Tag Archives: best drivers

A graph of the best, 3rd best and 5th best qualifying performers each season. Whilst the peak performance is quite erratic, 3rd and 5th best show a steady improvement across the deacdes.

Who Is The Fastest F1 Driver Ever? A Mathematical Analysis

After looking at the greatest F1 drivers of all time using a mathematical model based on points scored, I have adapted the model to try to find the fastest F1 driver in qualifying. The model assigns each qualifying result a points score. Intra-team results are then compared to rate drivers, regardless of their machinery. Read on to find the fastest F1 driver of each generation, and how they compare to each other.

  1. How Does The Model Work?
  2. Summary of Results
  3. Are Drivers Getting Faster Over Time?
  4. 1950-1957
  5. 1958-1961
  6. 1962-1967 
  7. 1968-1972
  8. 1973-1979
  9. 1980-1984
  10. 1985-1993
  11. 1994-2006
  12. 2007-2016 
  13. 2017-2023
  14. The end of driver dominance?
  15. Summary of Eras
  16. Comparisons to F1’s own model
  17. Conclusions

How Does The Model Work?

The model compares qualifying results for teammates across F1 history to assign ratings for an driver’s career overall, as well as individual seasons. It uses the qualifying position of each driver at every grand prix in F1 history. I have used a modern F1 points system to assign values to the results, so first in qualifying would be worth 25 points, second would be 18 points etc. Fractional points are awarded for results lower than 10th. A summary of what the F1 championships would look like with these qualifying results can be found here and here. The inputs for the model are:

  1. The percentage of the points that two team-mates score relative to each other each year.
  2. The fraction of the year they spent as team mates.
  3. How the points they scored compared to the maximum available.
  4. The drivers ages.

The idea is functionally the same as the mathematical model used for race results. However, there are some differences. For example, the expected results for cars of different levels of competitiveness is not the same, given a driver that qualifies poorly in a fast car is likely to make up places in the race. Another difference is that a lack of experience is generally less of a factor in qualifying.

The model allows for drivers in different cars and eras to be compared, as only results compared to a teammate are considered. For reference, a performance score of 100 an average year for Lewis Hamilton.

What Counts as a Qualifying Result?

In most cases, the starting grid for the race will strongly resemble the points drivers are assigned in qualifying. Drivers are still punished by the model for transgressions within qualifying. These include having lap times deleted or being disqualified. However, drivers are not punished for grid penalties arising from factors outside of qualifying (e.g. engine changes or crashes in previous races). To have a season’s result count, a driver must have qualified in at least half the grand prix that year.

Results from sprint races that counted as qualifying for the grand prix are currently counted. Results from sprint qualifying for a sprint race separate from the grand prix are not.

Advantages of Using Qualifying Results

Using qualifying has several advantages over looking at race results, including:

  1. DNF are not a factor. It is rare that a driver is unable to set a qualifying time.
  2. The points system is consistent across the whole of F1 history, without worry of how a differing points system would affect results.
  3. There is less chance of random variables such as safety cars interfering with results.
  4. There are fewer instances of team order or championship considerations affecting results

Disadvantages of Using Qualifying Results

  1. Qualifying formats have significant variation over different eras.
  2. Race results arguably take the race itself and qualifying into account, meaning focus on qualifying is more limited.

Of course, we should remember that the two concepts are measuring two different things. Variations between the two does not necessarily mean that one approach is fundamentally superior. Some drivers are qualifying specialists, whereas others are better in the race. One advantage of comparing the two models is to see whether assumptions about a driver’s preference hold water.

So who is ranked as the fastest F1 driver each year?

Summary of Results

YearBest QualifierActual Champion
1950Juan Manuel FangioGiuseppe Farina (2nd)
1951Juan Manuel FangioJuan Manuel Fangio
1952Alberto AscariAlberto Ascari
1953Juan Manuel FangioAlberto Ascari (2nd)
1954Juan Manuel FangioJuan Manuel Fangio
1955Juan Manuel FangioJuan Manuel Fangio
1956Juan Manuel FangioJuan Manuel Fangio
1957Juan Manuel FangioJuan Manuel Fangio
1958Stirling MossMike Hawthorn (2nd)
1959Stirling MossJack Brabham (3rd)
1960Stirling MossJack Brabham (5th)
1961Stirling MossPhil Hill (9th)
1962Jim ClarkGraham Hill (2nd)
1963Jim ClarkJim Clark
1964Jim ClarkJohn Surtees (2nd)
1965Jim ClarkJim Clark
1966Jim ClarkJack Brabham (8th)
1967Jim ClarkDenny Hulme (9th)
1968Chris AmonGraham Hill (5th)
1969Chris AmonJackie Stewart (2nd)
1970Jackie StewartJochen Rindt (3rd)
1971Chris AmonJackie Stewart (2nd)
1972Chris AmonEmerson Fittipaldi (3rd)
1973James HuntJackie Stewart (6th)
1974James HuntEmerson Fittipaldi (4th)
1975James HuntNiki Lauda (2nd)
1976James HuntJames Hunt
1977James HuntNiki Lauda (2nd)
1978James HuntMario Andretti (2nd)
1979Keke Rosberg*Jodie Scheckter (12th)
1980Keke RosbergAlan Jones (10th)
1981Keke RosbergNelson Piquet (4th)
1982Keke RosbergKeke Rosberg
1983Alain ProstNelson Piquet (3rd)
1984Alain ProstNiki Lauda (16th)
1985Ayrton SennaAlain Prost (2nd)
1986Ayrton SennaAlain Prost (2nd)
1987Ayrton SennaNelson Piquet (3rd)
1988Ayrton SennaAyrton Senna
1989Ayrton SennaAlain Prost (2nd)
1990Ayrton SennaAyrton Senna
1991Ayrton SennaAyrton Senna
1992Ayrton SennaNigel Mansell (3rd)
1993Ayrton SennaAlain Prost (3rd)
1994Michael SchumacherMichael Schumacher
1995Michael SchumacherMichael Schumacher
1996Michael SchumacherDamon Hill (3rd)
1997Michael SchumacherJacques Villeneuve (2nd)
1998Michael SchumacherMika Häkkinen (5th)
1999Michael SchumacherMika Häkkinen (4th)
2000Michael SchumacherMichael Schumacher
2001Michael SchumacherMichael Schumacher
2002Michael SchumacherMichael Schumacher
2003Jarno TrulliMichael Schumacher (5th)
2004Michael SchumacherMichael Schumacher
2005Michael SchumacherFernando Alonso (3rd)
2006Fernando AlonsoFernando Alonso
2007Nico RosbergKimi Räikkönen (11th)
2008Nico RosbergLewis Hamilton (3rd)
2009Lewis HamiltonJenson Button (15th)
2010Nico RosbergSebastian Vettel (4th)
2011Nico RosbergSebastian Vettel (2nd)
2012Lewis HamiltonSebastian Vettel (4th)
2013Lewis HamiltonSebastian Vettel (2nd)
2014Nico RosbergLewis Hamilton (6th)
2015Max VerstappenLewis Hamilton (3rd)
2016Daniel RicciardoNico Rosberg (2nd)
2017Max VerstappenLewis Hamilton (4th)
2018Charles LeclercLewis Hamilton (4th)
2019Max VerstappenLewis Hamilton (6th)
2020Charles LeclercLewis Hamilton (6th)
2021Lando NorrisMax Verstappen (2nd)
2022Lando NorrisMax Verstappen (3rd)
2023Max VerstappenMax Verstappen

*Hunt is one race short of competing in half the races in 1979, and would be considered the fastest driver otherwise.

The world champion is ranked as the best qualifier around one third of the time. However, the world champion is rated as one of the 3 best qualifiers that year 70% of the time.

Most Successful Drivers

The model usually believes there is one driver that stands above all others in any given time period. The most successful drivers are:

DriverYears as
Top Performer
Michael Schumacher111994-2002, 2004-2005
Ayrton Senna91985-1993
Juan Manuel Fangio71950-1951, 1953-1957
Jim Clark61962-1967
James Hunt61973-1978
Nico Rosberg52007-2008, 2010-2011, 2014
Stirling Moss41958-1961
Chris Amon41968-1969, 1971-1972
Keke Rosberg41979-1982
Max Verstappen42015, 2017, 2019, 2023*
Lewis Hamilton32009, 2012, 2013
Alain Prost21983, 1984
Charles Leclerc22018, 2020
Lando Norris22021-2022
Alberto Ascari11952
Jackie Stewart11970
Jarno Trulli12003
Fernando Alonso12006
Daniel Ricciardo12016
*Season still in progress

GOATs of Qualifying

The top five drivers in the table are notable not just for the number of seasons they were the best qualifiers, but the percentage of seasons too. Fangio and Hunt are all rated the best qualifiers every year they are eligible. Senna only misses out on this accolade by a small margin in his debut year. These three drivers are therefore in a prime position to be considered the fastest F1 driver of all time. They also all have extremely high ratings compared to any era of F1.

Jim Clark only missed out on being the best qualifier in his first two seasons of F1. However, his overall rating is a little lower. Schumacher meanwhile had nine consecutive seasons of being the best qualifier (matched only by Senna). However, he missed out four times in his first career, with another three seasons in his comeback years.

As we shall see, several drivers on the current grid are in contention for the fastest F1 driver of all time. However, none of them is clearly the best of their era, unlike the drivers mentioned above.

Other Multiple World Champions

On the other end of the scale are multiple world champions without a single seasons as the the best qualifier. These include Brabham, Graham Hill, Lauda, Piquet and Häkkinen. All are still considered to be relatively competitive in qualifying relative to their era, but often lacking compared to the absolute best.

The model using race results concluded that Brabham, Hill, Piquet and Häkkinen were all somewhat flattered by their machinery. Lauda, meanwhile, is considered a racing specialist.

Are Drivers Getting Faster Over Time?

Previous analysis has suggested that the current Formula One grid is as good as its ever been. The analysis of qualifying also suggests that the quality of the grid as a whole is improving with time. Let’s look at a graph of how the best performance score has varied over the years, along with the 3rd and 5th best for comparison:

A graph of the best, 3rd best and 5th best qualifying performers each season. Whilst the peak performance is quite erratic, 3rd and 5th best show a steady improvement across the deacdes.

Since around 1970, there is a clear trend of the 5th best yearly rating improving over time. This corresponds with an overall improvement in the quality of the grid. This trend is also evident with the 3rd fastest F1 driver, with a little more volatility. For example, you can see a slight drop in the mid-1990s after Prost retires and Senna’s death. (You can also see that the 3rd and 5th best are extremely close in the mid to late 90s. This reflects the fact that the grid was very competitive behind Schumacher at this time.)

Fastest Drivers

Looking at the best performances, you can already see the peaks where the best three drivers of the 20th century raced: Fangio (1950s), Hunt (early 1970s) and Senna (late 1980s). We can also see that in the modern era the peak has reached (or even surpassed) that of any other period of F1 history. Three of the six fastest drivers in F1 are on the current grid.

Eras of F1

The history of F1 has been split into eras of dominance of different drivers. These roughly agree with those previously looked at in races, with some notable differences.

Fastest F1 Driver 1950-1957

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the 1950s. Fangio is the fastest qualifier of the era.

Juan Manuel Fangio

Fangio is rated as the fastest F1 driver in every year he raced, and one of the fastest of all time. The model believes noone matched his pace for at least 15 years after he retired. He is also remarkably consistent, especially given the lack of races in the era meaning a single bad qualifying session could cause a drip in the yearly ratings. His year ratings would still be highly competitive today, despite the aforementioned power creep. Considering he achieved almost all of this in his 40s, he may well of been the most naturally gifted F1 driver of all time.

Other Drivers

Ascari is considered an extremely capable driver. Not only is he awarded best qualifier in 1952 (when Fangio did not race), but he almost beat him the following year too.

Farina and González are the next fastest drivers in the early years of the decade. Both are ranked ahead of Ascari in one year, although neither ever get particularly close to Fangio’s level.

In the late 1950s Moss emerged as Fangio’s closest challenger. His rating is above that of everyone he raced against bar Fangio, and is therefore ranked the fastest driver multiple times after Fangio retired.

Fastest F1 Driver 1958-1961

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the late 1950s. Moss is the fastest qualifier of the era.

Stirling Moss

Four qualifying championships in a row means the model thinks Moss was the fastest of his era by a good margin. However, he is rated significantly below Fangio before him. 1960 is his peak, a season in which he secured 4 poles from 6 races and would have also been in championship contention had he not been injured at Spa.

Other Drivers

Graham Hill is usually Moss’ closest challenger. Other drivers that are considered relatively fast in this era include world champions Surtees and Brabham.

Fastest F1 Driver 1962-1967

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the 1960s. Clark is the fastest qualifier of the era.

Jim Clark

The model previously concluded that Clark was the best driver in races for six years in a row. It has now concluded that he was also the fastest qualifier for this entire era. His peak season is 1963, a season in which he had 7 poles in 10 races. For comparison, his teammates achieved a best grid slot of 7th. Clark’s only poor seasons were his first two in Formula One. However, these years hurt his overall rating relative to the absolute best of all time.

Other Drivers

The second and third strongest qualifiers of this era are thought to be John Surtees and Graham Hill.

Fastest F1 Driver 1968-1972

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the late 1960s. Amon is the fastest qualifier of the era.

Chris Amon

This is the first major difference between qualifying and race results. In races Chris Amon is considered competent enough, but it is a surprise to see him ranked as the best of his era in qualifying. A little dig into the statistics reveal why. Nineteen front row starts, including five poles, contrasts with no wins. This is partly due to his (infamous) bad luck in races, but he was clearly a qualifying specialist too.

However, the era as a whole is considered to be a relatively weak one, with no stand out drivers compared to the greats of other eras.

Jackie Stewart

Stewart is ranked as the second fastest driver of his era. In real life he was a giant of the sport, so this result is also a little surprising. However, he’s still considered to be competitive and is ranked as the best qualifier of 1970.

Other Drivers

Jochen Rindt is rated just below Jackie Stewart. In the early 1970s Ronnie Peterson delivers some consistent results. Although he is awarded no seasons as a top qualifier, he is rated as fast as Stewart or Amon overall. He’s also the 2nd fastest driver behind James Hunt on several occasions. Finally, Fittipaldi and Surtees are considered competitive across this era too.

Fastest F1 Driver 1973-1979

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the late 1970s. Hunt is the fastest qualifier of the era.

James Hunt

James Hunt is rated as one of the fastest qualifiers ever. It’s already been noted how strong his qualifying results were, but teammate comparisons are even more illuminating. Across 1975-1977 (his most competitive period) Hunt qualified on the front row half the time. His teammates? Not only did they never achieve this, but their median position was 13th!

His championship season of 1976 is currently rated as be the fastest ever. However, his consistency is considered less impressive than that of many other drivers, with comparatively short career peak. His race results are also considerably less impressive, partly due to a relatively high crash rate.

1979 was Hunt’s final year, and he was replaced partway through by Keke Rosberg. Hunt and Rosberg are the top 2 performers this year, but the title is gifted to Rosberg as Hunt competed in fewer than half the races.

One final thing to note is that Hunt’s career spent minimal time with a reliable teammate to compare with. This means that the error on his rating is larger than for any other driver discussed here (except Buemi).

Niki Lauda

What of Niki Lauda? He’s undoubtedly fast, and is twice rated the 2nd fastest driver behind Hunt. However, he’s considered a race specialist. The 1976 season is a clear example of this. Whilst he lost the championship at the last race, it would have been gone long before if only qualifying was considered.

His comeback years in the 1980s are even more extreme: as he won the 1984 championship despite being ranked the 16th fastest driver in qualifying. This is the lowest ranked of any world champion.

Fastest F1 Driver 1980-1984

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the early 1980s. Rosberg and Prost are the fastest qualifiers of the era.

Keke Rosberg

Following Hunt, Keke Rosberg is another diver the model thinks is stronger in qualifying. However, his four times as fastest qualifier can be somewhat attributed to timing, as they are all sandwiched in between Hunt retiring and Senna’s debut. Alain Prost is considered a close rival during this time, but not yet at his peak.

Alain Prost

Whilst Prost lacks the dominating generational success in qualifying that he achieved in races, he should still be recognised as a very fast drivers. He has a total of 33 poles and saw his form steadily improve over his first few seasons.

In 1980 his average qualifying position was 13th, with teammate Watson averaging 18th. His qualifying results further improved as he drove more competitive cars, although there was always a hint that his real skill was in racing. Despite this, he outqualified competitive teammates during this period (Watson, Arnoux, and Cheever).

By 1984 he partnered Niki Lauda and thoroughly trounced him in qualifying, despite losing the title by half a point. From the information available at the time it might appear as though Prost would dominate the next decade of qualifying.

Other Drivers

De Angelis is considered very close to both Rosberg and Prost throughout this period. World Champions Piquet and Mansell are rated the next best drivers. Their peaks across their career around high as those of Rosberg and de Angelis, although achieved later on.

Fastest F1 Driver 1985-1993

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the late 1980s. Senna is the fastest qualifier of the era.

Ayrton Senna

Whilst Senna is rightly ranked as one of the top racers of his era, he is considered incredibly dominant in qualifying. For nine consecutive years he’s rated as the fastest qualifier in the sport, often by large margins.

Senna’s yearly scores during this period also put him in pole position for the fastest driver ever (if you’ll pardon the pun). In the 20th century only Hunt is comparable, and even then only for a couple of seasons. (Hunt has a larger margin to the rest of the grid though, as he raced in a weaker era overall.) With the aforementioned power creep a few current drivers are able to produce similar scores to Senna, but even then none are obviously superior.

The only blemish is a slight dip in Senna’s rating at the start of the 1990s. For example, in 1990 his 11 front row starts (from 16 races) compares favorably to Berger on 9, but perhaps not by as much as one might expect.

Alain Prost

Prost is considered to have raised his game in the mid 1980s. After thrashing Lauda, his rating slowly drops off, but he still consistently ranked the 2nd fastest driver until Schumacher joined the grid in the early 1990s.

Other Drivers

Keke Rosberg maintains his status as one of the best qualifiers in the mid 1980s, followed by Mansell and Piquet taking a year apiece as best of the rest. We then have four consecutive years of Gehard Berger being ranked as the third best qualifier. His qualifying performances versus Senna are considered not far away from what Prost managed a couple of years beforehand. The upwards tick in performance of “next best driver” starting in 1992 is from Schumacher, who became a defining driver of the 1990s.

Fastest F1 Driver 1994-2006

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the late 1990s. Schumacher is the fastest qualifier of the era.

Michael Schumacher

On the fact of it Schumacher picked up where Senna left off, dominating qualifying by significant margins. However, he was never really able to challenge Senna in qualifying when the two of them raced together. That’s not to dismiss his qualifying prowess though; he’s considered faster than all other F1 drivers before him bar Fangio, Hunt and Senna.

In race trim Schumacher’s 1999 season was rated quite poorly, but this is not the case in qualifying. This suggests that his overall performance was still strong, with a couple of messy races significantly affecting his ranking due to his curtailed season.

2003 was considered to be a comparitively weak year for Schumacher, which is in agreement with the race results. He was outqualified by teammate Barrichello six times in the last seven races, leaving him ranked 5th in qualifying. However, his rating not far from fastest qualifier Trulli’s. His final seasons (including the dominant 2004) are rated below his absolute peak, but are still competitive.

Other Drivers

The mid-late 90s features a gaggle of other drivers behind Schumacher, with Alesi, Barrichello, Berger, Frentzen, Häkkinen, Hill and Villeneuve all extremely closely rated. Had Schumacher not been racing the model it would have been an competitive era.

The model thinks that after Senna’s death in 1994, Schumacher never raced against a driver as fast as him during his first career. However, you can see the ranking of the “next best driver” steadily increase as the 90s drivers were replaced by a new generation. Alonso is strongest the best of these overall, and his. 2006 season allowed him to take a title of fastest qualifier. Trulli, Heidfeld, Räikkönen, Massa and Button are rated the best of those behind Alonso.

However, all of these drivers were considered slower than new drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

Fastest F1 Driver 2007-2016

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the 2010s. Rosberg and Hamilton are the fastest qualifiers of the era.

Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton are considered the top qualifiers for almost a decade. This includes periods where both drivers had midfield cars, along with the start of the dominant Mercedes era.

Nico Rosberg

Rosberg edges out Hamilton as the best qualifier of this era overall. After a mixed debut year against Webber, he excelled in 2007, making Q3 11 times compared to his teammates’s zero. He then easily beat Nakajima across 2008-2009.

Rosberg’s peak is considered to be across 2010-2011 against Schumacher, although their final year together is less impressive. We then got to see Rosberg and Hamilton together at Mercedes. In qualifying they were closely matched. The stats indicate that Hamilton may have held a small edge in raw pace, with Rosberg being more consistent. For example, Rosberg qualified on the front row at every race in 2016, a feat that no one else has achieved the mid 1990s.

Whilst the two rivals are closely matched in qualifying, Hamilton is considered to be slightly stronger in race trim.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton is ranked the fastest driver three times: 2009, 2012, 2013. Interestingly in none of these seasons did he win the driver’s title! In his debut year heoutranked teammate Alonso. This is obviously impressive, although it is not considered an exceptional year by his lofty standards. This is due to Alonso being rated a significantly better racer than qualifier.

In 2009 Hamilton starred in qualifying, and would have actually won the championship if points were given on Saturday. He also easily beat Button every year (despite a drip in performance in 2011). Subsequent dips in 2014 and 2016 are mainly due to just a handful of races where he failed to reach Q3. Overall, Hamilton is seen as extremely consistent across his career. This has continued beyond 2016, although the model thinks that he is no longer likely to be ranked best qualifier again due to an improving grid.

Sebastian Vettel

Vettel is considered to be the 3rd fastest driver of the era. His average across the era is just a whisker behind Hamilton, as shown by the graph below. If anything this chart slightly underestimates Vettel, as it considers his mid-season debut in 2007 to be a full season. Overall, Vettel is unlucky not to have a single year as the best performer. His strongest years are 2011 and 2013 (probably unsurprisingly).

Box plot or Rosberg, Hamilton and Vettel's qualifying ratings. There is considerable overlap, but the clear trend is Rosberg > Hamilton > Vettel
Performances of drivers from 2007-2016

Fernando Alonso

As previously covered, Alonso is rated as the greatest racer of the era. His qualifying form is still considered strong, but leaves him (on average) the forth fastest driver. Whilst there is a gap to the top three, he is ranked ahead of at least one them most years.

Alonso has one of the largest preferences towards races over qualifying of any driver. On the current grid, it is unique among top talents. Even historically it is not common, with only Alain Prost and Niki Lauda having comparable differences.

Räikkönen and Button

World champions Button and Raikkonen are not considered to be top qualifiers of the era. Button in particular is stronger in races. He’s rated as only the 15th best qualifier in 2009, which is the second worst result for a championship winning season. This is despite four pole positions, emphasising how much he struggled as the season progressed .

Whilst being beaten by Hamilton in qualifying might be expected, Button also struggled to get on top of teammates Pérez and Magnussen (2013-2014). This is despite comfortably out scoring both of them in races.

Raikkonen is also a driver that the model thinks leans more towards races, although by a smaller amount. He’s the 11th best qualifier in his championship year, but had some stronger seasons earlier in his career at McLaren.

Other Drivers

Ricciardo is a very strong qualifier overall, being ranked ahead of his teammate’s every year he raced during this period. His initial debut half season in 2011 is deemed inconclusive given the uncompetitive nature of the car. However, he quickly found his form, and outqualified quality teammates Vettel (2014) and Verstappen (2016).

Other drivers that deserved mentions include Kubica, who was considered to be the fifth fastest on the grid before his accident. Meanwhile Buemi is rated as one of the top qualifiers of 2009. This is due to a couple of strong results at the end of the season in an uncompetitive car. Finally, the model believes that Michael Schumacher’s comeback was probably underrated. Whilst his 2012 “pole” lap in Monaco is remembered, it was not a one-off: He is rated the 2nd fastest driver in his final year.

Fastest F1 Driver 2017-2023

Graph is showing F1 qualifying performance in the 2020s. Verstappen, Norris and Leclerc are the fastest qualifiers of the era so far.

Max Verstappen

Verstappen exploded out of the gates, being ranked the fastest driver in 2015 by beating Sainz in qualifying. In 2016 he was moved to Red Bull, and was initially beaten by Ricciardo before steadily gaining the upper hand across the following seasons.

Since 2017 he has been a consistently great qualifier, beating Ricciardo, Gasly, Albon and Pérez. He is on course for his 3rd season as the best qualifier in this year. Verstappen’s peaks are not thought to be as high as Norris’ or Leclerc’s, but he is considered more consistent and less reliant on teammates having poor seasons. There is also the ominous trend of his performances appearing to improve over time.

Lando Norris

Whilst Norris was resoundingly beaten in points by Sainz in their time together at McLaren, the pair were roughly level in qualifying. Since then, he easily beat Ricciardo across 2021-2022 with an even bigger margin than seen in races. These two years are rated as some of the fastest in F1 history. As with his race performances, exactly how much of this is down to Ricciardo’s struggles is hard to tell.

Charles Leclerc

Leclerc is another candidate for the fastest current driver in qualifying. His qualifying statistics may have been boosted by Ferrari also often being more competitive in qualifying, but he’s outqualified every teammate he’s had. As with races, his 2020 season is considered his peak and also rated as one of the best performances ever.

Other Drivers

All three of the above drivers are in contention for the fastest F1 driver of all time. Given this, even drivers ranked a little below them are considered incredibly fast by historical standards. Hamilton and Alonso have already been discussed. Both their performances are fairly steady over the last few years, although they have been overtaken by the new generation.

Ricciardo remained a strong qualifier until his McLaren years, but it remains to be seen whether he will bounce back at his new team. Finally, Sainz, Russell and Piastri have impressed at times, and are all rated highly.

The end of driver dominance?

2002 was the last time a driver was ranked as the absolute fastest for three or more consecutive seasons. Since then we have seen multiple drivers compete for the title of fastest. Previous eras of close competition have been characterised by low ratings (e.g. the late 1960s). It is a unique time in F1 history to see exceptional performances and close ratings between multiple drivers.

It may be that as the grid improves, as a whole, it becomes harder for one driver to truly dominate in the way the model thinks they have in the past.

Summary of Eras

SeasonsFastest DriversNext Fastest Driver(s)
1950-1957FangioAscari, Moss
1958-1961MossG. Hill, Surtees
1962-1967ClarkG. Hill, Surtees
1973-1978HuntPeterson, Lauda
1979-1983K. RosbergProst, de Angelis
1994-2006SchumacherAlesi, Villeneuve, Trulli, Alsono
2007-2016Rosberg/HamiltonVettel, Ricciardo
2017-2023Leclerc/Norris/VerstappenSainz, Russell, Hamilton, Ricciardo

Qualifying Specialists

The balance between qualifying and racing is one of the intrigues of Formula One. It is a pointless debate whether the greatest driver would lean towards qualifying, races, or neither, but it is still interesting to see the differences.

Amon, Hunt and Senna are the three most significant examples of qualifying specialists. They are rated the best qualifier in a combined 20 seasons, compared to just 3 times for the best driver overall. Amon is considered to be the most extreme example. However Hunt and Senna are perhaps more noteworthy. This is not only because of their success in F1, but also because their qualifying peak is that much higher.

Other drivers with smaller tendencies towards qualifying include Moss, Clark, Keke Rosberg, Nico Rosberg, Ricciardo, Leclerc and Norris. There are of course many other examples. Hülkenberg and Bottas are two other drivers on the current grid that lean towards qualifying more than races. Unsurprisingly, qualifying specialists generally have more poles than race wins or fastest laps.

Qualifying SpecialistPolesWinsFastest Laps
K. Rosberg553
N. Rosberg302320

Racing Specialists

There are four multiple world champions that are considered significantly stronger in races than qualifying: Stewart, Lauda, Prost and Alonso. All four are still good qualifiers for their era, just not quite the best. Prost in particular is ranked strongly, as the 2nd best qualifier for almost the entire 1980s.

Jenson Button is another notable driver with a heavy lean towards races over qualifying. Unsurprisingly, race specialists generally have fewer poles than race wins or fastest laps.

Racing SpecialistPolesWinsFastest Laps

In general being significantly better in races than qualifying is a rare trait for top line drivers. The reverse being true for drivers that are considered “good” but not top tier. Pérez is a good example on the current grid.

Even Split

Other drivers in contention for the greatest of all time are considered roughly equal in qualifying and races. These include Fangio, Moss, Clark, Schumacher, Hamilton and Verstappen.

DriverPolesWinsFastest Laps

Comparisons to F1’s own model

A few years ago Formula1.com published the results of a model to reveal the fastest qualifiers since 1983. The results had some similarities those presented here. For example, Senna is considered the fastest driver. In addition, drivers such as Mansell, Hill and Häkkinen do not feature in the top 20 despite dominating seasons in qualifying.

Whilst differences exist, some can be easily explained. For example, Norris and Verstappen are probably rated slightly lower due to the last couple of years of data not being available at the time.

However, other differences are harder to explain. One common complaint of F1s conclusion is the surprise of seeing Heikki Kovalainen as the 8th fastest qualifier. My model sees him as a slightly better qualifier than racer, but not exceptional at either. There are two potential reasons for this discrepancy. Firstly, both models account for Kovalainen easily beat Trulli in qualifying at Caterham. However, the model I’ve used considers seasons with highly uncompetitive cars less important, meaning these seasons do not affect his overall rating quite as much.

Secondly, there is general clump of drivers with common teammates that are rated higher. This includes Kovalainen, Trulli, Button, Alonso and Fisichella. The exact reasons for this are hard to ascertain.

I plan to do a complete ranking of best ever drivers in qualifying at some point in the future that will explore this more.


-Ayrton Senna and James Hunt are considered to be the two best qualifiers of all time. This is based on both their performance scores compared to different eras of F1 and the way they dominated their own era.

-Juan Manuel Fangio is not far behind, and is the 3rd fastest driver of the 20th century. He is also considered to be a stronger racer than either Senna or Hunt, despite having a clear age disadvantage at the time he competed in Formula One.

-Several other drivers are rated as the fastest F1 driver of their era. These include Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Michael Schumacher.

-The current generation of Formula One drivers are, as a collective, considered to be the fastest ever. In particular Norris, Leclerc and Verstappen are rated as three of the fastest F1 qualifiers of all time.

-However, it is not clear who (if anyone), is the fastest current qualifier. Norris and Leclerc currently have high seasonal peaks, but this may be partly due to their highly rated teammates underperforming. Verstappen’s performances are so far more consistent.

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