The United Kingdom has a rich history with Formula 1, with several teams, circuits and drivers associated with it. But who are the 10 greatest British drivers to have raced in the sport?
Since Formula 1 kicked off in Silverstone in 1950, over 150 drivers from the United Kingdom have entered a race. There’s a lot to choose from, but PlanetF1.com has ranked the 10 greatest Brits from the 73 years of racing.
In this top 10, we have leaned towards the drivers with the greater levels of success. Therefore, there are honourable mentions for Lando Norris and George Russell, who are both clearly capable of challenging for world titles in the future, and Mike Hawthorn, who only misses out due to the narrow margin of his 1958 title win (which will be explained later).
10: John Surtees
In an era when motor racing drivers often demonstrated their versatility by racing in different categories, Surtees started out his racing career in motorcycles, and claimed several titles in the World Championships (the equivalent of MotoGP today).
Surtees made the switch to four wheels in 1960, and claimed a podium in only his second Formula 1 race, and a first pole position one race later. A first win wouldn’t happen until 1963, but by now he had impressed enough to be offered a race seat by Ferrari.
The World Championship came one season later when he claimed the 1964 title ahead of Graham Hill and Jim Clark, partly thanks to the points rules of the time, where only the best six race results counted towards a driver’s championship total. It was a justified title, as Surtees’ consistency saw him claim a podium in every race he finished.
9: James Hunt
Probably the most colourful British racing driver of all time, James Hunt joined Formula 1 with the spirited Hesketh Racing team in 1973, achieving remarkable podium finishes, winning the Dutch GP with the team in 1975.
Funds ran out at Hesketh, but Hunt was snapped up by McLaren for 1976, and he would embark on a title challenge in his first season with the team. The famous Hunt vs Lauda season was one of Formula 1’s finest, with Hunt clinching the title at the final round.
Race-winning drives continued in 1977, but a title challenge never materialised, and McLaren fell behind in competitiveness in 1978. An ill-advised switch to the Wolf team led to Hunt’s F1 retirement partway through 1979.
8: Jenson Button
The man who became the UK’s fresh F1 hope for much of the 2000s, Button impressed in a series of midfield teams, but rarely encountered race-winning opportunities in the ‘Schumacher era’ of the sport.
It would take until his tenth season in the sport to receive championship-challenging machinery, and he took his sole F1 title in 2009 as part of Brawn GP’s remarkable underdog story.
After switching to McLaren, Button’s 2010 would be his only other outside attempt at another championship. But, notable performances in the years that followed – particularly against Lewis Hamilton – demonstrated that he was worthy of his champion status.
7: Damon Hill
As the son of motorsport legend Graham Hill, Damon’s journey to Formula 1 was not a typical one. Several years after the death of his father, he started motorsport comparatively late, starting off on motorbikes.
Hill only made his F1 debut in his thirties, and enjoyed a swift rise to the then-mighty Williams team and became a championship challenger in only his second full season in the sport. He lost out to Michael Schumacher in the infamous season finale in 1994.
His world title came in 1996 after defeating rookie hotshot teammate Jacques Villeneuve, and who knows what success he might have had in 1997 if he hadn’t been controversially booted from the team?
6: Graham Hill
A man with charisma to match his driving abilities, Graham Hill was one of Formula 1’s key figures in the sixties, and took two world titles with two different teams (BRM and Lotus) in a golden era for British drivers in the sport.
A stellar win record of five wins at the Monaco GP earned him the nickname ‘Mr Monaco’, which has only been beaten by Ayrton Senna. Between titles in 1962 and 1968, Hill took victory at the iconic Indy 500 of 1966.
Despite not achieving the same levels of success in F1 in later years due to crash injuries, Hill’s legendary status was cemented in 1972 when he completed the unofficial ‘triple crown’ of motorsport with an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
5: Stirling Moss
Moss holds the somewhat unenviable record of registering the highest number of Grand Prix victories without taking a Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship. His phenomenal racecraft and career longevity meant he finished in the top three of the drivers’ standings in every season from 1955 to 1961, finishing runner-up from 1955 to 1958.
He was renowned for his sportsmanship, and famously only missed out on the 1958 title after defending title rival Mike Hawthorn from receiving a penalty for rejoining the race track incorrectly.
He took the first home victory for a British driver at Silverstone, and became an esteemed sportscar racer, which underlined his racing pedigree. Unfortunately, a crash in 1962 ended his Formula 1 career early.
4: Nigel Mansell
Competing against the likes of Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg and Niki Lauda, the career of ‘Our Nige’ was littered with fierce competition.
After impressing with Lotus in his early F1 seasons, Mansell made the move to Williams, which would be the team to provide him with his championship challenges. Heartbreaking title challenges fell short in 1986 and 1987 before a switch to Ferrari for 1989.
Affectionately referred to as ‘Il Leone’ (The Lion) by the tifosi, Mansell could only manage a couple of wins before returning to Williams to join their growing force for 1991. Retirements thwarted a championship challenge that year, but Mansell dominated the 1992 season to take a deserved world title. A fallout with Williams denied fans the chance to see if he could repeat the feat in 1993.
3: Jim Clark
The Jim Clark and Lotus combination was a force to be reckoned with in the 1960s, with the frighteningly skilled Scotsman pairing up with Colin Chapman-designed race cars.
With Lotus slowly becoming a powerhouse of Formula 1, a host of race retirements prevented Clark from the 1962 title. He fought back to claim top honours in the following year with one of the most comprehensive championship wins in the sports history. He ran a similarly-convincing campaign to the 1965 title, but was unlucky not to add the 1964 season to his tally.
Poor reliability struck once again to prevent a better attempt at the 1967 crown, but he made the perfect start to the 1968 season with a win in South Africa. However, his career was tragically cut short by a Formula 2 crash at Hockenheim in Germany.
2: Jackie Stewart
Following the death of his friend Jim Clark, Stewart became Scotland’s only race-winning representative in Formula 1, and duly went on to become one of the sport’s most successful competitors.
Spearheading Tyrrell’s transition from lower formulae to F1, Stewart missed out on the 1968 title to Graham Hill. However, the rise of he and the Tyrrell team continued, and Stewart claimed three Drivers’ Championships in five seasons.
Stewart retired after his final title in 1973, and his record of 27 Grands Prix victories stood for almost 15 years. He was also highly regarded as one of the sport’s biggest advocates for improved safety standards.
1: Lewis Hamilton
One of the few drivers that has been able to transcend the sport, Lewis Hamilton is unquestionably the most successful British driver to have raced in Formula 1.
Bursting onto the scene in 2007, Hamilton memorably took his first world title in the dramatic finale of the 2008 season, which provided the springboard for joining Formula 1’s elite.
With 2008 being his only drivers title for several years, his talent was rewarded by the rising Mercedes team and, after taking six more drivers crowns in seven seasons, the duo have become one of the most successful combinations in F1 history.
Hamilton and Mercedes were finally knocked from their perches in 2021, and the team have been searching for a route back to the top ever since. He’s signed with Mercedes until 2025, but will he and the team be able to claim an unprecedented eighth world title?