The opening Grand Prix of the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship season is a few days away and among the – we hope! – 22 drivers who’ll take the start for 58 laps around Melbourne’s Albert Park are four who are already in the 200 Club. Yes, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have all racked up more than 200 Grand Prix starts. Button is the most experienced of the current crop, yet it only seems like yesterday that he made his debut, aged 20, for Williams in Australia back in 2000. In fact, the McLaren ace is now third on the all-time list, behind only Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello.
Much attention will be focused on his countryman Jolyon Palmer this weekend. The former GP2 champion and son of former racer Jonathan is set to make his first appearance, for Renault, thereby becoming the 144th Briton to start a World Championship Grand Prix. He joins a pretty stellar list and will be aiming to one day add his name to the 19 home-grown race winners and 10 World Champions. But which drivers, we wondered, feature in a list of the top-10 most-capped Brits?
10 EDDIE IRVINE (145 races, 1993-2002)
Comfortably ahead of Damon Hill (111 races), Ulsterman Eddie Irvine sits 10th on this Brit-caps list. He achieved notoriety immediately by coming to blows with Ayrton Senna after unlapping himself from the passing Brazilian on his debut for Jordan in Japan at the end of 1993. Two more years with his countryman Eddie Jordan’s team yielded a best finish of third in Canada in 1995. And then came the dream call: a summons from Ferrari. In four years with the Scuderia he played understudy to Michael Schumacher, winning only four times – and all in 1999. He came close to the title that year, too, thanks to Schumacher missing six races after breaking his leg at Silverstone. Three years with Jaguar followed – a tie-up that yielded just two podiums. At the end of 2002, Irvine called time on F1 and went off to build his property empire.
9 DEREK WARWICK (146 races 1981-1993)
Derek Warwick came close to joining the elite F1 winners’ circle during his time with Renault in the mid-1980s – in fact, he looked a better prospect than then-Lotus driver Nigel Mansell. A series of events – losing out on a seat at Lotus alongside Ayrton Senna for ’86, and Mansell having landed a plum Williams ride the previous year – meant it wasn’t to be for Warwick. He joined Brabham for 1986, then spent three years with Arrows. A difficult year with Lotus in 1990 led to two successful years out of F1 with Jaguar and Peugeot in World Sportscars, during which he won Le Mans and the Drivers’ Title. Warwick’s comeback year in F1, with Footwork in 1993, yielded a best result of fourth in Hungary, but it would be his last.
8 JOHN WATSON (152 races, 1973-1985)
Northern Irishman Watson joined the F1 circus in 1973, finally breaking his duck with the American Penske squad in ’76, when he gave the team its only F1 win in that year’s Austrian Grand Prix. A 1977 return to Brabham, which then-owner Bernie Ecclestone had turned into a winning outfit, yielded many great drives from Watson, but no more wins. He joined McLaren for 1979 and in year three became a winner again, thanks to a home victory at Silverstone in 1981. He continued with McLaren through to the end of 1983, with three more battling wins on his CV, but had to make way for Alain Prost for ’84. ‘Wattie’ made a one-off McLaren comeback, at Brands Hatch in ’85, subbing for an injured Niki Lauda, but there was to be no more glory for one of the sport’s greatest overtakers.
7 MARTIN BRUNDLE (158 races, 1984-1996)
Brundle is the most experienced British F1 driver without a win, which was down to circumstance more than anything else. Too many right-place-wrong-time scenarios got in the way for the man who had battled Ayrton Senna in Formula 3 and who would win the World Sportscar Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours for Jaguar. His best results in F1 were a pair of second places and seven other podium finishes. He joined Tyrrell in 1984 and went on to race for Zakspeed, Williams, Brabham, Benetton, Ligier, McLaren and, for his final season, in 1996, Jordan. He’s now of course one of the most-capped – and excellent – TV commentators.
6 JOHNNY HERBERT (160 races, 1989-2000)
Cheeky chappy Herbert burst onto the F1 scene in 1989, still carrying the injuries from his horrific Formula 3000 shunt at Brands Hatch the previous summer. Despite the pain, he scored points on his debut in Brazil, for Benetton, but was soon dropped. He bounced back with the struggling Lotus team for 1990, reminding people of his talent and fighting spirit. He re-joined Benetton for 1995, winning twice, before spending three seasons with Sauber. His third and final win came with Jackie Stewart’s new team in 1999, but it all went sour when Jaguar took over Stewart Grand Prix for 2000, which would be Herbert’s last season in F1.
5 LEWIS HAMILTON (167 races, 2007-to date)
The only man who will go higher on this list is already a three-time World Champion, joining Sir Jackie Stewart (who, incredibly, only started 99 races) in a pretty special club. In his 167 races for McLaren (2007-2012) and Mercedes (2013-to date), he’s won 43 times, taken 49 poles and set 28 fastest laps. Odds-on favourite to make it four titles in 2016 and leapfrog second-placed Alain Prost in the winners’ list (he’s currently eight behind the Frenchman), Hamilton can pass Hill and Mansell to sit third in this list.
4 GRAHAM HILL (176 races, 1958-1975)
Experts will tell you that two-time World Champion Hill went on too long, his final years – well into his 40s – with his own team (running Shadow and Lola machinery) producing the sort of performances that were not worthy of a man who had battled with Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart in the 1960s. In his glory days Hill won races for British greats BRM and Lotus, taking a title for each, and, with that Dick Dastardly-style moustache and wicked sense of humour, was the king of cool in a golden era for British motorsport. He finally called it a day, after 18 seasons, early in 1975. But the real tragedy for Hill fans is that Graham wasn’t around to see son Damon win the title in 1996.
3 NIGEL MANSELL (187 races, 1980-1995)
‘Our Nige’ took a while to blossom into a world-beater. He didn’t rack up the first of 31 wins until his 72nd start – at Brands Hatch in 1985 – but then went on a bit of a spree with his Williams team, coming close to the title in 1986 and ’87. After two seasons with Ferrari, during which he won three times, Mansell returned to Williams to sort the unfinished business. He finally won the title, aged 39, in 1992 and then went off to America to lift the IndyCar crown. Another recall to Williams produced a final win in his last outing for the team – in Adelaide ’94 – but we won’t mention the two races for McLaren in early ’95…
2 DAVID COULTHARD (246 races, 1994-2008)
The Scot got his big break with Williams in 1994 after the death of Ayrton Senna and won for the first time in his first full season in ’95. He then spent nine seasons with McLaren, winning 12 more races and finishing a career-best second in the points table in 2001. He joined Red Bull for its first season in 2005, taking two podiums in the next four seasons. His last GP came in Brazil in 2008 – the day Lewis Hamilton secured the title at the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the year!
1 JENSON BUTTON (lead video) (284 races, 2000-to date)
There was a bit of a giveaway in the first paragraph about who would appear here. Yes, 36-year-old Button has contested more GPs than any other British driver since the World Championship began in 1950. During his 16 seasons to date, he’s amassed 15 wins, eight poles, eight fastest laps and famously took the Drivers’ Title for Brawn in 2009. He’ll move into second on the all-time starters’ list, ahead of Michael Schumacher (306), if he completes all 21 races this year and the first two of 2017. And if Button were to stick at it next season, he’d catch and pass Rubens Barrichello (322) to become the most-capped Grand Prix driver in history, let alone from Britain, before the end of the year. Not a bad effort by the lad from Somerset!