During its 63-year history, Formula One has offered us many talented drivers, some of them dominating the competition and winning one or more championships. Actually, the number of championships is the most often used method to compare drivers, but there are some who consider another aspect to be more relevant, and that is the ratio between started races and won races.
Far from representing a ranking of the best drivers in history, this list draws some interesting conclusions: in the past 12 seasons, there were two pilots that dominated the competition for a certain period of time thanks to their cars’ technical superiority (Michael Schumacher between 2000 and 2004 and Sebastian Vettel between 2010 and 2012), while during the first decades drivers frequently switched teams, a proof that a driver’s skills were more important in the early ages of Formula One.
So let’s see the drivers with the highest winning percentage in history:
10. Nigel Mansell, 16.58% – 31 wins in 187 races
It might come as a surprise that Nigel Mansell, a driver that only managed to win one championship, is on this list, but we mustn’t forget that he’s considered one of the best drivers in the ‘80s. He debuted for Team Lotus in 1980, but it took him five years to win his first race, the 1985 European Grand Prix with Williams. Despite winning 11 races in the following two years, Mansell lost the world championship titles to Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet. In 1989 and 1990 he switched to Ferrari, but after winning only three races for the Italians, decided to get back with Williams. After winning five races in 1991, Mansell dominated the 1992 competition, winning the world championship with 14 pole-positions and 9 wins in a total of 15 races. Immediately after becoming world champion, Mansell retired, but made a comeback in 1994. An uninspired comeback, if you ask us, because his best “achievements” were one win and three abandons in six races.
9. Sir Stirling Moss, 24.24% – 16 wins in 66 races
The man regarded as probably the best driver never to win a Formula One championship, Sir Stirling Moss has an impressive winning percentage. He made his debut in 1951 and won his first race in 1955, the British Grand Prix at Aintree. Until his retirement in 1961, Moss competed in 66 races and won 16 of them, bringing him four 2nd places and three 3rd places, but no world title.
8. Ayrton Senna, 25.47% – 41 wins in 161 races
One of Formula One’s favorite children, Ayrton Senna won his first race in 1985 in Portugal, when, during raining conditions, he finished one lap ahead of all drivers, except for Michele Alboreto. He won 5 more races for Lotus before signing with Williams and starting his famous rivalry with Alain Prost. Senna won the championship in 1988, lost the 1989 title after a crash with Prost at Suzuka and won the following two seasons, becoming triple champion in 1993. The Brazilian achieved an impressive streak during that period, winning 27 races in 4 years (his last victory was the 1993 Australian Grand Prix).
7. Alain Prost, 25.63% – 51 wins in 199 races
Just like on the racetrack, the difference between Prost and Senna is minimal, with a tiny advantage for the French. Prost started his career in 1980 with McLaren, but switched to Renault for the following three seasons, winning 9 races. In 1984 he went back to his former team and this is when he started to shine. In 1984 he won seven races which were was just a preview of the 1985 season, when he won his first world championship. In 1986 Prost won his second championship, even though he finished first in just four races, but had a constant performance. After a mediocre season in 1991, he retires, but makes a comeback in 1993 when he also manages to become world champion with Williams, after winning seven races. That was Prost’s last Formula One season, the French retiring at the end of the 1993 season to avoid being team-mate again with Senna.
6. Sebastian Vettel, 26.85% – 29 wins in 108 races
The German driver impressed everyone at his debut in Formula One at the 2007 United States Grand Prix, when he placed 8th with Sauber, but no one would anticipate the race he won for Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008, on rain. Next season he signed with Red Bull Racing, winning four races in a season dominated by Brawn GP. However, no other driver was able to resist him in the following three seasons, when 21 wins brought him three consecutive titles. The 2010 and 2012 seasons were won after great battles with Fernando Alonso and only after the final race of the season. What’s also remarkable is that he’s only 25, so he has plenty of time to improve these stats, being the only active driver on this list.
5. Jackie Stewart, 27.27% – 27 wins in 99 races
Driving for BRM, Jackie Stewart won his first race during his debut season, 1955, at the Italian Grand Prix. The second win came in the 1966 season and a less prolific 1967 season followed, after which Stewart signed with Matra. In 1968 he won three races, a preview for the perfect 1969 season, when he became world champion. After this season, he switched teams again, this time choosing Tyrrell. 1971 was Stewart’s best season, winning 6 out of 10 races and becoming world champion for the second time. In 1972 he was runner-up and in 1973 became triple world champion, retiring after that season.
4. Michael Schumacher, 29.64% – 91 wins in 307 races
The German driver holds most records in Formula One and he doesn’t need any introduction. He debuted in 1991 for Jordan and a year later won his first race, with Benetton. He was world champion in 1994 and 1995 and in 1996 signed with Ferrari. After four “dry” years, the most impressive period in Formula One history began. Schumacher won five consecutive championships and in 2004 set the record for most wins in a season, 13. He retired at the end of the 2006 season, made a comeback in 2010, but couldn’t match the pre-retirement performances, his most notable achievement in three years being a podium at Valencia in 2012.
3. Jim Clark, 34.73% – 25 wins in 72 races
The British is one of the few Formula One drivers whose entire career is associated with just one team. He debuted with Team Lotus in 1960, won his first race in 1962, the Belgian Grand Prix, and became world champion for the first time a year later, after winning 7 races out of the total 10 with his Lotus 25 (in the 1963 season, Clark set the record for highest percentage of laps in the lead in a season, record that’s still standing). The Lotus 33’s reliability prevented Clark from defending his title in 1964, but the Scot won the title again in 1965, with 6 wins out of 9 races (he did not start at Monaco). He won the first race of the 1968 season, but his career suddenly came to an end after the fatal crash in a Formula Two race on the Hockenheim track.
2. Alberto Ascari, 40.62% – 13 wins in 32 races
The Italian that drove for Ferrari for most of his career made a very impressive debut in Formula One, finishing second on his debut race at Monaco, in the 1950 season. A year later he won the first two races, but his best results were achieved in the 1952-1953 seasons. In 1952 he won six out of seven races, becoming the undisputed world champion and he started the 1953 with three consecutive wins, winning his second title by the end of the year. In 1954 he raced for Maserati, Ferrari and Lancia without any notable results (he actually didn’t finish any race). His career tragically ended in 1955, after he crashed at Monza while test driving a Ferrari 750 Monza.
1. Juan Manuel Fangio, 47.06% – 24 wins in 51 races
Even though Ascari’s performance was impressive, Fangio is probably the most emblematic driver in the first decade of Formula One. The Argentinian took part in the first Formula One season in history, in 1950, when he won the Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps and Reims races with Alfa-Romeo, but lost the title to Giuseppe Farina. He became world champion in 1951 and after losing the 1952 to Ascari and missing the entire 1953 season due to an injury, he started a dominance that was only matched 50 years later, by Michael Schumacher: Fangio won four consecutive titles between 1954 and 1957. He won his last race in 1957 on Nurburgring and a year later retired from Formula One, after scoring only seven points in three races.