The star drivers of the 1990s can be roughly placed into 2 groups. Firstly there are the old hands. Prost, Senna, Mansell and Piquet were all fundamentally 80s drivers. By the middle of the 90s they had all retired (with the exception of Senna, who of course suffered an untimely death). Secondly there are the mid-late 90s stars: Hill, Villeneuve, Häkkinen, Schumacher and Frentzen. They all debuted in the beginning of the decade, and won almost every race from 1994 onwards. Curiously, only Schumacher carried significant success into the 2000s, making the mid-late 90s feel quite distinct from the periods before and afterwards.
Following on from the 2010s and 2000s here we present a supergrid of the top 20 drivers of the 1990s. As with the previous posts, the drivers are ranked by their second best year of the decade from a mathematical model. Years outside of 1990-1999 are not directly counted, but are indirectly used to assess how strong different drivers are in general. A driver needs at least 3 years F1 experience, with at least 2 full years within the decade in question. The drivers are ranked into tiers that provide a bit of context as to how close drivers are to each other.
20) Eddie Irvine
Irvine made an immediate impression in the sport, scoring a point on his debut race for Jordan in 1993. However, this achievement was overshadowed by his angering of Ayrton Senna when being lapped, which resulted in Senna throwing a punch at Irvine after the race. His start to 1994 was no less controversial, as he was handed a one-race ban at the opening race for causing a collision (he protested the ban, only to see it increased to 3 races). After this things settled down, and he remained at Jordan until the end of 1995, despite being outscored by Rubens Barrichello. For 1996, Irvine was chosen to partner Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, an unenviable task. His 1996 season started strongly, out qualifying Schumacher on their Ferrari debuts and racing to a podium. However, he scored only 3 more points finishes that year and failed to finish 9 races in a row. His form and results steadily improved over his 4 year stint at Ferrari, and by 1999 he finally became a race winner (prior to this he’d scored 82 pts vs Schumacher’s 223, and 0 wins vs Schumacher’s 14). His 1999 title bid was due to a combination of factors: a more competitive car, McLaren’s poor reliability, mistakes from rival Häkkinen, Schumacher missing much of the season and team orders finally working in his favour. However, the model also recognises that this was his strongest season, with 4 victories and a further 5 podiums.
19) Mika Salo
After an end of season debut with Lotus, Salo raced for 3 years with the Tyrrell team. Whilst neither of his teammates managed to score points in this period, Sato finished in the points 7 times, with at least one 5th place every year. As his cars were generally uncompetitive, he’d often require unusual circumstances or strategies to get the job done (his 5th place at Monaco 1997 was achieved by driving for 2 hours in the rain without a pitstop, for example). In 1998 he raced against Diniz at Arrows, finishing the season with 3 points apiece in an unreliable car. Salo’s big break came in 1999 when he was chosen as a temporary Ferrari driver to replace the injured Schumacher. He achieved 2 podiums in 6 races, and almost certainly would have won in Germany without team orders. However, he never again got an opportunity in a race winning car.
18) Martin Brundle
Although he’s now more well known for his commentating, Brundle had a long racing career. His most competitive season was in 1992, when he raced for the up-and-coming Benetton team. He achieved 5 podiums and kept teammate Michael Schumacher honest (38pts to Schumacher’s 53pts), but was not retained by the team. Team boss Briatore later regretted this decision, saying that he had not appreciated just how special Schumacher was (and therefore how competent Brundle was by comparison). The model thinks he would have probably won races for the team across 1994-1995 had he been retained, but as it was he ended his F1 career winless. Brundle raced against another future world champion in the form of Mika Häkkinen in 1994 and was similarly outclassed (13pts vs Häkkinen’s 26pts), but was much closer to teammate Blundell during their 2 years together (1991 and 1993). Finally, he spent 1995 at Ligier and a final year at Jordan in 1996, acting as a benchmark for the younger talents of Panis and Barrichello.
17) Giancarlo Fisichella
After half a season with backmarkers Minardi, Fisichella moved to Jordan against rookie Ralf Schumacher. He outscored the German 20pts to 13pts, including a quality wet weather drive at Spa. For the next few years he raced with Benetton, which unfortunately coincided with a major dip in their performance. Nevertheless, Fisichella was still performing at a reasonably high level, and easily outscored teammate Wurz across their 3 years together. At the end of the decade Giancarlo seemed like a driver with a bright future ahead of him, but he never quite delivered on his promising first few seasons in F1.
16) Rubens Barrichello
Debuting in 1993, Rubens raced with Jordan for several years, and outscored teammates Boutsen, Irvine and Brundle. In 1997 he joined the brand new Stewart team. The car was horribly unreliable, but he showed his wet weather skills with a mature drive to 2nd place in Monaco. He easily beat Jan Magnussen across the next 2 years, before similarly outpacing Herbert in 1999. At this point Barrichello was one of the most experienced drivers never to win a race, a situation he quickly rectified in the 2000s at Ferrari. Although Barrichello had a positive scoring record against many teammates, he’s still not considered a top 90s driver. This is mainly because none of his teammates are particularly highly rated either, with Herbert missing out on a spot in this list and Irvine only scraping in. He was also consistently decent across the 90s, without any standout seasons, which works against him based on the assessment criteria of each driver’s 2nd best year.
15) Thierry Boutsen
Boutsen started the decade with Williams, taking his last victory at the 1990 Hungarian Grand Prix and beating teammate Patrese in the points standings (34pts vs 23pts) that year. He was replaced by Mansell for 1991, the man he had originally taken the place of at Williams. This was unfortunate timing given Williams had a significantly stronger car in the years before and after he raced for them, and he was somewhat unfortunate that Patrese was the one to be maintained. He saw out his career in lower midfield cars, competing in a struggling Ligier for 2 years (it took until his last race for the team for him to score points). He raced for Jordan in 1993, against a young Ruben Barrichello, but he lost his drive before the season’s end.
14) Érik Comas
Comas was a French driver that always drove French cars. This type of nationalism is rare in F1 these days, although it does still exist. Whilst he scored just 7 points in a 4 year career, Comas had a relatively strong record versus his teammates (scoring 4pts at Ligier vs Boutsen’s 2pts, for example). He also had a relatively impressive junior career, storming to the 1990 F3000 championship after losing out to Jean Alesi the previous year on count back. Due to uncompetitive cars, a bloated grid and teammate changes at Larrousse (he had 4 different teammates in 1994 alone), the model is uncertain of his ultimate abilities, but all the evidence suggests that he would have been competitive if given an opportunity.
13) Olivier Panis
Panis was another French driver who drove in French cars. He outscored many teammates in the middle of the decade, including Martin Brundle. He’s best remembered as the victor in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, a race of attrition in which only 3 cars finished. The start of the 1997 season was arguably even better, and he was lying 3rd in the championship after 6 races, despite having only the 5th best car. Injuries from a crash at the next race in Canada put him out for most of the rest of the year, and he was still suffering from the after effects of the injuries in the 1998 season too. Meanwhile, the form of the Prost car was getting worse, and he found Jarno Trulli to be a significantly more challenging teammate than he’d previously faced.
12) Mika Häkkinen
Häkkinen is a contender for the most successful and iconic 90s driver, with 2 drivers championships and 14 wins. His early seasons showed promise, and he famously outqualified teammate Senna in his first race for McLaren. He also recovered from a major accident during 1995, and his successful career was by no means guaranteed: It wasn’t until the end of his 7th Formula One season that he first won a race. Even then, he was gifted the win in blizzard circumstances. His second victory came at the next race, were we was again let through by teammate Coulthard in odd circumstances. However, he won a further 7 times in 1998 and quickly opened up a championship lead. When Schumacher and Ferrari closed the gap as the season progressed, Häkkinen was up for the challenge and produced perhaps his finest drives with victory at Nürburgring despite being behind both Ferrari’s at the start of the race. The 1998 title was his, and he followed it up with another title the following year. So why is a double world champion only ranked 12th? Whilst the model thinks that 1998 was his peak, it also concludes that he had a significant car advantage over Schumacher for most of the season. He is also considered lucky to retain the title in 1999 given his inconsistent season. Meanwhile, his early career in midfield cars is full of potential but often lacking in points finishes that are crucial for the model.
11) Damon Hill
Hill started in F1 at a late age, but quickly found himself in a championship winning Williams in 1993. Whilst the European GP is rightly remembered for a dominant wet weather victory from Aryton Senna, Damon Hill also had a strong race, being the only other driver to finish on the lead lap. It was the first of several strong weather weather drives, something Hill is not regularly given credit for. Although he was never seriously in championship contention in 1993, Hill outscored teammate Prost in the second half of the season. His role as a strong second driver was upended in 1994 due to the death of new teammate Senna, and Hill was thrust into the role of team leader. He thrashed new teammate Coulthard and took the title to the final round (due to a strong wet win in Japan) before controversially colliding with title rival Schumacher in the title decider. 1995 was more messy, although he still held a significant advantage over Coulthard throughout. In 1996 he went up against rookie Villeneuve in a dominant car and duly won the title, but by this point Williams decided to replace him for 1997. As a world champion, Hill had several options for 1997, but ultimately went with Arrows. The start of the season was disastrous, with Hill’s qualifying performance only just enough to enter the race, before his car failed on the parade lap. However, the car was semi-competitive in certain circumstances, and Hill almost won in Hungary after a fantastic drive. In 1998-1999 Hill drove for Jordan, and won their first race in the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix. By 1999 Hill was demotivated and desperate to retire, leading him to be easily beaten by teammate Frentzen.
10) Jarno Trulli
After starting his career in an uncompetitive Minardi in 1997, Trulli was quickly upgraded to the Prost team, replacing the injured Panis. He lead for parts of the Austrian Grand Prix and was still on course for a podium finish when his engine blew. He remained at Prost for the rest of the decade, and outscored teammate Panis (8pts vs 2pts) despite a significant gap in experience. However, the 6 point gap between them can be explained by an incredibly unlikely podium at the 1999 European Gran Prix, after many front runners and midfield drivers hit trouble. At the following race his engine blew at the start from 18th on the grid, serving as harsh return to reality. He actually retired from more races than he finished across 1998-1999, demonstrating how the team shifted focus from performance and reliability to mere survival.
9) Nigel Mansell
After being easily outraced by Prost at Ferrari in 1990, Mansell spent the 1991-1992 season with the Williams team. In 1991 a poor start to the year put him three wins behind eventual champion Senna in the first 3 races, and he was unable to bridge the gap despite a strong middle part of the season. The model considers the Williams to be slightly better than Senna’s McLaren, but still rates Mansell’s season relatively highly. In 1992 his Williams car was dominant, and he stormed to the 1992 title, making it look all too easy after more than one near miss during the 1980s. He then retired, only to make two brief cameos. In 1994 he was somewhat successful with Williams (winning the season finale after Schumacher and Hill collided) before an utterly forgetful McLaren stint in 1995.
8) Gerhard Berger
Berger drove for 3 top teams in the 90s (McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton). At McLaren he proved to be not quite up to Senna’s level (135pts vs 224pts in their time together), but he still helped the team win the constructors title in 1990 and 1991. From 1993-1997 he raced alongside Jean Alesi, both at Ferrari and Benetton. Neither team produced championship winning cars, with Ferrari in particular going through a dry patch. After missing 3 races in 1997 and seeing his replacement Wurz impressing, Berger had the ultimate comeback with pole, fastest lap and victory in Germany. It was his last victory and podium in F1.
7) Nelson Piquet
Piquet was yet another 80s star whose career continued into the first few years of the 90s. Despite his age, the model thinks that he continued to perform at a relatively high level. Driving for upper-midfield team Benetton, he only once finished outside the points in 1990, which included victories at the final 2 races of the year. 1991 was similarly competitive, with Piquet taking his final victory in Canada. He easily outscored both teammates Nannini and Moreno during this period, before being put up against a rookie Michael Schumacher at the tail end of the season. Schumacher and Piquet were closely matched in their 5 races together, despite the vast experience gap, and Piquet retired at the end of the season.
6) Heinz-Harold Frentzen
Frentzen first 3 years were spent at Sauber, and his career was full of early promise. His 2nd year in 1995 was particularly strong, scoring 15 of the teams 18 points, including a podium finish. In 1996 the car was less competitive, but he still outscored teammate Herbert (7pts vs 4pts). He was brought into the dominant Williams team to replace outgoing champion Hill for 1997, with expectations that he would challenge for the title too. Although he had the best car, it was his weakest season. He won just 1 race to his teammate Villeneuve’s 7, although he was much closer on podium finishes (7 vs 8). He matched Villeneuve in 1998, but by that time the car was back in the midfield. In 1999 he moved to Jordan, where he thrashed an ageing and demoralised Hill, launching a championship campaign on what was barely the 3rd best car. The model considers this to be the best performance of the year. The assessment from the 90s agrees with the previous analysis of Frentzen from the 2000s: he could be an absolute top performer, but lacked consistency year-to-year.
5) Jean Alesi
At the start of the decade Alesi was heralded as a star of the future. His strong start to the 1990 season was a false dawn. He scored two 2nd places in the first 4 races, and no points after that. For 1991 he moved to Ferrari, but was outpaced by teammate and future team boss Alain Prost (34pts vs 21pts). As noted previously, Alesi is ranked as the best performer of 1992, but this coincided with a slump in Ferrari’s performances. For the next 5 years he was paired with Gerhard Berger at Ferrari and Benetton, with the two were closely matched. Alesi outscored Berger in 1993, 1995 and 1996, whilst Berger scored more in 1994 and 1997. Alesi won the 1995 Canadian GP, his only F1 victory despite scoring 32 podiums. Given that everyone above him on this list won at least 1 championship in the 90s (along with 3 world champions below him), he can be added to a long list of unfulfilled talent. Alesi saw out the decade with midfield team Sauber, easily outscoring Johnny Herbert in 1998 (9pts vs 1pt).
4) Jacque Villeneuve
Villeneuve had one of the greatest debut seasons of all time, winning 4 races and taking the championship fight to the final round against teammate Hill. In his second season he won 7 times and took the title, despite being involved in several costly accidents and a disqualification, easily beating teammate Frentzen. The 1998 season was quieter as Williams fell into the upper-midfield, but he still maintained a (slim) advantage over Frentzen. At the end of the decade, he moved to the brand new BAR team for 1999. Expectations were high, and team boss Richards claimed they’d be race winners from the off. What followed was nothing short of an embarrassment, with Villeneuve retiring from every one of the first 11 races. His career never properly recovered, even though there’s evidence his form at BAR was still strong.
British drivers Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard won races during the 90s and miss out, with the model believing that they underperformed in championship winning cars. Herbert was teammates to 6 drivers on this list across his career (Häkkinen, Schumacher, Frentzen, Alesi, Barrichello and Irvine), and was outscored by every one of them. Coulthard had the near impossible job of replacing Senna mid-season at Williams, but even taking into account his inexperience and mid season start, the model thinks his performance was poor. Only once in the 90s did he outscore a teammate (Häkkinen in 1997), although even then he was significantly behind Mika Häkkinen in subsequent years.
Finally, Alex Caffi is considered good enough for a top 20 slot, but he only raced for 2 seasons in the 90s, and in one of them he failed to qualify for the race more often than not, making him ineligible.
3) Alain Prost
It feels a little odd to analyse Prost starting with 1990, given that it cuts his rivalry with Aryton Senna (which started in 1988) in half. The story of Prost and Senna is well documented, so let’s put it aside and focus on his achievements. Prost won 5 races in 1990 despite not getting a single pole position (teammate Mansell won just once). He was then partnered with the up-and-coming talent of Jean Alesi for 1991 and outscored him too before Ferrari took the unusual decision to fire him after a relatively uncompetitive season saw their relationship break down. After a year out in 1992, Prost returned with Williams. He won 7 of the first 10 races and cruised to his final title in a dominant car, despite being 38 years old and in a comeback year. He went on to become team boss of the Prost team (formally Ligier), although they slipped down the order as the decade progressed.
2) Aryton Senna
The model considers Prost to stronger than rival Senna overall, but Aryton gets a higher rank for 1990s performances. His championship years of 1990 and 1991 are both ranked very strongly (despite his intentional crash into rival Prost in 1990 to seal the title). 1992 is considered a weaker season as teammate Berger nearly equalled him on points. This is partly due to bad luck, but other distractions and frustrations at McLaren’s lack of performance had a role to play too. His final year at McLaren saw a legendary win at Donnington and several other strong performances, but he moved to Williams for 1994 as McLaren were no longer able to challenge for titles. Had he survived, the model thinks he likely would have won in 1994, although there are too many variables (such changing regulations and penalties for Schumacher) to realistically answer the question definitively,
1) Michael Schumacher
It’s no surprise to see Schumacher at the number 1 spot. The model thinks he was the best performer 5 times in the 1990s. He also won 2 world championships and took the title to the final round another two times, despite rarely having the best car. Although Schumacher had even more success in the 2000s, the lions share of his most legendary drives occurred in the 90s. He obliterated teammates such as Irvine, Herbert and Verstappen. At Benneton he won 19 races vs his teammates total of 2, whilst at Ferrari the tally stood at 16 wins vs 2 wins. From 1994 until the end of the decade, the model thinks that Schumacher held a significant advantage over every other driver. Whether this is an argument in favour of Schumacher being the GOAT or against it is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that he was the defining driver of the decade.
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