What was the best underdog race win?

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Does Sebastian Vettel's Monza win rank among the top underdog triumphs?

Carlos di Bello sent in this question via Skribit:

What are the top ten races where superior driving overcame inferior mechanical means?

I thought that was a good question to put to the collective wisdom of F1 Fanatic readers. What do you think was the best victory for a driver in a sub-par car? Here’s my suggestion:

Gilles Villeneuve, 1981 Spanish Grand Prix, Ferrari

Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari 126CK was a dog of a car – to put it bluntly. Yes, it was an improvement over the team’s disastrous 1980 effort, but it lacked the ground effect capabilities of its rivals and floundered in corners. If any circuit was going to demonstrate the handling shortcomings of the car it would be the twisty Jarama track, host of that year’s Spanish Grand Prix:

Instead what unfolded was a showcase of Villeneuve’s staggering talent. A lightning start left him running second, and perfectly poised to inherit the lead when Alan Jones crashed. That was on lap 14. When the chequered flag came out 66 laps later Villeneuve was, incredibly, still in the lead, with Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Carlos Reutemann and Elio de Angelis queued up behind him, covered by less than 1.24s.

What’s more, Villeneuve accomplished this without the kind of chopping and barging we’re used to seeing today. As ever his track manners were scrupulously fair. As Steven Roy wrote recently:

He didn’t do it by blocking or making ‘one move’. He drove a perfect, clean line lap after lap after lap and won the race despite having four faster cars on his tail for the whole race. He knew that if he made one small mistake he could drop four positions.

No way should his Ferrari have even been in the points that day. Sad to think in this era of compulsory pit stops this extraordinary feat cannot be reproduced.

Who better to give the ultimate homage to a man who had shrugged off the deficiencies of his machinery to claim an improbable win than ace designer Gordon Murray?:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver put in a performance like that. Not one wheel out of place all afternoon.

Watch the video and judge for yourself:

That’s my choice for the greatest win by a driver in a car that wasn’t up to the task. What do you think was the best underdog triumph? Name your nominees in the comments, post quotes and video links, and we’ll vote on the top ten on Sunday.

This article was suggested by Carlos di Bello using Skribit. To suggest an idea for an F1 Fanatic article, use the Skribit box on the community page. You can also vote for other people’s article ideas.

Image (C) Red Bull / GEPA

Read more about the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix

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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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63 comments on “What was the best underdog race win?”

  1. My F1 memory will only stretch back as 1995, so i will post a couple from relatively recent years that i can think of, although the first two err a little on the fortuitous side, rather than complete driver effort..

    Not total underdogs but Jordan not only taking the win, but second as well in Belgium 1998. Bit of a chaotic race, but a great win nonetheless. I have to admit I wasnt happy with the Jordan ‘team orders’ at the time, but given Ralf’s slightly erratic overtaking ability at the time it probably was the best decision in the end.

    Also Johnny Herbert winning in the Stewart in the European race in 1999 – possibly a little fortunate, several people did fall out of the lead – Ralf and Fisichella to name just two – quite late on. But it was Herbert who was there to pick up the pieces, and there were about ten finishers or so if i remember rightly, a couple of whom should have been capable of winning.

    But my favourite of recent years, in fact very recent, is Vettel winning in the Toro Rosso -it was masterful – and unlike the other two I have mentioned it wasnt remotely fortuitous, and was not just a race domination, but a whole weekend. Brilliant brilliant achievement! It was a good enough achievement when he got it in the points, let alone on that top step.

  2. Race win? Hmm, I’m thinking race drive, and it was Damon Hill in his Arrows in Hungary before mechanical problems robbed him of the win.

    1. Yeah if it was race drive, Hill would definitely had a mention – was a brilliant achievement – that Arrows was terrible! And the fact it was only mechanical problems that robbed him as well, nothing to do with his driving was even tougher

    2. Had Hill have won, that day in Hungary would have been my pick too, as with Clare, My F1 memories start at about the same time.

      But those others mentioned, Panis at Monaco in ’96, Hill in Belgium ’98, and Johnny at the ‘Ring in ’99 were just about as much luck as judgement. So for me it’ll have to be Vettel’s Monza Masterpiece last ‘summer’.

  3. Whewbacca the Cookie
    26th February 2009, 11:09

    1996 Monte Carlo comes to mind. Panis was lucky at best but I think he’d never have won that race if more than three cars had managed to finish. That was also probably the race with the fewest finishers to date.

  4. Nuvolari at the Ring in 35.

    1. Is this a joke?? Mercedes were so dominant it’s not funny in this era.
      Forgive my irony deficiency if you were trying to be funny…

    2. I don’t see how as he was driving an Alfa, one that was very outclassed.

  5. Great topic – Determing what is an underdog will be interesting….Here are a few that spring to my mind

    John Watson 1982 – USA – John Started 17th on the grid I think in an slow Mclaren he managed to drag the Mclaren home first.

    Michele Alboret – 1982 – Las Vegas – Anyone expect the normally asperated Tyrell to win?

    John Watson 1983 – USA Long Beach – Another awesome performance from Watson, both Mclarens nearly failed to qualify and started 22nd and 23rd – John again stormed through the field to Win.

    Nigel Mansell 1989 – Brazil. The ferrari had not completed more than a couple of laps in testing or in qualifying, neither Berger or Mansell expected the car to finish so Mansell had booked his flights home for during the race as he was so sure he would retire – he didn’t and won.

    Nigel Mansell 1989 – Hungary – Again in disaray in qualifying, nigel started 12th on a track where you couldn’t pass, he managed to fight through the field to overtake senna in a magnificant move.

    Rubens Barrichello – 2000 – Germany – Started 18th on the Grid in tricky conditions to score his first win

  6. Again not really an underdog, he had been threatening it on occasion, but did any one expect Button to win at Hungary 2006? And it was part merit, I think Alonso was the only one ahead of him who hit trouble close to the end, and there was the Raikkonen incident with Liuzzi early on, but Button had come from fourteenth, just as far back as Alonso and Schumacher did. Even getting near the front was a good drive. I am a little biased over this race though..

  7. Button @ Hungary 06 is a good one, but my vote goes for Johnny Herbert in the Stewart at the European GP in 99. Now there was a driver who deserved to win more races than he did…

  8. I’m ruling out all wins that involved a lot of luck and attrition – I love seeing them win, and what it means for them to do so, but I’d rather pick someone who got there on merit alone – although that’s a hard one to quantify in itself, as being one of the few remaining can be on merit as well.

    Had Hill won Hungary in the Arrows, that would’ve been up there. But then again, had Senna won in the Toleman at Monaco in the rain, that surely would’ve surpassed it.

    I honestly can’t think of an actual win, in living memory at least (and mine is shocking), that can better Vettel’s achievement at Monza last season – there was no question over his win. I remember that Ferrari were struggling for pace, and Lewis didn’t do so well in qualifying, which takes out usual major players, but I don’t think any of this detracts from Vettels win in the slightest. He capitalised on his pole position and didn’t put a strip of rubber wrong in absolute torrid conditions.

    And who could forget the celebrations in STR corner when Vettel crossed the line. STR were doing well that weekend, Bourdais didn’t capitalise in quali, but the team pulled something out the bag. It’s another thing great about this win: it was a team effort. The emotions brought out help cement Vettels win as one of the best underdog wins imo.

    1. I just watched Vettel’s win again the other day, and I completely agree with you about the emotions from everyone in the team helping to cement it as a great underdog win. Easily the best one I can remmeber, and the only one I can remember where it didnt have that element of good fortune. He just beat everyone else. Everyone had the same conditions as he did in qualifying and the race, so he didnt have any sort of advantage over others, he was just simply better and quicker than all the others that weekend. Brilliant!

      It was the same as their previous guise Minardi was like whenever they scored points, except on a much bigger scale.

  9. Michael Schumacher, Hungary 1998 (if I remember well).
    Three pit stops, tactic shifting during the race and tens round at qualifying pace.
    At that time McLaren was great and all the season of Schumi was as an underdog role.

  10. The first that comes to mind is Giancarlo Baghetti, who won his very first Grand Prix in 1961 in France.

    Others are Beltoise in Monaco 1972, Brambilla in Austria in 1975, Alan Jones in a Shadow in 1977 in Austria, Scheckter in the Wolf (It’s first race) in Argentina in 1977, Alboreto in the Tyrrell in Las Vegas 1982 and Panis in Monaco 1996.

    More recently I think that the win of Fisichella in a Jordan in the Brazilian GP in 2003 was unexpected. And last yeat Vettel in Monza.

    1. You know, I watched Brazil 03 the other day (I have a habit of keeping random races on dvd), and I had forgotten quite how action packed that race was. Literally you couldnt go more than about two laps without something happening, someone going off (Turn 3 was comical!). Really was a great race – probably why I kept it to be honest!

      Fisichella winning it though, whilst it was most definitely unexpected, was purely because his pit stop hadnt happened before the race got stopped. If Webber and Alonso’s crashes had happened one lap earlier, Kimi would have won, and two laps earlier DC would have won it.

    2. That was certainly an eventful race, nobody was sure who won – didn’t it go Fisi, then Kimi, then back to Fisi?

      And didn’t Fisi’s Jordan throw a hissi fit, in the form of a little fire, in Parc Ferme?

  11. you could argue that Boutsen’s win at the Hungaroring in 1990 was very similar to Villeneuve’s win in 1981


    There are plenty of nearly win’s we could talk about – perhaps another discussion all together

  12. I think Senna’s 1993 victory’s are underrated sometimes, as the Renault was so far superior, yet he won some races that year!
    And in 1996 Schumacher winning races was a great achievement.

    And Suzuka 2005 springs to mind. Kimi racing from the back to win the race in the very very end. What a race!
    Ok he did have the best car but still.

    1. I think the Gilles one at Jarama is about as good as they come. i can’t think of any that better that.

      If we are allowed to include drivers that almost won races then Stefan Bellof at Monaco in 1984 is the most incredible drive I have ever heard of or seen. Senna in that race also comes to mind but Bellof was catching him faster than he was catching Prost and was in a slower car that started further back…

  13. Damon Hill 1997 Hungary. 40 seconds ahead in the worst car on the grid before his problems with a few laps to go. It has to be

    1. Mouse_Nightshirt
      26th February 2009, 13:15

      Without a shadow of a doubt, this was one of the best drives in recent history. Just goes to show the Englishman did have some talent!

  14. i think vettel’s win in monza is the best and im not an old watcher of formula 1 but kimi’s win in suzuka 2005 is great too
    and let’s not forget alonso’s win in fugi last summer it was good too

  15. Vettel in Monza – I was in awe how he managed to beat a McLaren on equal terms to pole and to win the race. Unbelievable.

    Also, Schumacher’s win in China, 2006. No-one was expecting him to win that day – the Bridgestones were vastly inferior to the Michelins in the wet. Yet somehow, Schumacher won, passing Alonso and Fisi in the process.

  16. Tricky one, what exactly constitutes an underdog? The clue is probably in the question – superior driving overcoming inferior mechanical means.

    Hill’s Hungary ’97 drive was a very good one, but he was very clearly aided by Bridgestones that just happened to suit the Arrows perfectly. Likewise, John Watson’s back of the grid drives in the early 1980s was a case of rubber that wouldn’t work over a lap but was perfect for a long stint. So arguably a mechanical advantage. Vettel drove a great race at Monza last year but the STR was no Minardi.

    Herbert winning for Stewart in 1999 owed something to luck, but the front runners all threw it away and Johnny didn’t. Olivier Panis’ win in Monaco was a stunning drive from 16th on the grid, but Panis also required a couple of mechanical retirements to pull it off.

    I’m minded to stick with Villeneuve in 1981.

  17. I would think that this discussion excludes the “freak” wins – the ones in which the best cars break down or crash and end up with a bunch of underdogs fighting for the victory. I am only thinking about races in which a driver in an inferior car was able to outperform the top cars (which finished the race in good order) due to his superior driving skills on the day. In this category, these are my top three pics (in chronological order):
    1. Senna / Monaco 1992
    2. Senna / Donnington 1993
    3. Vettel / Monza 2008
    Although not a win for the underdog, Monaco 1984 could probably be counted as such, and one of the best at that – Senna, a rookie in a Tolleman, started in 14th place and ended up second only because Jack Ickx decided to help his chap (A. Prost), ending the race before its half because it was raining – if you think Massa is lost in the wet, you should watch Prost at Silverstone 91, Interlagos 93, Donnington 93.

  18. Roger Carballo AKA Architrion
    26th February 2009, 14:08

    Alonso, Hungary, 2003 is a good one. That car, powered by a wide V engine was really a dog of a car. But he managed to win fair and square, without the help or rain, no finisings VIPS or mechanical failures… Brilliant.

  19. guys, I just heard that the 2009 Force cars have fire up nd are running somewhere. Wont this be considered illegal testing?

    1. anirudh – They are straightline testing. Renault, Williams and Mclaren have all done this already. I think they might have to declare how many Kilometers they run, but this is not considered illegal.

  20. Jim Clark, Monza 1967.

    “Jim Clark’s drive in the 1967 Italian Grand Prix is regarded one of the greatest ever in F1. After starting from pole, he was leading in his Lotus 49 (chassis R2), when a tyre punctured. He lost an entire lap while having the wheel changed in the pits. After rejoining sixteenth, Clark then showed his genius by driving at his own limit, something which was not required when leading. He ripped back through the field, progressively lowered the lap record, eventually equalling his pole time of 1m 28.5s, to regain the lost lap and the lead. He was narrowly ahead of Brabham and Surtees starting the last lap, but his car had not been filled with enough fuel for such a performance — it faltered, and finally coasted across the finish line in third place.”

    Enough said.

    1. Not a win though… just realised…

    2. ha, worth remembering though. Compare with Bourdais who ended up nowhere after losing a lap at Monza last year.

  21. Good call about Mansell’s first Ferrari race, Brazil 1989. That car didn’t finish another race until mid-season.

    Keke Rosberg won in the ’84 Williams – somewhere in the States? – and Nigel Roebuck went for this when he was asked a similar question.

  22. I liked Fisi´s win in Brazil ’03. I seem to recall his engine catching fire after he pulled in which was a pretty “stylish” way to finish a race.

    Leaving his first corner issue and the conspiracy theories aside, I also thought that Alonso´s win in Singapore was pretty hilarious.

  23. I only have Vettel to look at due to I have not been in F1 for a long time.

  24. Mine wasn’t a win, but does anyone remember Jean Alesi battling against Senna at Phoenix?

    I think it was 1991. Alesi was in the Tyrell and shocked the hell out of Senna when he audaciously re-took the lead.

    Apparantly senna ‘wagged’ his finger at Jean after the race, and this was always taken by the French-Sicilian as a compliment and he cherishes the memory to this day. Great stuff.


    1. Terry Fabulous
      27th February 2009, 4:13

      I’m with you Paul.

      If you want a cheap nostalgic laugh, look at the grid for that race…
      It was a little messed up since it rained on Saturday so Friday’s times were used and the Pirelli tyres were the ones to be on.

      1. Berger – Mclaren
      2. Martini – MINARDI!!!
      3. De Cesaris – DALLARA!!!!! (His teammate Morbidelli didn’t even qualify)
      4. Alesi – Tyrell
      5. Senna – Mclaren

      Mansell in his Ferrai was 17th, one place behind Roberto Moreno in a Euro Brun.

      On a sad note, the race was only watched by 15,000 people and on a sadder note, THIRTY NINE FREAKING CARS turned up to qualify!! They had to kick out nine in pre-qualifying and another four in qualifying.

      Nowadays we would fall over ourselves letting anyone with a car and a driver onto the grid.

    2. Terry Fabulous
      27th February 2009, 4:14

      Sorry fact checking again!
      It was only 35 Cars that turned up,

      Only 17 more then what we have this year, not 19 more.

  25. For underdog race drive, Jean Alesi in Phoenix 1990 has to be worth a mention.

    For underdog race win, James Hunt’s 1975 win in a Hesketh at Zandvoort should also be mentioned

    1. Yeah, forgot about Hunt in the Hesketh. Hard to believe really, that a privateer team who partied for England managed to pull off a win against Lauda and the might of Ferrari.

  26. Antifia – surely Senna’s win at Monaco ’92 was due as much to Mansell’s own wheel nut failure as his own brilliance in holding off a car on a track where overtaking is impossible?

    I’d have to say Mansell’s win at the 1987 British Grand Prix takes some beating, though some of Raikkonen’s incredible drives in 2005 where he had to drive through the field after umpteen 10-place grid penalties are worthy of credit too.

  27. senna donington park 1993 ??

  28. it was scheckter’s wolf argentina 1977 gp. no doubt about it.

  29. Tom – Bourdais was no where cos of the stall but he actually matched Vettels pace throughout the race

  30. One from the history books, Moss in 1958 Argentine GP.

    To quote Robert Edwards’ biography, “Effectively one eyed, with a broken clutch, a ‘crash’ gearbox and tyres worn down to the canvas, he had taken on the entire Ferrari works effort and left it floundering.” Moss was driving an out-of-date F2 car with a 1.96 litre engine against 2.4 litre F1 cars. It would have taken so long to change the tyres on his car he’d have lost a lap and a half so had to run the 80 lap race on tyres reckoned to have about 40 laps of life in them. As if all that wasn’t enough his wife had accidentally scratched his cornea a few days before the race.

  31. I am glad that Tom has mentioned Keke at last. The crazy Finn was an underdog in almost every GP he raced and never failed to drive as though he expected to win, regardless of the machinery he was given. The race Tom refers to was actually the Dallas GP in 1984 but any of the races in 1982 would do as well, ignoring the fact that he won only one of them (the “Swiss” GP at Dijon). If we were to have a “Greatest Underdog Championship Win” contest, Keke Rosberg would be the winner hands down.

  32. Hello Clive

    I’ve got to go with Moss ’58. That started the rear wheel revolution in F1. Even Lotus still had FWD.

  33. Sorry Keith, been reading F1 Insight!

  34. Leslie….????…..are you speaking of the Rear Engine revolution? The front engined and rear engined cars all had rear wheel drive, not front wheel drive, or four wheel drive. Please correct me if this is wrong, or not what you were speaking of.

    1. Thanks for the correction, I did mean rear engined…….a little early morning brain fade!

  35. I’m going for a tie between Alonso and the Hungaroaring in 03 and Alesi’s win at Montreal in 95. Both can be considered very special wins.

    I’m pretty sure there have been many better wins in earlier years..unfortunately, memories to go back that far for me.

  36. As no one is probably reading this thread anymore, I’ll sneak in a bit of a minority report……

    How about a Grand Prix where…..

    1. Driver is a full time……dental student.
    2. Team shows up to the race 2 days late.
    3. The race is this drivers first GP.
    4. He sits in his car for the first time on Saturday morning.
    5. Drivers first time on this course, a street course.
    6. Walls, ditches, trees and telegraph poles await any errors.
    7. In Italy, driver beats entire Maserati team.
    8. Drivers car is basically…uncompetitive, and unreliable.
    9. Some of the defeated: Musso, Salvadori, Villoresi, Schell.
    10. In disbelief, organizers check engine after the race.

    Enough of an underdog scenario?

    Race: Grand Prix of Syracuse, 1955.
    Car: Connaught
    Driver: Tony Brooks

    (If you don’t think non-championship races should count, then I’ll take Moss at Monaco in 1961)

    1. I like that one and Moss/Monaco was my second choice. Thanks for the creative post….just to prove someone is watching.

    2. Oh, and if we can talk non-championship races, how about Moss at Oulton/Aintree? in the wet in the Ferguson 4WD. I was there but can’t remember which circuit, can’t remember much come to think about it.

      My wife is hoping I’ll forget to race at Philip Island in March!

    3. Of course, Moss at Monaco in ’61! Now that really is a candidate for best underdog win of all time. 9 years before I was born, would love to have been around for that one.

  37. As someone pointed out, Vettel’s win in Italy 2008 was impressive because he started from pole on his merit alongside a McLaren that couldn’t pass him for the whole race… in fact, who didn’t even threatened him!

    Like I said before, that win finally convinced me that Vettel’s is much more than a hyped driver, but a great talent…

    Before him, I’ll vote on Frentzen’s wins with Jordan in 1999… he wasn’t really an underdog like Vettel with his Toro Rosso, but was always with inferior machinery and fought not only for race wins but, briefly, for the title…

  38. and that was with a 10-6-4-3-2-1 pointscoring system…

  39. My Votes
    Best 1st win by underdog: Panis Monaco 96. That was a soaking wet race, several drivers crashed out in front (including Schumi)and Panis was the fastest car on track for part of the race.
    Almost win: Hill, Hungary 97
    The master in a slow car: Senna, Donnington 93
    The new guy: Alonso Imola 05 He drove perfectly for those final 12 laps with Schumacher on his gearbox. Schmi caught Alonso at nearly 2 sec per lap and couldn’t get past. That’s when I realized how good Alonso is! (was the underdog, after that race, he certainly was not)

  40. I suggested the question and now I’m amazed at the sheer quantity of stuff you guys have mentioned, I think I’ll have a really great time researching all those races! I don’t have an answer myself, so many GPs seen from 35 years ago but… my Alzheimer is worsening, I can only recall a superb race from Gilles blocking everyone else, must have been that ’81 Jarama GP Keith voted for. Also those early Ayrton rain masterpieces, Monaco ’84 (with a…Toleman! and if ever was a moral winner it was then…) and Estoril ’85 when he took a whole lap from the third and more than a minute from the runner-up. More recent memories are Donington ’93, (Senna’s car was “sub-par” at least with respect to the Williams) and of course, last year Vettel’s masterpiece.

  41. Not a win, but Schumi finishing second despite only having fifth gear for half of the race is quite amazing.

  42. I think Fisi in Brazil ’03 was pretty spectacular. Ok, so the race was stopped and he hadn’t pitted yet, but he was the fastest driver on track for the last part of the race, and by a good margin too if I remember it correctly. Vettel was pretty amazing – because it wasn’t down to luck – but the Ferrari power and Red Bull chassis takes a little bit away from it. They’re pretty far from Minardi these days, really. Love the story about Tony Brooks though, have to check up on that one!

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