Down to the wire

F1 history

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The battle for the Formula One drivers’ championship has gone down to the final race. As much as F1 gets slated for being ‘predictable’, this is not as unusual an event as you might think.

Indeed, the first ever world championship was decided at the final round, at Monza in Italy, in favour of Alfa Romeo’s Giuseppe Farina. So was the second, the first of Juan Manuel Fangio’s five, at Pedralbes on the streets of Barcelona, Spain.

Fangio triumphed again in the final round at Monza in 1956, finishing sixth after famously taking over his team mate Peter Collins’ Ferrari – even though Collins himself was in contention for the title (luckily for Felipe Massa, that rule was scrapped years ago).

In 1958 Mike Hawthorn became champion despite only having won one race to Stirling Moss’s four. Hawthorn retired immediately after the race, but was tragically killed in a road accident in the new year. The year ended with Jack Brabham winning the title at the final round, again at the expense of the unlucky Moss.

Four championships were decided at the last round in the sixties: Graham Hill in East London (South Africa) in 1962, John Surtees for Ferrari in Mexico City, 1964, Denny Hulme at the same circuit three years later, then Hill once more in 1968, also in Mexico.

A six-year gap followed until the next ‘down to the wire’ decider, when Emerson Fittipaldi took the title by three points at Watkins Glen. There was only one other such finish in the seventies, but it was legendary: James Hunt’s drive at a drenched Fuji Speedway to seize the title from Niki Lauda. The Austrian withdrew from the dire conditions.

The longest string of consecutive final round deciders lasted from 1981-1984. The first two of which were at that most undeserving of venues, Caeser’s Palace car park in Las Vegas. In the first, Carlos Reutemann famously crumbled under the pressure and Nelson Piquet triumphed, despite being so ill he vomited into his helmet.

After a fraught 1982 Keke Rosberg triumphed, like Hawthorn, with only one win to his name. In 1983 came the kind of upset that Schumacher will be praying for this year. Alain Prost led going into the final round but retired, allowing Piquet to cruise to a second title at Kyalami, South Africa.

It got worse for Prost in 1984 when he won the final round in Estoril, Portugal from team-mate Lauda, meaning he lost the title by half a point. But of course, if Schumacher were to win it this year, he would win with exactly the same number of points as Alonso (ahead by virtue of having seven wins to Alonso’s six).

The championship decider in 1986 was perhaps the most famous of all. Nigel Mansell was cruising to third place and the title when his left-rear tyre exploded. It sent team mate Piquet, also a title contender, scurrying to the pits and left Prost the champion – some recompense from the titles he had narrowly lost earlier.

That was the last ‘down to the wire’ championship for eight years – the longest gap ever – before infamy struck the streets of Adelaide in 1994. Michael Schumacher took his first championship by driving into Damon Hill, having already damaged his own car.

Hill took the title in 1996 but there was more controversy the following year when Schumacher again used his car to take a swipe at a rival. This time it was Jacques Villeneuve, and Schumacher failed, but it brought all the memories of 1994 and with it the accusations that Schumacher cracks under pressure.

The 1998 and 1999 championship completed a second four-year string of last-round championship deciders, and both were won by McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen at Suzuka in Japan.

The only championship that has gone down to the wire so far this millennium was in 2003 when, ironically, Schumacher had an advantage comparable to Alonso’s today – and he nearly threw it away.

While rival Kimi Raikkonen pushed to win Schumacher had a wild race, losing his front wing and nearly being taken out by his brother Ralf. Fortunately for Schumacher his team mate Rubens Barrichello won the race, denying Raikkonen his only shot at winning the title, which still eludes the Finn.

Perhaps he will have more luck next year when he takes over Schumacher’s Ferrari.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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2 comments on “Down to the wire”

  1. “Indeed, the first ever world championship was decided at the final round, at Monza in Italy, in favour of Ferrari’s Giuseppe Farina.”
    Wasn’t Farina driving for Alfa Romeo in 1950?

    1. Wasn’t team Ferrari at the time running the Alfa factory cars though?

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