F1 has been going for over 70 years and has amassed a long list of winners. We’re narrowing that list down and looking at the top 10 F1 Champions!
Formula One (F1) has been on the upswing in terms of popularity lately. The motorsport has always carried a large international presence over the course of its 72 official years of racing, but it’s coming back around in popularity among American audiences. American viewership of live F1 races has gone up from a 609,000-viewer average in 2020 up to 1.4 million viewer average per race for 2022. The inclusion of the Miami Grand Prix this year and talks of a Las Vegas Grand Prix in 2023 has only heightened the interest in the motorsport.
Alongside this fandom trend is the rise to the top of Max Verstappen, a 24-year-old F1 driver that just keeps winning for Red Bull Racing. While his 2021 World Drivers’ Championship win is shrouded in infamy following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix controversy, he’s currently on track to sit atop the championship podium for a consecutive year if he continues at his current pace. Max may be on his rise to racing fame, but there have been plenty of other F1 champions prior to him. We took a look back at the record books to create a top 10 list of F1 champions. Some hold F1 records, some were taken too soon, and some are still racing this season.
We’ll start with F1’s folk hero, Juan Manuel Fangio. He came from humble beginnings in the country of Argentina and not from money like most drivers do. He started his passion for racing by working as a mechanic at 11 and working on his own race cars for South American endurance races. His talents eventually carried him over to Europe where he continued to race and improve upon his driving skills. Among these skills was the early capability to kick out the rear wheels and drift the car around corners, a driving technique that is still considered a modern spectacle.
When the F1 World Championship was established, Juan Manuel Fangio was considered an old man among his racing peers. His older age repaid him with veteran racing knowledge and fortitude as he went on to be one of the most successful F1 drivers of his time. He won the 1951 championship with Alfa Romeo, won in 1954 and 1955 with Mercedes-Benz, followed those up with a Ferrari championship win in 1956, and then capped off his F1 World Championship streak with Maserati in 1957.
Jackie Stewart was a Scottish F1 driver that not only makes this list for his time behind the wheel, but for his campaign for stronger safety measures that very well may have saved numerous drivers’ lives. Most may remember him for his F1 World Drivers’ Championship wins in 1969, 1971, and 1973 with the help of those Ford Cosworth V8 powered F1 cars he drove between the Matra and Tyrrell racing teams. Although, there are those that remember him for changing the motorsport.
Stewart had an unfortunate accident in 1966 that sent him off the track and gave him a better perspective of how unsafe F1 was at the time. There were no track crew nearby, no extraction tools, no medical professionals, and he had to be removed from his vehicle by two other racers who had crashed nearby. Stewart made it his mission to improve the safety of drivers from that point. He campaigned for improved emergency responder services, better safety barriers, more run-off areas, and better medical facilities at the tracks. Stewart also advocated for the mandatory use of seat belts and full-face helmets among F1 drivers. All of these safety additions are now mandatory components of modern F1 racing and rules.
Niki Lauda makes the list not only for his F1 championship success but for his remarkable comeback during his career. Lauda famously worked with Ferrari to bring the brand back to F1 glory after providing Enzo with some brash remarks about the quality of their F1 car. He took Ferrari back to the top in 1975 with an F1 World Drivers’ Championship. He was poised to make a repeat performance for the 1976 season, but tragedy struck as he crashed and his car burst into flames during the German Grand Prix. Lauda suffered serious burns, had broken numerous bones, and his lungs were damaged from inhaling smoke during the crash.
Medical professionals felt that the damage was too much to overcome and had considered him a lost cause. In what was described as sheer force of will, Lauda survived and continued to race just six weeks later. From then on, Lauda could be seen in his signature red hat that helped hide his disfigurement following the crash.
Lauda had the chance to secure the 1976 championship, but pulled out of the final race due to circumstances being too dangerous for him. Enzo Ferrari began plans to replace Lauda for giving up the championship. In retaliation, Lauda went on to win so much that he was able to skip the final two races and win the 1977 championship as an act of revenge. Niki left Ferrari to drive under Brabham, but would leave F1 in 1979. However, he came back under McLaren in 1982 for a big contract and went on to win the Drivers’ Championship with them in 1984 before once again retiring in 1985.
Nelson Piquet started his racing career by climbing through the different motorsports of his home country of Brazil. He made his way to Europe in 1977 where he quickly climbed the F3 series and caught the attention of F1 teams. Brabham brought him on in 1979 to serve under the previously mentioned Niki Lauda, but that would last just a single season. Piquet was given the leader spot by default and went on to podium for 1980 and then secure the F1 championship in 1981.
Piquet went on to win another F1 World Drivers’ Championship in 1983 with a BMW-Brabham developed car, but the following seasons featured lackluster car development that led to struggles and losses. Piquet would undergo contract negotiations and eventually move to the Williams-Honda team. The car on this team was great, but Piquet and his teammate Nigel Mansell pretty much hated each other. This feud led to the talented drivers both losing to the famous Alain Prost for 1986. The following year, Piquet overcame his fellow teammate and secured his third championship. The Brazilian racer’s career declined from that championship. He moved to Team Lotus for a brief time and eventually retired in 1990.
Alain Prost secured four F1 World Drivers’ Championships during his racing career. He started full-time racing in 1974 and went on to gain the attention of teams by 1980. His start in F1 was with McLaren. That inaugural season showed he was a great driver, but it was plague by accidents, injuries, and car issues. Prost decided that McLaren wasn’t for him and he moved to Renault in 1981. That season with Renault saw a series of wins throughout his three seasons with the team. Renault wanted a championship win though and blamed Prost for that shortcoming. So, he moved back to McLaren in 1984.
That reunion with McLaren (then known as McLaren-Honda) was when he saw his greatest success. Prost went on to win the 1985 and 1986 World Drivers’ Championships back-to-back. McLaren introduced Ayrton Senna to the team in 1988, a decision that went from a friendly rivalry to all out hatred over the years. Prost went on to famously take Senna out during the final race of the 1989 season and secured his third championship. Prost left the team in favor of Ferrari, but eventually criticized the Italian team after some failures and left the sport in 1992. Prost came back the following year under Williams-Renault. He won his fourth championship and brought his total wins to 51 before retiring for good.
Ayrton Senna was an F1 champion that was taken too soon. The Brazilian grew up fascinated with the F1 world and began racing karts at 13. By 24, Senna was racing with the Toleman team in F1 and was showcasing true racing prowess by going toe to toe with Alain Prost at the Monaco Grand Prix. Senna moved on to Lotus the next year and saw some wins, but eventually moved to McLaren-Honda in 1988 where he teamed up with Prost.
Senna went on to best his teammate in his first year with McLaren-Honda and took the 1988 World Drivers’ Championship. Senna could have had a repeat, but his teammate took him out of the final race in 1989. Senna returned the favor by taking out Prost’s Ferrari in 1990 and won that championship. He then went on to have back-to-back championship success with the 1991 season. Senna would leave McLaren in 1993 and have his final race in 1994 with the Williams team. Senna was leading the San Marino Grand Prix before having a high-speed collision with a concrete retaining wall. He died soon after and sent the F1 community into mourning.
The seven-time F1 World Drivers’ Champion was one of the most successful drivers in motorsports history, having bested a record few thought could be done. Michael Schumacher was one of the most dominant racers of his time. The German started his F1 career with Benetton and saw his first championship win in 1994 with a Ford powered car and the year after in 1995 with a Renault powered one. Schumacher moved to Ferrari following his championship stint, a move that would launch the declining team back to the top in some years.
Though the first couple of seasons Schumacher spent on Ferrari team didn’t reach championship success, it eventually hit its peak at the turn of the millennia. Schumacher didn’t just give Ferrari their first championship in 21 years for the 2000 season, he went on to have repeat success for four more years. A five-year championship streak record that won’t be broken for a very long time – if at all. Schumacher retired after finishing second in 2006, but would return in 2010 for bit at age 41 under Mercedes. Schumacher’s second retirement came in 2012 and he sadly passed too soon after having a skiing accident the following year.
The young Fernando Alonso became not only the youngest driver to win an F1 World Drivers’ Championship, but he also ended Schumacher’s early 2000s streak. The Spaniard started kart racing at seven and he was good at it. He accumulated tons of wins and championships, so much so that he got a chance with the Minardi F1 team as a test driver at age 19. He showed true talent and was picked up by Renault in 2002 and went on to race for the team in 2003. In his second F1 race, Alonso became the youngest ever racer to win the pole position at 21. At 22, he became the youngest Grand Prix winner ever.
Eventually, his skills grew alongside Renault and culminated in the 2005 championship. This proved to not be a fluke either, as Alonso held off Schumacher for a second year and secured his second championship in 2006. While Alonso hasn’t seen championship success in the years after, he won back-to-back FIA World Endurance Championships and the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice with the help of Toyota during a brief step away from F1. Alonso is currently racing with the Alpine F1 team, but it seems as though his best years may be behind him.
Sebastian Vettel is yet another young prodigy that’s grown to be a grizzled F1 vet, but with a bit more success. Vettel started racing at seven in karts and was driven by his childhood hero, Michael Schumacher. He eventually gained sponsorship with Red Bull energy drink, joined their training program, became a F1 test driver, and would see his F1 racing debut at age 19 in 2007. He joined up with Red Bull’s Toro Rosso team as a full-time driver and would produce uneven performances under the team for a couple of seasons.
He eventually was seen as capable enough to be promoted to the Red Bull Racing team in 2009 and gave them their first F1 win while just missing the championship. The following year Vettel would help secure Red Bull Racing their first constructors’ championship and his first ever F1 World Drivers’ Championship. Vettel went on to have tough fought seasons against some of the best racers F1 had even seen, including his childhood hero. He took the challenge in stride though and secured back-to-back victories for the next three years. The following years, Vettel has been passed around from team to team with minimal success. He currently resides on the Aston Martin F1 Team and 2022 could be his final season behind the wheel.
A modern-day motorsports legend, Lewis Hamilton currently holds the prestigious title of being tied with Michael Schumacher for the most F1 World Drivers’ Championships at seven. The English racer started racing karts at eight and saw numerous wins at a young age. By 13 he was called up by McLaren as a future prospect. He continued to show promise and was eventually promoted to the McLaren F1 team in 2007.
Hamilton proved he was a true racing prodigy by quickly moving up through the F1 standings. In his second year in the motorsport, Hamilton saw his first championship win at 23 years old, the youngest ever at that time and the first ever black F1 champion. He didn’t see another championship win with McLaren after that and eventually left to join Mercedes in 2013. Hamilton secured back-to-back championships with Mercedes for 2014 and 2015. 2016 was won by his teammate, Nico Rosberg, but Hamilton came back with a 2017 title run that continued into 2020. Hamilton had tied with one of the greatest F1 drivers ever known and was poised to break the record in 2021.
We could have witnessed motorsports’ history last year had certain events unfolded differently. Now it looks as though Max Verstappen’s F1 chapter has begun while Lewis Hamilton’s time in the spotlight is dwindling.