The 8 Greatest Formula 1 Cars
What makes a racing car ‘great’? Is it raw speed? Aerodynamic beauty? Coolness? Is greatness measured only in in titles, victories and podiums?
While all of this is important, any such list is ultimately subjective. The cars below resemble a broad consensus among F1 fans, but these are my choices from the history of the world’s premier motor sport.
So here they are. Eight greats. They’ve been driven by legends. Celebrated by millions. And now they’re collected together here, for your automotive reading pleasure…
1. Alfa 158/159
Before the dust had even settled on the first ever Formula 1 championship in 1950 the sport had already produced an iconic racing car.
Driven by early F1 heroes Juan Manuel Fangio and Guiseppe Farina, Alfa Romeo’s 1.5 litre, supercharged 8-cylinder star won every race it completed in that first season. In total it went on to win 47 of 54 Grands Prix it entered. Not bad for a racer originally built over a decade earlier, between 1937-1938.
Aesthetically the Alfa 158/159 is simple, no-nonsense beauty, and driving it must have felt like sitting at the back of a red missile. It invokes a nostalgic feel for the early, pioneering days of motor racing; back when winning was all about power, pace, bravery, and whoever could keep the car on track.
2. Maserati 250F
Competing between 1954 and 1958, the 250F is a sleeker affair than the Alfa 158/159.
Raced by sporting legends such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Sterling Moss, Maserati’s 2.5 litre V12 speed demon achieved some historic wins, such as Fangio’s 1957 German Grand Prix win on the way to his fifth and final world championship.
The 250F changed significantly over the years it was raced competitively, but it’s retained an identity loved by race fans for generations and is coveted by vintage collectors (who’ll need some serious classic car insurance).
Like the Alfa 158/159, the Maserati 250F harks back to the F1 days of daredevils and danger, a time when there was a very real threat of death and destruction every race. It regularly tops fan polls, and in 2009 was voted the greatest ever racing car by Octane magazine readers.
3. Lotus 72
Team Lotus has produced a number of awesome F1 cars, but this is arguably their best and one of my favourite designs.
Shaped like a wedge on wheels, the innovative Lotus 72 looks more like the Batmobile than an F1 car in its sporting black-and-gold team colours.
But although it’s not the most beautiful car on this list, the combination of the Ford-Cosworth 3.0 litre V8 engine power, Colin Chapman-led chassis design and driving skills of Jochen Rindt and Emerson Fittipaldi led Lotus to three F1 constructors’ championships and two drivers’ championships between 1970-1973.
Embracing the world of aerodynamics, the Lotus 72 was way ahead of its time, and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that another F1 vehicle surpassed it. This iconic car was finally retired in 1976 after 20 wins from 75 races.
4. Ferrari 312T
The Ferrari 312T was a machine. I mean, obviously it was a machine; but a winning machine.
Between 1975 and 1980 Ferrari won 27 Grands Prix on the way to its four constructors’ championships and three drivers’
championships. It’s an amazing record. Driven by greats such as Niki Lauda and Gilles Villeneuve, the super 3.0 litre flat-12 engine-powered 312T stands up as one of the most successful F1 models of all time.
Arguably, in this creation the Maranello-based team produced a revolution in F1 car design, with a compact length, traverse-mounted gearbox and high air intake above the driver’s head. In some ways the 312T could be seen as the first ‘modern’ Formula 1 racing car.
5. McLaren MP4/4
No matter how you look at it, McLaren MP4/4 was simply awesome. It completely owned the 1988 season, claiming 15 pole positions, winning 15 out of 16 races, recording ten 1-2 finishes and leading all but 27 laps of the year.
It’s a level of dominance that has never quite been equalled. Want further proof of the MP4/4’s brilliance? In the 1988 San Marino Grand Prix both McLarens qualified more than three seconds faster than the second row of the grid. Mind-blowing.
But technical excellence isn’t everything. Designed by Steve Nichols, the 1.5 litre V6 turbo Honda-powered MP4/4s were driven by F1 icons Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. And far from being boringly one-sided, the amazing ’88 season saw two drivers way ahead of the field, but still battling each.
6. Williams FW14B
The inclusion of the FW14B sees the first appearance on this list of Adrian Newey. He’s undoubtedly the best F1 car designer in the modern era, and arguably the greatest in the history of the sport.
The FW14B was the vehicle that powered Britain’s Nigel Mansell to his one and only F1 drivers’ championship in in 1992. The car dominated in 1992, winning ten out of 16 races on the calendar, and notching up 15 poles and ten fastest laps.
With its combination of Renault 3.5 litre V10 engine, semi-automatic gearbox, traction control and active suspension – a computer-controlled suspension design that maintains a constant ride height – the FW14B was a technical marvel. It was also pretty easy on the eye, with a streamline body and attractive colour scheme.
7. Ferrari F2002
Schumacher. To newbie F1 fans he’s a middle-aged guy who spends every Grand Prix scrapping for a few points in a Mercedes. Yet in the early 2000s he was simply unstoppable.
The F2002 saw Ferrari and Schumacher at their most dominant. It was a car in which Schumacher achieved a top-two finish in every single race during 2002. He also managed nine 1-2 finishes along with number two Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello. In total the F2002 won 15 out of 19 Grands Prix.
Powered by a 3.0 litre V10 engine, the F2002 was designed by current Mercedes principal Ross Brawn, along with Rory Byrne and Paolo Martinelli. It’s a sexy beast, and is probably the model that most modern era F1 fans picture when they think of Ferrari – rather than the also-rans the Maranello team has fielded in recent seasons.
8. Red Bull RB7
Red Bull has now won three consecutive F1 drivers’ and constructors’ championships, thanks primarily to their Chief Technical Officer and all-round aerodynamic genius Adrian Newey.
The RB7 was deployed for the 2011 season, and owned the calendar with 12 wins and an incredible 18 pole positions from 19 races split between drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
All teams now use the same 2.4 litre V8 engines, Pirelli tyres, drag reduction systems and kinetic energy recovery systems, so where does this Red Bull dominance come from? Newey’s trump card was the innovative diffuser at the rear of the car, which provided unequalled downforce on cornering and unrivalled lap times.
Sorry if that sounds a bit techie, but the truth is that modern day F1 is not about engine power, but aerodynamics; teams spend millions on wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics to shave just a tenth of a second off a lap time. This is the reality of things. It’s not good or bad. It’s just different.
So what do you think racing fans? Agree? Disagree? Am I on the money here, or have I gone mad? Let me know, and let the debate begin…
About the author
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He has worked as a digital scribbler for a travel website, lifestyle magazine and youth media network. Andy is a recent convert to F1, having been bitten in the bug in the mid-to-late 2000s. His prediction for 2013? More success for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull…