The 1980s are often fondly remembered by older F1 fans. Safety standards increased considerably across the decade (although there were still several fatalities) and the battles of Prost and Senna have become legendary. The likes of Mansell, Piquet and Gilles Villeneuve are also regularly mentioned as fan favourites. But who comes out on top?
Following on from the 2010s, 2000s and 1990s, here we present a supergrid of the top 20 drivers of the 1980s. As with the previous posts, the drivers are ranked by their second best year of the decade from a mathematical model. Years outside of 1980-1989 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 to provide some context as to how close drivers are to each other.
20) Derek Warwick
Warwick never progressed out of midfield teams, with his best championship result being 7th in 1984. (This year that features all 4 of his podiums). However, his early F1 career showed potential in uncompetitive cars, and he has the distinction of being vetoed for a Lotus drive by Aryton Senna, who thought he may be too strong a teammate. The models thinks that Senna would have been able to handle Warwick relatively easily (ironically more so than his actual teammate). However, Warwick would still probably have been in contention for some stronger results had he got the drive. More recently Warwick has worked as the driver-steward at F1 races.
19) Jacque Laffiti
Laffiti had a surprisingly long F1 career considering that he only debuted in his 30s. His peak is considered to be 1981, where he easily outscored his 3 teammates and launched an unlikely title bid in a Ligier. He eventually fell just 6 points short of champion Piquet. His performances subsequently dropped off as age caught up to him, subsequently being easily outscored by teammates Cheever and Rosberg.
18) Eddie Cheever
Cheever is the most experienced American F1 driver, with 143 race entries. His top rated season is 1982, where he outscored Laffiti (above). However, the next year was his most successful, scoring 4 podiums in 1983 for Renault alongside Alain Prost. (Prost, unsurprisingly came out on top in that battle.) For the most part he did not have particularly competitive machinery at his disposal. He was also particularly unlucky when it came to reliability. His three years against Derek Warwick showed the pair to be closely matched, with Cheever coming out ahead in 2 years out of the 3 but behind 20-27 in points.
17) Ricciardo Patrese
For almost 20 years Patrese held the record for most grand prix starts. During that time he spent several years in competitive cars. Whilst he initially outscored Piquet in 1982, Piquet easily outraced his teammate in the more competitive and reliable car the next year. Patrese was then closely matched with less competitive teammates (including Cheever and Warwick, above) in subsequent years despite further poor reliability. By the end of the decade he was in a Williams. Here he achieved a career best championship finish of 3rd in 1989 behind Prost and Senna in the McLaren.
16) Michele Alboreto
Another driver with a long F1 career, featuring 5 years at Ferrari. Alboreto’s peak was undoubtedly 1985, where he lead the championship during the mid-season before a run of DNFs at the end of the year handed the title to Prost. Elsewhere he outscored many low ranking teammates at the start of the decade in uncompetitive cars. Finally, he was outscored by Berger in his later Ferrari years (1987-1988).
15) Stefan Johansson
Johansson raced for both Ferrari and McLaren, but couldn’t quite achieve a victory. Across 1985-1986 he raced against Alboreto, but was overall not quite up to Alboreto’s level. He was also teammates to both Senna (1984) and Prost (1987). Despite coming off second best both times, his 1987 season is ranked as his peak, as he finished the season just 16 points adrift of his teammate.
14) Carlos Reutemann
Given that he only just meets the minimum criteria for inclusion (2 full seasons in the decade), Reutemann’s relatively low ranking is probably not a true reflection of his abilities. He was relatively closely matched with Alan Jones across 1980-1981 (with a slight advantage to Jones overall). During this time he came painfully close to winning the 1981 title before unreliability struck in the final race. He then retired 2 races into the 1982 season, despite a competitive start.
13) René Arnoux
As one of the few drivers to race across the entire decade, Arnoux gets more seasons to choose from for his ranking, and thus is perhaps slightly overrated here. His strongest season is considered to be 1982, where he finished just 6 points behind teammate Prost despite more DNFs.
12) Gilles Villeneuve
Villeneuve has become an iconic driver with some legendary drives and stories. The model considers him to be easily good enough to get on this list despite only just making the minimum criteria (2 full seasons in the 1980s). He outscored both teammates, Pironi and Scheckter, in this time. Whilst Pironi is not particularly highly rated by the model, his ability to outscore 1979 champion Scheckter shows his capabilities. Villeneuve was of course killed in a crash early into the 1982 season. The model thinks that he would have been favourite for the title that year had he survived.
11) Alan Jones
Jones’ 1980s ranking comes mainly from a comparison with teammate Reutemann at Williams across 1980-1981. Overall Jones had the edge in 1980, winning the championship. By 1981 the pair were much more closely matched, with infighting eventually allowing Nelson Piquet to beat them both. Jones’ peak performances are considered to be in the late 1970s. This means his ranking here is perhaps slightly underestimating his talents.
10) Thierry Boutsen
Boutsen raced against a range of low ranked teammates in the 1980s. His strongest teammate was probably an inexperienced Gerhard Berger in 1985, whom he outscored 11-3 in the uncompetitive Arrows. (Most of his points were from one race, where he managed to finish 2nd despite being a lap down.) His 2 most successful years of the decade were 1988-1989. In the former he performed at his peak, heavily outscoring teammate Nannini and secured 4th in the championship with a string of podiums. In the latter he achieved 2 wet weather wins for Williams. However, this year is not considered to be one of his strongest, as he was outscored by his more consistent teammate Patrese.
9) Gerhard Berger
Winning 5 races across 4 seasons in the 1980s, Berger seemed to be on the cusp of making it big. After a first full year at Arrows, he moved to Benetton. He won the penultimate race of the season in Mexico and easily outscoring teammate Fabi. He then moved to Ferrari for 1986-1989 (turning down the opportunity to race at McLaren in what turned out to be their dominant era), beating Alboreto 77-41 in points before being paired with Nigel Mansell.
A disastrous opening to the season (it took him until the 12th race to reach the finish) meant that he was outscored by a good margin. However, his 3 race finishes were a win and 2 seconds, providing a glimpse of his talent and the car’s abilities. Subsequent years vs Senna and Alesi in the 1990s would confirm that Berger was not quite top tier, but not far off.
8) Niki Lauda
Lauda may have been past his peak during in 1980s comeback, but he still turned in some strong performances. He was closely matched with John Watson during their two seasons together (although Watson outscored him both times) before being paired with Prost for 1984. He famously won the championship by half a point, despite fewer wins (5 vs 7), more DNFs (6 vs 5) and significantly worse qualifying performances than his teammate. However, his 1985 title defence was plagued by unreliability, and he retired for good at the end of the year.
7) Keke Rosberg
Rosberg’s career is a testament to changing fortunes within Formula 1, as in his first 4 seasons in the sport he had only finished in the points twice. Those 2 occasions occurred in 1980, where he outscored double world champion Emerson Fittipaldi 6-5. His championship winning season was highly unusual, with race boycotts, deaths of drivers and 11 different race winners allowing him to succeed with just a single victory. Across 1983-1984 he further showed his abilities, having the upper hand against Laffite. He then cemented his reputation by outscoring Nigel Mansell in 1985 despite suffering from more DNFs. In his final season he raced for McLaren. His return of a single podium was disappointing given that teammate Prost won the title with 4 wins and 11 podium finishes.
6) John Watson
In 1980 he raced against a rookie Alain Prost, and the pair were fairly evenly matched in a uncompetitive McLaren. He then dominated de Cesaris in 1981, before partnered with a returning Niki Lauda for 1982-1983. Watson almost won the 1982 world championship (and was 10 points clear at the half way stage of the season) and outscored Lauda in both years, although it should be noted that Lauda’s reliability in 1983 was terrible. His stats vs Prost and Lauda are incredibly impressive given their known capabilities. However, the model does not consider him to be quite as good as either driver at their peak once it considers Prost’s rookie status and the fact that Lauda was returning from a break. Watson was replaced for 1984 after asking for more money. Given that this was right as McLaren became a championship force, it was an obvious misstep in hindsight.
5) Nigel Mansell
An iconic 80s driver, Mansell fought for the championship twice. He came up short both times came up short despite having the best car. His record seems patchy at first glance (he was outscored within his team more often than not). However, this is at least partially due to the high quality level of teammates. De Angelis and Keke Rosberg both got the better of him early in his career, whilst he was closely matched with Piquet in their rivalry at Williams.
4) Nelson Piquet
Piquet was arguably the most successful driver of the decade, winning 3 titles and 20GP for Brabham and Williams. He also outscored all 8 teammates he had in the 1980s, although many of the, are not rated particularly highly. Results versus more the established drivers suggest that he was a strong driver, but not absolutely top tier. His highest ranked teammate was Nigel Mansell (1986-1987 at Williams). Their rivalry that was particularly intense, given the two of them fighting each other for the championship both years. Although Piquet had a slight edge overall (the points tally was 145-133 in his favour) and won a title, the pair were closely matched.
His other well established teammate was Patrese at Brabham. His advantage was similar to Mansell’s subsequent advantage vs Patrese in the early 1990s. Given this, it is absolutely no surprise to see Piquet and Mansell next to each other in these rankings.
3) Elio de Angelis
Although such a high placing will be a surprise to some given that he only won a couple of races across his career, but it is not without merit. In 1980 he outscored world champion Mario Andrett. Then across 1981-1984, de Angelis scored nearly double the points of teammate Nigel Mansell. For 1985 he was paired with Senna at Lotus, and held up admirably, finishing the year on 33 points compared to Senna’s 38. Unsurprisingly he was beaten much more convincingly in qualifying. When presented with these facts, it is no surprise to see him so highly ranked, even if his career didn’t have quite the success of Piquet or Mansell. De Angelis died in a crash in 1986, cutting short what could have been a very successful career.
2) Aryton Senna
Senna is of course an icon of the era, winning the 1988 season against teammate Prost in one of the most dominant driver/car combinations ever. He then was beaten by Prost in 1989, with the pair controversially colliding in Japan. Of course Senna’s results prior to joining McLaren were also stellar, with the model considering him to be extremely consistent across the decade. (His peak in the 1980s is actually in 1987 vs Nakajima). One thing to note is that the model, unlike the championship points system at the time, considers all race results. This means that Prost is considered to be the superior driver in both 1988 and 1989, despite Senna winning the championship in the same car in the first of these years.
1) Alain Prost
Prost was a absolute titan of the 1980s. Along with becoming a triple world champion, he had 4 further occasions where he missed out on the title by a slim margin. Across the 1980s he had 7 teammates. All of whom he outscored over their time together and all of whom were good enough to make this list. Three of them (Lauda, Rosberg and Senna) were also world champions. It’s no wonder that he was the model’s highest ranked driver more often than not. His first 2 McLaren championships (in 1985 and 1986) are his 2 highest ranked years. Prost’s third championship in 1989 came via a crash with teammate Senna.
Prost is often thought of as a driver that performs well in races but was weak in qualifying and wet weather. There is evidence that Prost was indeed weaker in the wet. However only 4 drivers in the history of F1 have more poles than Prost. He also flattened Lauda in qualifying performances across their time together. Despite this, the general perception that he was stronger in races appears to hold water.