Top 10 McLaren F1 drivers ranked: Senna, Prost, Hamilton and more

By Kevin Turner

Bruce McLaren’s firm made its F1 world championship debut in 1966 and the New Zealander scored its maiden victory in the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. Since then, 19 other drivers have taken wins for McLaren and seven have won drivers’ titles.

PLUS: The numbers that reveal McLaren's revival

For the selection of the top 10 McLaren F1 drivers, Autosport has considered the amount of success the drivers scored with the team, the impact they had on McLaren and the circumstances of their time there. We didn’t include their records elsewhere.

If you’d also like to see which McLaren F1 cars we thought were best, take a look here: Top 10 McLaren F1 cars

10. David Coulthard

David Coulthard, McLaren Mercedes, 2002 British GP (Photo by: Steve Etherington / LAT)

McLaren years: 1996-2004
McLaren starts: 150
McLaren wins: 12
McLaren titles: 0

A hard-working team player, Coulthard is the longest serving McLaren driver and is fifth on the team’s all-time wins list. He finished third in the drivers’ championship three times with McLaren and was runner-up in 2001.

Coulthard joined from Williams for 1996 and formed a strong line-up with Mika Hakkinen. The Finn scored more points in 1996, while DC finished ahead the following year. More importantly, the Briton took McLaren’s first wins in more than three years when he triumphed at Melbourne and Monza.

New rules and the MP4-13 leapfrogged McLaren to the front of the F1 grid in 1998. Hakkinen rose to the opportunity best, beating Michael Schumacher to the crown as Coulthard scored just one victory, though he helped McLaren to take the constructors’ title ahead of a resurgent Ferrari.

It was a similar story in 1999, despite Schumacher breaking his leg at Silverstone and missing six races. Various McLaren calamities, including Coulthard nudging Hakkinen into a spin in Austria, helped Eddie Irvine run Hakkinen close for the title and Ferrari snatched the constructors’ laurels despite the obvious pace of the MP4-14. DC had dropped out of contention with an off in tricky conditions in the European GP while leading.

PLUS: Grand Prix Gold – 1999 European GP

Coulthard took a career-best three wins in 2000 to finish third in the standings again, while Schumacher finally ended Ferrari’s long wait for the drivers’ crown by beating Hakkinen. Coulthard’s defeat of both at Magny-Cours showed that he could take on the best, but he struggled to do it often enough.

Race of My Life: David Coulthard on the 2000 French GP

The 2001 campaign was perhaps Coulthard’s best. He gained ascendancy over Hakkinen and scored 10 podiums but a string of problems, including a launch control glitch that cost him Monaco GP pole, meant he finished well behind a dominant Schumacher in the final table.

Ferrari and Williams were ahead of McLaren in 2002. Coulthard outscored rising star team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and took one of his finest wins at Monaco, but the momentum swung away from him in 2003.

PLUS: David Coulthard’s greatest F1 races

Coulthard was unlucky in both Malaysia and Brazil early in the campaign and it was Raikkonen who challenged Schumacher. After nine years with McLaren, Coulthard was replaced by Williams ace Juan Pablo Montoya at season’s end, a move that made sense at the time but seems less brilliant in hindsight. Instead, Coulthard joined the new Red Bull team for 2005.

9. Jenson Button

Pole sitter Jenson Button, McLaren (Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images)

McLaren years: 2010-16, 2017 (one-off)
McLaren starts: 136
McLaren wins: 8
McLaren titles: 0

Button or his McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso could have made this list. Alonso had two stints at the team, came closer to winning a title and it’s easy to argue he managed more with poor McLaren machinery than anyone else. But he was also disruptive, while Button helped bring harmony during his time alongside Lewis Hamilton.

Joining Hamilton for 2010, after winning the world title with Brawn, raised eyebrows, but Button held his own. He won as early as round two in Australia and was often able to match Hamilton in the races, if not qualifying.

Over their three seasons together Button scored more points, though Hamilton took more wins. Perhaps Button’s finest season was 2011, when he won three races and was a brilliant runner-up in the drivers’ championship, while Hamilton languished in fifth.

PLUS: Button’s 10 best F1 drives ranked

Hamilton’s departure to Mercedes for 2013 coincided with a downturn for McLaren. Button outscored new team-mate Sergio Perez, who created some tension on-track, but was only ninth in the championship and had already taken his final F1 win.

Button continued to perform even as the new McLaren-Honda partnership floundered, finishing five points ahead of team-mate Alonso in 2015. Alonso had the upper hand in 2016 and Button bowed out of F1 at the end of the year, aside from a one-off at Monaco the following season subbing for the Indianapolis 500-contesting Alonso.

8. Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren, 2005 Chinese GP (Photo by: Sutton Images)

McLaren years: 2002-06
McLaren starts: 87
McLaren wins: 9
McLaren titles: 0

Raikkonen won his F1 title with Ferrari but he was probably at his peak during his earlier stint at McLaren.

The young Finn joined McLaren in 2002, following a promising F1 rookie campaign at Sauber. He was outscored by experienced team-mate Coulthard in his first year at Woking but was one of the stars of the following season.

Armed with the revised MP4-17D after the radical MP4-18 was canned, Raikkonen scored consistently. Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher (six wins) and Williams driver Montoya (two) took more victories but eight podium finishes to go with his maiden F1 success meant Raikkonen went to the Suzuka finale with a chance of the crown.

Schumacher put in a scrappy drive to eighth while his team-mate Rubens Barrichello took victory, restricting Raikkonen – who needed to win with Schuey failing to score – to second.

Ferrari was unstoppable in 2004 and McLaren took a step backwards, but Raikkonen still scored a brilliant victory over Schumacher at Spa despite a gearbox glitch.

Top 10: Kimi Raikkonen’s greatest F1 drives ranked

Rule changes and the single-set-of-tyres-per-race rule threw Ferrari off its stride in 2005. The Raikkonen-MP4-20 combination was the fastest of the season, but unreliability hurt in his fight with Alonso, who put in a brilliant campaign to take the crown with Renault.

McLaren was less competitive in 2006 and, with Alonso signed early for 2007, Raikkonen joined Ferrari and replaced Schumacher. He would go on to beat McLaren drivers Alonso and Hamilton to the title by a single point in his first Ferrari season…

7. Emerson Fittipaldi

Emerson Fittipaldi, McLaren, 1974 US Grand Prix (Photo by: David Phipps / Motorsport Images)

McLaren years: 1974-75
McLaren starts: 28
McLaren wins: 5
McLaren titles: 1 (1974)

Already a world champion with Lotus, Fittipaldi’s shock move to McLaren for 1974 proved a masterstroke. The Teddy Mayer-run team already had a title-contending car in Gordon Coppuck’s M23, now it had a topline driver to go with it.

Ferrari’s Niki Lauda set the pace but suffered too much misfortune. Fittipaldi won as early as round two in Brazil, held off Lauda to win in Belgium and put together a consistent campaign to put himself in title contention.

Victory in the Canadian GP sent Fittipaldi into the US GP decider tied on points with Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni, with Tyrrell driver Jody Scheckter also mathematically still in it. Fittipaldi was the only one of the three to make it to the end without issues, his fourth spot enough for the Brazilian to take the crown by three points.

PLUS: The story of Emerson Fittipaldi’s 1974 title with McLaren

Fittipaldi won the first race of 1975 in Argentina, took a fortuitous victory in the British GP and scored four second places. But that was simply not enough to stop the Lauda/Ferrari combination and Fittipaldi finished as runner-up.

He would probably have been a frontrunner again in 1976 but left to join his brother Wilson’s eponymous team with Copersucar backing, leaving the way clear for another driver on this list…

6. James Hunt

James Hunt, McLaren, 1976 United States Grand Prix (Photo by: David Phipps / Motorsport Images)

McLaren years: 1976-78
McLaren starts: 49
McLaren wins: 9
McLaren titles: 1 (1976)

When Fittipaldi made a shock switch to his brother’s team, McLaren was left looking for a replacement. Hunt, already a winner with Hesketh, got his big chance and made the most of it.

Arguably faster than the more experienced Fittipaldi, Hunt got the maximum from the ageing M23 and took the fight to Lauda and Ferrari. It was a battle Lauda was winning when he suffered his horrific crash at the German GP.

Hunt took advantage of Lauda’s absence and carried on winning after the Austrian’s heroic return, setting up a dramatic finale. Lauda famously withdrew from the appallingly wet Japanese GP and Hunt finished third despite a late puncture to take the 1976 title by a single point.

Top 10: F1 title deciders ranked

He perhaps drove even better in 1977 and took three straight poles at the start of the campaign. Hunt also scored three wins in the new M26 but, just as with Lotus’s Mario Andretti and Brabham’s John Watson, unreliability prevented a challenge to the consistent Lauda/Ferrari combination.

McLaren was a fading force in 1978 as Lotus moved the goalposts with ground-effect and Hunt left for Wolf at the end of the year. He only contested seven GPs before retiring from the sport, while McLaren’s slump continued – it wouldn’t win again until a management change and the 1981 British GP.

PLUS: How good was James Hunt?

5. Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda, McLaren, 1984 Portuguese GP (Photo by: Motorsport Images)

McLaren years: 1982-85
McLaren starts: 58
McLaren wins: 8
McLaren titles: 1 (1984)

McLaren boss Ron Dennis relentlessly chased the retired double world champion and, following a test to prove the Austrian still had it, Lauda returned to F1 for 1982. It took just three races for Lauda to become a winner, at Long Beach.

Lauda felt he had the measure of team-mate Watson, even though the Northern Irishman beat him in both the 1982 and 1983 drivers’ standings. But when Alain Prost replaced Watson for 1984, the dynamic changed.

Prost’s arrival coincided with the TAG Porsche-powered MP4/2, which Lauda had helped develop, and McLaren was the dominant force in 1984. The duo won 12 of the 16 races, waging a fierce but friendly fight that went to the final round. Lauda’s second place in the Portuguese GP gave him the crown by half a point over race winner Prost.

Race of my life: Niki Lauda on the 1984 Portuguese GP

Lauda was rarely a match for Prost in 1985 and suffered bad luck. While Prost finally took his first title, Lauda managed just one more victory at Zandvoort – the 25th of his career and eighth for McLaren – before hanging up his helmet for good.

More: Niki Lauda’s greatest F1 drives

4. Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren celebrates his World Championship in parc ferme (Photo by: Sutton Images)

McLaren years: 2007-12
McLaren starts: 110
McLaren wins: 21
McLaren titles: 1 (2008)

It says a lot about Hamilton’s remarkable career at Mercedes that his time at McLaren has almost become a footnote. But his six years there included a sensation rookie season, the 2008 crown, 21 wins and some superb performances.

Hamilton’s pace on his arrival in 2007 and McLaren’s inability to manage its drivers meant both he and team-mate Alonso lost out to Ferrari’s Raikkonen in the championship fight.

There were some errors in the early years, most notably in the pitlanes at Shanghai (2007) and Montreal (2008) but his speed and racecraft were never in doubt. Hamilton, with five wins to Felipe Massa’s six, was perhaps slightly fortunate to win the 2008 title and was arguably better the following season.

Saddled with the initially difficult MP4-24, team and driver worked hard to become winners in the second half of the year.

Joined by reigning world champion Button in 2010, Hamilton had both brilliant and difficult moments. That was particularly so in 2011 when a troubled Hamilton had several clashes and finished well behind Button in the standings even though they took three wins apiece.

Hamilton’s 2012 campaign was more impressive but unreliability hampered his efforts against Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and Alonso at Ferrari. Losing the Abu Dhabi GP was painful and helped Lauda woo Hamilton to Mercedes for 2013, just as McLaren’s fortunes took a dive.

3. Mika Hakkinen

Mika Hakkinen, McLaren MP4-14 Mercedes (Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images)

McLaren years: 1993-2001
McLaren starts: 131
McLaren wins: 20
McLaren titles: 2 (1998-99)

Hakkinen formed a strong bond with Dennis, particularly following his life-threatening crash at Adelaide in 1995. The Finn had to wait a long time for his F1 breakthrough – his 1997 European GP victory coming in his 96th start – but he then became Schumacher’s sternest rival.

Hakkinen had caused a stir by outqualifying Ayrton Senna on his McLaren debut in the 1993 Portuguese GP even though he crashed out of the race. He became a full-time McLaren driver in 1994 but Hakkinen’s rise coincided with a fallow period for the Woking squad.

Mercedes power arrived in 1995 and Coulthard joined the following year. Coulthard scored more points and two wins in 1997, though Hakkinen was unfortunate to lose possible victories at Silverstone and the Nurburgring.

Adrian Newey’s McLaren MP4-13 was the fastest car of 1998 and Hakkinen rose to the occasion, tending to have the advantage over Coulthard. Despite a resurgent Ferrari and the banning of McLaren’s asymmetric braking system, Hakkinen stormed to victory in the Japanese GP to beat Schumacher to the crown.

Race of my life: Mika Hakkinen on the 1998 Monaco GP

Having scored McLaren’s first drivers’ title since 1991, Hakkinen doubled-up in 1999 but it should have been easier than it was. Schumacher’s leg-breaking crash at the British GP was followed by various team slip-ups that brought Irvine and Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen into title contention.

Despite Schumacher’s return, Hakkinen’s brilliant win at the Suzuka finale meant he beat Irvine by two points, even though Ferrari took the constructors’ crown.

Ferrari was getting stronger and Schumacher finally took the title in 2000, this time winning his duel with Hakkinen in Japan. Hakkinen was nevertheless still second, his four victories including his famous flat-out pass of Schumacher in the Belgian GP.

Hakkinen’s motivation was perhaps flagging by 2001 and Coulthard became Schumacher’s closest challenger, albeit ultimately a distant one. Hakkinen still managed two of his finest wins, at Silverstone and Indianapolis, before taking an F1 sabbatical that became retirement.

2. Alain Prost

Alain Prost, McLaren, 1986 Australian GP (Photo by: Motorsport Images)

McLaren years: 1980, 1984-89
McLaren starts: 107
McLaren wins: 30
McLaren titles: 3 (1985-86, 1989)

When Renault dumped Prost after their failed 1983 title bid, Dennis pulled off a masterstroke by signing the Frenchman alongside Lauda. With John Barnard’s TAG Porsche-engined MP4/2, the superteam crushed the opposition in 1984 and won 12 of the 16 races.

Prost, who won seven GPs to Lauda’s five, was unfortunate to lose the title by half a point, but made amends the following season with his long-awaited first crown.

Williams-Honda became the pacesetting force in 1986 but Prost put in one of the great F1 campaigns to take advantage of the Nigel Mansell-Nelson Piquet scrap and retain the title. He couldn’t perform enough heroics in 1987, though there were still three wins.

Prost initially welcomed Senna to the team for 1988 and the MP4/4’s dominance made it a two-horse race for the crown. Prost scored more points but Senna took eight wins to seven and the championship thanks to the dropped scores rule of the time.

Aside from Senna’s robust defence at the Portuguese GP, the relationship between the two had remained relatively civil in 1988, but that changed the following year. Prost was furious at what he regarded as Senna reneging on a non-overtaking pact on the first lap at Imola, was unhappy at the Brazilian’s aggressive driving and suspected Senna favouritism from engine supplier Honda.

Senna was essentially wresting control of the team from Prost, but unreliability meant he was on the back foot going into the closing stages of the 1989 campaign. Senna’s controversial exclusion from the Japanese GP after a collision with the other McLaren and recovery drive sealed the title in Prost’s favour.

It meant Prost – who had started his F1 career at the then beleaguered McLaren in 1980 – had taken three titles in his six-year second spell with the team. But the working relationship with Senna was no longer tenable and he was already on his way to Ferrari as he celebrated the 1989 success.

1. Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-6 Honda (Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images)

McLaren years: 1988-93
McLaren starts: 96
McLaren wins: 35
McLaren titles: 3 (1988, 1990-91)

The great Brazilian will forever be associated with McLaren, where he scored 35 of his 41 F1 wins and all three of his world titles. It’s a close-run thing with his arch-rival for this spot, but Senna scored more wins and poles for McLaren – and ultimately was the reason Prost left the team.

Senna joined Prost for 1988, creating a superteam that also had the McLaren MP4/4. They would only lose one of the 16 races and it soon became apparent it was a straight duel between the two McLaren drivers for the crown.

Prost was arguably more consistent but Senna scored more poles (13) and wins (eight) to secure his first F1 title.

The tension between the two became toxic during 1989 and both made errors. Senna was the faster but suffered more reliability issues. When Senna was excluded from victory in the Japanese GP following their clash, Prost became champion before heading to Ferrari.

With Prost gone, Senna was the clear team leader. Although new team-mate Gerhard Berger outqualified him at the 1990 opener, there was little doubt that Senna was the team’s championship challenger.

After a brilliant battle that swung back and forth between Senna and Prost, the Brazilian deliberately crashed into the Ferrari at the start of the Japanese GP. Dennis was not impressed but another title was won.

PLUS: How McLaren revamped its 1990 challenger to fight Ferrari

Start action, Alain Prost, Ferrari 641 leads Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/5B Honda (Photo by: Sutton Images)

Williams-Renault became a real threat during 1991, but a combination of Senna’s fine start to the season and Williams issues kept McLaren-Honda ahead. Key was Senna pushing for developments and making the most of what he had, and he was rewarded with a third crown at the end of what was arguably his finest campaign.

PLUS: How Senna won his greatest F1 title

Mansell and the Williams FW14B were unstoppable in 1992, restricting Senna to three fortuitous wins, and he was even beaten by Benetton’s rising star Schumacher in the final standings.

While Senna worked to try and get into a Williams seat, he started 1993 driving for McLaren on a race-by-race basis. Despite having to use customer Ford engines after the withdrawal of Honda, Senna produced some of his greatest drives to take five wins against the superior Williams FW15Cs of Prost and Damon Hill.

PLUS: Ayrton Senna’s greatest F1 drives

Appropriately, Senna took pole and victory in his last McLaren outing, in the 1993 Australian GP, before making his ill-fated move to Williams. It was his 35th win in 96 starts for McLaren, which was then a record for a driver at a single team, and he remains the squad’s most prolific winner. It would be more than three years before McLaren won another GP.

If there’s one criticism in terms of Senna’s impact on McLaren, it’s that his wage demands towards the end of his time there hampered its ability to keep up with Williams in the development race. But that’s minor compared to the brilliant wins and titles, some against the odds, Senna scored for McLaren during a golden era for the squad.

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/6 Honda (Photo by: Sutton Images)

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