F1 title fight goes down to the wire
Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen will uphold a rich tradition of final-race battles to decide the Formula One drivers' title on Sunday. James Corrigan looks back at six of the best last-day fights to secure F1 glory
In the highly unlikely event that Lewis Hamilton has been allowed even the odd moment of self-contemplation in Sao Paulo this week, then he may, just may, have rued the mistake in China a fortnight ago that made this final grand prix of the season so relevant.
In contrast, most Formula One fanatics will be toasting those wheelspins in the gravel trap as it has set up a final day that promises to be as exciting as any in the 56-year history of the Drivers' World Championship.
In all, the silver trophy has been clinched on the last weekend 23 times, although not since 1986 have three men gone into the race with the smell of glory overpowering the petroleum. Then it was the unfortunate Briton Nigel Mansell who was left punching his steering wheel after a blowout allowed Alain Prost to overhaul his lead.
Indeed, in such three-horse races the leader seems cursed as just three out of the eight times it has occurred has the driver at the head of the standings hung on to be crowned champion. Not a good omen for Hamilton (who leads his McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso by four points and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen by seven).
But then, if he has thumbed through the record books and read all the pitfalls and pit celebrations that have come to pass on his sport's climactic Sundays he will have learnt an unavoidable truth. It is that anything can happen – and most probably will.
Here are six of the most exciting finishes to the Grand Prix year.
1959 US Grand Prix
Standings going into final race: Jack Brabham (Aus; Cooper) 28; Stirling Moss (GB; Cooper) 25.5; Tony Brooks (GB; Ferrari) 23.
It was to be the first and only grand prix the Florida track of Sebring was to stage – but what a show-stopper it was to prove. First there was a controversy before the race when the opportunistic American Harry Schell earned himself third place on the grid courtesy of his finding a shortcut across the circuit and from there the action remained on the farcical freeway.
For Moss the maths was simple, the same as it had been the previous year when he had agonisingly been touched off by his friend Mike Hawthorn – he had to win and grab the bonus point that came for the fastest lap. He started on pole, left the field for dead, but after just five laps his gearbox gave out and yet another World Championship sped out of sight (he was destined never to win it).
Fellow Englander Brooks took up the fight but, as Brabham was out in front, his task appeared forlorn. Except the Australian ran out of fuel with a quarter of a mile remaining and in dramatic scenes had to push his car that last 400 yards, uphill, to finish fourth and so clinch his first drivers' title. Breathless did not begin to describe it.
Final standings: Brabham 31; Brooks 27; Moss 25.5
1976 Japanese Grand Prix
Niki Lauda (Aut, Ferrari) 68, James Hunt (GB, McLaren-Ford) 65.
Controversy, as it so often does in Formula One, clasped a decisive hand on the wheel in a quite extraordinary denouement. Lauda began the race in Fuji needing only to finish second if Hunt won or, if not, merely within a place or two of the British playboy.
But at the end of a campaign in which the Austrian nearly lost his life in a blaze at the Nürburgring and suffered lifelong scars as a result, Lauda sensationally pulled into the pits after just two laps and cried: "Enough!" In his view the torrential fog and rain made it too dangerous to continue. "My life is worth more than a title," he announced.
This gave Hunt the chance he had barely dreamt of and he looked destined to cruise home. But it was not so simple – it rarely is – as a late puncture saw him drop to fifth and in his mind, out of the reckoning. Indeed, even on crossing the line a distraught Hunt believed he had not gained the top-four placing he needed. On discovering that in the chaos caused by the rapidly drying circuit he had, in fact, finished third, Hunt began the party. And became a legend because of it.
Hunt 69; Lauda 68
1986 Australian Grand Prix
Nigel Mansell (GB, Williams-Honda) 70; Alain Prost (Fr, McLaren) 64; Nelson Piquet (Br, Williams-Honda) 63.
With a commanding six-point advantage, Mansell was the only member of the trio fighting it out for the title in Adelaide who could settle for a top-three finish; Prost and Piquet knew that only a win would do.
Everything appeared straightforward for the young Englishman when he was in third with 19 laps remaining but then came a noise that wrecked his year, shattered his confidence and heralded one of the more wretched hard-luck stories of British sport. "It was like a bomb going off," Mansell recalled. "My car jumped in the air and I immediately knew that my wheel had blown up."
Prost had seen the 1984 championship taken from him in similarly agonising circumstances (Lauda beat him by half a point – the narrowest margin in the title's history) and experience told him that out in front he had to remain calm. But then, with Piquet in close pursuit, his onboard computer started blinking, saying the fuel load would bring him up five laps short.
For once "The Professor" ignored the science and carried on regardless. He lasted home, but with only five litres of fuel remaining.
Prost 72; Mansell 70; Piquet 69
1994 Australian Grand Prix
Michael Schumacher (Ger, Benetton) 92; Damon Hill (GB, Williams) 91.
A race that is still argued about to this very day produced one of the most enduring images of motor sport's long and chequered-flagged history. On the 36th lap, Schumacher, then a fresh-faced 25-year-old, collided with Hill as the Briton tried to take him on the inside of one of the Adelaide street circuit's famously tight corners. Schumacher's Benetton reared up on to two wheels and was out on the spot. Hill, meanwhile, went to the pits immediately, but was forced to retire with irrecoverable damage to the suspension. As neither driver scored, Schumacher took the title and this is where the recriminations began.
Schumacher claimed, and still does, that it was a "racing accident", but Hill was later to declare that Schumacher had deliberately driven into him.
Patrick Head, the Williams supremo, agreed but revealed that the Williams team did not appeal as they were still coming to terms with the death of Ayrton Senna. Whatever, Schumacher won his first title and Hill, inevitably, that year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year prize. But poor old Nigel Mansell. Few noticed him winning his 31st – and last – Grand Prix that afternoon.
Schumacher 92; Hill 91
1997 European Grand Prix
Michael Schumacher (Ger, Ferrari) 78; Jacques Villeneuve (Can, Williams-Renault) 77.
It was an eerily similar finish to the one of 1994, although this time Schumacher came off worst in the collision. He lost his lead in the World Championship and even commentators in his own country castigated him for forsaking his honour as well.
The German came into Jerez needing only to finish ahead of Jacques Villeneuve, the son of Gilles, and when he overtook him on the first corner it looked ominous for the Ferrari pilot's rivals. But the Canadian battled on in there and by lap 48 was less than a second behind.
Just like Hill, the challenger fearlessly tried to take Schumacher on the inside, but the leader was having none of it, visibly turning his Ferrari into the Williams.
For Schumacher it was curtains, but Villeneuve, despite suffering a damaged sidepod, managed to trundle home in third, enough for the title. Regardless, this time the track stewards seemed certain to punish Schumacher, but instead they unanimously voted on it having been merely , yes, a "racing accident".
A few weeks later, though, he was disqualified by the FIA, but by then, with his reputation besmirched, it was just another smear. One German newspaper called him "a kamikaze without honour". The gamble had not paid off.
Villeneuve 81; Schumacher 78
2003 Japanese Grand Prix
Schumacher (Ger, Ferrari) 92; Kimi Raikkonen (Fin, McLaren) 83.
Immortality for Schumacher in one of the most enthralling climaxes to perhaps the most enthralling season, with up to half a dozen drivers in with chances at some stage during the campaign. But, by Suzuka, Schumacher had restated his majesty by thrillingly winning the previous two grands prix and establishing a nine-point lead. Apparently, he had little more ahead than a ceremonial lap or two to overhaul Juan Manuel Fangio at the top of the World Championship charts with six titles. Formula One is never so compliant and, in scenes of unbearable tension, Schumacher, who qualified a lowly 14th on the grid, was scrapping with unworthies for the minor points while Raikkonen was up there challenging Rubens Barrichello for the win he needed. The inspired Finn actually held the lead for a short time and when, on lap 41, Schumacher was hit in the back by his own brother, Ralf, the unthinkable suddenly appeared likely. But Barrichello selflessly drove for his team-mate, keeping Raikkonen at bay and prevailing by a mere 11 seconds.
Schumacher, meanwhile, eventually came through for eighth and the solitary point that would have been enough anyway. "That was probably one of my toughest races ever," Schumacher acknowledged . "I am empty and exhausted." Formula One fans knew exactly how he felt. Again.
Schumacher 93; Raikkonen 91