Just like Max Verstappen at the 2021 Azerbaijan GP, several former drivers saw a probable victory turn into a nightmare in the final laps
By Jonas Souza
Every race on the Formula 1 world championship calendar has its own particular history. If we compare the races themselves with movies, we can see examples of various genres between the start and the checkered flag: action, comedy, mystery, horror and drama – sometimes all at the same time.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic and desperate things that can happen to a driver is to have an almost certain victory taken from their hands. It happened last weekend with Max Verstappen, who after a superb performance at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix ended up having a rear left tire puncture, causing him to hit the wall on the main straight of the Baku street circuit.
But this problem was not unique to the Dutchman. During the more than 70 years of Formula 1, drivers have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory several times. F1total.ca brings you six instances of this kind of drama taking centre stage.
1991 Canadian Grand Prix
If we look at the comparison between Formula 1 racing and film genres, when it comes to what happened at the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix, we have some mystery and some comedy – and some drama, of course.
Let’s start with the mystery. Nigel Mansell was about to win the race for Williams, as the McLaren of Ayrton Senna, the winner of the previous four championship races that season, lacked the pace to keep up with the British team in Montreal. After 25 laps, , the Brazilian was forced to retire due to car issues. Two laps later, Alain Prost also pulled his Ferrari over. This left the Englishman well on his way to victory, until his car stopped on the last lap when passing the hairpin of the Canadian circuit.
There are two possible explanations for what happened. One of them is that Mansell, by driving so slowly, caused the alternator to be unable to generate enough power to keep the car’s battery working, causing the FW14 #5 Williams to stop. Mansell himself provided the other side of the story: “It’s almost unbelievable. I reduced from fifth to fourth gear, as I did in the previous 68 laps, and then went to neutral, and the engine shut down almost simultaneously, as if there was an electrical fault. It just stopped.”
The mystery quickly turned into terror for him, whereas it became comedy for one of his rivals.
Due to a history of disagreements that occurred while both raced for Williams, there was a great deal of animosity between Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Piquet, the Brazilian three-time world champion, was running in second place in Montreal, more than 50 seconds behind Mansell, when Mansell’s car stopped. When informed by the Benetton team radio of what had just happened, Piquet sped up again, and didn’t believe he would win until he saw his rival’s car in the escape area.
After the race, at the press conference, the Brazilian driver said he literally almost had an orgasm when he saw Mansell’s retired car. “I don’t feel sorry for anyone,” Piquet said. That was his last F1 victory – and the last part of an incredible blockbuster.
2008 Hungarian Grand Prix
The 2008 season was one of the most thrilling of all time, with the title being decided on the final lap of the last race of the year in Interlagos. But one major incident, earlier that year, helped put Lewis Hamilton in position to ultimately claim the championship over Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, in that electrifying finale in São Paulo.
Massa was on his way to a somewhat peaceful victory in Hungary, leading McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen by more than 15 seconds with three laps to go. In addition, the other two main contenders for that year’s title were running far behind: Kimi Raikkonen was fourth, while Lewis Hamilton was sixth. The victory would make Massa the championship leader with a three-point lead over the British McLaren driver with seven races left in the calendar.
But, fate intervened, and the Brazilian driver had an engine failure on the main straight of the Budapest circuit on lap 68 of 71. That win would have given him 10 points, and Massa would ultimately go on to lose the championship by just one when all was said and done.
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2005 European Grand Prix
The 2005 championship did not have a final race as memorable as in 2008, but it saw a big contest between Fernando Alonso, then at Renault and trying to clinch his second title, and Kimi Raikkonen, who was at McLaren and seeking his first. The two young drivers (who, with Alonso’s return to F1 this season, are both still on the grid some 16 years later) had won five of the six races so far that year.
Raikkonen was just ahead of Alonso when they took the final corner of the second to last lap in Nürburgring, but the 1.5 second gap between them was manageable. The Finn, however, was struggling since locking up his front-right tires a few laps before, causing a flat spot.
At the end of the main straight of the last lap, the huge tire vibrations caused Raikkonen’s suspension to break, much to the delight of Alonso, who opened a 22-point lead over the McLaren driver with the win. The Spaniard would go on to win that championship, putting an end to Michael Schumacher’s streak of five titles in a row.
1997 Hungarian Grand Prix
Damon Hill was the 1996 world champion for Williams, but even before that year’s championship ended, the English driver knew he would be replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen the next season. Without a seat, he was sought by several teams but did not accept the paycheck offered by any of them. Instead, he signed with Arrows for the 1997 season, a team who had never won a race and had only scored a single point in the 1996 season.
The Milton Keynes-based team faced several problems in 1997. On top of their cars not being competitive, newcomer tire supplier Bridgestone couldn’t deliver the same equipment as Goodyear. But at the Hungarian Grand Prix, the Japanese tire brand performed well, taking Hill to third place on the grid.
He passed Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, who would go on to win the championship that year, and Michael Schumacher, opening up a wide lead. With just three laps to go, however, the hydraulic pump failed on Hill’s car, causing it to become stuck in third gear and leaving him with an intermittent throttle. As a result, Villeneuve, who was 35 seconds behind, overtook him in the final half of the last lap. Hill still managed to secure second place, finishing eleven seconds ahead of Johnny Herbert’s Sauber.
The problem, which denied Arrows, Bridgestone and Yamaha their first victories (and in the case of Arrows and Yamaha, would have been their only victories in history), was diagnosed as a throttle connection failure caused by a broken washer worth half a British pound.
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1988 Italian Grand Prix
The 1988 season saw one of the greatest performances by a single team in Formula 1 history, with McLaren and its MP4/4 winning 15 of the 16 races of the year, seven with Alain Prost and eight with Ayrton Senna. But there was one race the team couldn’t win: the Italian Grand Prix.
On lap 49, Jean-Louis Schlesser, who was in 11th position, looked through the rearview mirror and noticed the approach of Senna, the race leader. He pulled his Williams to the right to let the Brazilian driver overtake him at the start of the first leg of the chicane.
The McLaren driver overtook him in the first leg, but the French backmarker hit the side of Senna’s car as he went by. With the crash, the Brazilian driver had to retire from a race he had led almost from the start. Prost had already retired with engine problems 15 laps before.
The Italian crowd at Monza went wild as Austrian Gerhard Berger took the race lead, being joined at the podium by Michele Alboreto in a Ferrari one-two. The victory coincided with the death of Enzo Ferrari, the famous founder of the car manufacturer, who had passed away the previous month, in a script that no one would ever dare to write.
1982 Monaco Grand Prix
Each of the five examples above were dramatic, but if any of the “blockbusters” on this list were to receive several Academy awards, it would have been the 1982 Monaco Grand Prix.
The race was already surrounded by overwhelming sadness due to the death of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve two weeks earlier at the Belgian Grand Prix. The tragic event led to Ferrari racing with only one car, driven by Didier Pironi.
Alain Prost was leading his Renault to victory without major scares until drivers were forced to slow down because of the rain on lap 60. Even though he was cautious, the Frenchman crashed just outside the Nouvelle Chicane with less than three laps to go.
Then it got crazy.
Ricardo Patrese took the lead with his Brabham. However, he spun on the second to last lap in the Loews corner. His engine eventually started again as the marshals pushed it, but he had already lost several positions.
On the final lap, Pironi took the lead and reduced his speed to enjoy a safe route to victory. But a failure in his Ferrari’s ignition system caused him to stop inside the tunnel. As if that wasn’t enough, other contenders for first place also had issues. Andrea de Cesaris parked his out-of-fuel Alfa Romeo on the rise of Beau Rivage while Derek Daly’s Williams stopped with gearbox issues.
“Well, we have a bizarre situation where we’re sitting near the finish line and waiting for a winner to pass, and it looks like we’re not getting one!” said BBC commentator and 1976 champion James Hunt, in an attempt to unravel the events to an astonished audience. To everyone’s surprise, Patrese arose amid the spoils and crossed the finish line first.
Only when he reached the pits was he informed that he had won for the first time in Formula 1. Pironi and Cesaris stood by his side on the podium, even though they had retired from the race. Even Stanley Kubrick couldn’t have written something with all this drama.
These are just a few of the many occasions when the imponderable emerged and ended up denying someone a victory. There are other late lap stories in F1 history with drama attached, such as the infamous 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, when Rubens Barrichello slowed down to let Michael Schumacher overtake him at the finish line, due to Ferrari team orders. That script, however, was a box office failure.