Ranking the Best Formula 1 Drivers to Never Win the World Title

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

Ranking the Best Formula 1 Drivers to Never Win the World Title

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    Stirling Moss leads Tony Brooks at the 1958 German Grand Prix.
    Stirling Moss leads Tony Brooks at the 1958 German Grand Prix.Associated Press

    Recently, we ranked all 32 Formula One world champions. However, more than 700 other drivers have started a grand prix since the championship began in 1950.

    Now we want to know: Who is the best among those drivers who have never won a world championship?

    Stirling Moss is famous for finishing second in the Drivers' championship more times than anyone else—four—without winning a title.

    Meanwhile, Ronnie Peterson died following an accident at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, only two races away from possibly being crowned champion.

    Or what about Gilles Villeneuve, who raced only four full seasons but captured the hearts of Ferrari fans before he was killed during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix?

    The next slide outlines the methodology we will use to rank these drivers.

Methodology

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    Peter Fox/Getty Images

    In order to have a manageable list, this ranking only includes drivers with at least five career victories and one second-place finish in the Drivers' Championship.

    That produces a list of 12 drivers who were then ranked according to these four statistics (the methodology is adapted from my article ranking the 32 world champions):

    • Winning Percentage: Percentage of starts won.
    • Points Per Start: This is adjusted so that all drivers are scored according to the system used from 1991 to 2002, with points for the top six finishers in each race (10-6-4-3-2-1).
    • Runner-Up Percentage: Percentage of seasons finishing second on the Drivers' Championship (counting only those in which the driver started at least 50 percent of the races).
    • Pole Percentage: Percentage of starts where the driver qualified on pole. 

    For each statistic, the drivers are ranked and then given a score—12 points for the top driver in each category down to one point for the 12th driver.

    These scores are added together, and the drivers are ranked according to their totals, with 48 the highest possible score.

    Not every variable can be accounted for (e.g. the much higher reliability of today's cars), but by using percentages, we can better compare those who drove when there were only eight or 10 races in a season with modern drivers, who have 18 or 20 races each season.

    All the statistics used in this article were compiled from the official F1 website, Wikipedia and, for the adjusted point totals, Mark Wessel's real points comparison site. On the ranking slides, all numbers are rounded to the nearest tenth.

Honourable Mentions

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    Patrese at Monza in 1991.
    Patrese at Monza in 1991.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    The two drivers who just missed our top 10 ranking are Riccardo Patrese and Michele Alboreto. Both drivers are Italian and had long, if unspectacular, careers. 

    Alboreto finished 20 points behind Alain Prost in the 1985 championship, while Patrese was teammates with Nigel Mansell during the British driver's dominant 1992 season. Patrese finished second, 52 points behind him.

    There are also some drivers who did not meet the criteria of five wins and at least one second-place finish in the Drivers' Championship, yet are worthy of mention. 

    Gerhard Berger, for example, won 10 grands prix in his career. Although he had a reasonable amount of success over his lengthy career, he never came close to the Drivers' title, finishing a distant third twice. 

    Bruce McLaren finished second to Jack Brabham in the 1960 championship. However, with only four wins over 13 full and partial seasons, he does not quite measure up with some of the other drivers in our ranking.

10. Clay Regazzoni

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    Regazzoni on the streets of Monaco in 1976.
    Regazzoni on the streets of Monaco in 1976.Tony Duffy/Getty Images

    Total Score

    18.5

    Winning Percentage

    3.8%

    Points Per Start

    1.6

    Runner-Up Percentage

    10.0%

    Pole Percentage

    3.8%

     

    Swiss drivers are something of a rarity in F1, owing at least partially to the country's ongoing ban on motor racing. Of the few Swiss drivers that have made it into the highest class of motorsport, Clay Regazzoni is certainly the most successful. 

    He won five races and scored five pole positions in 132 starts between 1970 and 1980. 

    In his first season, Regazzoni only started eight of the 13 races but still finished third in the championship for Ferrari, behind Jochen Rindt and Jacky Ickx. 

    In 1974, Regazzoni went into the final race tied with Emerson Fittipaldi for first place in the Drivers' standings. At Watkins Glen, though, the Swiss driver struggled to an 11th-place finish while Fittipaldi cruised to the title in fifth.

    Regazzoni never again finished higher than fifth in the championship. At the 1980 U.S. Grand Prix West, he was paralysed below the waist when his brakes failed and he crashed heavily, ending his F1 career.  

    He died in a road accident in Italy in 2006.

9. Rubens Barrichello

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    Barrichello qualifying for the 2004 Italian Grand Prix.
    Barrichello qualifying for the 2004 Italian Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Total Score

    20

    Winning Percentage

    3.4%

    Points Per Start

    1.6

    Runner-Up Percentage

    10.5%

    Pole Percentage

    4.3%

     

    Rubens Barrichello holds the record for most grands prix started, with 322. He won 11 of those races, and all but two of those victories came in his years at Ferrari. 

    In those six seasons, while partnered with Michael Schumacher, Barrichello finished second in the Drivers' Championship twice, in 2002 and 2004. He was third for Ferrari in 2001 and again with Brawn GP in 2009, when he scored the final two wins of his career.

    Barrichello was actually closest to the championship in 2009, when he finished 18 points behind teammate Jenson Button and seven points back of Sebastian Vettel.
     
    After two seasons at Williams, he retired from F1 and raced in IndyCar in 2012.

8. David Coulthard

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    Coulthard at the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix.
    Coulthard at the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix.DARKO BANDIC/Associated Press

    Total Score

    23

    Winning Percentage

    5.3%

    Points Per Start

    1.9

    Runner-Up Percentage

    6.7%

    Pole Percentage

    4.9%

     

    Despite winning 13 races over 15 seasons, David Coulthard's career might be best summed up by the saying, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride."

    In his early years, he was the No. 2 driver behind eventual world champions like Damon Hill at Williams and Mika Hakkinen at McLaren. When Hakkinen retired and Coulthard inherited the No. 1 position on the team, he was quickly outshone by his young teammate, Kimi Raikkonen.

    Even in Coulthard's two best years, 2000 and 2001, he finished a long way behind Michael Schumacher's dominant Ferrari.

    Still, Coulthard managed one second-place finish in the Drivers' championship (in 2001) and was third on four other occasions.

    He spent his last four years with Red Bull, retiring after the 2008 season, just before the team started winning. In 2009, Mark Webber and Coulthard's replacement, Sebastian Vettel, combined for six victories and second in the Constructors' Championship.

7. Felipe Massa

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    Massa at the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix.
    Massa at the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix.Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Total Score

    25

    Winning Percentage

    5.8%

    Points Per Start

    1.7

    Runner-Up Percentage

    9.1%

    Pole Percentage

    7.9%

     

    Some fans may be surprised to find Felipe Massa on this list. However, before his accident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix he put together three strong seasons in a row, coming within one lap of winning the 2008 championship.

    In addition to 11 victories in 191 starts, Massa has also scored 15 pole positions. He has not won since his accident, though.

    Following the 2013 season, he left Ferrari, where he has spent the last eight years. Massa will race for Williams in 2014, a team which has won only one race since 2005.

6. Jacky Ickx

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    Ickx at the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix.
    Ickx at the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix.RENE MAESTRI/Associated Press

    Total Score

    28.5

    Winning Percentage

    6.6%

    Points Per Start

    1.5

    Runner-Up Percentage

    20.0%

    Pole Percentage

    10.7%

     

    For a country that is home to one of the most famous race tracks in the world, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium has only produced two grand prix-winning drivers: Thierry Boutsen and Jacky Ickx. 

    Ickx won eight of his 116 starts to go with 13 pole positions. He finished second in the championship twice, 26 points behind Jackie Stewart in 1969 and five points behind Jochen Rindt in 1970.

    Of course, Ickx would not have been that close to the Austrian, except that Rindt was killed during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. 

    Ickx finished fourth in the Drivers' Championship on three other occasions, but in the mid- and late-1970s, his career tailed off as he bounced between teams. He retired after a disappointing 1979 season with Ligier.

5. Gilles Villeneuve

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    Villeneuve in 1981.
    Villeneuve in 1981.Getty Images/Getty Images

    Total Score

    29

    Winning Percentage

    9.0%

    Points Per Start

    1.7

    Runner-Up Percentage

    25.0%

    Pole Percentage

    3.0%

     

    Gilles Villeneuve was the first Canadian to win a world championship race, and he did it in style, at his home race in 1978.

    The following year, Villeneuve battled his Ferrari teammate, Jody Scheckter, closely throughout the season. Both drivers won three times, but Scheckter was a more consistent points-scorer and won the title by four points.

    For the next two seasons, the Ferrari car was not quick enough to compete for the title, although Villeneuve took two more victories in 1981, in Monaco and Spain.

    For 1982, the car was improved and, after retirements in the first two races, Villeneuve finished third at the U.S. Grand Prix West (although he was disqualified for an illegal rear wing) and second at Imola. In that race, his teammate, Didier Pironi, passed him on the final lap to take the victory against team orders (now known as "pulling a Vettel").

    According to Gerald Donaldson's biography, Gilles Villeneuve: The Life of the Legendary Racing Driver, Villeneuve was so livid that he declared he would never speak to the Frenchman again. Sadly, that proved true, as Villeneuve was killed during qualifying for the next race, in Belgium.

    Despite his short career, Villeneuve was a very popular driver and, per the official Ferrari website, "every race with him on the track turned into an adventure."

4. Carlos Reutemann

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    Reutemann at the 1980 U.S. Grand Prix.
    Reutemann at the 1980 U.S. Grand Prix.RUSS HAMILTON/Associated Press

    Total Score

    30.5

    Winning Percentage

    8.2%

    Points Per Start

    2.2

    Runner-Up Percentage

    10.0%

    Pole Percentage

    4.1%

     

    Carlos Reutemann scored 12 wins in 10 full seasons in F1. In this ranking, he is hurt slightly by his lack of qualifying pace, scoring only six pole positions in his career.

    Long-time F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck wrote for Motor Sport Magazine that, "On his day, Reutemann was quite literally unbeatable," and the Argentinian finished third in the championship three times between 1975 and 1980.

    In 1981, though, he had an opportunity to be champion.

    Going into the final race, in Las Vegas, Reutemann held a one-point lead over Nelson Piquet. Reutemann qualified on pole, but was a non-factor in the race. Alan Jones, his teammate, lapped him on the way to victory and Piquet finished fifth to nab the title by one point.

    Reutemann started two races the next season, but then abruptly decided to retire. This coincided with the beginning of the Falklands War, as it would have been awkward for him to continue driving for Williams, a British team.

3. Ronnie Peterson

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    Peterson wins the 1973 Italian Grand Prix.
    Peterson wins the 1973 Italian Grand Prix.Associated Press

    Total Score

    37

    Winning Percentage

    8.1%

    Points Per Start

    1.8

    Runner-Up Percentage

    22.2%

    Pole Percentage

    11.4%

     

    Ronnie Peterson is Sweden's most successful grand prix driver. In nine seasons, he won 10 of his 123 races and started from pole 14 times.

    Driving for March in 1971, he finished second in the championship, but Jackie Stewart scored nearly twice as many points. In 1973, by then with Lotus, Peterson won four races and was third in the Drivers' standings. The next four years were frustrating, as he moved from Lotus back to March and then to Tyrrell.

    Finally, in 1978 he returned to Lotus. After the Dutch Grand Prix, with three races remaining in the season, Peterson trailed his teammate, Mario Andretti, by 12 points in the championship. On the opening lap of the next race, at Monza, a massive accident took five cars out of the race. Peterson suffered severe injuries to his legs and later died in the hospital.

    Andretti scored only one point in the final three races and claimed the title by thirteen points over Peterson.

2. Tony Brooks

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    Brooks leading the 1959 German Grand Prix at AVUS.
    Brooks leading the 1959 German Grand Prix at AVUS.Heinrich Sanden Jr./Associated Press

    Total Score

    38.5

    Winning Percentage

    15.8%

    Points Per Start

    2.1

    Runner-Up Percentage

    20.0%

    Pole Percentage

    7.9%

     

    Tony Brooks had a very short career, starting only 38 races between 1956 and 1961. He won six of them, finishing a distant third in the 1958 championship before nearly winning it in 1959.

    Coming into the final race at Sebring, Brooks trailed championship leader Jack Brabham by eight points. Although he beat Brabham in the U.S., Brooks was only third in the race, three minutes behind Bruce McLaren and Maurice Trintignant. Brabham collected the title by four points from Brooks.

    Brooks retired after two more subpar seasons, finishing on the podium for BRM in his last race, the 1961 U.S. Grand Prix. The next year, his BRM teammate, Graham Hill, won the Drivers' championship and BRM took the Constructors' crown.

1. Stirling Moss

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    Moss on his way to victory at the 1957 Italian Grand Prix.
    Moss on his way to victory at the 1957 Italian Grand Prix.WALTER ATTENNI/Associated Press

    Total Score

    48

    Winning Percentage

    24.2%

    Points Per Start

    3.0

    Runner-Up Percentage

    44.4%

    Pole Percentage

    24.2%

     

    No one with even a bit of knowledge of the history of F1 will be surprised by our No. 1 driver without a Drivers' Championship. Stirling Moss was ranked first in each category of our methodology.

    Moss won 16 of his 66 starts and, over nine seasons (plus parts of two others), finished second in the Drivers' standings four times. He also had three third-place finishes.

    In 1958, Moss lost the championship by one point to Mike Hawthorn. At the Moroccan Grand Prix, the final race of the season, Moss needed to win with the fastest lap and hope Hawthorn would not finish higher than third. Moss did his part, winning by nearly a minute-and-a-half, but Hawthorn edged Phil Hill by less than one second for second place, clinching the championship.

    Moss raced three more seasons, finishing third in the Drivers' Championship in each one, before an accident at a non-championship race ended his career.

     
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