Top-10 Best Formula One Drivers who never won a championship
In Formula Ones, success can be eluding. Some drivers will become multiple-time champions while others are lucky to achieve one, such as 2016 champion Nico Rosberg who retired after achieving his first and only championship.
However, some drivers only get to flirt with success and this is what this list is about. In this list, I’ve gone through F1 statistics and tried to compile as complete of a list as possible of drivers who reached the Top-5 or were at least runner-ups for the championship but never actually accomplished it.
With a list like this though, there are obviously many honourable mentions to consider. 1990s driver sensations Eddie Ervine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen who both just barely lost the title were obvious names to mention, losing to Mika Häkkinen and Jacques Villeneuve respectively. Frentzen was even in the Top-3 (behind Schumacher and Häkkinen) in 1999.
The saddest honourable mention probably goes to Wolfgang Von Trips, who was a real contender for the 1961 championship but died in the Italian Grand Prix in the most disastrous F1 accident in history. Much like one other name on the list, Von Trips was 2nd in the standings at the end of the season which was won by the American Phil Hill (for whom it was his one and only championship).
The recently retired Felipe Massa definitely deserves a huge nod for a highly respectable career. Massa lost the 2008 championship by the slimmest of all margins, by a single point thanks to a last second overtake by Lewis Hamilton.
Massa sadly maybe had to suffer a fate similar to Rubens Barrichello, being an eternal second fiddle to other drivers such as Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso – when the Brazilian drove for Ferrari from 2006 until 2013, when he switched to Williams for the last four seasons of his career. He drove his first three seasons with Sauber.
Massa also nearly retired after 2016 as well, but due to his ex-team mate being promoted to Mercedes (following Rosberg’s shock retirement) he tagged along for one more season.
With one runner-up position and a highly respectable third from his very first Ferrari season, Massa just about manages to hit the Top-10. With 11 race victories and 41 podiums in total, Massa can be proud of his accomplishments.
Gianclaudio “Clay” Regazzoni was the bad boy of Formula Ones during the 1970s. Starting his career with a bang, (much like Massa) he was already third in the championship on his debut season at Ferrari. The difference here is that it was also Clay’s debut season as a driver. The 1970 season was won posthumously by Jochen Rindt but Clay can be proud of his own four podiums he won that season.
After a brief falling out with the black stallions which saw him race for BRM in 1973, he made glorious return to Ferrari in 1974, losing the championship to Emmerson Fittipaldi by a mere 3 points.
Clay admittedly had fewer over-all race-victories and podiums than Massa – but in fairness the F1 season was a lot shorter during the 1970s, in addition to which only a set number of race finishes counted towards the championship tally (and even more confusingly, some F1 races didn’t count towards the championship at all). However, Clay was definitely a more consistent driver, reaching the Top-5 five times during his career when compared to Massa’s three.
The last time this happened was in 1979 when Clay raced for one season only with Albilad-Saudi Racing (a prior incarnation of the Williams team) after two uninspiring seasons with F1 nobodies Tissot Ensign and the twilight years Shadow team. Clay’s exit from the sport happened due to an accident in the 1980 season (racing for Unipart) when an incident in the US Grand Prix left him paralyzed from the waist down. Regazzoni actually regained his motorsports license years later. He died in a civilian motor accident in 2006.
That’s right, the founder of McLaren never won a championship, though this was not due to a lack of trying. A Cooper driver for much of his career (which stretched from 1958 until 1970), Bruce achieved his first podium and race victory during his second season.
Bruce’s best finish was second in the 1960 season. In a season where Bruce and season champ Jack Brabham were the only ones to even take part in eight of the ten championship races, Bruce lost by nine points – but in fairness, Brabham’s championship came on the back of five consecutive race victories against McLaren’s one.
Bruce McLaren is also the only driver on this list who can boast about the fact that he achieved top-5 two more times after this racing his own team’s car. Bruce claimed his final race victory in 1968 in the Belgian Grand Prix, the same year which saw him reach a podium two more times. He was third in the championship the following year, losing to Jacky Ickx and Jack Stewart who dominated the season.
So Bruce was definitely a reliable and solid driver given the chance. It’s just a shame that the seasons where he was at his best, he was faced by utterly dominating drivers.
Patrese was another long-served driver with an impressively long career stretching from 1977 all the way into 1993. Eight constructors, 37 podiums and only six race victories. Like Bruce McLaren, Patrese only ever made the championship top-5 four times in his career. However, what made these accomplishments slightly more impressive is that Patrese accomplished them towards the very tail end of his career.
To say that Patrese’s beginnings in the sport were not ostentatious would be an understatement. He tanked at 20th in the ranking during his debut season with the twilight years Shadow, albeit scoring one point in the very final race of the season, and again during his second Arrows season in 1979. In-between these years however, he accomplished his very first podium with Arrows during the 1978 season.
His second year at Benetton in 1985 was so bad that he didn’t even qualify for the championship, yet he had already won his first Grand Prix in 1982 with Parlamat and did so again in 1983 with Fila (both Brabham teams).
It was finally Williams which gave him a chance to race in a serious fashion in 1989 and 1991. Considering these were the years when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were combatting heavily for the championship, the fact that Patrese was even in the running should give some indication that he was no scrub. His best season was 1992, when he lost out only to his team-mate Nigel Mansell who utterly dominated the season. But even his very final season with Benetton (the predecessor to the current Renault team) he was able to hang on to a position in the top-5, finishing on the podium two more times during his final season.
Argentinian Reutemann is another man who very nearly won the championship. In 1981, while racing for Albilad he lost to Nelson Piquet by only one point. Reutemann was leading the championship before the final race. In said race, Carlos finished 8th (which granted no points) while Piquet was 5th and scored 2 points which settled the whole thing.
Reutemann was also third three times during his career. The first time in 1975 with Martini-Brabham, he lost out to Emmerson Fittipaldi and the legendary Niki Lauda. Reutemann was the second-runner up (but the only live one) when Mario Andretti took his one and only championship in 1978, this time with Ferrari (with whom he had finished 4th the previous season). The last two times Reutemann flirted with success happened during his Williams tenure. Besides the 1981 near-miss, he was bested by Piquet and Alan Jones during the previous year’s championship.
Reutemann could have become an Argentinian legend akin to Juan Manuel Fangio – but unfortunately he had the rotten luck of competing at a time when Grand Prix racing was at its most competitive. Still, an awe-inspiring career.
5. David Coulthard
15 years, 13 wins and 62 podiums. The Scottish driver was at one point one of my personal favourites on track and it is a true shame Coulthard never accomplished true greatness. Still, that didn’t change the fact that he was a talented driver, making the top-5 seven times and for six consecutive seasons between 1997 and 2001.
Coulthard’s best season ever was in 2001, when he was the second best driver in a season utterly dominated by Michael Schumacher. However, Coulthard had shown himself to be a competent driver already back in 1995, when he was third behind (again) Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill.
Coulthard’s biggest successes of course happened at McLaren, where he was able to be third in 1997, 1998 and 2000. He was still in the top-5 during the 1999 season – but couldn’t match the pace of Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. It’s clear that Coulthard’s rotten luck was to be caught in Ferrari-McLaren battle between double-champion Mika Häkkinen and seven-time champion Schumacher. Against Ferrari’s dominance in the early 2000s, no-one stood a chance but Coulthard also fell in Häkkinen’s shadow.
Coulthard’s last few years spent at Red Bull were quite undignified, although he bagged two more podiums during those years. Now of course, Coulthard is a very respected F1 reporter and highly deserving of his position on this Top-5 as well.
4. Jacky Ickx
Possessing possibly one of the weirdest surnames ever, this Belgian made his mark in F1s at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s. What can be said about Ickx is that he was the champion who would never be. His career peaked between 1968 and 1972 while alternating driving for Williams and Ferrari. During those years he lost the championship twice for the most tragic of reasons.
His 1969 loss to Jackie Stewart was not really a surprise and Ickx can be proud that he landed as high on the standings as he did (beating out Bruce McLaren) since at the end of the season he was still behind Stewart a whopping 26 points. Considering an F1 victory only netted 9 points back then and that Stewart won 5 of the season’s 11 races, Ickx really couldn’t have done much more.
His loss to Jochen Rindt was also a historical oddity to say the least. Rindt was killed in a practice session for the Italian Grand Prix, couldn’t compete in the final four races of the season and still won the championship posthumously by five points.
Ickx’s performances became much more erratic there after with the likes of Stewart, Fittipaldi and Peterson dominating in the two following years after Rindt championship. Ferrari was experiencing a dip in their performance, so there wasn’t much Jacky could do. After tanking his 1973 run with Ferrari at 9th he was let go from the team and hopped from one team to the next until 1979. His final podium came from Lotus in 1974.
Ickx was definitely plagued by terrible luck since his best years also happened during statistically odd years in the sport and Ferrari’s weakness there-after robbed him of any new chances for greatness.
The greatest Swedish F1 driver in history also fell victim to some absolutely rotten luck. A beast with a Lotus car, Peterson however flirted with winning the championship already on his second season ever while driving with March Engineering in 1971. With his second place finish, Peterson was clearly ahead of the pack and was only denied the championship by (guess who) Jackie Stewart who dominated the season with six Grand Prix victories.
Peterson was inhaling Stewart’s fumes again in 1973 where he suffered a rotten start to the season but eventually went on to win four Grand Prixs in total. Unfortunately, he landed 3rd, three points behind Fittipaldi who had been neck and neck with Stewart at the start of the season (but who ultimately was left behind by 16 points).
However, Peterson’s best year in the sport was tragically his last. As discussed in a prior blog of mine, Peterson landed 2nd in the standings of the 1978 championship, the one and only won by Mario Andretti. Though behind Andretti 12 points before the Italian Grand Prix which claimed his life, Andretti only scored one point for the rest of the season, meaning that Peterson could have still had a realistic chance of taking Sweden’s first championship.
Another eternal number-2, this Brazilian had one of the longest F1 careers in history spanning 19 years. Barrichello is of course best remembered for his excellent performance at Ferrari where he was the championship runner-up twice (in 2002 and 2004) as well as being 3rd in 2001. Indeed, Barrichello was in the championship Top-5 six times during his career, losing out only to David Coulthart and Stirling Moss – but with the distinction that Coulthart was the runner-up only once in his career.
I honestly feel a little bad for Barrichello since his amazing career has been almost entirely eclipsed by his far more famous team-mate Michael Schumacher. With no less than 68 podiums during his careers and with Rubinho making the Top-5 already on his first year at Ferrari back in 2000 – it’s a little sad how his accomplishments are all but forgotten.
Barrichello also suffered a few undignified years in the Honda racing outfit (which bagged him a single podium in 2008), but he actually made one last rise to the championship top-3 back in 2009 with the Brawn GP team, being left in the dust of Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel. After that, Rubens spent two more nondescript years at Williams. However, his career before these seasons is truly awe-inspiring.
Alright, there was really no competition with this number-1 pick. During his 11 year career in Formula Ones, Stirling Moss made the championship top-5 a grand total of seven times. What makes this accomplishment all the more impressive however is that during each of those seven years, Moss was always either second or third in the championship race at the end of the year. Needless to say, Moss wins this competition by a landslide.
From 1955 to 1957, Moss had one nemesis and his name was Juan Manuel Fangio. The Argentinian beat Moss handily each season despite Moss driving solidly for Mercedes and Maserati. Moss very nearly won the championship in 1958 (Fangio’s final and worst season), but that victory was lost by a single point to Mike Hawthorn who also retired from the sport (before dying tragically in 1959).
Moss’s last three seasons between 1959 and 1961 saw him finish third three times. Again, Moss had some miserable luck. Moss achieved podiums in all three races he completed in 1959 but was readily beaten by Jack Brabham and Tony Brooks. In 1960, he only took part in six races against Brabham and McLaren, did not start for one and was disqualified from another. And a slew of retirements plagued his 1961 season which saw him land behind the deceased Wolfgang Von Trips.
Moss also left the sport in a dramatic fashion. A testing accident in 1962 put him in a coma for a month. Afterwards, Moss simply didn’t feel like he could drive in F1s again and bowed out of the sport.