F1 Grands Prixs are made up of three days. Fridays are for free practice, where the drivers and teams rack up a lot of km to test the car set-up and see how it behaves on the circuit. Qualifying is on Saturdays, which through three rounds, Q1, Q2, and Q3, determine the order of the grid for Sunday, the race day.
The qualifying format has changed a lot over time, but it has always been vital for the race, as a good qualifying allows you to be at the front of the grid, while a bad one condemns you to the bottom. The pole-sitter is the driver who has qualified for a Grand Prix in pole position, that is, at the front of the starting grid. Being the pole-sitter gives you a good chance of winning the race or getting a good result.
Below, we will look at the best F1 qualifiers of all time. We must not only take into account the statistics and percentages themselves, which are sometimes very unfair, but also the era in which each driver raced and the cars they have driven, since although the most representative is the pole positions, many drivers have made great qualifyings with bad cars, getting with them results that for the best cars would be discreet.
It is unfair to rank based purely on numbers since the greatest drivers have not always had the best cars. But before we start, here are some facts about F1 qualifiers:
- Record for the most pole positions: Lewis Hamilton, having qualified first on 103 occasions. He is followed by Michael Schumacher with 68 pole positions and Ayrton Senna with 65.
- Most consecutive pole positions: Ayrton Senna with eight consecutive pole positions, from the 1988 Spanish Grand Prix to the 1989 United States Grand Prix.
- Youngest pole sitter: Sebastian Vettel at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, aged 21 and 72 days.
- Oldest pole sitter: Nino Farina at the 1954 Argentine Grand Prix, aged 47 and 79 days.
- 102 drivers have been on pole position throughout the history of F1. Considering there have been 770 F1 drivers, that’s 13.25%.
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Best F1 Qualifiers
1. Juan Manuel Fangio
Pole Positions: 29
Juan Manuel Fangio is one of the best and most complete drivers in F1 history. He was one of the first generation drivers, as he raced from the first season of F1 history in 1950, achieving 5 world championships between 1951 and 1957.
Many experts consider him the greatest driver in history. He dominated the sport in an era where they were going at tremendous speeds, and safety was conspicuous by its absence. Regarding qualifying, Fangio holds the record for the highest percentage of pole positions, with 55.77% of races entered.
He got his first pole position in the second race of the championship in 1950 at the Monaco GP. During his career, he completely dominated qualifyings, being a very consistent driver. The circuit where he achieved the highest number of poles was Monza, with 5, followed by Spa-Francorchamps, Reims, and Monaco with 4 each. It really didn’t matter what kind of track it was because Fangio was fast on all of them.
2. Jim Clark
Pole Positions: 33
Jim Clark competed in F1 from 1960 and 1968 and won two world championships in 1963 and 1965. He was a very versatile driver and is remembered for his ability to drive and succeed in all types of cars and series. In addition to competing in F1, he raced in sports cars, touring cars, and the Indianapolis 500, which he won in 1965.
He raced for Team Lotus for all of his years in F1, becoming an iconic duo in the sport. Like Fangio, he was a complete driver in all areas, and he was especially fast in wet.
He was practically the best of his time in qualifying, as he used to get between 5 and 7 pole positions per season when the championship had barely 10 or 12 races. Again, like Fangio, he was good at any type of circuit, and during his career, he got 4 pole positions at Monaco, Nurburgring, and Mexico City.
At the time of his death, aged 32, he had won more Grand Prix races (25) and achieved more Grand Prix pole positions (33) than any other driver. He held the record for most F1 pole positions until 1989. He also holds the record for most races taking pole, fastest lap, race win, and leading every lap, achieving this eight times.
3. Ayrton Senna
Pole Positions: 65
Ayrton Senna is probably the most iconic driver in F1 history. His untimely death at the 1994 San Marino GP only added to his legend. Despite racing during the 80s and 90s, Senna was an old-school driver and fast on all circuits and weather conditions, but especially in wet, where he was ridiculously superior to the rest.
Senna, among other things, was known for his high qualifying performance and held his record of 65 pole positions until 2006, when Michael Schumacher beat him after his dominated run with Ferrari. He is the third driver with the most poles in history, and we must take into account that he ran less than half of the races of the first two.
Watching the onboards of his qualifying laps is simply spectacular since, in those days, it was a continuous battle between the driver and the car to keep it on track. He got 8 pole positions at Imola, 7 in a row from 1985 to 1991, 6 at Adelaide, and 5 at Monaco and Monza. 1989 especially stands out, a season in which he got 13 pole positions out of a possible 16. In qualifying pace, Senna was simply the best.
4. Lewis Hamilton
Pole Positions: 103
Over the last few years, Lewis Hamilton has broken all kinds of records in F1. In recent years, his dominating spell with Mercedes is one of the longest in history and has made Hamilton the statistically best driver in history. Hamilton holds the record for most pole positions and the most wins from pole, with 61.
But not all the credit goes to his car since in his early years with McLaren, he already got pole positions against drivers like Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, and Felipe Massa. At Mercedes, he has had to face Nico Rosberg and Valtteri Bottas and other rivals like Sebastian Vettel or Max Verstappen, who have not made things easy for him.
When Hammer Time is activated in qualifying, no opponent has anything to do. As well as being fast, Hamilton is very consistent over a lap and rarely makes mistakes. In 2016 he achieved 12 pole positions, and in 2015, 2017, and 2018, 11. Melbourne and the Hungaroring are the circuits where he has achieved the most poles with 8, followed by Silverstone and Monza with 6.
5. Alberto Ascari
Pole Positions: 14
Alberto Ascari is one of the drivers of the first generation of F1 and was one of Fangio’s toughest rivals. He raced in F1 from 1950 to 1955 and won the 1952 and 1953 championships with Ferrari. He is the third driver with the highest percentage of pole positions behind Fangio and Clark, although it is true that he ran very few races compared to other drivers, as in the past, the championship had fewer GPs.
However, these pole positions are worthy because, as we mentioned before with Fangio, driving one of those cars was not easy and could cost you your life, as happened to Ascari in 1955 when he had an accident with a Ferrari 750 Monza sports car.
Ascari was one of the safest drivers in this very dangerous age due to his careful precision and finely-judged accuracy. Ascari was highly superstitious and took great pains to avoid tempting fate. At the same age as his father’s, his unexplained fatal accident on the same day of the month and under very similar circumstances remains one of F1 racing’s great tragic coincidences.
1952 and 1953 were also his best qualifying years, getting 5 and 6 pole positions, respectively. The circuit where he got the most poles was Nurburgring, with 3, followed by Zandvoort, Monza, and Pedralbes with 2 each. Drivers at the time had to have iron hands to keep the car on track, and Ascari was one of the best.
6. Michael Schumacher
Pole Positions: 68
Michael Schumacher is one of the best drivers in the history of F1, and he is one of those who mark a before and after, leaving a massive legacy behind him. Schumacher was a breath of fresh air in F1 at a time when there were already well-established stars like Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, and Alain Prost, who saw the young German as a threat.
Schumacher was characterized by his consistency both in qualifying and in the race. Already in his first Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1991, Schumacher showed flashes in what was to come for the first time by putting his Jordan, a midfield car, in 7th on qualifying, while his teammate of Cesaris managed to qualify a respectable 11th.
That was the beginning of everything. Michael was very fast over one lap regardless of the level of his car and achieved 68 pole positions, 10 with Benetton and 58 with Ferrari. Like all great drivers, Schumacher was fast on every track. His golden circuit was Suzuka, where he got 8 pole positions, followed by Catalunya and the Hungaroring with 7 each. Until Hamilton beat him, he was the driver with the most pole positions.
7. Sebastian Vettel
Pole Positions: 57
Sebastian Vettel is one of the best drivers of recent decades and will be remembered for his 4 consecutive world championships between 2010 and 2013. His time at Red Bull was one of the stages in F1 history in which a driver was in better harmony with his car. At his prime, he was a beast, and practically everything worked out for him between those years.
He was really fast in qualifying and consistent in the race. With Red Bull, he achieved 44 of his pole positions, and in those days, he was practically unstoppable at one lap since he did not make any mistakes. He holds the record for most pole positions in a single season, with 15 of a possible 19 in 2011, an absolute outrage.
And his time at Ferrari was not bad either, as he got 12 poles with the Prancing Horse, along with Verstappen, the driver with most poles in the hybrid era, not counting the drivers who have driven for Mercedes, the dominators.
On most occasions, Vettel outperformed those Ferraris in qualifying to match them with the Mercedes. Now with Aston Martin, we can still see some glimpses of what he was like in his prime.
8. Stirling Moss
Pole Positions: 16
Stirling Moss is considered the greatest F1 driver never to win a championship, known as the “knight without a crown.” He raced in F1 between 1951 and 1961 and did not get a podium until 1954, when he began to stand out and get excellent results and many victories, podiums, and poles per season, getting the runner-up four times in a row.
He was a very regular driver, as well as fast and reckless. If he had a good car, he was always in contention for the title and had one of the best qualifying paces. When he didn’t have competitive cars during his early years, he consistently outperformed them.
He got his first pole at the 1955 British Grand Prix, and in 1959 and 1960, he was the driver who got the most poles, with 4 each. Despite having a great qualifying and race pace, luck was never on his side, and he spent many years fighting for the championship without achieving it.
9. Nigel Mansell
Pole Positions: 32
Mansell’s racing career is somewhat peculiar, as he had no winning cars for much of it. We could say that it was similar to that of Jenson Button. However, he was always very consistent in his qualifying and race performances with Lotus, Williams, and Ferrari.
Mansell was a driver made in F1. Although it is true that during his early years, he struggled a bit, being beaten on some occasions by his teammate Elio de Angelis, like a good wine, over time, he improved until he became one of the best drivers in history, both in qualifying and in races.
With 32, he is the seventh driver with the most poles. As we mentioned before, he went from less to more, and in his last stage with Williams, he performed best, specifically the year he became world champion, 1992. That season he got 14 of 16 possible poles, something simply spectacular.
His outstanding qualifying lap at the British GP stands out, where his lap of 1:18.965 was the fastest lap ever around Silverstone at that time, and the gap with the second was 1.919 seconds.
10. Alain Prost
Pole Positions: 33
Alain Prost sits just ahead of Nigel Mansell in the list of drivers with the most pole positions, with one more than the British. The Frenchman is well known for his great rivalry with Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, and Nigel Mansell. He was also known for his smooth, calculating, and relentless driving, which earned him the nickname “The Professor.”
Prost was one of the best drivers of his generation, and he was consistent in all aspects, including qualifying pace. Prost always pushed it to the limit with a good car and got the most out of it. In his second year in F1, in 1982, he got 2 pole positions with Renault.
However, his best season was 1993, when he completely dominated the grid and won his fourth world title, taking 13 of a possible 16 pole positions. His qualifying talisman circuit was Monaco, where he achieved 4 pole positions.
11. Mika Hakkinen
Pole Positions: 26
Mika Hakkinen, “The Flying Finn,” is the 10th driver with the most pole positions in history. Like Prost, he was characterized by his smooth, cool and efficient driving, typical of the Finns. Even though he didn’t have very competitive cars during his early years, he always got the most out of them and was very consistent.
The years in which we could see his full potential were between 1998 and 2000, in which he had a great rivalry with Michael Schumacher. The Finn went on to win the 1998 and 1999 championships and finished second in 2000.
During those years, there was a great rivalry between the two in the races and qualifying, both sharing the majority of pole positions. Hakkinen got 9 in 1998, 11 in 1999, and 5 in 2000, plus the one he had obtained in 1997.
The “Flying Finn” went unnoticed on the track, but he used to finish at the top of the grid at the end of the day.
12. Fernando Alonso
Pole Positions: 22
This position can be controversial for many, but I think that Fernando Alonso deserves to be on this list since the statistics do not do him justice, as he rarely had the best car on the grid and has always had to outperform not so competitive cars.
His years with the most pole positions were 2005 and 2006, the seasons in which he was world champion. The rest of the seasons, he has barely managed one or two poles or none at all. However, Alonso is one of the fastest drivers of all in one lap, and although his results do not show it, he is perhaps the driver in history who can get the most out of a car.
In 2009 he got a pole position with a rather bad Renault, and in his years with Ferrari, he made things very difficult for a Sebastian Vettel who had the best car. And with McLaren Honda, who were practically backmarkers, he managed to qualify them very well, sometimes even getting into Q3.
Who knows if he will have a winning car again before he finally retires, but for now, we will have to trust The Plan…
As honorable mentions, we must highlight Nico Rosberg, who got 30 poles and beat Lewis Hamilton in 2014 with 11, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet with 24, and Damon Hill with 20.
We would also like to mention Charles Leclerc, who, despite not having been in F1 very long, has already taken 9 pole positions with uncompetitive Ferraris. Leclerc and other young drivers such as Max Verstappen will surely enter the top of the best F1 qualifiers in a few years when they are more experienced drivers.
With so many drivers from so many different eras and different circumstances, it’s not easy to make a list, as you always feel like you’ve left someone out. Be that as it may, these are some of the best F1 qualifiers, which are also some of the best drivers in history.
- Michael Schumacher | 30 Years Ago at Spa – A Strong Qualifying Started Something Special | RaceDepartment