Formula One, the pinnacle of motorsport, reaches its 1 000 race mark on April 14, 2019, with the running of the Chinese Grand Prix, the third race in this year’s FIA Formula One Championship.
This season sees the championship celebrate its 70th consecutive season, having kicked off the official World Championship with the 1950 British Grand Prix, run at Silverstone on May 13, that year. There were Grands Prix run before World War II, of course, but the various races were never officially organised into anything resembling a world championship. So, essentially, the World Championship, for both drivers and for car constructors, began in 1950.
The winner of that very first race was Giuseppi ‘Nino’ Farina, an Italian driver with a multifaceted personality. He was already 43-years old when he won that very first Grand Prix in Britain, having raced for Alfa Romeo before the war. Farina would go on to win the first World Championship for Alfa Romeo, a feat that the great Juan Manual Fangio would repeat in 1951.
Farina would never again scale the heights he did in that first championship year, and he later retired to work at the Pininfarina coach-building firm founded by his father. He, however, remained passionate about racing and was on his way to the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix when he lost control of his Lotus Cortina and was killed.
Grand Prix Greats
With very few exceptions, anyone who has raced a Formula One car over the past 70 years has been blessed with exceptional talent. But over the decades, certain drivers were rated by their peers, team bosses, the media and fans alike as a cut above the rest.
The first of these drivers to lay down a yardstick was the 1951 champion, Juan Manual Fangio from Argentina. He added four more world titles to his name, winning them in successive seasons from 1953 to 1957, when he announced his retirement. At the age of 80 he was still doing demonstration drives in his W196 Mercedes, the car he used for his 1955 championship, and throwing it into lurid power slides on every corner.
Interestingly, the next driver to be rated as the world’s best never won a championship. Through sheer bad luck, or simply being in the wrong car, Stirling Moss from Great Britain was never crowned as champion, but he was revered as the fastest driver in the world from as early as 1955, when a bad crash in 1962 signalled his retirement. He won 16 Grand Prix.
The next driver to stand head and shoulders above the rest was Scotland’s Jim Clark. He was World Champion in 1963 and 1965, but he was desperately unlucky not to take two more titles, driving throughout his entire career for Lotus. He was killed in a Formula Two race in 1968.
In those days at least two or three drivers in Formula One were dying or being seriously injured each season, but the man who took over Clark’s mantle as the world’s best, Scotland’s Jackie Stewart, did an enormous amount of work to make GP racing safer. Like all truly great drivers, Stewart was quick from the moment he stepped into a GP car, and his three titles in 1969, 1971 and 1973 were richly deserved.
After Stewart came Austrian Niki Lauda, who dominated the mid-1970s in a Ferrari, survived a terrible fiery crash that left him scarred for life in 1976, retired in a huff in 1979, and came back to take a third World Championship for McLaren, when he was past his peak, in 1984.
Following Lauda’s second retirement, we had a memorable period of seven years between two of the sport’s all-time greats, Alain Prost (champion in 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1993) and Ayrton Senna (champion in 1988, 1990 and 1991). The battles between Prost and Senna (especially as McLaren team mates) were legendary because each had such different approaches to racing. They scorned each other for a long while, but respected each other deeply.
Following Senna’s untimely death in 1994, the mantle was then passed to the brash young German Michael Schumacher. Schumacher won two titles for Benetton in 1994 and 1995, and then scored an unsurpassed run of five titles on the trot for Ferrari between 2000 and 2004. Many fans reckon Schumacher’s seven world titles make him the all-time great, while his detractors – of which there are many – point to his questionable driving tactics, and also the fact that he was never challenged by having a top-flight teammate.
The latest driver to make the list of undoubted greats is Britain’s Lewis Hamilton. Lewis was astoundingly quick from his first race in a Formula One car, when he was slotted into a McLaren against two-time World champion Fernando Alonso in 2007. He very nearly won the World Championship in his rookie year (with Fernando Alonso as a team mate), but made amends by winning his first of five World Championships in 2008. He had to wait until 2014 for his second (in a Mercedes) but since then he has taken titles in 2015, 2017 and 2018, and this year he is still very much at the peak of his ability. Read more about him on page 56.
The Nearly Men
Fernando Alonso won two world championships, in 2005 and 2006. There are many who feel he was still one of the best drivers in F1 when he retired last year. But there are many reports that he was a divisive factor in any team where he is driving, and the fact that rookie Hamilton burst his bubble at McLaren in 2007 sees him miss out on being one of the all-time greats.
Kimi Raikkonen is a totally different animal to Alonso. He should has won at least three world titles to date, rather than the one he secured at Ferrari in 2007. But reliability issues, a lack of dedication to his sport and a tendency to party too hard on occasion leaves him as a loveable character rather than the great that his innate talent should have warranted.
Gilles Villeneuve Ferrari driver from the late ’70s to the early ’80s, was rated as the most exciting talent of his era and blisteringly quick on his day. But he drove with his heart, rather than his head, which made him loveable like Raikkonen, but, ultimately, not a great. Gilles died in a shocking crash at Zolder, Belgium, in 1982.
Sebastian Vettel is the holder of four world drivers’ titles (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013) and there is no doubt that when he’s at the top of his game he is brilliant. But he won those titles in an era of Red Bull Renault supremacy, and without too much of a challenge from a top-flight teammate. He doesn’t seem to take pressure too well, which is going to make this 2019 season very interesting with wonder-boy Charles Leclerc as his new team mate.
Max Verstappen is the latest of these nearly men. To date he has won just five Grands Prix, but he is rated as potentially the fastest driver in the paddock by many and is certainly the most aggressive. Time will tell if his precocious talent will lead to the consistency needed to win World Championships.
F1 World Champions since 1950
1950: Giuseppi Farina (Alfa Romeo)
1951: Juan Manual Fangio (Alfa Romeo)
1952: Alberto Ascari (Ferrari)
1953: Alberto Ascari (Ferrari)
1954: Juan Manual Fangio (Maserati)
1955: Juan Manual Fangio ( Mercedes-Benz)
1956: Juan Manual Fangio (Ferrari)
1957: Juan Manual Fangio (Maserati)
1958: Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari)
1959: Jack Brabham (Cooper)
1960: Jack Brabham (Cooper)
1961: Phill Hill (Ferrari)
1962: Graham Hill (BRM)
1963: Jim Clark (Lotus)
1964: John Surtees (Ferrari)
1965: Jim Clark (Lotus)
1966: Jack Brabham (Brabham)
1967: Denis Hulme (Brabham)
1968: Graham Hill (Lotus)
1969: Jackie Stewart (Matra)
1970: Jochen Rindt (Lotus)
1971: Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell)
1972: Emerson Fittipaldi (Lotus)
1973: Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell)
1974: Emerson Fittipaldi (McLaren)
1975: Niki Lauda (Ferrari)
1976: James Hunt (McLaren)
1977: Niki Lauda (Ferrari)
1978: Mario Andretti (Lotus)
1979: Jody Scheckter (Ferrari)
1980: Alan Jones (Williams)
1981: Nelson Piquet (Brabham)
1982: Keke Rosberg (Williams)
1983: Nelson Piquet (Brabham)
1984: Niki Lauda (McLaren)
1985: Alain Prost (Mclaren)
1986: Alain Prost (McLaren)
1987: Nelson Piquet (Williams)
1988: Ayrton Senna (McLaren)
1989: Alain Prost (McLaren)
1990: Ayrton Senna (McLaren)
1991: Ayrton Senna (McLaren)
1992: Nigel Mansell (Williams)
1993: Alain Prost (Williams)
1994: Michael Schumacher (Benetton)
1995: Michael Schumacher (Benetton)
1996: Damon Hill (Jordan)
1997: Jacques Villeneuve (Williams)
1998: Mika Hakkinen (McLaren)
1999: Mika Hakkinen (McLaren)
2000: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2001: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2002: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2003: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2004: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)
2005: Fernando Alonso (Renault)
2006: Fernando Alonso (Renault)
2007: Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)
2008: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
2009: Jenson Button (Brawn)
2010: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
2011: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
2012: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
2013: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
2014: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2016: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2017: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2018: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)