Who is the best Formula One driver of all time? It is an impossible question to answer. When F1 fans regularly fail to agree on who the best driver in a single race is, extending the period to is not likely to create consensus.
But it's not all about consensus and as we approach the end of the first two decades of the 21st century, we thought it would be a neat and appropriate time to consider - and rank - the best F1 drivers since 2000.
To take out subjectivity as much as possible, we devised a method for this. There are quite simple ways this could have been done. For instance, award a certain number of points for a championship, a race win, a pole position, a podium or fastest lap.
We felt that this didn't really get to the heart of the matter and also gave a disproportionate advantage to those drivers with a) longer careers and b) who drove in decent machinery. And it didn't give any extra insight. There is some amount of limitation in the list but that is unavoidable - only 23 drivers have won a race this century. Overall, we looked at 28 drivers in this period - the 23 race winners and then a handful of standout midfield performers.
Explaining the model
Our ranking model takes into account three main factors: race victories, points and how a driver fared against his team-mates. As F1's official points system changed three times during this period, we have adopted the 2010-2018 method of points down to 10th and applied it to all races since 2000.
To limit the effect a drivers' machinery has on the rating we "weighted" the points and race wins to come up with an adjusted total. This has been done by looking at how competitive the drivers' cars were during each season. For example, if a driver wins in a race in a car that came fourth in the championship, that win should be worth more than a win from a driver whose team dominated a season. Likewise, with points.
The weighted points are divided by the Grands Prix they entered in this period, to limit the effect of longevity on their ratings. From this they get a weighted points/GP score. This is then combined with the weighted victories and then multiplied by their team-mate ratio (the bottom line) to give a final rating.
Weighted points only adjust so much, so we have also included a +/- rating for the weighted points and wins. This should show how much a driver outperformed their machinery but, naturally, does not favour drivers who spent much of this period in dominant machinery. This is not to say that Hamilton did not deserve every one of his 83 victories, but is more a way of levelling the field.
We must finally stress that these rankings are only over the course of the 20th century and are based on a statistical model. It’s not the 20 most likeable, most stylish and it does not take into account the intangible factors.
Entering fewer races in this period is likely to distort the picture slightly; see Leclerc and Hakkinen, who have only competed in two seasons this century. We did not feel it was right to omit them, though, and neither was it fair to put in a minimum race limit.
Anyway, onto the list...
20. Sergio Perez - Rating 624
For a while it seemed like Sergio Perez could be the next big thing in F1. In his first two years at Sauber he developed a reputation of being supremely skilful at preserving his tyres. In only his 19th grand prix start he nearly chased down Fernando Alonso at a drying Sepang Circuit to take a sensational win but second was impressive enough.
A fine second year was enough for him to join McLaren but just as they started their slump. His one season there has been followed by seven very successful years in Force India/Racing Point, where he has cemented his reputation as one of the best drivers outside of the top teams. From 2014 to 2018 he never finished outside the top 10 in the championship and scored a total of 400 points over five seasons with five podiums.
Perez just makes it in here as the only driver to do so without winning a race. He ranks fourth in adding value to his points per GP rating, which demonstrates how valuable he has been to each of his teams. Perhaps a shame that he - like Nico Hulkenberg - never found their way into a race-winning car but that is F1.
Weighted points rank: 21st (6.38 points per GP), +3.21 (4th)
Weighted wins rank: 24th (0 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking: 10th (beat team-mate six out of nine seasons)
19. Mika Hakkinen – Rating 785
Two of Hakkinen’s best seasons came at the end of the last century but his final two years in F1 were still pretty decent. At least 2000 was, anyway, as he lost out on a third successive world title to Michael Schumacher, winning four races and beating team-mate David Coulthard along the way. His final season was a bit more mixed, winning just two races but finishing fifth in the standings before announcing that he was taking a sabbatical from which he never returned.
Had we limited this top 20 to drivers who competed in over 50 grands prix then Hakkinen wouldn’t be in it. His adjusted stats are fairly impressive but should be taken with a pinch of salt as his sample size is the smallest of anyone in this list at just 33 Grands Prix. Still, a worthy entrant.
Weighted points rank:3rd (12.51/GP) +0.78 (20th)
Weighted wins rank: 16th (6.4 wins, +0.4 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking: 12th (1/2 seasons)
18. Giancarlo Fisichella – Rating 804
By the early 2000s, Fisichella had gotten himself into a race-winning seat after impressing for Jordan and Benetton. His first win, in 2003, came in bizarre circumstances as he was belatedly awarded the Brazilian GP after a timing error at the race’s end, but his most successful years came as he returned to his old team (then bought out by Renault) to partner Fernando Alonso.
Alongside the Spaniard, he was an able number two, winning another two races and finishing fifth and sixth in 2005 and 2006. He was a long way away from Alonso in those years but the fact that they make up two of the three seasons when he was beaten by his team-mate says a lot about Fisichella’s abilities. A superb pole and second place for Force India gave him a dream move to Ferrari in 2009 but he failed to score a point in five races for the team and ended his F1 career at the end of the season.
Weighted points rank: 24th (5.45/GP), +1.44 (16th)
Weighted wins rank: 18th (4.1 wins, +1.1 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking:6th (7/10 seasons)
17. Rubens Barrichello – Rating 960
For someone who was such an integral part of Ferrari’s success in the early 2000s, it is perhaps strange to see Barrichello below drivers like Bottas, Leclerc and Ralf Schumacher. The Brazilian had some excellent results in midfield cars in the 1990s for teams like Jordan and Stewart – six podiums in total in his first seven seasons in those largely midfield teams is no small achievement. He was everything Ferrari needed him to be, too.
But because Ferrari were so dominant and because Barrichello rarely challenged Schumacher (something that was not always his fault...) he ends up in a fairly lowly 17th. That he only beat his team-mate twice out of the 12 seasons in the 21st century naturally does not count in his favour, putting him somewhere at the bottom of the pile on that metric. His renaissance season at Brawn in 2009 gets him some credit but for four of his last five years in F1 he never made it into the top eight in the championship as he struggled with uncompetitive cars. Perhaps he could be higher were he not such a (likely contractually obliged) distant second driver to Schumacher.
Weighted points/GP rank: 20th (6.69pts/GP), +0.25 (22nd)
Weighted wins rank: 10th (9.1 wins, -1.9 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking: 25th (2/12 seasons)
16. Charles Leclerc – Rating 976
Leclerc came into F1 in 2018 as one of the most highly rated prospects of all time. In his first two years he has not disappointed. For Sauber in 2018 he wiped the floor with Marcus Ericsson, scoring 39 points in a car that was in the middle of the midfield at best, including a trio of seventh place finishes to end the year. It gave Ferrari the very easy decision of promoting him alongside Sebastian Vettel for 2019.
His first year at Ferrari has been even more impressive, taking seven pole positions and winning two races, including his team’s first home victory since 2010. Not only has he been quick, he has unsettled and is likely to beat four-time Vettel this season, announcing himself as the next big hope of F1. Again, the small sample says means his statistics in our model are a little unrepresentative, like Hakkinen’s, but his place in this list is fully deserved even after just 41 Grands Prix.
Weighted points rank: 6th (12.10pts/GP), +2.73 (10th)
Weighted wins rank: 19th (2.4 wins, +0.4)
Beat team-mate ranking: 25th (2/2 seasons)
16. Valtteri Bottas – Rating 1033
After three seasons at Mercedes alongside Lewis Hamilton, it looks like Bottas is going to be one of the drivers who fall into the “good but not great” category. I would argue that the vast majority of drivers in this list can be placed there. Like Barrichello and Mark Webber, Bottas is a good example of how much easier it is to impress in midfield teams (as he did for four years at Williams) than at the very front.
When the car works for him, he is capable of beating anyone and impressive wins at Suzuka and in Austin in 2019 prove this. Looking at his statistics in our model, they are mixed, largely as a result of slightly over-delivering in a decent but not brilliant Williams from 2014-16 and under-delivering in the best car in the field in the last three years, as his positive points per Grand Prix rating shows at +0.6.
Weighted points rank: 11th (9.73/GP), +0.6 (21st)
Weighted wins rank: 17th (5.2, -1.8)
Beat team-mate ranking: 16th (4/7 seasons)
14. Mark Webber – Rating 1101
If it wasn’t for bad luck, Mark Webber would have had no luck at all. Such was the Australian’s misfortune in the early years in his career at Jaguar and Williams, it seemed like any kind of success at the front would evade him. Webber eventually got his chance after seven seasons in the midfield when Red Bull became a frontrunner in 2009.
Nine wins and 13 pole positions in five seasons followed but Webber could never quite match the sister car of Sebastian Vettel. 2010 was by far his best chance as he led Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel by 14 points after 16 of 19 rounds. A crash in the wet in South Korea all but ended his chances. Such are the margins at the front. Probably the toughest of this list and one of the hardest working, too, Webber was a fine driver, especially in qualifying and when up against it, but fell just short of the greatest prize in F1.
Weighted points rank: 18th (7.02pts/GP), -0.19 (24th)
Weighted wins rank: 11th (8.7 wins, -0.3 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking: 9th (6/12 seasons)
13. Felipe Massa – Rating 1108
Speaking of drivers who fell short of the greatest prize in F1, nobody can have come as agonisingly close as Massa did in 2008. He was denied on the final lap of the season as Hamilton slid past Timo Glock and end the premature celebrations in the Ferrari garage. Massa lost the championship but won the race – his home Grand Prix, no less – and his chest-thumping display of emotion on the podium after the race is one of the defining images of his career.
The other would be his horrific head injury at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. He was never the same driver after that and struggled next to Alonso in his final years at Ferrari. There was a welcome renaissance in 2014 and 2015 when he scored another five podiums with the resurgent Williams, before bowing out with the team in 2017.
Putting his stats through our adjusted model gives a mixed picture. He’s in the middle of the pack when it comes to adding value on his points per grand prix, but loses out a little on his wins and only beat his team-mate three times in 16 seasons in F1.
Weighted points rank: 17th (7.21pts/GP), +1.41 (17th)
Weighted wins rank: 9th (10.7 wins, -0.3)
Beat team-mate ranking: 20th (3/16 seasons)
12. Daniel Ricciardo – Rating 1114
Although Ricciardo’s career currently sits at a crossroads since moving from a winning team, Red Bull, to a midfield one, Renault, what he managed in his five years at the front was impressive. The Australian is certainly of the most decisive and effective overtakers of the 21st century but has also put in a handful of landmark wins in his time, too, notably last year’s victories at Monaco and China.
His two best years in F1 come sandwiched between arguably his worst – in 2014 he wiped the floor with then-defending champion Sebastian Vettel, taking three wins in the process before being beaten by Daniil Kvyat the following year. In 2016 he was again the best non-Mercedes driver in the pack, finishing with seven podiums in the final 11 races. Ricciardo comes out in a fairly middling position in all categories here but he - like so many who have driven predominantly since 2014 - has never been in a car capable of winning more than a handful of races a season.
Weighted points rank: 15th (8.07pts/GP), +2.02 (13th)
Weighted wins rank: 15th (8.3 wins, +1.3)
Beat team-mate ranking: 12th (5/9 seasons)
11. David Coulthard – Rating 1176
In some ways it seems a little strange to have David Coulthard just outside the top 10 here, perhaps because he spent six seasons in F1 in the 1990s and nine in the 2000s, the final few of which were in a car that was not capable of victory. The difference in ratings is quite small from Bottas in 16th to Coulthard here, though, and looking at it subjectively as well as objectively, many of the drivers in this part of the list are of similar abilities and with largely similar results.
The first two years of the century were his best statistically, scoring his two highest points totals, taking five wins in total and finishing third and second but in 2000 he was comfortably beaten by team-mate Hakkinen and in 2001 he was a distant second to Schumacher.
But if he under-performed at a strong McLaren, he perhaps overperformed in the first three of his four years at Red Bull, picking up a couple of podiums. That again shows the difference between good and great drivers – it’s a lot easier to get praise for performances in the midfield than it is at the front. Still, he comes out sixth in the drivers who added the most value to their wins, behind some highly-rated drivers.
Weighted points rank: 13th (8.78pts/GP), +2.79 (9th)
Weighted wins rank: 7th (8.6 wins, +1.6)
Beat team-mate ranking: 12th (5/9 seasons)
10. Ralf Schumacher – Rating 1251
When Ralf Schumacher entered F1 in 1997 he was as quick as he was accident-prone. Raw talent might be another way of describing it. But from his first season at the then-struggling Williams in 1999 he began to impress as a fine all-round Grand Prix driver. He never had the car to challenge for more than occasional wins but, in contrast to his early days, he became a reliably quick driver for Williams, only once finishing out of the top five in the championship from 2000-2004; even that was a very respectable ninth after he missed six rounds with injury. He continued to impress when he moved to Toyota.
In our model, Ralf ranks particularly highly on his weighted points difference, adding 3.76 points per race which puts him second overall by that metric. Likewise, his weighted wins difference is 2.5 higher and third overall, which shows that the younger Schumacher was perhaps underrated. He certainly knew how to win in slightly unfavoured cars.
Weighted points rank: 10th (10.56/GP), +3.76 (2nd)
Weighted wins rank: 13th (8.5 wins, +2.5 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking: 16th (4/8 seasons)
9. Juan Pablo Montoya – Rating 1291
JPM might only just sneak into the top 10 ahead of his former team-mate but if this were a list of the most exciting F1 drivers of the 21st century, he’d top it. He competed in fewer Grands Prix than any other driver in the top 10 (just 95 across five and a half seasons) and of those in this list only Leclerc and Hakkinen competed in fewer races this century. Montoya is also the second highest-ranked driver here who has not won a world title. 2003 was his best chance, being within a point of Michael Schumacher after 13 of 16 rounds.
His stats, outside and inside of the model are impressive. Being ranked seventh in weighted points per grand prix (and worth an additional three points per GP on reality) shows this. Despite his relatively short time in F1, he is fully deserving of his place in the top 10 of this list. It's a shame we didn't see more from him.
Weighted points rank: 7th (11.7pts/GP), +3.03 (5th)
Weighted wins rank: 13 (8.5 wins, +1.5 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking: 20th (3/6 seasons)
8. Nico Rosberg – Rating 1552
Rosberg will naturally be remembered for his 2016 title, where he took advantage of Hamilton’s bad luck and unsettled his team-mate at Mercedes. Overall Rosberg is no match for Hamilton but very few drivers are. That is perhaps why he retired immediately after his greatest achievement. His early years with Williams were impressively and consistent, though, finishing in the top 10 twice (2007 and 2009).
It is perhaps easy to look at his seven years at Mercedes as better than a poor Michael Schumacher and clearly second best to Lewis Hamilton but that is unfair. He narrowly lost out to Hamilton in 2013 and took him to the wire in 2014, too. He managed 22 wins in those seasons, 19 of which came when Mercedes were dominant, hence the fact that he “loses” seven wins once they are adjusted. It’s also worth noting that in the head-to-head against team-mates after his debut season, he only ever lost to Hamilton.
Weighted points rank: 14th (8.57pts/GP), -0.05 (23rd)
Weighted wins rank: 7th (15 wins, -7)
Beat team-mate ranking: 6th (7/11 seasons)
7. Max Verstappen – Rating 1561
Few drivers come into F1 and make the impact that Verstappen has. None have come into the sport as young as him, making his debut for Toro Rosso in 2015 at the age of 17. And most of the ones that make an immediate impact – Hamilton, Schumacher – end up becoming all-time greats. Verstappen certainly has the potential to do that, but it will require having something close to a championship winning car beneath him, something that Red Bull have not had for several years. There is a long way to go.
Like a few other drivers in this list, there is an impetuosity and arrogance that accompanies his brilliance. But, really, F1 needs characters like him and desperately so. It might be an unshakeable self-belief, but he has both the talent and the nous to back that up, as he has shown on numerous occasions in all manner of conditions.
Looking at Verstappen’s stats through our model, he perhaps even exceeds expectations. He ranks first in weighted points at, just over 13.5 points per GP, which is up +4.38 points on his actual rating (also first). This shows how much and how regularly he has outperformed his car. As the highest-ranked driver without a world title, he is arguably the best driver in the list pound-for-pound, but has just lacked a vehicle at the very front to prove it.
Weighted points rank:1st (13.56pts/GP), +4.38 (1st)
Weighted wins rank: 8th (11.5 wins, +3.5)
Beat team-mate ranking: 20th (3/5 seasons)
6. Jenson Button – Rating 1858
Over the course of 17-and-a-bit seasons in F1, Button’s career was either feast or famine. Simply, he either finished in the top 10 of the championship (as he did 12 times) or no higher than 15th (as he did five times). Button, like Raikkonen, perhaps falls just outside that list of the undeniable all-time greats who have raced in the 21st century. He was, though, remarkably consistent and if the car was to his liking unbeatable.
The standout years are obviously the title in 2009, his breakout season of 2004, when he took 10 podiums and finished third in the championship in Ferrari and Schumacher’s finest year and 2011, where he became the first team-mate Hamilton lost to and finished second in the standings. Unlike most others above him in this list (and like most others below him), he was not the best at getting them most in a car that didn’t suit him.
Perhaps if his wilderness years at Honda and then McLaren were not so extreme, he could have ended with more than his 15 wins. Still, his weighted wins are favourable (+2.3 on 15), however, and he beat his team-mate 12 times in 17 seasons, only losing Lewis Hamilton (twice) and Fernando Alonso (once) from 2002-2017.
Weighted points rank:12th (8.82pts/GP), +1.97 (14th)
Weighted wins rank: 6th (17.3 wins +2.3)
Beat team-mate ranking: 2nd (12/17 seasons)
5. Kimi Raikkonen – Rating 2183
In 2020, Raikkonen will become F1’s most experienced driver, overtaking Barrichello. The Finn has had a long and varied time in the sport and, given his entire career has been across the 21st century (entering all but three seasons) it is fitting that he makes it into the top five.
It was a little surprising to me that Raikkonen finished the list above Button, if only marginally. But Raikkonen has been arguably as consistent as the Briton and with fewer low points. If he finishes the 2019 season in his current 12th place it will his lowest ever finishing position and only the second time he has finished outside of the top 10.
Raikkonen should not only be remembered as the driver who played second fiddle to Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, taking just one win in his five-season return to the team. He too should be remembered as the lightning-quick young upstart in his early days at McLaren, a man who won the 2007 championship from under Hamilton and Alonso’s noses and the driver who took two wins (and second in the 2012 standings) in a relatively unfavoured Lotus across the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Even back in the midfield at his old, rebranded Sauber team he has shown how much of an asset he still is as a driver.
Weighted points rank:9th (10.81pts/GP), +2.52 (11th)
Weighted wins rank: 5th (23.3 wins, +2.3)
Beat team-mate ranking: 5th (9/17 seasons)
4. Fernando Alonso – Rating 3223
There is a big jump in rating from fifth to fourth (over 1000 points) and that is fair enough as the top four drivers would rank at the higher levels of a list of greatest F1 drivers of all time.
With two world titles and plenty of success in the mid-2000s, Alonso was always going to rank very highly. But he stands out in our model in two main ways. No driver has a bigger increase in weighted wins, moving from 32 wins in reality to 38.5 in the model. Nobody has a better record against their team-mate either and over such a long period, too. The Spaniard beat the sister car in 16 of his 17 seasons – or 95 per cent of the time. Few others come close.
Whatever you make of his (bad) career decisions, Alonso is arguably the driver who got the most from their car. Maybe the two things are linked. But winning the 2010 championship in a sub-standard Ferrari would have been perhaps his greatest achievement. Perhaps his talent stands out so much because of its partly unfulfilled nature. Just as there are drivers who fail to break into the very top level, Alonso failed to do his talent full justice – two world championships and 32 race wins is a relatively poor return. It should have been more.
Weighted points rank:8th (11.37pts/GP) +2.25 (12)
Weighted wins rank: 4th (38.5 wins, +6.5)
Beat team-mate ranking: 1st (16/17 seasons)
3. Michael Schumacher – Rating 3439
Controversy claxon! Clearly you would be hard push to find anyone who thinks that Sebastian Vettel is a better driver than Michael Schumacher. Almost none of the stats bear this out. But there are two very large caveats here. First, this is a model that takes into account the 21st century only. Some of Schumacher’s greatest achievements came in the 1990s. Certainly he had success in worse cars in those years, winning races in machinery that was not the best in the field. Second, Schumacher had three seasons at Mercedes (among 10 seasons overall) from 2010-2012 which were far from his previous level and that has played a fairly significant part.
Schumacher was a driver that got himself into the best car (he certainly played a part in helping Ferrari to become a winning machine) and dominated, taking five consecutive titles from 2000-2004. In those seasons he was almost untouchable, helped by having a compliant number two in Barrichello but, really, he was miles ahead of anyone else.
His weighted stats suffer a little due to being in by far the best car at the start of the decade and then, on his return at Mercedes, being a comfortable second to Rosberg.
Weighted points rank:5th (12.44pts/GP), -0.44 (25th)
Weighted wins rank: 3rd (47.7 wins, -8.3)
Beat team-mate ranking: 6th (7/10 seasons)
2. Sebastian Vettel – Rating 3751
Some might scoff at seeing Vettel so high up in this list. The error-prone last 18 months have coloured his reputation as a driver and has led people to question the validity those four world titles he won with Red Bull from 2010-2013. True, his recent exploits add a little context – he has found himself well short of the level of his rival Hamilton – and perhaps nudge him down several spots in a subjective greatest of all time list but, in this century at least, his achievements are worthy of note.
He won a race in a Toro Rosso. He won the 2010 title having never led the championship before the chequered flag at the final race. His qualifying in this period at Red Bull was astounding, too. After 2010 Webber never got close to him. Before the increase in big mistakes he trounced Raikkonen at Ferrari. It would be unfair to let 2018 and 2019 tarnish his years of brilliance but there is a large variation from his high to lows which other greats do not have.
Coming second overall he naturally ranks highly in most categories, his adjusted wins total being higher than Michael Schumacher and his weighted points putting him only behind Verstappen. There are plenty of questions to be asked about Vettel but his numbers are not up for debate.
Weighted points rank: 2nd (13.55pts/GP) -0.91 (25)
Weighted wins rank: 2nd (49.7 wins, -3.3)
Beat team-mate ranking: 3rd (11/13 seasons)
1. Lewis Hamilton – Rating 4620
However you look at Hamilton’s statistics it is nearly impossible to claim that he is not the best driver of the 21st century. The only driver who stands out enough in our statistical model is Fernando Alonso, given his ability to get the best out of an unfavoured car. Hamilton, though, has not often driven in an unfavoured car in his time in F1 but when he did, he still delivered.
Winning races in the 2009 McLaren and winning the 2008 championship in a car that didn’t win the constructors’ title (only Michael Schumacher has done that this century) show that he has that ability. He just hasn’t been able to show it off as much as Alonso as he’s been racking up the titles and wins (six and 83 and counting) for McLaren and Mercedes.
Being in the most dominant F1 team of all time means he loses some of his value in the weighting but his final rating of 4620 is miles ahead of anybody else.
In whatever way you dress it up it would be difficult to comprehensively look at the best drivers of the past 20 years and not have Hamilton at the top. His consistency at the front is what sets him apart from his rivals and he rarely lost out to his team-mate, arguably only in exceptional circumstances. A supreme champion.
Weighted points rank: 4 (12.47pts/GP) -2.53 (27)
Weighted wins rank: 1 (68.5 wins, -14.5 wins)
Beat team-mate ranking: 3 (11/13 seasons)