/Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

Formula One Wallpaper at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

During Formula One’s 64 year history, the World Championship’s fate has been decided in the last race on 26 occasions. And while most of the times the winner was the driver who was favorite before the race (the one who was leading the Championship), on 10 occasions things went a little different and the title was won by the driver who started the last race of the season with the second and even the third chance.

Amazing success stories were offered by drivers like Kimi Raikkonen, Giuseppe Farina or Alain Prost which reminded us once again why we are so thrilled to be fans of such a wonderful sport. The last time this almost happened was two years ago, when Fernando Alonso was extremely close to winning the 2012 Championship in the last race even though he was second before the start, but eventually lost it by just three points.

So let’s take a look at some of the most exciting Championship “finals” in history:

Giuseppe Farina – 1950 (Alfa Romeo)

1950 was Formula One’s debut season and it offered a thrilling end to the season. Before the last race, the Italian Grand Prix held at Monza, Juan Manuel Fangio was leading the Championship with 22 points, securing his lead with a victory at the penultimate race, the French Grand Prix. In 2nd place came Luigi Fagioli, with 24 points and Farina was 3rd, with 22 points. Out of the three, Fagioli had the most constant run, with four 2nd places, Fangio had previously finished only three races (but won them all), while Farina won two races, came in 4th in Belgium and 7th in France and was forced to retire in Monaco.

Giuseppe Farina at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

After qualifying, Fangio took pole position, Farina 3rd place, behind Alberto Ascari, with Fagioli only managing a 5th place. However, Fangio’s Alfa Romeo failed him once again and he was forced to retire twice, first due to a gearbox problem and then due to engine problems (back then, rules allowed drivers to change cars and the Argentinian took PieroTaruffi’s car after his gearbox failure). But that didn’t matter, because Farino managed to do an almost perfect race. He took the lead early on and except for a few laps when he was overtaken by Ascari, led the entire race, winning the World Championship with a three point lead over Fangio.

It was an exciting finish to Formula One’s first ever season and it was also the race that set an interesting record. Surprisingly, it was not set by one of the drivers fighting for the Championship, but by PhillipeEtancelin. The 53 year old French driver finished 5th and scored one point which made him the oldest driver to ever score Championship points in a Formula One race.

John Surtees – 1964 (Ferrari)

The 1964 Formula One season was under British domination, with three legendary drivers fighting for the Championship: Jim Clark, John Surtees and Graham Hill. Before the last race of the season, Hill was leading the Championship standings by 5 points, following a win in the United States, with John Surtees coming in 2nd and Jim Clark 3rd, 9 points behind. Hill had a great start of the season, with a win in Monaco and three 2nd places in France, Britain and Germany and he would’ve probably secured his Championship title if it weren’t for two abandons, in Austria and Italy. But after the American victory, everyone was betting on him in the final race of the season, the Mexican Grand Prix. Surtees on the other hand, didn’t have the most reliable car that year, his Ferrari failing to finish in four races (that’s almost half of the entire season). However, he did great in the races he did manage to finish, winning two races, two 2nd places and a 3rd. And even though he was five points behind, the battle wasn’t over. As for the third driver involved in the battle for the Championship, Jim Clark, odds weren’t quite in his favor, as he needed to win the race and Hill and Surtees to perform terribly.

John Surtees at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

So everyone was anticipating an exciting last race, but what happened exceeded all expectations. After qualifying, Clark took the pole position and kept his lead after the race started. He was followed by Dan Gurney, with Hill fighting with Lorenzo Bandini for the 3rd place. Surtees was fifth and was completely out of the Championship battle. However, a contact between Bandini and Hill forced the Brit to spin and lose a few places. And if that wasn’t difficult enough for him, his exhaust was seriously damaged, causing the car to lose power for the remaining of the race. This was good news for Clark who was now World Champion.

But with a little more than one lap to go, Clark was hit by unbelievable bad luck when his engine blew and forced him to retire, thus losing the Championship. And while Hill’s position was awful, he was still Champion, with Surtees only 3rd, behind Gurney and Bandini (the latter was his teammate at Ferrari). Realizing the situation, the Italian team signaled Bandini to let Surtees pass, which he did, making the Brit World Champion at the end of an incredible race, with just one point in front of Hill.Ferrari also won the Constructors’ Championship over BRM, even if the British team was leading the standings before the last race. An interesting fact is that by winning the Championship that year, John Surtees become the only person in history to be World Champion on both two and four wheels, having won the 500cc motorcycle Championship four times (1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960).

James Hunt – 1976 (McLaren)

The 1976 Formula One season is regarded by many as one of the most thrilling seasons in the sport’s history, thanks to the incredible rivalry between James Hunt and NikiLauda. The season was also the inspiration for the exciting movie “Rush” that was launched last year, starring Chris Hemsworth. The first part of the season was dominated by NikiLauda, who was reigning World Champion. The Austrianwon five of the first nine races and finished 2nd in two other races, leading the Championship with almost twice as many points as the next driver, Hunt.

James Hunt 600x450 at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

But then camethe terrible race atNurburgring in Germany, where the Austrian was involved in a serious crash, being pulled out of his burning Ferrari by three other drivers. Lauda was left with serious burns and was unable to enter the following two races, in Austria and Netherlands. However, despite doctors advising him not to, he came back only six weeks later, at the Italian Grand Prix. Enduring severe pain, Lauda wasn’t able to drive at full capacity and only managed a 4th place in Italy, 8th in Canada and a 3rd place in the United States. But he was still leading the Championship, with only three points in front of Hunt, before the last race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix. Everyone was thrilled about this, as it was one of the most disputed Championships in years.

During the race weekend, the weather was extremely wet, especially on race day. There were actually talks to postpone the race, but the organizers decided to go ahead, making many drivers unhappy with this decision, including Lauda. The Austrian, who confessed of being absolutely petrified when driving, following his crash in Germany, decided to play this one safe and retired after the second lap, when he was 3rd. Hunt led most of the race, but was overtaken by a few drivers once the track started to dry. But with only three laps before the finish he overtook Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni and became World Champion, with only one point in front of Lauda. It was an incredible season and while everyone appreciates Hunt, there are many voices saying that he wouldn’t have dreamed of winning the Championship if it wasn’t for Lauda’s crash. And to further fuel these controversies, the Austrian won the Championship the following year, proving he was one of Formula One’s greatest.

Nelson Piquet – 1981 (Brabham)

Another season when the World Champion was decided by just one point was the 1981 season. Before the last race of the season, the United States Grand Prix, Carlos Reutemann (Williams) was leading the Championship, with 49 points, followed by Nelson Piquet with 48 points. Jacques Laffite was 3rd and also had a shot of winning the Championship, but he needed extremely favorable circumstances.

The two main contenders, Reutemann and Piquet, were both coming after a couple of mediocre results (Piquet finished 6th in Italy and 5th in Canada, while Reutemannwas 3rd and 10th). During qualifying, Reutemann got the pole position, followed by Alan Jones who was the reigning World Champion and the Argentinian’s team mate. Even though Jones said he would not do anything in particular to help Reutemann, everyone saw the Argentinian as a favorite to win the race, especially with Piquet only qualifying 4th. But the race started awful for Reutemann, which was overtaken by Jones, Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost and Bruno Giacomelli in the first lap. Piquet wasn’t going to well either, finishing the first lap in the 8th position.

Jones dominated the race and led from start to finish, but everyone’s attention was turned to the duel between Reutemann and Piquet. The Argentinian was having a lot of trouble with his car (there was a gearbox problem that left him without the fourth gear) and he was overtaken by Piquet soon. After the race, the Brazilian said he saw Reutemann having serious difficulties in driving his car and tried to stop him by braking very early during a corner, hoping that Piquet will run into him. But he didn’t and after that the Brazilian drove impeccably, even though he was physically exhausted from the high temperatures (he had some problems with the heat during qualifying too). Actually, after he managed to pass Laffite and John Watson and was in 5th position, he was so visibly exhausted that everyone was concerned whether he would be able to finish the race. But he held onto that 5th place and won the two points he needed to become World Champion, because Reutemann was overtaken by Laffite and Watson and only finished 8th (the first six positions received points). It was Piquet’s first Championship and was followed by two more, in 1983 and 1987.

Nelson Piquet – 1983 (Brabham)

The Brazilian is the only driver that is twice on this list. Two years after winning his first Championship against Reutemann, Piquet won his second title after a tight battle with the legendary Alain Prost. This time, the last race took place in South Africa and before the race Prost was leading the Championship standings with 57 points, followed by Piquet with 55 points. In theory, Rene Arnoux also had a shot of winning the Championship (he had 49 points), but he had to win the race while Prost had to finish 6th or lower and Piquet 4th or lower.

nelson piquet 600x400 at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

Piquet qualified 2nd, Prost 5th and it seemed like it would be an extremely interesting race. The Brazilian had a great start and took the lead in the first lap, overtaking Patrick Tambay. In the ninth lap, Arnoux was forced to retire by a problem with his engine and he was out of the Championship battle, while his abandon allowed Prost to climb one position. The French driver soon got into the 3rd position but Patrese, which was Piquet’s team mate at Brabham, did a great job holding the Frenchman behind him and preventing him from challenging Piquet. Unfortunately for Prost, things ended badly for him when turbo failure on lap 35 forced him to retire. Without the pressure, Piquet, who was leading the race, paced himself and even though he was overtaken by Patrese, de Cesaris and Lauda, finished in a comfortable 3rd place after the Austrian retired with electrical problems.

Prost had all the reasons to be extremely angry for losing the title, since he dominated a large part of the season. But the last four races were a total mess for him, retiring from three of them: Netherlands (where he collided with Piquet and both had to retire), Italy (turbo failure) and South Africa (turbo failure once again). The only time he managed to finish being the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.

Alain Prost – 1986 (McLaren)

The second time Prost was involved in a Championship deciding last race things went better for him. This last race of the season took place in Australia and three drivers were fighting for the World Championship. The favorite was, by far, Nigel Mansell, who was leading the standings with 70 points, followed by Prost with 64 points and Mansell’s team mate, Nelson Piquet, with 63 points. Like we said, the difference was quite big and all Mansell had to do was finish third or higher or for the other two not to win. Another advantage the Brit had was that Williams cars (Mansell and Piquet) proved to be far superior to the McLaren driven by Prost and only the Frenchmen’s consistency allowed him to be a title challenger until the last round. A proof of the difference between the cars was that Williams had already won the Constructors’ Championship, having a 48 point lead over McLaren before the last race.

Alain Prost 600x450 at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

Things seemed to be even clearer when Mansell won the pole position during qualifying, followed by Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Prost in 4th. Everyone was extremely delighted with this last race and around 150,000 spectators attended the race on the Adelaide circuit. And they sure did have what to see, because the race was extremely dramatic. Mansell was overtaken by Senna on the second corner, then by Piquet and KekeRosberg. By the end of the first lap, Piquet was first, but lost the lead to Rosberg only six laps later. The Brazilian also had an incident on lap 23 and spun, losing a few places. Several laps later, Prost had a problem with a punctured tire and was forced to do an unscheduled pit stop, dropping to 4th. On lap 44, Piquet passed Mansell and the two were followed by Prost. This meant that all three title contenders were in 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions. Rosberg, who had managed to build a significant gap between him and the rest, was forced to retire on lap 63 due to a tire failure. The Finn, who was Prost’s team mate, later told the press that he wouldn’t have won the race anyway, since he promised the team and Prost that he would do anything possible to help the Frenchmen win the Championship.

So now Piquet was leader, Mansell 2nd and Prost 3rd. But almost immediately after Rosberg retired, Prost overtook Mansell for 2nd place, without the Brit putting up any fight (3rd place was enough for him to become Champion). But with less than 20 laps to go, bad luck struck Mansell on lap 64, when his rear left tire exploded at around 180 mph, forcing him to retire. Williams feared that Piquet might have the same fate and called him in for a tire change, giving the lead to Prost, who took advantage of this opportunity and never gave it up until the finish, despite Piquet closing the gap by 10 seconds in the last two laps. Another amazing fact was that Prost drove so to the limit that his car ran out of fuel a few tens of meters after the finish line, putting an epic end to an epic race.

It was Prost’s payback for what happened in 1983 and by winning the Championship he became the first driver to win back-to-back Championships after more than 30 years (the previous one was Jack Brabham in 1959 and 1960).

Jacques Villeneuve – 1997 (Williams)

Before the last race of the 1997 Formula One season that took place in Spain, at Jerez, Michael Schumacher was leading the Championship with 78 points, just one point ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, who was only in his second year of driving in Formula One. The race was coming after a controversial result in the penultimate round, in Japan, when Villeneuve finished 5th but was disqualified for ignoring yellow flags on two consecutive laps during practice.

Jacques Villeneuve at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

But that controversy was nothing compared to what would happen during the last race. Actually, the entire weekend was amazing. First there was qualifying, when, for the first time in Formula One history, three drivers set the exact same fastest lap time (1:21:072): Villeneuve, Schumacher and Heinz-HaraldFrentzen. According to regulations, the final order was dictated by the order in which the drivers set the times, which meant Villeneuve won the pole position, Schumacher was 2nd and Frentzen3rd. What’s interesting is that the pole position almost went to Damon Hill, who had the fastest intermediate times but had to slow down on the last part of his lap due to an incident involving Minardi’s Ukyo Katayama.

And, as everyone was anticipating, the race was fascinating. Schumacher took the lead by the first corner and continued to lead the race for the first 40 laps. Villeneuve was also overtaken by Frentzen at the start, but Williams ordered the German to let Villeneuve pass, which he did on lap 8. Nothing changed after Schumacher made his first pit stop on lap 22 and the Canadian a lap later. The order didn’t change also when they made their second pit stops on laps 43 (Schumacher) and 44 (Villeneuve), but the gap between the two was reduced and by lap 48 it was less than a second. It was during this lap when Villeneuve made a move to overtake Schumacher, he took the interior, but the cars collided, with Schumacher being forced out of the track and onto the gravel, where he got stuck and retired.

Villeneuve’s Williams, even though it was still in the race, suffered damage and the Canadian was slower than the others. He was soon caught up by both McLarens (Hakkinen and Coulthard), but he didn’t put up a fight, since all he needed was three points (that was 4th place) and managed to finish the race and become World Champion. Hakkinen finished 1st, winning his first ever Formula One race. The collision between Schumacher and Villeneuve sparked a lot of controversy as everyone saw that Schumacher deliberately tried to take out the Canadian (he admitted to the mistake a few days later, during a press conference). Following an investigation by FIA, Schumacher was disqualified from the Championship, losing his second place but keeping his wins and pole position records.

Mika Hakkinen – 1999 (McLaren)

In 1999, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher continued their rivalry from the 1998 season, when the Finn became World Champion. After half of the season, Hakkinen was leading by 8 points but then came Schumacher’s horrific crash at Silverstone, when the German broke his leg and was unable to race in the next six races. But that didn’t mean Hakkinen had an easy time winning the Championship, because he had to fight until the last round.

Mika Hakkinen 600x399 at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

Taking advantage of Schumacher’s injury, Ferrari’s second driver, Eddie Irvine, had a great series of results, including three wins, while Hakkinen retired on three occasions, Britain, Germany and Italy. So before the last race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix, Eddie Irvine was leading the Championship standings with 70 points, four more than Hakkinen, who was second. This meant that in order to become Champion, Hakkinen had to win the race, otherwise hope for a poor result from Irvine.

But the Irish had an awful weekend. First there was qualifying, when he only managed to rank 5th, while Hakkinen started in 2nd, behind Schumacher who was at his second race after the comeback. In the race, Hakkinen had a great start, taking the lead from Schumacher from the beginning and then comfortably leading the entire race. Irvine finished 3rd, one and a half minute behind Hakkinen and Schumacher, losing his only chance of ever winning a World Championship.

Kimi Raikkonen – 2007 (Ferrari)

The 2007 season was probably one of the most exciting ones in recent years and the last race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, offered a thrilling fight. Before the race, three drivers were battling for the Championship title. Favorite was Lewis Hamilton, who was in his debut year in Formula One and was leading the standings with 107 points, followed by reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso with 103 points and the outsider KimiRaikkonen with 100 points. However, judging by recent form, the Finn had the best run in the second half of the season, winning two races and finishing on the podium each time. It was the first time three drivers had a real chance to the title since the 1986 season we spoke about earlier, when Prost became World Champion, so everything indicated a hot weekend at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace in Sao Paulo.

Kimi Raikkonen1 at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

Things got even hotter after qualifying, when Hamilton got the 2nd place, Raikkonen3rd and Alonso 4th, with Raikkonen’s team mate, Felipe Massa, in the pole position. Things were becoming really, really interesting. The two Ferraris had a great race start and Raikkonen quickly overtook Hamilton. On the next corner, the Brit was also overtaken by Alonso. While defending his position, Alonso braked hard on the next corner, forcing Hamilton to lock his brakes and slid off track. Hamilton rejoined the race in the 8th position and had a lot of work to do to get back in the game. In six laps he had already gained two positions, after passing JarnoTrulli and Nick Heidfeld but then bad luck struck. He had a gearbox malfunction that got him stuck in neutral for about 30 seconds and by the time the issued was fixed, he was already in the 18th position.

In front, Massa was leading, followed by Raikkonen and Alonso. However, while the Brazilian and the Spaniard were making their pit stops, Raikkonen had a great run for about three laps which made him the race leader after his pit stop. Nothing changed until the end of the race and even though Hamilton managed to get into the 7th position, it wasn’t enough and the new World Champion was KimiRaikkonen with 110 points (followed by Hamilton and Alonso, both with 109 points).

Sebastian Vettel – 2010 (Red Bull)

Before the last race of the 2010 Formula One season, in Abu Dhabi, the Championship was led by Fernando Alonso, with 246 points, 8 more than Mark Webber and 15 ahead of Sebastian Vettel. Lewis Hamilton also had a mathematical chance, since he was 24 points behind Alonso, but the shots of him winning the title were only theoretical.

Sebastian Vettel at Formula One Champions that Weren’t Favorites Before the Last Race of the Season

After qualifying, Vettel took the pole position, followed by Hamilton, Alonso, Button and Webber, so everything pointed out to an extremely interesting race. If Vettel won the race, Alonso needed the 4th place to win the Championship. However, Ferrari made a huge strategy mistake: they were confused by Webber’s early pit stop due to fast tire wear and decided to call in Alonso to change his tires. This made Alonso get back in the race in the 8th position, stuck behind VitalyPetrov with just 18 laps gone. The Spaniard kept trying to overtake Petrov, but the Russian resisted until the end. Vettel won the race and with Alonso only finishing 7th and Webber 8th, the German won the Championship with a 4 point lead over Alonso and 10 over Webber. This also put an end to speculation before the race that Red Bull might use team orders to influence the result, because the poor performance by Webber didn’t make that necessary.

By winning the Championship, Vettel became the youngest Formula One Champion ever, breaking Hamilton’s record by 168 days, and also starting an impressive dominance that would lead to four consecutive Championships, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

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(Journalist) – Vlad Balan is an automotive journalist from Eastern Europe and he has been blogging about cars, reporting from auto shows, taking interviews or test driving cars since 2007.