It’s impossible to put together a list like this without raising controversy. Race fans are a rabid bunch, and seeing your favorite excluded for his rival is sure to hit a nerve. Why would I choose one driver over another with more victories or championships? Because of passion and because of what they’ve brought to the sport of motor racing. That said, here’s my list of the greatest drivers of the modern era, which I’m defining as from 1960 to present day (so spare me the hate mail on why Juan Manuel Fangio was excluded).
1) Ayrton Senna: Ayrton Senna da Silva was a three time World Driving Champion, killed in a tragic accident at Imola in the 1994 season. Perhaps best known for his balls-to-the-wall driving style, Senna had the uncanny ability to make up for a car’s weaknesses. His skill at driving in the rain was second to none, and his drive to win astonished team mates and rivals alike.
A 1989 collision at Suzuka with Alain Prost, then his teammate, determined the championship that year. In a move no sane (or less talented) driver would have attempted, Senna attempted an inside pass on Prost. Prost, who had the line, slammed the door on his teammate and both cars went off track. Senna pitted to repair the crash damage and went on to win the race (and, conceivably, the championship); however, the FIA disqualified Senna for cutting a chicane and illegally entering pit row. The championship went to Prost, his main rival.
In 1990, Prost (now driving for Ferrari) and Senna tangled again at Suzuka. This time, Senna held his line in a corner as Prost attempted to overtake. The cars tangled and both were taken out of the race. Senna won the championship based upon his point standings.
Senna’s move to the Williams team in 1994 once again gave the driver a competitive car and team. We can only speculate on what Senna would have achieved had his career not been cut short.
2) Lewis Hamilton: It was the second race of the 2007 F1 season, the Malaysian Gran Prix, where Lewis Hamilton first caught my eye. Hamilton, a rookie driving for McLaren, was being pressured by a much faster Ferrari driven by Felippe Massa. Massa, a seasoned F1 veteran, grew impatient looking for an opportuity to pass. Approaching a right hand corner, Hamilton went wide, appearing to let Massa by; it was a trap, and Hamilton knew that Massa couldn’t carry the speed through the corner. Massa, now off the racing line, was forced to slow and let Hamilton resume the lead. A few laps later, approaching another right-hander, Hamilton sucked Massa into attempting another pass, with even worse results. Massa, unable to slow his Ferrari enough to stay on track, ran into the grass and lost two positions. Hamilton the apprentice had become Hamilton the master.
If you needed further proof of the young driver’s talents, it came on Season 10, Episode 8 of Top Gear. Driving their “reasonably priced car” on a track slick with rain and oil from an earlier car’s testing, Hamilton turned in a lap at 1:44.7. The record, set by the show’s ringer driver (The Stig) on a dry track is 1:44.4. Mark Weber, the only other F1 driver to run the track in the wet, managed a time of 1:47.1. Nigel Mansell, the F1 driver closest to The Stig’s time, managed a 1:44.6 on a dry track. Jeremy Clarkson has repeatedly said that a wet track will add three seconds per lap, which would give Hamilton a time of under 1:42, nearly two and a half seconds faster than The Stig.
Hamilton brought excitement back to F1, and drives with more passion than the sport has seen in a long time.
3) Mario Andretti: If ever there was a name synonymous with racing, it’s Mario Andretti. Andretti and Dan Gurney are the only two drivers to win races in Formula 1, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship and NASCAR. Andretti has also campaigned successfully in midget cars, sprint cars and drag racing. He’s won four IndyCar championships and is only the second American (after Phil Hill) to win a Formula 1 World Driver’s Championship. He’s raced road courses, ovals, dirt tracks and drag strips, and was named United States Driver of the Year in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s.
Transitioning from one form of racing to another can be extremely difficult, which is why so few drivers reach championships in different series. Andretti not only achieved this, he made it look easy. For four decades, if you wanted a fast, competent driver in open wheel, stock car or dirt track, Andretti was the go-to guy. He set the bar high for future generations of drivers.
4) A.J. Foyt: Love him or hate him, there’s no denying the acerbic Texan’s skills behind the wheel of a race car. He ran the Indy 500 for 35 consecutive years and won the event four times. He’s the only driver to win the race in both front and rear engined cars, a feat he accomplished twice with each configuration. He’s won the 24 Hours of LeMans, the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. He’s won 138 USAC sanctioned events ranging from stock car to IndyCar, and has won 12 driving championships in various disciplines.
5) Mark Donohue: One of the most versatile drivers of the modern era, Donohue competed in series ranging from endurance racing through Trans-Am and NASCAR. Donohue ran five Indy 500s and won the race in 1972. He competed in Formula 1 in 1971, 1974 and 1975, although Roger Penske was unable to field a competitive car in the series.
Donohue was a mechanical engineer by trade, and possessed an almost unnatural ability to set up a race car. No matter what the car or the series, Donohue could turn a couple laps, return to the pits and tell you how to make it faster. His skill at race car development led him to collaborate with Porsche on the design of the legendary 917-10 and 917-30 race cars. When asked by a Porsche engineer if the 917-30, capable of up to 1,500 hp, finally had enough power, Donohue replied, “it will never have enough power until I can spin the wheels at the end of the straight in high gear”.
Donohue died of injuries sustained in a testing crash at the Austrian Gran Prix in 1975.
6) Jackie Stewart: Now Sir Jackie Stewart, OBE, he has won three World Driving Championships and competed successfully in the Can-Am series. He is largely responsible for the modernization of safety in motor racing.
At the start of Stewart’s career, the odds of a Formula 1 driver being killed within 5 years were two out of three. After a crash in heavy rain at Spa Francorchamps in 1966, Stewart was extricated by a pair of fellow drivers who witnessed the crash. No ambulance was dispatched to the scene, so Stewart was driven in a borrowed van back to the track’s first aid center. Eventually, an ambulance arrived and Stewart was taken away for treatment.
Many of the modern safety measures, such as seat harnesses, full face helmets, run off areas, safety barriers and on scene first responders were a result of Stewart’s efforts to make the sport safer. As the voice of racing for ABC Sports, Stewart also introduced the sport to many Americans, myself included. His combination of driving ability, desire to improve the sport and efforts to popularize it makes him one of the greats.
7) Richard Petty: The man synonymous with stock car racing in America, even his car number (43) is the stuff of legend. Petty, known simply as “The King” amassed seven NASCAR championships and 200 victories over a career that spanned four decades. He still holds the record for number of poles won (127) and number of consecutive starts (513, from 1971 to 1989).
Petty came to prominence as a driver in a era where stock cars were just that; modified versions of cars available in dealer showrooms. Today’s tube frame, purpose built race cars bear little resemblance to the lumbering, ill handling dinosaurs of years passed. To be successful required a driver to correct for all of a car’s inherent weaknesses, an no other NASCAR driver demonstrated that ability better than Richard Petty.
8 ) Sebastian Loeb: The most successful driver in World Rally Car history, Loeb has amassed an impressive six championships and fifty four wins in his eleven year career. In a series where car control is king, and where the racing surface varies from snow to dirt to asphalt, Loeb has repeatedly proven that his talents are second to none.
Loeb has also successfully competed in the 24 Hours of LeMans and has tested with the Renault and Torro Rosso Formula 1 teams. His ambition to compete in the 2010 Formula 1 season was cut short by the FIA, who would refused to grant Loeb a Super License, as he had not spent sufficient time in open wheeled cars at lower levels.
Loeb remains the driving force behind the Citroen Total Petroleum World Rally Team, and it remains to be seen how many more championships he is capable of.
9) Alex Zanardi: Winner of two IndyCar Championships, Zanardi also had two stints in Formula 1. Zanardi is perhaps best known for his horrific 2001 crash at Germany’s Lausitzring, where his car spun up the track and was cut in half by Alex Tagliani’s. Both of Zanardi’s legs were amputated above the knee, and he came very close to dying of blood loss. The crash ended his open wheel career, but not his racing career.
By 2003, curious about his ability to return to racing, Zanardi had an IndyCar specially modified with hand controls. CART allowed him to complete the thirteen laps missed after his 2001 crash, and his speed of 193 mph would have put him fifth in the field.
Zanardi has since gone on to enjoy modest success in the World Touring Car Championship. Although he may lack the championships and diversity of other drivers on this list, his passion and love of the sport make him one of the all time greats.
10) Racer X: Who is Racer X? He’s the driver you’ve never heard of, competing on a dirt track in the midwest or a road course in the southeast. His sponsorship, if he has any, is modest; it keeps him in tires and spare parts to keep him racing.
Becoming a famous race car driver is a lot like becoming a famous rock star; you can only get so good, and then you need to get lucky. Somewhere, in a smoky dive bar, is a guitarist whose skills rival Jimi Hendrix. Somewhere, racing karts, midgets, sprint cars, stock cars, rally or formula cars is a driver better than Senna, better than Loeb, better than Donahue. He or she has a trophy case full of gold painted plastic, wood and marble, but unless they wind up in the right place at exactly the right time, you’ll never know their name.