WHO IS THE CURRENT BEST DRIVER IN F1?
The most common discussion I see fans having after each race is who they think is the best driver in Formula 1. Most of these conversations are prevented from progressing into meaningful and worthwhile discussions due to underlying bias and favouritism toward a particular driver.
Despite my passion for the sport, I don’t favour any driver or team. This puts me in a good position to come to a fair judgement because I won’t be influenced by preference for a certain driver. I am going to focus on facts and my observations of the drivers over the course of their F1 career.
Let’s start with the most successful driver on the current F1 grid. Since his arrival in the sport back in 2007, Lewis Hamilton has won 6 world championships, securing 88 race wins along the way. He also holds the record for the most podiums (156) and most pole positions (92).
He has also fared pretty well against his teammates. In the 13 seasons he has completed, he has only been beaten by his teammate twice. In his debut season, he finished ahead of his reigning world champion teammate Fernando Alonso at McLaren in the championship standings.
However, Impressive statistics alone do not automatically make a particular sportsman ‘the best’ or even very good. Although, In Hamilton’s case, he has a lot more than just record-breaking stats going for him.
In the 256 races I have watched the Brit race since he joined F1, he has been nothing short of brilliant in the large majority of them. Right from the get-go, he proved how fast a driver he was. Over the years, he has become a more assured and complete racing driver. Even now, at the age of 35, I believe Hamilton is still getting better and better.
There are two things that have impressed me most. Firstly, is the fact he has managed to win a race in every season he has competed in. And secondly, the number of races he has won despite not necessarily having the best car. Those who say he only wins because he has the fastest car are clearly failing to remember his victories in seasons such as 2009, 2012 and 2013.
Hamilton is a very strong contender for the best driver on the grid.
Even though his stats aren’t anywhere near as impressive as those of Lewis Hamilton, there are many reasons why Max Verstappen must be included in the discussion of the best driver on the current grid.
It was somewhat inevitable that Verstappen wasn’t going to be the complete package when he first joined the sport, he was only 17 after all. However, over the course of his career, he has matured massively and has earned the status of one of the best drivers on the grid, if not, the best.
Similarly to Hamilton, Verstappen has had the upper-hand over most of his teammates in F1. Arguably, he has beaten his teammates more comprehensively than the 6-time champ. Carlos Sainz was more than a match at Torro Rosso, and Daniel Ricciardo too throughout 2016 and 2017. Since mid-way through 2018 however, none of Max’s teammates have been able to get close.
For me, two of his victories in particular epitomise the Dutchman as a driver – Austria 2019 and the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix this season. In neither of these races did he outright have the best car. Through a persistent and relentless attitude, along with immense talent, though, he managed to come away and win both the races in question.
I have seen many comments in the past couple of months saying that if Verstappen was in a Mercedes, he would definitely beat Hamilton and win the world title. Whereas I don’t necessarily agree with this statement, I do somewhat understand where these people are coming from. I’m not saying he wouldn’t beat Lewis Hamilton in the same car. But I also don’t think it would be as straightforward as some fans are making it out.
Nonetheless, Max Verstappen is undoubtedly a fantastic driver. And there is certainly a fair argument to claim he’s the best on the grid.
Once very underrated, I feel Carlos Sainz is now recognised as one of the best drivers on the grid, and rightfully so. As mentioned, Sainz performed very well against Verstappen when they were teammates at Toro Rosso. And since then, has driven well at each team he has raced for.
You could say he has been a bit unfortunate to have only secured a contract with a top team after 5 seasons in the sport. But providing Ferrari get their act together in 2022, which I’m sure they will, I believe the Spaniard will give Leclerc a run for his money and will win races in the years to come.
It’s a shame that the teams aren’t more evenly balanced as it would be great to see Sainz, and other talented drivers for that matter, really show what they’re made of.
Even though Daniel Ricciardo is no longer in a race-winning car, I still firmly believe he is up there with the very best in Formula 1. During his 5 seasons at Red Bull, Ricciardo proved to us all how good of a driver he really is- comfortably beating Sebastian Vettel in his debut season with the team and then being part of one of the most exciting and closely matched driver partnerships this century.
Ricciardo has rightfully earned the reputation of being the best overtaker on the grid, characteristically pulling off late-braking maneuverers which sometimes never look on. He has also demonstrated his opportunistic edge by winning races where the opportunities arose.
The way Verstappen annihilated Pierre Gasly in 2019 and the way he has held a considerable edge over Alex Albon is not only testament to Verstappen’s ability but also to Ricciardo. It proves how good of a job the Australian did at Red Bull as he was able to hold his own against arguably the best driver on the grid right now.
I hesitate to say that Daniel Ricciardo is the best driver on the grid, largely down to the fact that he was out-performed by Verstappen for two-thirds of the 2018 season. I know unreliability for the Aussie and a general favouritism towards Verstappen played a role in this. But I do feel the young Dutchman overall, is a better driver than his former teammate, just.
Before moving onto my final verdict, I want to put one last driver into consideration who has burst onto the scene and already proven in just 2 seasons that he is a class driver.
Leclerc came into F1 with big expectations placed on his shoulders. He obliterated the field in F2 and was pinned as one of the stars of the future from the get-go. In what is now his third season in F1, he hasn’t just met expectations but has massively surpassed them.
I’m sure many predicted that Leclerc would end up in Ferrari one day. But I doubt anyone really believed he would be promoted to the Scuderia after just one season.
Since his promotion, he has delivered in a high-pressure seat. He convincingly beat Vettel in 2019 and gave Ferrari their first win in Monza since Fernando Alonso in 2010. Perhaps more impressively, he has managed to drag his car to two podiums this season and continues to prove he is a future world champion.
Is he currently the best driver in F1? I don’t think so. But having only raced on 48 occasions, I wouldn’t expect him to be. The Monegasque driver is a real talent and in my top 5, but he still has some way to go before he can be regarded as the best.
I highly rate each of the 5 drivers I have discussed in this article. Each of them has demonstrated their talent and race-craft in the varying time periods they have been in the sport. When deciding on the best current driver on the grid though, for me, it comes down to a choice of two- Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
Both are extremely good drivers and will be regarded as two of the greats of the sport when they eventually retire. I feel Hamilton just pips it, but there really isn’t a lot in it between them. Although, I feel like you can argue a strong case for Verstappen as the best driver, and ultimately it will come down to subjective opinion.
Which leads on nicely to my final point which is that comparing drivers in Formula 1 is so very hard to do. Take football as an example- I feel its relatively easy to compare players as they generally have the same fundamental ‘equipment’ to demonstrate how good they are. The same cannot be said in F1, especially in the current era where car performance differs so significantly.
Unless every driver was in the same car, it’d be impossible to objectively claim that one driver is the best. I have watched every F1 race each of the above 5 drivers have competed in, and yet, my verdict still came down to a subjective opinion which is worth no more than any other individual.
Comparing F1 drivers on the same grid, and especially across generations, is something that we will never be able to do successfully nor accurately. I guess the fun of it lies exactly in that.