Top 10 McLaren drivers of all time in Formula One

McLaren's best period in F1 occurred between 1988 and 1991, when the team won four consecutive constructors' titles.

The McLaren Honda's at the 1988 Hungarian GP. (Image: Twitter)
By Nilavro Ghosh | Oct 30, 2022 | 5 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

Based in Woking, England, McLaren is undoubtedly one of the greatest teams to have ever taken part in Formula One. The team has won eight constructor’s championship titles, the third highest of any behind Ferrari (16) and Williams (9). They have also won the driver’s crown 12 times. McLaren’s best period in F1 occurred between 1988 and 1991, when the team won four consecutive constructors’ titles, the first time such a feat had been accomplished in the series. The most memorable of those years was when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost established what is arguably F1’s most famous rivalry, winning a drivers’ title each in their two years together. In 1988, Prost actually outscored Senna, but Senna was crowned champion because his 11 best results trumped Prost’s best 11. Without further ado, here is a look at the 10 best drivers the team has ever had.

Bruce McLaren (1966-70)

Bruce McLaren began his Formula One career with Cooper in 1958, and during his eight years with the team, he achieved several podium finishes and three grand prix victories. But he left to form his own team (along with fellow New Zealander Chris Amon) in 1966, eventually scoring the team’s first F1 victory in Belgium in 1968. He was tragically killed two years later at Goodwood at the age of 32.

Emerson Fittipaldi (1974-75)

The Brazilian’s time with McLaren was brief, but he accomplished a lot in just two seasons. Fittipaldi, who was already a world champion when he arrived from Lotus for the start of the 1974 season, won his first race with the British team in only his second appearance. Consistent results saw him crowned world champion by just three points over Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni, becoming McLaren’s first drivers’ title winner as the team also won its maiden constructors’ title.

Niki Lauda (1982-85)

Niki Lauda returned to the sport in 1982 with the team he’d fought so hard against, initially paired with John Watson before the Briton was replaced by Alain Prost in 1984. That year, the McLaren was the class of the grid, and the Frenchman established himself as the faster driver in qualifying, but Lauda used all of his experience to maximise his speed in races. Despite winning five Grands Prix to Prost’s seven, Lauda won the championship by half a point, the smallest margin in F1 history.

James Hunt (1976-78)

Fittipaldi’s unexpected departure from McLaren prior to the 1976 season left the team without a driver, and they eventually turned to James Hunt. The flamboyant (an understatement, but we’ll go with it) British driver had been without a drive since the demise of his Hesketh team, so the opportunity at McLaren couldn’t have come at a better time. The season that followed began poorly, with four retirements in the first six races and a single victory in Spain wiped out when the car was found to be slightly too wide.

However, the victory was upheld on appeal, and Hunt fought back in the second half of the season as title rival Niki Lauda suffered life-changing injuries in a crash at the Nurburgring. Despite missing only two races, he returned to the track, setting up a dramatic finale in which Lauda withdrew from the final race in Japan because the conditions were too dangerous. Hunt took advantage of his opportunity and scored the points he needed to become world champion.

Alain Prost (1984-89)

1984 was the second season in a row that Prost had been denied the title by a razor-thin margin (Nelson Piquet beat him by two points in ’83), but he wasn’t about to be denied a third time in 1985. Five victories and six additional podium finishes were enough to secure his first world championship, which he defended the following year. Prost’s relationship with McLaren was acrimonious, lasting only two seasons before Prost decided to leave for Ferrari. He left McLaren having won three world championships and 30 Grands Prix, making him the team’s most successful driver at the time.

Ayrton Senna (1988-93)

Senna, like Prost, spent six full seasons with McLaren, but in that time he surpassed the Frenchman’s record with 35 victories for the team. There were three world titles as well: the first in 1988, the second in 1990, and the third in 1991. Senna’s reign at McLaren is now regarded as the team’s golden era, with the team failing to establish itself as the dominant force in F1 (at least not for long) since the Brazilian legend took over.

Mika Hakkinen (1993-2001)

Mika Hakkinen of Finland is McLaren’s most successful post-Senna driver, having joined the team for the final three races of the 1993 season, the Brazilian’s last before his fateful move to Williams. Hakkinen established himself as one of the sport’s top drivers in the years that followed, though he didn’t have the machinery to compete for the world championship until 1998. Finally in a competitive car, he was thrust into a riveting battle with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, which he eventually won by 14 points.Mika Hakkinen won all 20 of his F1 races for McLaren, and after finishing second in the championship to Schumacher in 2000, he retired the following year.

David Coulthard (1996-2004)

David Coulthard may not have reached the same heights as others on this list, but he was a force to be reckoned with in his day. He shared the ice with Hakkinen for six seasons, and in 1997 and 2001, the Scotsman outscored the Finn. Despite coming close to winning the drivers’ championship on several occasions, finishing second in 2001 and third four times before that, he never quite made the top. Nonetheless, he was a consistent presence on the F1 podium for the better part of a decade, with McLaren accounting for 12 of his 13 career victories.

Kimi Raikkonen (2002-06)

Kimi Raikkonen’s F1 career was so long that it’s easy to forget how fast he was as a teenager. In his rookie season with Sauber, he impressed enough to earn a drive with McLaren in 2002, taking his first podium in his first race with the team in Australia. Kimi won his first race in early 2003, and while no one could compete with Michael Schumacher that year, he came the closest. The Finn finished second again in 2005, and while his seven victories that year were equal to Fernando Alonso’s, the Renault driver’s greater consistency saw him win. The Finn left McLaren after five seasons and nine victories, winning his only world championship with Ferrari in 2007.

Lewis Hamilton (2007-12)

McLaren filled their lineup with double world champion Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton after Raikkonen left for Ferrari in 2007 and Pedro de la Rosa was not retained. Hamilton won his first race after finishing on the podium in his first nine attempts. His blistering pace astounded the far more experienced Alonso, and their relationship quickly deteriorated as both drivers refused to yield to the other on the track. Hamilton, of course, bounced back the following year and won his first title on the penultimate corner of the final race in Brazil, becoming McLaren’s final world champion. He stayed with the team until the end of 2012, having won 21 races before joining Mercedes.