Top 10... Most iconic racing numbers

17th May 2017
Henry Hope-Frost

A recent rule change in Formula 1 that has forced teams to increase the visibility of driver numbers on their cars is one of several subtle but welcome tweaks that are starting to trickle through the sport courtesy of its news owners Liberty Media in an effort to ‘improve the show’. 


And it’s to be applauded, because race numbers have always been an important part of fan-engagement, whatever the discipline. Since numbers were assigned to a driver for an entire F1 season in 1974, fans have made an association with their favourite driver and a given number. Yet in recent years that has become ever harder thanks to a combination of tiny numbers, forgettable drivers’ helmet designs and high cockpit sides.

With drivers invited to choose a permanent number for the 2014 season (Lewis Hamilton, for example, selected 44, a number that has a sentimental value to him from his karting days) added to this new initiative, things have improved noticeably.

Which brings us onto the reason for this top 10. Think back through the history of driver/number pairings in various categories of racing and several obvious ones spring to mind, while others trigger a spark of nostalgia, regardless of longevity or success. These are our favourite 10 – a mixture, we feel, of numbers and names from both camps. Clearly, there are many others that’ll have the same effect on enthusiasts of a certain persuasion and/or age, so do let us know which ones would be in your top 10.


3 – Dale Earnhardt

NASCAR has shown other series the way with its driver promotion and its long-held belief that harnessing fan engagement is key to success. Its heroes are identified by vast numbers on the doors and roofs of the cars, which is central to the series’ culture. So much so that racers are routinely referred to by commentators using their number alone: “The number 29 leads!” The late, great Dale Earnhardt wore the number 3 for much of his 27-year, top-level NASCAR career, first winning with it in 1984 aboard his Wrangler Jeans-liveried, Richard Childress-run Chevrolet. In fact, the seven-time champion, nicknamed ‘The Intimidator’, took all bar the first nine of his 76 victories wearing #3. For that reason, #3 will always be Dale’s…


5 – Nigel Mansell

Generations of Formula 1 fans know immediately what ‘Red 5’ refers to: an affectionate description of British hero Nigel Mansell during the late-1980s and early 1990s. Mansell first wore #5 for his maiden season at Williams in 1985. He kept the number, painted red on the nose of the car to distinguish it from the visually similar #6 of the sister car, until the end of 1988 when he moved to Ferrari. Those four seasons brought 13 wins and two near-misses in the drivers’ championship. When he returned to the British team for 1991, he was again assigned #5 and added a further 14 wins, as well as the 1992 title, to his CV. After lifting the US Champ Car crown with Newman-Haas at his first attempt, wearing, you guessed it, #5 on the Lola T93/00, he made four appearances for Williams in F1 in 1994, this time sporting #2. Which just wasn’t the same. 


7 – Barry Sheene

For motorcycle fans the world over, number 7 was Barry Sheene. Britain’s double 500cc world champion and 1970s cult hero wore a unique #7 on the front of his title-winning Suzuki RG500s – and the Yamaha YZRs on which he ended his frontline career – that featured a distinctive strikethrough. Universally referred to, even 14 years after his death, as ‘BS7’, the number helped to define the cockney rebel and his two-stroke antics. Sheene took all of his 19 top-class victories wearing #7 and even used it on the doors of the hopelessly uncompetitive Toyota Supra he raced in the British Saloon Car Championship in 1985.


12 – Ayrton Senna

You might argue that the sight of Ayrton Senna’s distinctive yellow helmet in the cockpit of the #1 McLaren during 1989, 1991 and 1992 (the years he was defending F1 champion) was as menacing a prospect for rivals as any, but, for many, Senna’s F1 career was defined by the number 12. He spent all three of his seasons with Lotus – 1985-1987 – wearing #12, taking four wins in the Renault-powered JPS cars and two in the Honda-motivated Camel machine. And then he ran with #12 in his first season with McLaren aboard the lowline MP4/4, taking eight wins and the first of his three titles. Legend firmly established. 


27 – Gilles Villeneuve

Is there a more evocative combination than Gilles Villeneuve and 27? Immortalised as the French-Canadian and that number have become, it’s easy to forget that he only raced with it 19 times – all of 1981 and the first three grands prix of ’82. Clearly, that was enough to enter it into F1 folklore, but he used #12 on 31 occasions in 1978 and ’79. His final two wins – in Monaco and Spain in 1981 aboard Ferrari’s first turbocar, the 126CK – certainly help those nostalgic feelings, as does his death during qualifying for the Belgian GP at Zolder in May ’82 at the wheel of the stunning #27 126C2. Number 27: sempre Gilles!   


34 – Kevin Schwantz

Texan 500cc ’bike hero ‘Revvin Kevin’ Schwantz made the number 34 his own, from the minute he took the first of his 25 500cc career wins – on the Pepsi Suzuki RGV500 in the Japanese GP at Suzuka in 1988. He finished eighth that year, but from 1989 until his final full season in ’94 he didn’t finish outside the top four in the title race, taking 24 more wins for Suzuki, by then sporting Lucky Strike colours, and a career-high maiden world championship crown in 1993. Schwantz’s association with the number 34 has been further enshrined by his presence in Goodwood’s Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy race in 2014-’15 on 500cc Manx Nortons wearing, of course, #34.


43 – Richard Petty

For sheer longevity and household-name status, you can’t top NASCAR legend ‘King Richard’ Petty and his beloved number 43. The American stockcar idol first emblazoned the number on his Oldsmobile in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, his 11th race in NASCAR’s premier league. The race was won that day by Petty’s father Lee, wearing #42. Petty Jr went on to score a record 200 NASCAR wins between 1960 and 1992, taking 192 of them with #43. Of those eight occasions, he didn’t use his famous number to win, six of them came with #41 and two with #42 (one in 1962 and one in ’66), just like his father some years earlier.


46 –­ Valentino Rossi 

When Valentino Rossi, arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, was just a few months old in 1979, his father Graziano took three 250cc World Championship GP wins on a Morbidelli wearing the number #46. And that little fact goes an awfully long way to explain why Rossi Jr has used the number for his entire career – in the 125, 250, 500 and Moto GP categories. The Italian took 12 125cc wins and the 1997 title, 14 250cc wins and the 1999 crown, 13 500cc and the final riders’ championship in 2001 and, to date, 75 MotoGP victories and six titles – all with #46. If all that doesn’t make it one of the best tie-ups, nothing does. 


59 – Brumos Racing

Uniquely in this company, the #59 stands out for its association with a team rather than a driver. For years the Jacksonville, Florida-based Brumos Porsche team, founded by racer Peter Gregg and sponsored by the Brumos dealership, ran the number on its white Porsches, complemented by a distinctive red-and-blue striped livery. Gregg and fellow US sportscar ace Hurley Haywood won countless races in the 1970s, including the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours on several occasions. Many years later, the re-formed team took another win in the 2009 Daytona classic, with a Porsche-engined Riley MkXI. All those years later, it was still cool. 


722 – Stirling Moss

Stirling Moss, Denis Jenkinson, Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR #722, 1955 Mille Miglia: that collection of words and numbers written or spoken together sends shivers down the spine. The combination dominated the World Sportscar Championship-qualifying, 1000-mile Italian road race to win in a shade over 10 hours – which equates to an average speed, on public, unclosed roads, of almost 100 miles an hour – and by more than half an hour. Think about that for a second. And the significance of #722? It represented the start time of the Moss/Jenkinson ‘Silver Arrow’. So, at precisely 7.22am on Sunday May 1st, 1955, a legend was born.

Photographs courtesy of LAT Images

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