true achiever, who had a foresight and sense of innovation that made him an honorary ambassador of the sport. A record breaker and visionary, there is no doubt that Jackie Stewart is a bona fide legend of F1.
Stewart can be remembered for revolutionizing the sport of F1, both on and off the track. His tireless campaign for greater safety features for drivers was certainly needed, even if other drivers would have argued that his dominance on the track wasn’t. With three World Championships, 27 wins, 43 podiums, and 17 pole positions, Stewart’s numbers speak for themselves.
Ok, so when we said we were having a little difficulty whittling this list down to ten drivers, we weren’t lying. In the modern age of Formula 1, there have been two drivers who have really stood out from the pack. Their rivalry has helped to further the popularity of F1, bringing the action and drama to innumerable fans across the earth. One of these men is British and the other is German.
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will always be remembered by race fans for their extraordinary, individual abilities. There is just no escaping that rivalry, however. Both secured multiple World Championships, earning both a place in the record books. Hamilton won his first of those titles in 2008 and would have to wait until 2014 before he could claim his second (largely as a result of Vettel’s dominance).
Hamilton is regarded by many as the greatest driver of the 2010’s. Vettel is also regarded by many fans as the greatest driver of that period. Hamilton is, statistically, the most successful British driver of all time. Vettel, who grew up idolizing Michael Schumacher – his fellow countryman – created history as the youngest ever World Champion in F1. Separating both men is a brain-melting task in itself.
For the modern F1 fan, you can get no better than the rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel. Both are true legends of the sport and stood out for their excellence and pure hunger for success. In the 2010’s, these two men took the lion’s share of the F1 pie, earning themselves a place among the greats of the sport. There will always be a question of who is the better driver (it just depends on who you ask).
Why was the Hamilton/Vettel rivalry so important?
Throughout the history of Formula 1, we have seen many rivalries. What tends to happen in these rivalries, historically speaking, is for one driver to pull away and truly announce themselves as the undisputed driver of the era. There is usually one driver that proves that they are the better of the two. With Hamilton and Vettel, this will always be subject to debate.
Scotland produced another hero of racing for Great Britain in the 1960’s and that was Jim Clark. A two-time World Champion, in 1963 and 1965, Clark was the pride of his homeland at a time when racing was really beginning to gather traction among the general population on the island of Great Britain. Much like his fellow Scot, Jackie Stewart, Clark was also mindful of the safety of drivers.
Unfortunately for Clark, he would witness the impact of a bad crash on Stirling Moss in qualifying for the second Grand Prix of his career. However, the next day, Clark would come close to hitting the dead body of fellow-Brit Chris Bristow. As tragic as this was, it was not over for one of the most cursed days in F1 history. Alan Stacey, Clark’s teammate, was also killed, later in the same race.
It would seem that Clark could be forgiven for never racing in Spa, the track at the Belgian Grand Prix, ever again. Nonetheless, he did and won four races in four years from 1962 to 1965. One of the greatest races of his career came at Spa when he battled from 8th position, in dangerous weather, to win the race five minutes ahead of his nearest competitor. He had lapped everyone else.
Clark is as close to godly status as there is in British racing. His ability, mental fortitude, resilience, confidence, and hunger for success saw him attain legendary status while still active as a driver. He will forever be remembered among the greatest drivers to have ever sat behind the wheel of an F1 car, and quite rightly so. He was so good that he often made Grand Prix races foregone conclusions. Just let that sink in. Clark would tragically lose his life in a Formula 2 race in Hockenheim, Germany in 1968.
Jim Clark was a prolific record breaker for his time who achieved a lot in his prematurely-ended career. With two World Championships to his name, 25 wins, 32 podiums, 33 pole positions, and 28 fastest laps, it would be years before the records he set would be broken.
From a legend of British racing to the undisputed king of Formula 1 in France, Alain Prost was “the man” in F1 for a period during the 1980’s and 1990’s. However, when we discuss Alain Prost, there is no doubt that the name Ayrton Senna must also come to mind. That’s just the way it is for Prost, who was one part of arguably the greatest rivalry in Formula 1 history.
It was the challenge of Senna that provided Prost with the impetus to stay on his toes, so to speak, and push himself even further towards greatness. As an individual, however, there have not been many greater drivers in the history of F1 to come close to his abilities. Prost was magic behind the wheel and exuded a sense of class and control that set him apart from most other drivers in history, never mind his era.
Prost was a driver with an exemplary ability to disguise his capabilities, which often saw his speed misjudged. His demeanor seemed to be perfectly summed up by his technique behind the wheel, and with four World Championships under his belt, this undoubtedly worked for him. There are many who believe that Prost could have won at least two or three more championships in his career, too, such were his talents.
Once a teammate of McLaren, Prost would jump ship to Ferrari in 1990, signaling the birth of one of the most intense rivalries in sports history. For Senna, who is widely regarded as the greatest of all time, his skills should have been enough to completely dominate the sport at his heyday. His only problem came in the form of Prost, who was only happy to give as good as he got.
Despite their intense rivalry, both men would embark on a friendship in the months leading up to Senna’s death. Prost, who had retired from Formula 1 in 1993, was no longer a rival.
Prost will forever be known as the bitter rival of Ayrton Senna and will always be regarded as one of the greatest drivers in the history of F1. There is no doubt that his four World Championships, 51 wins, 106 podiums, 33 pole positions, and 41 fastest laps speak volumes about the Frenchman’s exceptional talent.
If Juan Manuel Fangio was a boxer, he would probably be Sugar Ray Robinson. His talent and accomplishments certainly justify why so many racing historians and die-hard fans venerate the Argentine as the greatest of all time. Fangio was a unique driver and one who would set the benchmark for every other competitor that came before him. If all modern music can be traced to blues, then Fangio was Robert Johnson.
It is difficult to imagine Formula 1 without its first real superstar. However, an accident while racing in Peru in 1948 – one which saw him lose his best friend and co-driver, Daniel Urrutia – almost led to Fangio quitting racing for good. The man who was known affectionately as “Maestro,” however, would opt to carry on. While in his early 40’s, he would finish second in the first ever F1 Championship, and this was only the beginning.
In 1951, Fangio would win only the second ever F1 Championship. The following year saw the Argentine break his neck in a crash at Monza, ruling him out until the following year. 1953 was not to be Fangio’s year, as the first man on this list, Alberto Ascari, took the title. However, in 1954, he stood out among the rest of the pack like a 10-foot-tall wasp wearing a mink coat. He would go on to win four titles in a row, from 1954-57.
Fangio’s greatness was in his vision and control. He was a superior racer to anyone at the time and had such an advanced mental fortitude and skillset that saw him become the first man to truly dominate F1. To other drivers, Fangio was an artist, who took to the track like a painter takes to a canvas. He could marry contrasting concepts, like speed and caution, or delicacy and brute force, on the way to mastering his own universe. Argentina’s greatest driver set records in the sport that took years to beat. Others will probably never be beaten.
Fangio enjoyed an incredibly successful career in F1. His five World Championships stand out, naturally, and his contribution to the sport can never be denied. The Argentine great also has 24 wins, 35 podiums, 29 pole positions, and 23 fastest laps in his wide array of achievements.
There was a time, in recent memory, when Michael Schumacher was one of the most famous sportspeople on the planet. The German was renowned for his strict discipline, peerless talent, and incredible hunger on the track. A modern sports icon, Schumacher didn’t always rub others up the right way but this was never something that mattered.
The Hürth-born legend never appeared too concerned about what others thought of him. This attitude was seemingly part of a mental state that was programmed to win (and win again). Of course, it worked, as Schumacher collected 7 World Championships, with five of these championship wins achieved in five years. The driver that had been handpicked to resurrect the fortunes of Ferrari did as he was expected to.
For Schumacher, he had a lot of technology and financial clout behind him. Not that this takes anything away from his achievements, but nonetheless, it is true. Ferrari pumped money into the “project” of revolutionizing Formula 1 and the end result was spectacular. For example, his custom-made Bridgestone tires showed just how hi-tech his set up was for taking over the world of F1.
Schumacher as a driver was simply unbeatable at his best. With incredible speed and mechanical precision, the German could have beaten anyone – past or present – on his day. Regardless of your interests in racing during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, there is a great chance you would have heard of Michael Schumacher. The man was F1 for many years and will always be remembered for his contributions. Unfortunately for Schumacher, he was involved in a skiing accident in 2013 that saw him suffer a traumatic brain injury.
Schumacher has one of the most impressive resumes in the history of Formula 1. In addition to an incredible seven World Championships (the first driver to achieve this feat), Schumacher has 91 wins, 155 podiums, 68 pole positions, and 77 fastest laps.
Ayrton Senna’s shocking and tragic death rocked the world of F1 back in May 1994. The Brazilian was a global superstar, beloved in his home country and around the world. Senna was a gifted yet ferociously dedicated driver, who would have completely dominated the sport if it wasn’t for Alain Prost (his greatest rival). With such dedication came a relentless hunger to win, which often bordered on the extreme.
Without these qualities, Ayrton Senna would simply not have been Ayrton Senna. His mental attributes were part and parcel of the great man’s appeal, which was further helped by his handsomeness and charisma. Despite being admired for his attractive personality, Senna had a ruthless streak that was buoyed by a fiery self-confidence. If anything could be done, Senna, it seemed, believed he could do it.
When he joined McLaren in 1988, Senna wanted to show the world that he was the greatest driver alive. His teammate, Alain Prost, had similar ambitions. This in-team rivalry would spur the constructor to 15 out of 16 wins in the season that year, with Senna taking the championship. The relationship with Prost broke down following the Brazilian going back on an agreement not to take a corner in a race that year, however.
When Senna moved to Williams in 1994, in-car electrics had been all but stripped. However, there was controversy when Michael Schumacher’s Benetton was accused of using illegal software and an illegal fuel valve. Senna, who was desperately trying to improve on his disappointing showing in the Brazilian and Japanese Grand Prix races, crashed while leading the San Marino Grand Prix, losing his life in the process.
For many racing fans, Ayrton Senna is the embodiment of what an F1 driver should be. He is widely regarded as the greatest driver in the history of the sport and is nothing short of legendary among fans of Formula 1.
Senna left an incredible impression on Formula 1 that no driver before or after could match. When Senna passed away, he had won three World Championships, with 41 wins, 80 podiums, 65 pole positions, and 19 fastest laps. Senna’s name will forever be revered by fans of Formula 1 around the world.