Formula 1 has been around for 70 years know – in case you hadn’t heard – and there have been some remarkable machines competing in that time. But the eternal question will always be: which was the best? We won’t try to answer that question now, but we will list the cars that we think are in contention for that crown.
The nine best F1 cars of all time
Where else do you start? The McLaren MP4/4 is, statistically, the best F1 car of all time. In the 1988 F1 season, in the hands of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, the MP4/4 won 15 of the 16 races, only missing out on the complete set at the Italian Grand Prix when Prost’s Honda engine let go and Senna was then removed from the race while lapping Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams. The weekend after Enzo Ferrari died, even McLaren had to feel OK with losing that one win to Ferrari.
But for the rest of the season the MP4/4 was imperious in a way never seen before or since. It holds a 93.8 per cent victory rate.
Coming toward the end of the first turbo F1 era, McLaren’s first step toward the total dominance of the MP4/4 had been to basically steal the engine supply of its nearest rival. Williams had won the last two Constructors’ Championships with Honda power, while McLaren’s time using a privateer engine, financed in house, built by Porsche, had been initially successful, but was gradually being overtaken by the better financed manufacturer engines. Secured with the best engine on the grid McLaren now needed a chassis to match. Here we introduce not only McLaren chief designer, American Steve Nicholls, who designed the car, but also South African Technical Director, Gordon Murray, a name with which you may be familiar. Between them they clothed the Honda V6 in a chassis and body that proved well beyond anything its rivals could come close to. Prost won seven races, Senna won eight, and the Brazilian secured his first of three F1 championships.
Alfa Romeo 158/9 Alfetta
The Alfa Romeo 158 is not a Formula 1 car. There, that’s quite a way to start this paragraph on a list of the greatest F1 cars of all time. But it’s true. The 158 was built to race in voiturette class racing, a separate class in Grand Prix racing in the 1930s for cars with 1.5-litre engines, when the full GP cars had 3.0-litre units. Obviously completely blown away by the Auto Union and Mercedes Silver Arrows, as it literally wasn’t in the same class, the 158 was incredibly successful. Powered by a 1.5-litre straight-eight, and designed by Goiacchino Colombo – he of Ferrari V12 fame – they won 37 of the 41 races entered pre-F1. But, in the middle of its run, along came World War II, and suddenly motorsport was pretty redundant.
Post-war, racing began to return, but the automotive industry had either been devastated by the war, or turned itself completely to making kit for the war effort. So old racing cars were dragged out of storage, and pressed into service. The Alfetta was back racing in 1947, this time with a honking supercharger, allowing it to produce over 300PS (220kW). In 1950 someone had the rather fun idea of setting up a new World Championship of Drivers, and at Silverstone that year F1 as we know it (sort of) was born. Lining up on the grid were Guiseppe Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio, Luigi Fagioli and Reg Parnell, all armed with Alfettas.
It needs no retelling that they dominated the race, and then the rest of the season. In fact the only reason the Alfetta doesn’t hold the record for most dominant F1 car of all time is that it didn’t enter every eligible race that season. You could argue that the Indy 500 wasn’t an F1 race, but it made up part of the World Championship and Alfa Romeo skipped it. Therefore the 158 won ‘only’ 85 per cent of the races that season – but 100 per cent of the races it entered. The next season the 158 returned as the 159 and.... well it won again. Now with a reworked De-Dion axle and much bigger superchargers meaning its engine produced 420PS (313kW) the 159 was still the class of the field. But that bigger supercharger meant the car was thirsty – in fact it managed only 1.2 miles per gallon. As a result it couldn’t repeat the same dominance, as former Alfa stalwart Enzo Ferrari’s team challenged with three wins toward the end of the season. But Fangio and Farina still won four races between them, and Fangio the title.
Alfa were double title winners, but short of cash, and retired from motorsport when the Italian government refused to help them meet costs of the new Alfa 160 with its bigger 2.5-litre engine. This, added to a surfeit of full F1 cars, meant that F1 would actually run to Formula 2 regs for the next two seasons. Leaving the impact of the Alfetta as not only one of the most successful F1 cars of all time, but also the first to cause a wholesale change of regulations.
When Alfa had packed up its 160 and swanned off into retirement, there was space for a new manufacturer to dominate. That team would be Ferrari. As regulations had changed this car was, again, not a Formula 1 car. F1 was running to F2 regs, and Ferrari were the only team to have a car already designed for the new formula. The 500, in the hands of Alberto Ascari, would repeat the feats of Alfa the previous two seasons, winning every single race that he entered. Ascari actually skipped the first round, in Switzerland, to have a go at the Indy 500 – a fruitless attempt where he qualified 25th and retired after a spin. Team-mate Piero Taruffi took his only F1 victory, before Ascari returned and won every other race that season.
The following season was a comparative disappointment, Ascari won only five of the eight races entered, the title and the 500 would only be defeated in the all-important home round in Italy. After two seasons the rules reverted to Formula 1 regs, and the 500 was retired with a 100 per cent championship record and a 93.3 per cent win record in the races it had entered. Impressive. And in reality the 500 did soldier on, as the following 625 F1 was just a modified 500 chassis with a 2.5-litre engine. It won two more races, one in ’54 and one in ’55 before being retired for good.
A bit like picking which of the Mercedes hybrid winners or which of the Red Bull early-2010s cars is the best, the only way to really differentiate between the Ferrari F1 cars of 2000-2004 is by the numbers. The 2002 and 2004 are the cars that really dominated, both winning 15 races, but the 2002 just about edges it by clinching those victories in one fewer race.
So dominant was Ferrari at this stage that it didn’t even introduce the F2002 until the third race of the 2002 season. And it would soldier on until the fourth race of the 2003 season. In fact if you take just the season the F2002 was originally designed to race in it won 14 of 15 races, giving it the same win ratio as the Alfetta.
Powered by a screaming 3.0-litre V10 the F2002 wasn’t the most powerful car on the grid – that honour fell to the BMW-powered Williams cars – but it was by far and away the best handling. Featuring an innovative clutchless gearbox that was so small that the rear could be packaged in almost any way designer Rory Byrne wished. It was this extra capacity for aerodynamic design that led to the late introduction of the F2002. Michael Schumacher, in his absolute pomp, still won the first race of the season in the old car, and then finished third in Malaysia at race two. Then when the new car arrived he set off on a winning run that has barely been seen in F1. Four successive wins were followed by a run of six wins in the last ten races, during which time team-mate Rubens Barrichello added another four victories and Schumacher never finished outside the top two. So dominant was the F2002 that the Constructors Championship was won with nearly triple the number of points of Ferrari’s nearest challengers – Williams. The F2002 began 2003 while Ferrari struggled with the design of the follow up. As the F2002B it would win its final race at the San Marino Grand prix. Interestingly, while the F2002 was undeniably the best racing car of the 2002 season, it only just edged the Williams FW24 for qualifying, by seven to the Williams’s eight. But that could have been largely due to the barnstorming season that Juan Pablo Montoya was having.
Mercedes W07 Hybrid
Mercedes’s achievements over the last six seasons of hybrid-powered F1 are, quite frankly, extraordinary. They eclipse even the performance of Ferrari in that early-2000s blitz. While it might not have managed as high a win percentage in a single season as McLaren in 1988, the continued nature of this winning streak must put this at the very top of the table for F1 teams performances. And, even in that run, there is one season which stands up as Mercedes’ annus mirabalus, amazingly it’s the one season in the run where Lewis Hamilton did not win the title – because his team-mate did. In 2016 Hamilton took, a quite frankly bonkers, ten victories, including two separate runs of four in a row. His team-mate Nico Rosberg, won nine, but followed the Englishman home in second more times, retired only once (when the Mercedes pair collided in Spain) and won the title. The W07 that carried them to these feats therefore took 19 race wins in a single season – a record – and secured a win rate of 90.4 per cent.
It holds some serious records too. As well as the aforementioned most wins in a season, it also has the most points in a championship season (765), the most podiums (33), the most pole positions in a season (20) and the highest percentage of poles in a season (95.2). The heart of Mercedes success has been an incredible understanding of the 1.6-litre V6 regulations, and the PU106C engine that powered the W07 was the class of the field. That dominance in the engine department allowed Mercedes to experiment with its design, with the W07 looking distinct from many of its competitors, with a lower nose and none of the protrusions many were still carrying to meet the safety regulations.
Mercedes have won every championship since the W07, but they have never recaptured that incredible dominance. And yet, somehow, there also hasn’t been as competitive a season since, with Rosberg and Hamilton’s title fight going down to the very last round, and a battle at the very front of the race.
Red Bull RB9
Another tricky one to pick. When you look back at it in general the 2010-2013 period looks like absolute dominance from the Red Bull team, Sebastian Vettel and design legend Adrian Newey. But in 2010 and 2012 they didn’t have it all their own way. Fernando Alonso could, and arguably should, have dragged a slower Ferrari to the crown in 2012 and would have won the championship in 2010 were it not for an inability to pass Vitaly Petrov at the last race of the season. In 2011 and 2013 though, Red Bull did dominate. The RB7 in 2011 won 12 of the 19 races it was entered in, with Sebastian Vettel romping to his second championship title so say thanks to a rather controversial blown diffuser. But the RB7 is just pipped to this list by the RB9, the car that won what is looking more and more like Sebastian Vettel’s final title. Not only did the RB9 win 13 of the 19 races it entered (one more than the RB7) but it won a record nine victories in a row to end the season. Amazingly about five races into the season it was looking like another close one. Vettel only won two of the first five rounds, with Alonso claiming the other two. By the eighth round Vettel had only won three and was pretty much neck and neck with Alonso. But then something clicked, possibly new tyre compounds from Pirelli, and Vettel won 10 of the last 11 rounds and the title at an absolute canter.
The more amazing thing about the RB9 is that it probably could have been even better. Powered by a Renault engine that even then was really just OK compared to Ferrari and Mercedes, Adrian Newey later admitted that development work on the RB9 had been delayed by the intense title fight in 2012. Red Bull had focused efforts on the RB8 for longer than originally planned and the RB9 arrived potentially under developed. That it went on to break F1 records makes you wonder just how fast it would have been with a full development programme. It’s a scary thought.
Seventy-five races and 20 wins does not sound that impressive in the present company. But the Lotus 72 has an ace up its sleeve. It won three Constructors’ Championships and two Drivers’ Championships in six seasons of racing and its 20 victories are spread out over five seasons, not just one. The Lotus 72 is a special racing car.
A complete innovation when it was launched, with inboard brakes, side-mounted radiators, and an overhead air intake the 72 was possibly Colin Chapman’s masterpiece. The wedge shape was a departure from the cigar-style Formula 1 cars that had preceded it, and was inspired by the pure-wedge form of the Lotus 56 IndyCar. At first it wasn’t quite right, with the anti-dive and anti-squat suspension (designed to stop the nose dipping under braking or the back squatting down under acceleration) causing issues for the drivers, but after some modification the car was unstoppable. The 72 made its debut in the middle of the 1970 season and, after retiring from his first race with it, Jochen Rindt proceeded to reel off four wins in a row. Sadly a crash at Monza robbed the world of Rindt, but he and the 72 had already been dominant enough that he won the title posthumously. In the penultimate race of the season, in a perfect memorial to Rindt, and foreshadowing what was to come, Emerson Fittipaldi took the car’s fifth victory. 1971 was a fallow year, as the car developed through the 72C to become the 72D, complete with iconic John Player Special livery. In 1972 Fittipaldi took five wins and the title, in ‘73 he took three, Ronnie Petersen another four and Lotus won the constructors' title. Petersen would take three more wins for the 72, now in 72E form in 1974, before the car struggled in ’75, while the 77 was developed for Lotus’s next F1 revolution.
No other car has had such longevity of success as the 72. It holds the record for the longest time between first and last victories for an F1 chassis, and to be competitive for five consecutive seasons (and race on for a sixth) seems mind-boggling in the world of pretty-much disposable racing cars we live in today. If you were amazed that the F2002, 500 and 158’s careers spanned across a couple of seasons, the 72 is in a completely different world.
This is my personal favourite. When the Williams FW14 arrived on the scene it was a technological marvel, so far advanced of most of its competition it was hardly funny. Teething issues meant that it was never really in with a chance of winning the title that year, but Adrian Newey’s first iconic F1 design would still win seven races that season on its way to second in the championship. In fact, people forget that in that first season Nigel Mansell won only two races fewer than eventual champion Ayrton Senna, and his lack of real title contention was mostly down to the early season struggles that saw the FW14 retire six times in four races.
For 1992 work was done to the troublesome semi-automatic gearbox (which had been new to Williams for the first season of the FW14). New traction control systems and tweaked active suspension made this ‘B’ spec car an even more monstrous machine. To the naked eye the only real difference is a couple of protrusions by the front suspension pushrods, which contain some of the active suspension components.
Furnished with this new FW14B there was no stopping Mansell, who had been waiting for another opportunity to fight for the championship for so long that he’d already retired from F1 once. Mansell won the first five races in a row, a feat still to be beaten, and went on to win a record (at the time) nine races in the season. It also qualified on pole for all but one race in 1992 and added another 11 fastest laps.
The McLaren MP4/2 is probably John Barnard’s masterpiece, even though he designed some pretty incredible Ferrari machinery later in his career. The MP4/2 won on its debut in 1984, added another 11 wins that season, six the following year and two more in 1986. On the way it secured two Constructors’ titles, and a Drivers’ crown for Niki Lauda (his third and final) and two for Alain Prost (his first two of four). Following on from the MP4/1’s innovative all-carbon chassis, the MP4/2 added a TAG-badged, in house financed, and Porsche-built turbocharged V6 to the mix. Combined it became a car so hard to beat, that at times the rest of the field would struggle to remain even on the same lap.
Amazingly the MP4/2 was actually pretty rubbish in qualifying trim, mostly because McLaren – financing their own engines – refused to run specific qualifying motors, when the rest of the competition did. Teams like Brabham were heading into qualifying with short-life BMW engines with the boost turned up to well over 1,500PS (1,100kW). But come race day, the McLaren was the car to beat. It wouldn’t be until Williams turned up with Honda power in 1986, that McLaren’s big Malboro-liveried beast would fall, and even then, thanks to the tenacity of Prost the MP4/2 still took the Drivers’ title one more time.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
Which is the best F1 car of all time?
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