They say the first auto race was held on the day that the second car was built, with the sport of car auto racing dating back well over a century. And in that time, countless noteworthy drivers have come and gone, and while the vast majority are largely forgotten to the sands of time, there are an elite few that remain as bonafide legends in motorsport. No matter what discipline of auto racing — be it rally driving, endurance races, or Formula One competition — these drivers managed to carve out a place for themselves in the annals of history during their respective era.
So, whether it’s the diversity of their success, sheer number of race wins, or simply the talent, drive, and determination, to edge out a ridiculously-competitive grid, these drivers have been immortalized as some of the very best individuals to ever get behind the wheel. So, without further adieu, let’s dive into the 15 best race car drivers of all time.
What Makes A Driver ‘’The Best’’ Of All Time
There are numerous factors that go into determining what makes a driver qualified to be considered as one of the greatest of all time. Obviously, there are the hard numbers to take into account: pole positions, fastest laps, race wins, championships, etc. It’s also important to consider the car and team a particular driver was campaigning, as some of the most impressive race victories in history have been achieved by underdog competitors.
In the same vein, just as important as the car and team is the other drivers constituting the grid at the time. Certain race seasons have seen numerous ultra-talented competitors take to the track, so it’s important to recognize the competition that was beaten out when analyzing a driver’s success on the race track. Then, there’s the multidiscipline aspect, as a good number of elite drivers have successfully competed in multiple formats and series.
Watching The Clock
The Importance Of A Racer's Era & Timeline
A driver’s timeline is also well-worth factoring into the equation. How quickly a racer is able to adapt to the sport can often speak volumes about their performance prowess potential and later-capability. Several iconic racers had their lives tragically cut short, along with their careers in motorsport. And while we obviously can’t objectively speak on how successful they would have been had they not died, it’s still worth noting when ranking the best.
Another noteworthy area is longevity, as a great many racers have achieved one-off victories or championships, but a driver that is able to continue besting the competition season after season should be viewed on an entirely different level. So, with these factors in mind, let’s count-down the 15 finest drivers to ever grace the sport (in alphabetical order).
Highly-successful in both Formula One and FIA World Endurance Championship completion, Fernando Alonso is undoubtedly one of the most talented drivers walking the earth today. Coming from a family with limited financial means, Alonso proved his abilities, starting in the seat of a go-kart and climbing his way up the race latter, until ultimately making his F1 debut in 2001 and then winning back-to-back F1 titles in 2005 and 2006. Alonso also came extremely close to nabbing a handful of other titles, famously battling it in with Sebastian Vettel — who very much deserves an honorable mention spot on this list — for three years straight in 2010, 2011, and 2012 for the F1 championship, though Vettel would ultimately best the Spaniard. Additionally, Alonso has more recently won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2018 and 2019 before going on to outright win those year’s World Endurance Championships, along with the latter year’s 24 Hours of Daytona.
Championships: Formula One 2005, 2006
Born in (what’s now) Croatia, of Italian descent, and raised in America, Mario Gabriele Andretti is a highly-celebrated name in the racing world. Father of Michael Andretti, Mario had an expansive a much-acclaimed career that included competition in stock car racing, IndyCar series, and Formula One. The driver’s fame and success in motorsport has made him something of a household name, as the Andretti name becoming part of the pop culture lexicon, with the racer’s sir-name routinely being called on in songs by rappers.
Championships: Formula One 1978
Born in Scottland, Jim Clark manage to carve out a successful motorsport career during Formula One’s most competitive early eras. He won two F1 titles in 1963 and 1965. The latter year he also won the Indianapolis 500, as Clark competed outside of Formula One, as well, also including bouts in Formula Two, and with production sports cars and touring machines. Recognized by The Times as one of the all-time greatest drivers, Clark unfortunately lost his life in 1968 after wrecking at a race in West Germany, though had he lived, he almost certainly would have continued experiencing a prosperous career in the sport.
Championships: Formula One 1963, 1965
Juan Manuel Fangio
Commonly referred to as “El Maestro,” or the lesser-flattering “El Chueco” (Spanish for “bowlegged”), Juan Manuel Fangio was arguably Formula One’s first-ever great driver. Displaying exceptional skill right out of the gate in a time before many race theories and techniques had been developed (not to mention safety equipment or standards), Fangio ran circles around the competition throughout the first decade of Formula One racing. In total, Fangio won five F1 titles, giving him the record for almost 50-years until it was later broken by a more recent German pilot. The only Argentinian-born driver to win his home country’s Grand Prix — which he accomplished on four separate occasions because of course he did — Fangio might not still hold the record for the most F1 titles, though he remains the driver with the highest winning percentage of all time at just over 46%.
Championships: Formula One 1951, 1954, 1956, 1957
No matter what kind of vehicle A.J. Foyt climbed into, he exhibited otherworldly skill and control. It’s legitimately difficult to wrap your head around the enormous level of success Foyt achieved during his career, with accolades that included more than a dozen championship titles including in the USAC National Championship, USAC Spring Car Series Championship, USAC Silver Crown Series Championship, IROC Championship, USAC Stock Car Champion, winner of a Firecracker 400, International Race of Champions, and is the only driver to ever win a Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Daytona, 24 Hours of Le Mans, 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Indianapolis 500, which he won a cool four times. He’s also been named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, and has been inducted into half-a-dozen different racing Hall of Fames.
Championships: United States Auto Club 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1975, 1979
The first and only black driver to compete in Formula One, Lewis Hamilton is a modern phenomenon in the sport. Hamilton achieved his first Formula One title in his early-20s in 2008, though it would be another six seasons before he would secure his next championship title in 2014. Since then, Hamilton has won nearly every single F1 championship for the last half-decade — the exception being in 2016, when he lost to Nico Rosberg. And with no signs of slowing down, it’s likely that Hamilton very well may break several significant records in the coming seasons. Blessed with an almost otherworldly-level of talent, Hamilton is also partially credited for helping F1 tap into a younger, more diverse demographic that’s helped the sport to gain new fans and flourish.
Championships: Formula One 2008, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019
Though it’s been close to half-a-century since his death in 1975, Graham Hill is still unquestionably one of the greatest drivers of all time. The British pilot’s career only spanned a relatively short time, though he nonetheless managed to pull off a pair of Formula One Championship titles. Furthermore, he was able to secure victories at all three events of the so-called “Triple Crown of Motorsport” — the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Indianapolis 500 — making him the only driver ever to accomplish the feat. And, as if that wasn’t enough, racing prowess appears to be built into Hill’s genetics, as his son, Damon Hill also won an F1 titles, making them the only father and son to ever pull this off. Sadly, Hill’s motorsport career was cut tragically short when he, along with five other team members, died in a plane crash.
Championships: Formula One 1962, 1968
It’s hard to look at Tom Kristensen and not see one of the greatest drivers to ever have lived. Like many other greats, the Dane climbed his way through the ranks, taking victories in the Japanese and German Formula 3 series, as well as in Formula 3000, the British Touring Car Championship, and the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. In 1997 Kristensen would enter his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he had six consecutive wins, and then an additional three, making a record total of nine and eating him the nickname of “Mr. Le Mans.” Kristensen also holds records for most wins at other elite endurance events including the 12 Hours of Sebring where he has half-a-dozen wins.
Championships: World Endurance Championship 2013
An aviation enthusiast and entrepreneur and world-famous F1 driver, Andreas Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda had a successful, albeit tumultuous motorsport career. The only driver ever to win the Formula One championship behind the wheel of both a McLaren and a Ferrari, Lauda won a total of three F1 titles, the first of which he achieved in 1975. The following year at the German GP a violent and fiery crash would nearly-claim his life, though less than two-months later a then-severely-burned would climb back inside his Ferrari at the Italian GP to continue his ongoing battle with James Hunt. Following Lauda’s racing career, he’s served as a consultant and/or owner on a number of high-profile race teams and operations.
Championships: Formula One 1975, 1977, 1984
Widely regarded as the best rally driver of all time, Sébastien Loeb is a French rally pilot that possesses inordinate amount of skill and raw talent. Before retiring at the end of 2012, Loeb won the World Rally Championship every year starting in 2004, making him the most successful WRC pilot ever. He also holds WRC records for most podiums, most stage wins, and most event wins, also making him the winningest WRC driver ever to get behind the wheel. Loeb’s career as an athlete actually began as a gymnast, but he later took up racing. In addition to his nine back-to-back-to-back WRC titles, Loeb’s career in motorsport also includes campaigning in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the X Games, and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb where in 2013 he managed to obliterate the standing outright record by a considerable margin.
Championships: World Rally Championship 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012
NASCAR Hamm of Famer Richard Lee Petty is an American NASCAR (and Winston Cup pre-NASCAR) driver with an extensive career that spanned from 1958 through 1992. Richard is the son of Lee Petty, a three-time NASCAR champion and winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. Petty is tied with Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson for the most NASCAR Cup Championship wins with a total of seven — though Petty was the first to complete the feat. Seldom seen without a cowboy hat or auto racing helmet, Petty also holds the record for the most race wins in his respective series, with the North Carolina-born driver taking the top spot on the podium an enormous 200 times.
Championships: NASCAR Cup Series 1964, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, 1981
Alain Marie Pascal Prost is another legendary French driver with a storybook motorsport career. After discovering karting in his early teens, Alain went on to work his way up to a spot on the McLaren team in the F1 championship at the age of 24 in 1980, where he would later be crowned championship in the ’85, ’86, ’89, and ’93 seasons. With just over 50 grand prix wins, Prost held the record for the most GP wins starting in ’87, with the record standing for more than a decade. Further solidifying his status as a true legend on the track was his being honored with a “World Sports Award of the Century” in the motorsport class. Prost also famously had an intense rivalry with fellow legendary F1 pilot, Ayrton Senna.
Championships: Formula One 1985, 1986, 1989, 1993
Affectionately-known as “El Matador,” Carlos Sainz Cenamor is a living rally legend. He took home his first WRC title for Toyota in 1990, before repeating the feat again in 1992. And though he only won two WRC championship titles — which is still an objectively amazing achievement —Sainz finished a handful of seasons in third or second place, sometimes just shy of the title. More recently Sainz has competed in the world-famous Dakar Rally, where he’s also earned a trio of coveted Dakar wins. The first-non-Nordic driver ever to win Finland’s 1000 Lakes Rally, Sainz’ other career achievements include victories at the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship and the Race of Champions. He’s also the father of current McLaren Formula One driver, Carlos Sainz Jr.
Championships: World Rally Championship 1990, 1992, Dakar Rally 2010, 2018, 2020
Michael Schumacher is an extremely successful ex-Formula One driver that’s regarded as one of the all-time greats. In the mid ‘90s and early aughts when the German driver was at his prime, Schumacher was locking down F1 titles with a cool half-dozen races left in the season. With seven F1 championship titles to his name, Schumacher currently holds the record, as well as being the current holder for the record of most wins at 91 — after taking the record from Prost in 2001 following his win at that year’s Belgian GP — plus he has the most races won in a single season and most fastest laps set. He also played a pivotal role in helping get things turned around at Ferrari, who, before Schumacher — who signed with the Prancing Horse marque in 1996 – hadn’t won a title since 1979.
Championships: Formula One 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004
Ayrton Senna is considered by many to be one of, if not the greatest driver to have ever graced the sport. Like many elite drivers, Senna’s motorsport career began with karting, before rising through the rank of the automotive world to become a bonafide legend. The namesake of numerous special edition high-performance models from a myriad of elite marques, Senna had an illustrious Formula One career that included dozens of wins and a trio of championship titles from his more-than 160 F1 race entries. One of the most iconic racing names ever, Senna sadly saw an unexpected end to his fruitful F1 career when at the 1994 San Marino GP, the Brazilian suffered a high-speed crash that ultimately claimed his life at the age of just 34.
Championships: Formula One 1988, 1990, 1991
The 10 Best American Race Cars In History
Still on itching to go further down the racing history rabbit hole? Then be sure to check out our guide to the best American race cars in history.
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