Since the first world championship in 1950, Formula One has had its fair share of dramatic and iconic driver rivalries. Some are fairly fought, while others are filled with controversy. Some are brief, while others are almost as long as their careers.
The ferocity of these fights sometimes becomes a bigger talking point than the actual racing itself. Here’s a run-through of the greatest rivalries in Formula One history:
1. Ayrton Senna vs. Alain Prost
Perhaps the most iconic rivalry in Formula 1 history is between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. This rivalry is often seen as the most dramatic, kind of like a story from a movie, with Prost as the cool, methodical driver and Senna as the bold and adventurous one.
Senna’s aggressive driving tactics intensified the rivalry, notably in Portugal, where he edged Prost towards the pit wall. He clinched his first title at Suzuka, but their relationship deteriorated further at Imola in 1989 when Senna broke a pre-race agreement.
The 1989 incident was their most famous clash – at the Japanese Grand Prix. A controversial collision led to Prost winning his third World Championship. After a fallout as teammates, Prost moved to Ferrari and made sure Senna couldn’t join him there. In the 1990 race in Japan, Senna led in points and started first. He had promised to do whatever it took to stay ahead of Prost. True to his word, he collided with Prost’s Ferrari at the first turn, ending the race for both and securing the championship for himself by maintaining his points lead. The feud continued into 1991.
After Prost’s departure from Ferrari and a year’s break, he joined Williams-Renault in 1993, winning his fourth world title before retiring. Senna and Prost dominated the era, winning all but two world titles between 1985 and 1993. Their time at McLaren saw Senna win more races, but Prost scored more points. Their relationship improved after Prost’s retirement, and Senna reportedly missed the rivalry before his tragic death in 1994.
Despite being intense rivals, there was mutual respect, and Prost served as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral.
2. James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda
James Hunt and Niki Lauda, friends, and former housemates, engaged in one of F1’s most thrilling championship battles in 1976. Hunt’s first world championship win came at the 1975 Dutch GP, with Lauda securing his first world title that season. When Hunt joined McLaren in 1976, Lauda was dominating, but Hunt kept up the pressure.
Their most memorable season was in 1976, with only three points separating them before the final race in Japan. That year, Lauda had a life-threatening crash in Germany, and Hunt won the British Grand Prix only to have his victory later disqualified. The Japanese Grand Prix was a dramatic affair with terrible weather, leading Lauda to withdraw, valuing his life over the championship. Hunt nearly secured an easy win, but track conditions changed, causing him to drop positions. However, he made a comeback in the last two laps to finish third and win the championship by just one point.
In 1977, Lauda won his second title, with Hunt retiring from racing after the 1979 Monaco GP. Lauda retired four months later but returned in 1982, winning a third title in 1984.
3. Sebastian Vettel vs. Mark Webber
The rivalry between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, which sparked at the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix due to a collision, only intensified when they became teammates at Red Bull Racing in 2009. In their first season together, they won six races and secured second in the constructors’ standings, but it was clear they were each other’s biggest competitors.
The tension escalated in 2010, particularly at the Turkish Grand Prix, where Vettel collided with Webber while trying to overtake him, ending Vettel’s race. Their relationship worsened at Silverstone, where the team favored Vettel with an updated front wing. Webber often hinted in interviews that he felt the team favored Vettel, a sentiment that seemed to be validated as Vettel clinched four consecutive world championships.
Their long-standing rivalry reached its peak at the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix. In the race’s closing stages, Vettel disregarded a pre-race agreement to allow Webber a victory, overtaking him on the last lap to win the race. Webber, clearly frustrated, commented after the race that he didn’t expect any repercussions for Vettel from the team, indicating a perceived bias. This incident significantly influenced Webber’s decision to retire from Formula 1 shortly after.
4. Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg
The rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, which spanned from 2013 to 2016, was another instance of intense intra-team competition, this time at Mercedes. Both drivers were childhood friends and karting teammates, but their relationship soured as they battled for the championship.
Lewis Hamilton was considered one of the greatest in F1, while Nico Rosberg was not typically ranked in the top 20 by most. Despite the odds, Rosberg’s determination saw him become one of the few to outperform Hamilton over a season, earning him the 2016 title.
In their first year as teammates in 2013, Hamilton edged out Rosberg, even with Rosberg’s deeper experience with the team. The rivalry escalated as the championship became a focus.
Rosberg sometimes outpaced Hamilton, especially in qualifying, but generally fell short in areas like race strategy and wet conditions. Hamilton secured the 2014 and 2015 titles with 21 wins to Rosberg’s 11, despite rising tension and incidents, including controversial collision at the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix and contact at Spa.
In 2016, Rosberg pulled out all the stops, using team dynamics and capitalizing on Hamilton’s occasional poor starts and mechanical issues. This strategy paid off in a nail-biting finish at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, earning Rosberg the title.
Their four-year partnership saw Hamilton amass 1334 points to Rosberg’s 1195. However, Rosberg’s narrow victory in 2016 by just five points was a career highlight, leading to his unexpected retirement and leaving Hamilton without a chance for payback.
5. Nigel Mansell vs. Nelson Piquet
Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, teammates at Williams in the late 1980s, had a rivalry that was as much psychological as it was on the track. The tension between the two was palpable, with both drivers often engaged in public spats and mind games. Their battle for supremacy within the team was a significant storyline of the era, with Mansell eventually winning his only World Championship in 1992.
Nigel Mansell, known for his dramatic flair, had his fair share of tension with teammates, notably Alain Prost at Ferrari in 1990. However, his rivalry with Nelson Piquet was even more intense. Piquet, often critical of Mansell, didn’t expect Mansell to outperform him that season. Surprisingly, Mansell won five races to Piquet’s four. The decisive moment came at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, where Mansell looked unbeatable until a puncture ended his race and handed the championship to Piquet.
Their rivalry was marked by Piquet’s critical comments and a lack of information sharing. Despite a major crash in 1987, Piquet managed to win the title, while Mansell moved on to win with Williams-Renault in 1992. Piquet’s move to Lotus in 1988 didn’t end their rivalry, as he continued to make controversial and demeaning comments about Mansell. Their final memorable duel came at the 1990 Australian GP, with Piquet taking the win.
6. Michael Schumacher vs. Mika Hakkinen
Michael Schumacher faced a formidable challenger in Mika Hakkinen. Hakkinen’s incredible speed posed a significant challenge to Schumacher, especially as Ferrari aimed to clinch its first driver’s title in two decades.
Their rivalry began before their 1998 F1 showdown, notably at the 1990 Macau GP, where a late incident denied Hakkinen a win. Initially, Hakkinen’s McLaren seemed unbeatable in 1998, but Schumacher and Ferrari caught up, leading to an intense championship battle. The title was decided in the final round at Suzuka, where a series of mishaps for Schumacher handed the victory and championship to Hakkinen.
The 1999 season was another close contest until Schumacher’s accident at Silverstone. After missing six races, he returned to support teammate Eddie Irvine’s title efforts, but Hakkinen secured his second championship.
In 2000, Schumacher and Ferrari triumphed, with a memorable duel in Suzuka marking the championship’s climax. The following year, although Hakkinen won two races, he couldn’t sustain a title challenge and retired from F1 at the end of the season.
One of their most notable battles was at Spa in 2000, where Hakkinen masterfully overtook Schumacher in a high-speed maneuver, showcasing their intense rivalry.
7. Lewis Hamilton vs. Fernando Alonso
Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, two of the most seasoned drivers in Formula 1, have a rivalry that traces back to their time together at McLaren in 2007. That year, they ended the season tied in points, but Kimi Raikkonen swooped in to take the championship in a Ferrari. Hamilton’s impressive performance in testing at Silverstone in September earned him a spot as Alonso’s teammate in 2007, a decision that surprised many, including Alonso.
Alonso, already a two-time world champion, seemed frustrated with his treatment at McLaren. This tension reached a peak at the Hungarian Grand Prix, where he received a penalty for delaying Hamilton in the pits during qualifying. Alonso returned to Renault in 2008, then joined Ferrari in 2010, where he frequently raced against Hamilton, although both were overshadowed by Sebastian Vettel’s dominance in the Red Bull.
The Spygate scandal involving McLaren and Ferrari further strained Alonso’s relationship with McLaren’s management, leading him to return to Renault in 2008. Alonso moved to Ferrari in 2010, while Hamilton teamed up with Jenson Button at McLaren. Over the next three years, both had standout performances but couldn’t surpass Sebastian Vettel.
Since Hamilton’s shift to Mercedes in 2013, he has consistently been in the title hunt. In contrast, Alonso’s choices to stay with less competitive teams like Ferrari and McLaren have somewhat cooled their rivalry. Yet, with upcoming regulatory changes aimed at narrowing the performance gap between cars, there’s potential for Alonso’s Alpine to be more competitive with Hamilton’s Mercedes, reigniting their rivalry after several years.
8. Gilles Villeneuve vs. Didier Pironi
The feud between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi at Ferrari, though brief, was as intense as any in Grand Prix history. In 1982, Ferrari hadn’t achieved a podium in the first three races, but the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola presented a prime opportunity. With only 14 cars competing due to a boycott, and the leading Renaults of Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost retiring, Villeneuve and Pironi found themselves leading.
Ferrari instructed their drivers to slow down to conserve fuel and ensure the cars’ reliability. Villeneuve, thinking this meant the race was effectively over, reduced his pace. However, Pironi saw it differently and overtook Villeneuve, who believed Pironi was just putting on a show for the fans. Villeneuve retook the lead, but on the final lap, Pironi aggressively passed him again to win.
Villeneuve, deeply upset, left Imola immediately after being convinced to attend the podium ceremony. Villeneuve felt betrayed and declared a personal war against Pironi. Tragically, this rivalry was cut short as Villeneuve was killed in a qualifying accident at the next race in Belgium.
9. Alan Jones vs. Carlos Reutemann
The partnership between Williams drivers Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann was initially one of Formula 1’s most effective. In 1980, they won a total of six races, with Jones clinching his sole championship and leading Williams to their first constructors’ title, significantly outscoring the second-placed Ligier team. During this period, Reutemann played a supportive role, consistently finishing on the podium and winning when Jones didn’t, like in Monaco 1980.
However, their relationship soured in 1981 when Reutemann defied team orders to win the Brazilian Grand Prix, much to Jones’ ire. Jones, who had won the season opener at Long Beach, was so upset that he refused to join the podium celebration and subsequently experienced a 14-race winless streak. Meanwhile, Reutemann continued his success with another win at Zolder.
The internal competition within Williams proved detrimental, as both drivers took points off each other. This infighting ultimately helped Nelson Piquet narrowly clinch the 1981 championship by just one point over Reutemann, with Jones finishing a close third.
As the two drivers prepared to part ways, Autocar’s Alan Henry reported an attempt by Reutemann to make amends, to which Jones famously responded with sharp hostility, reflecting the deep-seated tension between the two.
These rivalries, fierce and fraught with drama, have contributed immensely to the allure of Formula 1. They not only brought out the best in the drivers involved but also captivated fans worldwide, adding a rich narrative layer to the sport. Formula 1, with its mix of speed, technology, and driver drama, remains a fascinating spectacle, in no small part due to these legendary rivalries.