Determining who are the most famous Formula One drivers is a difficult task, as it requires a balancing act between determining who are the best–known drivers among the general public and which drivers are known for their athletic prowess in motor racing. That being said, let’s look at some contenders (in no particular order).
The most famous Formula One drivers are:
- James Hunt
- Niki Lauda
- Ayrton Senna
- Alain Prost
- Michael Schumacher
- Jackie Stewart
- Lewis Hamilton
- Max Verstappen
- Sebastian Vettel
- Lando Norris
- Daniel Ricciardo
- Fernando Alonso
- Kimi Räikkönen
The above list is a subjective list that hopes to strike a balance between old and new drivers to try and determine how famous these drivers were during their racing careers, their current fame, and the reputation they will leave behind for future generations. Let’s explore each driver in greater detail below:
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1. James Hunt
James Hunt was a British racing driver who competed in Formula One from 1973 to 1979. His career highlights include:
- 93 entries
- 8 fastest laps
- 14 pole positions
- 23 podiums
- 10 wins and
- 1 World Championship title (1976)
While James Hunt may not be the most successful driver on this list, he gained an immense following as a Formula One driver for his aggressive racing style, larger-than-life personality, and continued presence in the sport as a media commentator following his retirement in 1979.
For modern audiences, James Hunt’s legacy was immortalized and captured in the Oscar-nominated film Rush, where he was played by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth of Marvel fame.
The film received critical acclaim and wide box office success for its depiction of the Hunt – Lauda rivalry that captured the world’s imagination during the 1976 World Championship. The same season resulted in James Hunt’s maiden World Championship title and Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix.
James hunt tragically passed away at the age of 45 from a suspected heart attack at his home in Wimbledon in 1993.
Despite his short-lived career post-Formula One, James Hunt continues to have an influence on modern drivers and their styles, most notably Kimi Räikkönen, who has gone on record as using the pseudo-name James Hunt in niche racing competitions.
2. Niki Lauda
Niki Lauda was an Austrian racing driver who competed in Formula One from 1971 to 1985. His career highlights include:
- 177 entries
- 24 fastest laps
- 24 pole positions
- 54 podiums
- 25 wins and
- 3 World Championship titles (1975, 1977, and 1984)
While Niki Lauda, similar to James Hunt, may have received a boost in his popularity during the 1976 season and his courage to return to racing that very same season after surviving a near-fatal accident. His overwhelming success as one of the greatest Formula One drivers makes him a legend of the sport.
A key factor in Niki Lauda’s success and extraordinary accomplishments is best highlighted by his return to Formula One in 1982 (after a three-year hiatus) to McLaren. Whereby he managed to overturn mediocre results in the 1982 and 1983 seasons, to be crowned World Champion for a third time by half a point over the equally recognized Alain Prost!
After his racing retirement, Niki Lauda became a central figure in Formula One in management, training, and broadcasting roles. Lauda’s mentorship roles included the signing and development of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
Niki Lauda passed away at 70 years of age at the University Hospital of Zurich in 2019.
Following his death, Niki Lauda would be honored with a minute’s silence at the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix, with his funeral service attracting world-renowned Formula One drivers and Austrian public figures such as Lewis Hamilton, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart, Sebastian Vettel, Alexander Van der Bellen, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
3. Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian racing driver who competed in Formula One from 1984 to 1994. His career highlights include:
- 162 entries
- 19 fastest laps
- 65 pole positions
- 80 podiums
- 41 wins and
- 3 World Championship titles (1988, 1990, and 1991)
Known for his prowess in wet and difficult conditions, Ayrton Senna set various Formula One records during his ten years in the sport, including the unbeaten records of six victories at the Monaco Grand Prix and the most wins of any McLaren driver.
Senna was considered a hard and, at times, controversial driver due to the famous Senna – Prost rivalry, which resulted in consecutive collisions between the drivers at the 1989 and 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, which ultimately determined the championship winner on both occasions.
Inadvertently and tragically, Ayrton Senna became responsible for sweeping rules and regulations changes following his death from injuries sustained during an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
His early death, having coincided with his move to Williams, along with his consistent finishes during the 1992 and 1993 seasons with McLaren, has led many pundits to believe that Senna would have managed to achieve greater milestones in his Formula One career had it not been for the accident at San Marino.
Despite his career being tragically cut short, Senna is recognized as one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time, whereby his ongoing legacy is felt globally and particularly in his native Brazil to this very day.
4. Alain Prost
Alain Prost is a retired French racing driver who competed in Formula One from 1980 to 1993. His career highlights include:
- 202 entries
- 41 fastest laps
- 33 pole positions
- 106 podiums
- 51 wins and
- 4 World Championship titles (1985, 1986, 1989, and 1993)
Unlike many Formula One champions that are known for their hard, aggressive driving styles, Alain Prost was synonymous with a smooth and relaxed style that capitalized on remaining calm during stressful situations and employing intelligent tactics to secure victory. Consequently, this earned Prost the nickname of “The Professor.”
His ongoing rivalries and triumphs over world-class drivers such as Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, and Nigel Mansell meant that Alain Prost was the holder of numerous Formula One records during the 1990s. All of which contributed to him being awarded the 1999 World Sports Award of the Century in the motorsport category.
Outside of Formula One competition, Prost managed the French Ligier team and rebranded it as Prost Grand Prix between 1997 and 2001.
Following his short stint as manager and owner for a Formula One team, Alain Prost applied his athletic ability to ice racing in the Andros Trophy between 2003 to 2012, wherein his success in motorsports continued with 38 wins and three championship titles!
Prost also served as special advisor and non–executive director for Renault Formula One from 2017 to 2021, thus continuing his presence in the sport into the 21st century.
5. Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher is a retired German racing driver who competed in Formula One from 1991 to 2012. His career highlights include:
- 308 entries
- 77 fastest laps
- 68 pole positions
- 155 podiums
- 91 wins and
- 7 World Championship titles (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004)
For many fans, Michael Schumacher is the face of Formula One due to his dominance in the sport in the early 90s and 2000s. Especially for being instrumental in the revival of Ferrari as a championship-winning team in the 21st century.
Following his 2nd retirement from Formula One in 2012, Michael Schumacher held numerous Formula One records, including but not limited to:
- Most pole positions – 68
- Most podiums – 155
- Most wins – 91
- Most fastest laps – 77 (Record still held at the time of writing),
- Most world championship titles – 7 (tied with Lewis Hamilton at the time of writing).
Although Michael Schumacher has left the public eye following a near-fatal skiing accident in 2013, he remains a legend of the sport that continues to influence drivers competing today and is undoubtedly the greatest Formula One driver of his era.
6. Jackie Stewart
Jackie Stewart is a retired British racing driver who competed in Formula One from 1965 to 1973. His career highlights include:
- 100 entries
- 15 fastest laps
- 17 pole positions
- 43 podiums
- 27 wins and
- 3 World Championship titles (1969, 1971, and 1973).
Recognized as one of the greatest Formula One drivers of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sir Jackie Stewart is as renowned for his accomplishments on the track as he is for expanding the popularity of the world of motorsports through his off-track ventures, same include:
- Sports commentary for the ABC network for motorsports and multiple summer Olympics,
- Commercial appearances for brands such as Ford and Heineken,
- Co-owner and founder of Stewart Grand Prix,
- Sports Illustrated magazine’s 1973 Sportsman of the Year,
- 1990 inductee of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Over and above his formally recognized awards, Sir Jackie Stewart continues to be a key figure as a racing safety advocate for various motorsports globally. Some of Stewart’s key safety milestones include improved research and development into full-face helmets, seatbelts, medical units, safety barriers, and runoff areas.
7. Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton is a British racing driver who began his Formula One in 2007. His career highlights include:
- 290 entries
- 59 fastest laps
- 103 pole positions
- 183 podiums
- 103 wins and
- 7 World Championship titles (2008, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
Sir Lewis Hamilton is, by most measures, considered the greatest Formula One driver of all time. He holds the record for numerous Formula One records, including but not limited to:
- Most pole positions – 103
- Most podiums – 183
- Most wins – 103,
- Most world championship titles – 7 (tied with Michael Schumacher at the time of writing).
Having missed out on two driver’s championship titles in 2007 and 2021, Hamilton has remained the most dominant driver of the 21st century, having won a race in every season of Formula One he has competed in.
Outside of Formula One, Hamilton has established himself as a key public figure in the fight for socio-political rights for marginalized groups, including but not limited to active participation and support for diversity, human rights, environmental rights, animal rights, impoverished communities, and LGBTQ+ communities.
With a net worth in excess of £224 million, active participation in celebrity events such as the Met Gala, and a combined social media following in excess of 39.6 million people, there’s no denying that Hamilton’s continued legacy both on and off the track will be felt for generations to come.
8. Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen is a Belgian – Dutch racing driver who began his Formula One in 2014. His career highlights include:
- 143 entries
- 16 fastest laps
- 13 pole positions
- 60 podiums
- 20 wins and
- 1 World Championship title (2021)
Despite having competed in Formula One for less than eight years, Max Verstappen came into the sport on the back of immense promise, given his racing prowess during his racing career and holding the coveted record of being the youngest Formula One driver in the history of the sport.
As a young driver, Max Verstappen holds numerous Formula One records:
- The youngest driver to start a race,
- Youngest driver to score points,
- The youngest driver to win a race,
- Youngest driver to score a podium finish,
- The youngest driver to lead a lap,
- The youngest driver to score a grand slam,
- Most podium finishes in a season – 18
Critical to Max Verstappen’s continued popularity is his victory in the 2021 driver’s championship in dramatic fashion at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and his unique engagement with young fans, as evidenced by 12.6 million social media followers and a successful Twitch channel.
Although it is yet to be seen whether Max Verstappen’s success and popularity will continue into the future, the endorsement by Red Bull to extend his contract into 2028 is evidence of the young driver’s immense potential.
9. Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian Vettel is a German racing driver who began his Formula One in 2006. His career highlights include:
- 280 entries
- 38 fastest laps
- 57 pole positions
- 122 podiums
- 53 wins and
- 4 World Championship titles (2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013)
From one driver known for his achievements as a young racer to the youngest World Champion in Formula One history, Sebastian Vettel is known for elevating Red Bull to a Championship team in the early 2010s.
Despite a marginal dip in his results since moving to Ferrari and then Aston Martin, Sebastian Vettel holds many notable Formula One records, including:
- Most wins in a season,
- Most pole positions in a season,
- Most laps led in a season,
- Most consecutive wins,
- Most consecutive grand slams,
- Most wins from pole positions in a season,
- Youngest Grand Prix pole position winner,
- The youngest driver to score a hat-trick,
- Youngest Formula One World Drivers’ Champion.
Although Sebastian Vettel had controversial instances during his inaugural Formula One seasons, his likable personality and socio-political activism during the latter half of his career have seen his fame and popularity steadily rise over the years.
Here’s hoping his time with Aston Martin will garner results akin to his success earlier in his career!
10. Lando Norris
Lando Norris is a British – Belgian racing driver who began his Formula One in 2019. His career highlights include:
- 62 entries,
- 3 fastest laps,
- 1 pole position, and
- 5 podiums.
Competing in only his fourth Formula One season as of the time of writing, Lando Norris has been instrumental in growing the sport’s popularity with female fans and younger fans. This growth is a combined effort of McLaren’s media campaigns, Norris’ own media campaigns, and a social media following of over 7.3 million people.
To put into perspective just how popular Lando Norris is, he has been recognized by a 2021 F1 Motorsport Network Nielsen Sports survey as ranking as follows:
- Norris is the 2nd most popular driver in the UK, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada,
- Over a quarter of all female Formula One fans ranked Lando Norris as their favorite driver,
- Over 20% of all fans aged 25 and younger rank Lando Norris as their favorite driver.
Lando Norris has actively acknowledged his popularity and how he believes that entertaining and engaging with fans should be a key component of modern motorsports:
“[It’s] not just can you do well on track. [one] of them is entertaining fans and letting them see the side of us, not just as a driver but as the person you are.”
While Lando Norris may be playing down the role of results in attracting fans, it may appear at face value that his race statistics do not warrant such an avid fan base. Lando Norris has shown the level of potential usually reserved for World Champion drivers.
Here’s hoping he can capitalize on his raw talent and support in the near future!
11. Daniel Ricciardo
Daniel Ricciardo is an Italian – Australian racing driver who began his Formula One in 2011. His career highlights include:
- 212 entries,
- 16 fastest laps,
- 3 pole positions,
- 32 podiums, and
- 8 wins.
Affectionately known as the “Honey Badger,” which Daniel Ricciardo has opted to have emblazoned on his racing helmet for the 2022 season, Daniel Ricciardo’s patriotism and larger-than-life personality helped earn him the ranking of an Appointed Member of the Order of Australia.
While Lando Norris is an extremely popular figure, there’s no denying that McLaren’s ranking as the most popular Formula One team in the world would not have been achieved without Daniel Ricciardo’s personality shining through at press conferences, through media campaigns, or appealing to his 10.4 million social media followers.
Despite his laidback attitude, Daniel Ricciardo remains a fierce competitor. Only time will take if he can add more race wins and increased fame during his time at McLaren.
12. Fernando Alonso
Fernando Alonso is a Spanish racing driver who began his Formula One in 2001. His career highlights include:
- 338 entries
- 23 fastest laps
- 22 pole positions
- 98 podiums
- 32 wins, and
- 2 World Championship titles (2005 and 2006).
Having achieved consecutive world championship titles, beating two world-class drivers in the process (namely Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher), Fernando Alonso’s fierce driving looked to catapult him to a third title in no time!
Unfortunately, despite ranking as one of the top athletes in the history of the sport for raw talent, subsequent seasons would prove to be difficult results to accept, with 2007, 2010, and 2012 resulting in only a handful of points separating Alonso from another world championship title.
Regardless of Alonso finding himself with substandard cars throughout the years, he has still managed to put in some stellar performances, not least of which being his last podium for Alpine at the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix.
While Alonso may be coming to the twilight of his career, the forty-year-old remains a fierce contender and is immensely popular among old and new Formula One fans, as is evident by his 8.8 million social media followers.
13. Kimi Räikkönen
Kimi Räikkönen is a retired Finnish racing driver who began his Formula One in 2001. His career highlights include:
- 353 entries
- 46 fastest laps
- 18 pole positions
- 103 podiums
- 21 wins, and
- 1 World Championship title (2007)
Dubbed “The Iceman” for his calm demeanor under pressure in race conditions and his general icy persona with other drivers and the media, Kimi Räikkönen achieved legendary status for his race track accomplishments and his blunt, no-nonsense personality off the track.
Outside of his short sabbatical during 2010 and 2011, where he pursued other motorsports such as NASCAR and rally driving, Kimi Räikkönen spent most of his career as a key figure in Formula One, with a whopping 353 entries to his name after his official retirement in 2021 at the age of 42.
In conclusion, the above fourteen drivers have the racing pedigree, along with the personalities, followers, and respect of a wide enough audience to suggest that they may be among the most famous drivers in Formula One history!