There have, of course, been many a list of the best Formula 1 drivers of all time, produced by journalists and fans alike. It is not, however, my intention here to attempt a list of the best Formula 1 drivers per se, but rather to compile a list of the best racing drivers. I am, therefore, interested only in a driver's ability to go wheel-to-wheel with other drivers, to contest the same piece of tarmac, to overtake other drivers, to overcome enormous odds, and to fight heroically even when victory is impossible. The list is constrained to be post-1976, given that this is the period over which I've been able to make my own observations, and draw my own conclusions.
1) Ayrton Senna
Senna got closer to the mathematically perfect limit of a racing car than any other driver of the modern era. In fact, his capabilities appeared at times to be transcendental: think of the European Grand Prix at Donington in 1993, where, in blinding rain and spray, Senna arrived at the first corner in fifth position, but then proceeded, with surgical precision and breathtaking audacity, to overtake each of the cars ahead, assuming the lead before the end of the opening lap. Certainly, Senna believed that he was drawing upon a supernatural source of inspiration, and this mysticism also made Senna a downright dangerous driver at times. It was Senna who patented the modern tradition of conscience-free driver ethics, brake-testing opponents, veering at them as they attempted to overtake, and finally, at Suzuka in 1990, deliberately ramming Prost off the road, at about 150mph, to win that year's World Championship.
2) Michael Schumacher
Schumacher never possessed the extreme speed or psychological intensity of Senna, but his all-round racing capabilities were astonishing, and his racecraft routinely ran rings around the other drivers of his era, particularly in the wet.
Schumacher's reputation, however, is indelibly tarnished. He won the World Championship in 1994, in a car which possessed illegal launch control and traction control software, by deliberately shunting Damon Hill off the track at the season finale; in 1997 he attempted to win the World Championship at the season finale by deliberately shunting Jacques Villeneuve; in 2000 he finally won the World Championship in a car which appeared to possess remarkable traction capabilities; and thereafter, in 2001, 2002, and 2004, he won the World Championship in a car vastly superior to its opposition, and in a team within which he never tolerated the presence of a driver of equal capability. Finally, at Monaco in 2006, Schumacher even descended to deliberately blocking the track to prevent his rivals from gaining pole position. Schumacher, then, is a driver with the best statistical record in the history of the sport, but also a driver who was, quite simply, a cheat.
3) Nigel Mansell
No-one in the modern era has quite matched the sheer heroism of Nigel Mansell's achievements and overtaking manoeuvres. By all accounts, Mansell was a boorish individual off the track, but on the track he frightened even Senna.
At Hungary in 1989, on a circuit at which it was all but impossible to overtake, Mansell started a distant 12th, but steadily picked off all those ahead of him, until he reached the leader, Senna. As Senna's McLaren was momentarily wrong-footed by a backmarker, Mansell kept his foot nailed, and instantly veered around both cars. At Silverstone in 1987, Mansell found himself 30 seconds behind team-mate Piquet with 30 laps to go, but hunted him down at a second-a-lap, until, with barely a couple of laps left, he turned up the boost-pressure, sold the Brazilian a dummy, and sliced down the inside into Stowe corner. At Spain in 1991, Mansell and Senna created perhaps the most iconic image of modern Formula 1 when then traversed the entire length of the main straight, wheels inches apart, coruscating sparks blazing from the front-wing endplates. The adrenalin peaks Mansell produced in the viewer were higher than any other driver has provoked, before or since.
4) Gilles Villeuve
Villenueve was a genuinely fearless, devil-may-care driver, besotted with the romance of the sport, disinterested in the process of racking up points and championships. He drove with wild abandon and intuitive flair, until killed in 1982. Famously, he banged wheels and fought frantically with Rene Arnoux in the closing laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix. At the Dutch Grand Prix the same year, upon suffering a puncture, he drove on at full speed on three wheels, the fourth flailing wildly in the air behind.
5) Lewis Hamilton
This is the man I expect to become the best driver ever. He plucks impossible overtaking manoeuvres from nowhere, and makes the other drivers look like amateurs in the rain. With experience, and a little more savvy, he will become almost unbeatable.
6) Keke Rosberg
For many years, Keke held the distinction of the fastest lap ever in Formula 1, his 160mph average pole position lap for the British Grand Prix at Silvertsone in 1985. I was at Club corner that day, and although Rosberg was already on pole, I was disappointed that a brief shower looked to have curtailed the action towards the end of the session. I was wrong. In the final minutes, Rosberg took to the track to improve his time, just for the sake of it. From the perspective of Club corner, the level of the track at the preceding corner, Stowe, was obscured, but as Rosberg rounded Stowe his Williams raised a faint curtain of spray, visible in the air above his car. Cresting the rise at the exit of Stowe, he was now accelerating straight towards my vantage point. I have never, to this day, seen a projectile move so fast. I thought at the last minute that he really was going to spear off the road and join me in the spectator enclosure, but at an impossibly late moment, and without lifting off, he yanked the Williams into Club corner, and hammered all the Honda horses up the hill to Abbey and Woodcote.
7) James Hunt
James Hunt was a playboy, but also a fabulous racer, who overcame the greatest odds to win the World Championship in 1976. And he did it when there were proper cars, on proper circuits, with proper drivers.
8) Juan-Pablo Montoya
Montoya's career in Formula 1 was destroyed by his inability to cope with understeer, and by his own hot-headed temperament. However, during his stay he established himself as Mr Excitement, memorably shafting Schumacher into the first corner at Brazil in 2001, and performing numerous audacious overtaking manoeuvres thereafter.
9) Mika Hakkinen
Hakkinen possessed a clinical extremity of speed, but after his life-threatening accident in 1995, he seemed to lose some of his exuberance. Moreover, he simply couldn't drive in the rain, and he also seemed to be excessively drained by the process of fighting for World Championships. However, his overtaking manoeuvre on Michael Schumacher at Spa in 2000, was exhilarating, and came a lap after Schumacher had attempted to intimidate him by veering into his path at 180mph.
10) Alan Jones
Jones was a hard but fair racer, who established the mould for all future Williams divers. Like Montoya, Rosberg and Mansell, he won his final race for Williams, and that's a pleasing symmetry.