Lewis Hamilton clinched his fourth world drivers’ championship in 2017 by winning a season-long battle with Sebastian Vettel.
By Graham Duxbury
Undoubtedly, Hamilton is a worthy winner and rightfully deserves his new title as Britain’s most successful driver. However, is he the greatest British driver of all time?
While Lewis has achieved much – and will probably achieve much more than his 62 wins in Formula One – he follows a long line of extremely talented British drivers, many of whom carried the “greatest” banner with some justification during their careers.
Scotsman Jackie Stewart won world championships in 1969, 1971 and 1973. By the time of his retirement he had won 27 races – a record he held for 14 years. Described as a “living legend” by the authoritative Autosport magazine, Jackie is also referred to as the man “who set the template for his era”.
In the Queen’s 1971 Birthday Honours, Stewart was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2001 he received a knighthood. In both cases the honour was for services to motor racing.
Graham Hill won 14 GPs and two world championship titles (in 1962 and 1968). His first title was clinched at the 1962 SA GP at East London which he won.
Sadly, in 1975 he died in a plane crash. His son, Damon Hill, followed him into the sport, making his F1 debut in 1992 and winning the championship in 1996 making it “three titles for the Hill family” as he likes to say.
Probably one of the most underrated world champions was John Surtees, who remains the only man to win world titles on two wheels and four. He was a four-time 500cc motorcycle champion – 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960. His F1 championship came in 1964.
He was honoured as a “motorcycling legend” by the FIM governing body in 2003 and in 2016, just a year before his death, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to motorsport.
Placing second to Lewis Hamilton as the most successful “Brit” is Nigel Mansell who won 31 GPs. He made his F1 debut in 1980 and came close to winning the title in 1986 and 1987.
He eventually achieved his goal in 1992 in some style, securing the title in August, the earliest it has ever been decided. He left F1 to enter the American IndyCar series in 1993, winning on debut. He remains the only driver to hold both the IndyCar and F1 championship titles at the same time.
Mansell was appointed a CBE in 2012 for services to children and young people (in his capacity as president of UK Youth).
No account of great British drivers can be made without the inclusion of Stirling Moss. He is probably motorsport’s best all-rounder winning not only in F1 but also in sportscars (he won the 1959 world championship), touring cars and rallying. He finished second in the F1 championship in four successive seasons (1955 to 1958) and third in three more, earning him the title of the “greatest British driver never to win a F1 world title”.
In his heyday, he was one of the most recognised celebrities in Britain. He was knighted in 2000 by Prince Charles, standing in for the Queen.
One of the best and most highly regarded drivers of his era was Scotsman Jim Clark. He won his last and twenty-fifth GP (a record at the time) in South Africa on 1 January 1998 – 50 years ago. Just three months later he was killed, crashing out of a F2 race in Germany after his car suffered a tyre failure.
He won two F1 world championships (1963 and 1965) narrowly missing out on two others (1962 and 1964) due to car failures. In 1963, Clark won seven of the 10 GPs held that year. He also took victory at the 1965 Indianapolis 500 and remains the only driver to win the F1 title and the Indy 500 in the same year.
The consummate all-rounder, Clark also won the 1964 British Touring Car Championship and competed in the Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1959, 1960 and 1961, finishing second in class in 1959 and third overall in 1960.
Clark’s Hall of Fame entry on the official F1 site summarises his career perfectly: “Few champions were as dominant. Fewer still are remembered so fondly.”
To the above list we could add British world champions Mike Hawthorn (1958), James Hunt (1976) and Jenson Button (2009), plus multiple motorbike and F2 champion Mike Hailwood and many others who have proudly flown the Union Flag in F1
Pictured: Jim Clark, soon after winning the 1968 SA GP at Kyalami
Photo credit: Howard Mellet