It’s a question that has been assessed by many of the great journalists of the world and published in some of the most reputable motor racing publications around the world. Who is the greatest ever Formula 1 driver? Uppermost in the mind of anyone who attempts to assess the qualities of all 800 drivers to compete in a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix is that the evolution of motor sport, particularly Formula 1, is enormous such that today’s sport barely resembles its origins.
A surprising error that can pollute the decision making process of some lists is the propensity to include drivers prior to the championships commencement in 1950. While the qualities of drivers like Tazio Nuvolari, Rudolf Caracciola and Bernd Rosemeyer are unquestionable, it is a simple fact that they did not compete in the World Championship and unfortunately the line must be drawn at 1950. Equally, there have been some lists that have highlighted the qualities of drivers in alternate machinery over the course of their career. This will not be a consideration in this list as drivers of the current generation are no longer able to compete in saloon cars, sports cars and Can Am as was the case between the 1950s and 1970s. Finally, consideration won’t be given to the contribution that a driver has made off the track. For example, the focus on improving driver safety has been largely attributed to the work of Sir Jackie Stewart this, while very important, will not be considered when assessing driver abilities. So what are the qualities to assess when judging the abilities of a Formula 1 driver?
There are numerous statistics that must be considered when assessing the ability of Formula 1 drivers. The statistics that will underline a drivers inclusion in the top 20 are world championships, wins, podiums, pole positions and fastest laps. These statistics must always be kept in context and this can be achieved by looking at the amount of races competed in, the quality of the machinery that the driver had to work with, the quality of a drivers team mate and any contractual arrangements, and the nature of each drivers wins and notable performances.
Another very important thing to consider is that it is almost impossible to compare drivers of different eras. Put simply, when comparing Formula 1 drivers, they only as good as the competition that they were up against. An era in Formula 1 is also very hard to define. Do you look at the changes in the cars, the increased commercialisation of the sport, the greater safety of both tracks and car construction, or the increased popularity of the sort. To be fair I think all these elements must be considered in order to provide context to the conditions that drivers applied their craft. In considering the various eras of the sport I look to the legendary photographic book series by Reiner Schlegelmilch which divides the eras essentially from the sports beginning in 1950 to 1962 then through the development of the monocouqe from 1963 to 1974, the commercialisation of the sport from 1975 to 1984, the turbo and McLaren era from 1985 to 1993 and the era of driver safety from 1995 to 2011. It is these boundaries that drivers’ performances must first be considered. For a driver to be considered as the all time great, they must be the best driver of their era and must have outperformed their team mate in each of their years of competition.
To put things into perspective let’s take a look back at some of the more famous top 20 drivers of all time as decided by famous journalists and publications of Formula 1.
F1 Racing top 100 Formula 1 drivers of all time. Published in June 1997
1. Ayrton Senna 2. Juan Manuel Fangio 3. Jim Clark 4. Alain Prost 5. Michael Schumacher 6. Jackie Stewart 7. Stirling Moss 8. Niki Lauda 9. Nelson Piquet 10. Nigel Mansell 11. Gilles Villeneuve 12. Alberto Ascari 13. Ronnie Peterson 14. Emerson Fittipaldi 15. Jack Brabham 16. Jochen Rindt 17. Graham Hill 18. Mario Andretti 19. James Hunt 20. Damon Hill
The Top 100 Formula 1 Drivers of All Time. Author Alan Henry. Published in 2008.
1. Stirling Moss 2. Jim Clark 3. Ayrton Senna 4. Alain Prost 5. Alberto Ascari 6. Juan Manuel Fangio 7. Bernd Rosemeyer 8. Jackie Stewart 9. Tazio Nuvolari 10. Mika Hakkinen 11. Michael Schumacher 12. Gilles Villeneuve 13. Chris Amon 14. Tony Brooks 15. Carlos Reutemann 16. Achille Varzi 17. Emerson Fittipaldi 18. Jack Brabham 19. Mario Andretti 20. Niki Lauda
Autosport.com top 100 drivers of all time. Published in December 2009.
1. Ayrton Senna 2. Michael Schumacher 3. Juan Manuel Fangio 4. Alain Prost 5. Jim Clark 6. Jackie Stewart 7. Niki Lauda 8. Stirling Moss 9. Fernando Alonso 10. Gilles Villeneuve 11. Nigel Mansell 12. Emerson Fittipaldi 13. Nelson Piquet 14. Jochen Rindt 15. Mika Hakkinen 16. Alberto Ascari 17. Lewis Hamilton 18. Jack Brabham 19. Ronnie Peterson 20. Mario Andretti
As you can see, neither the order, nor even the participants in the top 20 are rarely ever the same. So without further ado here is the Racefans op 20 drivers of all time.
Nationality: Argentina. 146 races, 12 wins, 45 podiums, 6 pole positions, and 6 fastest laps
We start the top twenty drivers of all time with a driver who is very rarely referred to when it comes to these lists. When first compiling the top twenty list, Reutimann didn’t feature. Within his career from 1972 to 1982 Reutemann was up against some incredible drivers and emerged without the coveted world championship that you would come to expect of a top 20 driver. So how does he make the list and why is someone so highly rated, so frequently overlooked?
From 1972 to 1976 Reutemann drove Brabhams alongside two time world champion Graham Hill and then for Bernie Ecclestone’s team alongside Brazilian Carlos Pace. Between 1972 and 1975 Reutemann finished ahead of his team mate in the championship standings. Most significant however are his results, pole position in his debut Formula 1 appearance in Argentina was described by Motor Sport magazine as ‘Clark-like’ and a feat only achieved by three drivers in the history of the sport (Andretti in 1968 and Villeneuve in 1996). In only his second season Reutemann achieved 6 top 6 finishes in 1973 driving the Brabham BT42, the first car designed by Gordon Murray, the man who would go on to design Ayrton Senna’s championship winning McLarens. He followed that up with three wins in 1974 up against the likes of Niki Lauda in a Ferrari, Emerson Fittipaldi in a McLaren and Ronnie Peterson in a Lotus. In 1975, 1 win and 5 podium finishes would see Reutemann end up third behind the all-conquering Ferrari’s of Lauda and Regazzoni. By this stage Reutemann’s quality had been confirmed and at the end of 1976 Reutemann was drafted into Ferrari to compete in a third car for the Italian team and a full year deal for 1977.
In his first race for the prancing horse at Monza Reutemann qualified 7th ahead of regular driver Clay Regazzoni and only three tenths shy of Lauda, making a remarkable return from his near fatal accident at the Nurburgring earlier in the year. The following year Reutimann would partner Lauda, scoring one win and 5 podiums, however the class of his Austrian team mate showed through with Lauda taking 3 wins, 6 seconds and a third to take his second world title. As in the previous year, Ferrari brought in a third car to compete in the final two rounds of the season in Canada and Japan, this time for French-Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, who had debuted at Silverstone earlier in the year for McLaren.
Against a driver considered by many to be one of the greatest never to win the world championship, Reutemann’s record alongside Gilles Villeneuve in 1978 speaks very strongly for the Argentine. The statistics don’t always tell the story but if they tell any story it’s that Reutemann outqualified Villeneuve in 12 out of 15 races, won 4 races to Villeneuve’s 1 and finished with 48 points to Villeneuve’s 17. In episode 60 of ‘The Flying Lap’ creater and host Peter Windsor made special mention at witnessing Reutemann’s Monaco pole lap in the Ferrari, describing it as one of the highlights of his journalistic career. However, mention the 1978 season and the most notable thing that emerges from Ferrari’s year is Villeneuve’s single victory, achieved at his home grand prix in Montreal. It would be the story of Reutemann’s career, incredibly quick but rarely memorable. Any chance of a championship in 1978 would be all but out of reach as a result of the Lotus 79 which pioneered ground effect, a development in Formula 1 so devestatingly effective that it’s existence in current Formula 1 cars would be assured, were it not banned in 1983. So when Reutemann was offered a drive alongside Mario Andretti for 1979 it was an offer understandably too hard to refuse. Like Jean Alesi’s ill-fated decision to join Ferrari instead of Williams in 1991, Reutemann would join Lotus and leave Ferrari at exactly the wrong moment.
Once again Reutemann would be up against another World Champion in the form of Mario Andretti but on this occasion, a driver regarded by many as one of the greatest all-round drivers of all time. If this top 20 list took into account the achievements of drivers in other categories of motor sport then Andretti would be a certainty for a top 5 birth. Where Andretti lies on this list will later be revealed, but first he would have to deal with Reutemann. As opposed to Villeneuve in 1978, Andretti was a race veteran, at the beginning of his fourth consecutive season with Colin Chapman’s team and having competed in a Lotus as far back as 1968, Andretti was a different challenge entirely. While some may attribute Reutemann’s first appearance for Lotus to the peroquial home crowd, there is no denying that in the same car that Andretti had won the world title with in 1978, the American was notably seen off by his new team mate. Qualifying third to Andretti’s seventh, Reutemann shadowed the Ligier of Jaques Laffitte, finishing second while Andretti was fifth one lap down. As the season progressed it became increasingly clear that the Lotus 79 was the peak of Lotus’ performance as the even Lotus 80 failed to match it’s pace. No doubt wary of his poor team move in 1978, Reutemann made the switch to the relatively new but increasingly improving Saudia Leyland Williams Team for 1980 alongside Australian Alan Jones. Fortunately on this occasion Reutemann made the right choice, at least in terms of obtaining a fast car that is.
While Jones was not a World Champion, his form was widely acknowledged by many in Formula 1 to be the benchmark of the sport between 1979 and 1981. Evidence of this, but rarely referred to, Jones was awarded the coveted number 1 driver in the Autocourse annual for three years straight between 1979 and 1981. Despite victory in Monaco, Reutemann would be beaten to the title in 1980 by his team mate. For Jones his career remains a case of what might have been. Had he changed his mind at the end of ’81 rather than at the start of ’83, his presence at Arrows and Lola could well have been avoided and his place in this top 20 assured.
The following year Reutemann would fight back and after 9 of the season’s 15 races, was leading the championship by 17 points, claiming wins in Brazil and Belgium. In the F1 Racing top 100 compiled in 1997, Reutemann was ranked 26th, marvelling at his second place in qualifying at Monza in a car minus a turbo and minus everything else to limit drag, Reutemann had embarrased the turbo powered Prost and Villeneuve who described it as ‘the lap of the season’. Leading the championship into the final round at the Ceasar’s Palace car park in Las Vegas, the notion of which alone should have been enough for the event to be cancelled, let alone conceived of. What would follow on that hot October afternoon will forever remain a mistery to many Formula 1 experts and the scar on Reutemann’s Formula 1 career. One of the many journalists in Las Vegas that weekend, Clive James did a brilliant documentary of Las Vegas and Formula 1 in 1981 which you can now watch on YouTube. Prior to the start of the race Reutemann, by the pool in Caesars Palace and as James describes ‘looking beautiful as ever’, was all confidence after qualifying. In the race however, Jones took the lead from the start and was never headed while Reutemann finished a lowly eighth having lead Piquet for most of the race. While Reutemann’s manager said his driver lost third gear, others felt that Reutemann lost heart, or even more controversially, that Williams had sabotaged Reutemann’s car as a result of the Argentine’s failure to abide by team orders and let Jones by in the rain at Brazil earlier in the year. Even in the 1981-82 Autocourse top ten it questions whether the Williams was “really that bad at Las Vegas?”. The critique of Reutemann’s driving perfomances was best satirised by Clive James who comments in the 1982 season review that ‘with Carlos, an awful lot depends on his mood. If he feels like winning he goes like the Argentine air force. If he feels unhappy, he fades away like the Argentine army’.
Alas Reutemann’s 1982 season would not last long, one last dispute with Williams would produce one last poor career decision as Reutemann would retire after round 2. This enabled Keke Rosberg, soon to be dubbed the ‘The Flying Finn’ (a title not earned in ’81 as he failed to qualify in some of the races), to become team leader and more significantly take the ’82 title after the tragedy at Ferrari and the self-destruction of the Renault turbos.
Part 1 down, in the next part we will delve further into the top twenty with positions 19 through to 15. In the mean time have your say. Does Reutemann deserve to be here and who would you put next?