Top ten: Most competitive F1 championships

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Will the 2015 F1 season be more closely-fought than last year? With just three different winners all year long, 2014 was the least competitive championship since 1988.

But every year brings new possibilities and there have been many seasons where several drivers and teams have shared the spoils, and the outcome of the championship has remained in doubt until the end.

1959: Brabham pushes for title

In a nine-round championship – including the Indianapolis 500 which was largely overlooked by the F1 regulars – three drivers took a pair of victories each.

Stirling Moss led the bulk of the season-opener at Monaco but six laps from home his hurriedly-prepared Colotti gearbox failed. After a similar problem put him out at Zandvoort, Moss switched to a BRM chassis which earned a useful second at his home event.

Moss’s lost Monaco win fell into Jack Brabham’s hands, but this was no easy victory – the Cooper’s overheating cockpit left him with burnt feet. Brabham’s gritty endurance and mechanical sympathy served him well that year – he salvaged second at Zandvoort despite a gearbox fault and proved his fortitude again at a scorching Reims where he came home third, again despite painful blisters.

A flag-to-flag victory in the British Grand Prix at Aintree (video above) was Brabham’s fourth podium finish in as many starts. But the opposition was gaining momentum. Ferrari’s V6 Dino thrived on the power circuits and Tony Brooks used it to win at Reims and AVUS, moving into second in the championship. The Ferrari should have been a major force at home at Monza, but Brooks’ car failed moments after the start was given.

Moss drove a canny race at Monza, preserving both tyres and gearbox to take the chequered flag first without having pitted. It was his second win in a row, and he went to the final race at Sebring second in the championship between Brabham and Brooks.

But the three-way showdown for the title turned out to be a damp squib. Brooks was contentiously relegated to the second row of the grid, then hit by team mate Wolfgang von Trips at the start which forced him to pit for checks. Moss, predictably, dropped out with gearbox failure. Brabham inherited the lead and was assured of the title, but when his car ran out of fuel on the final lap the new champion pushed it over the line anyway to take fourth place.

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1964: Surtees by stealth

Jim Clark and Graham Hill had led the championship in the previous two seasons, so it looked like more of the same when they won four of the first five races in 1964.

However after a faltering start to the season Ferrari began to come good. Typically for the team at this time the Le Mans 24 Hours had been their preoccupation during the first half of the season, and once the F1 effort received more of their attention John Surtees became a factor in the championship.

He took third behind Clark and Hill at Brands Hatch. Then at a non-championship race at Stuttgart the team discovered the source of its straight-line speed deficit to Lotus and BRM. Surtees comfortably won the following race, Germany’s points-paying event at the Nurburgring, while a valve gear problem put Clark out.

Suddenly the championship was looking a lot more interesting but the Austrian Grand Prix proved a non-event. The trio of title contenders were all out before half-distance as the rough Zeltweg track took a brutal toll on the machinery.

Lorenzo Bandini won for Ferrari, and another victory for Surtees at Monza underlined the progress the team had made. He came in second to Hill at Watkins Glen to set up a championship showdown between them and Clark in Mexico.

This was tinged with controversy when points-leader Hill was knocked into a spin by Bandini (video above). The junior Ferrari driver then waved Surtees by into second place on the final lap. With Clark having retired, and Hill losing two points under the ‘best six scores count’ rule, Surtees nabbed the crown by a point.

1968: What might have been

The tragic death of Clark following his victory in the first race of the season robbed Formula One of one of its greatest talents. Hill sustained Lotus in the aftermath, winning the next two races, but a spate of driveshaft problems left him point-less in the next four rounds.

That allowed Hill’s rivals into contention. Jackie Stewart triumphed at Zandvoort – had he not missed two races with a wrist injury and lost a likely win at Spa when he ran out of fuel, he could have been a stronger threat to Hill.

Stewart won twice more before the year was out, and Denny Hulme also got among the title contenders with victories at Monza and Mont-Tremblant.

The powerful and adaptable Cosworth DFV engine was the common item shared by almost all of the 1968 winners, with one significant exception: Jacky Ickx won with Ferrari’s V12 at Rouen.

Hill had kept ahead in the title race by following Stewart home at the Nurburgring and Watkins Glen. He finally returned to the top of the rostrum at the last race of the season to see off the threat from Stewart and Hulme, and clinch an emotional second championship.

1974: Fittipaldi defeats Ferraris

There was another power vacuum in F1 six years later after Stewart retired as champion. Niki Lauda got his big F1 break with Ferrari, but he and team mate Clay Regazzoni were just two of the four drivers in the hunt for the title in a season where no one managed to win two races consecutively.

Lauda’s title hopes ended at the penultimate round in Canada when he crashed out of the lead when he hit debris left by a rival. Nine pole positions and two wins told the story of a season frustrated by technical glitches.

Regazzoni, meanwhile, gradually racked up points, then took the lead in the championship with his sole win of the season at the Nurburgring. An indifferent performance in the final round at Watkins Glen put paid to his title hopes.

Stewart’s successor Jody Scheckter had a breakthrough season at Tyrrell, winning twice and also arriving at the final round with a shot at the title. But he too finished out of the points.

So it was Emerson Fittipaldi, who arrived at the final race tied for the lead with Regazzoni, who clinched his second title with fourth place.

1981: Reutemann falls at the last

One of the most politically-charged seasons was shaped by a row over the teams’ use of skirts along the sides of their cars to vastly increase downforce using the ‘ground effect’. Once Brabham designer Gordon Murray found a way around rules designed to ban the practice, the rest soon followed.

Reigning champions Williams began the year as the team to beat but drivers Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann fell out spectacularly when the latter disobeyed team orders to win the second race of the year in Brazil.

At the third round Nelson Piquet harnessed Murray’s rules-thwarting BT49C for an easy win, which he followed up at Imola. Reutemann responded at Zolder, but then the interlopers appeared.

Driving the unwieldy Ferrari 126CK, Gilles Villeneuve somehow contrived to win the next two races on a pair of tight, slow tracks. Over the next four races Alain Prost, John Watson and Jacques Laffite each took turns to win.

The latter became an outsider for the championship following a second win in appalling conditions in Canada. But he could only managed sixth in the final round at Las Vegas.

That was still better than Reutemann was able to do after a baffling drive to a point-less eighth while his team mate won. Having led the championship since round two, it slipped through his fingers at the final race: an exhausted and ill Piquet took it from him by coming home fifth.

At the end of the season Piquet, Reutemann, Jones, Laffite and Prost were separated by just seven points. If only there’d been one more race…

1982: The title no one wanted to win

The early eighties was a volatile period for Formula One. The explosive power of turbo engines was being realised, but it took a long time for them to become reliable enough for anyone to win a championship with them.

The cars took a toll on the drivers, too: Villeneuve was killed at Zolder and team mate Didier Pironi’s career ended when he crashed at the Hockenheimring. Both would have been title contenders in Ferrari’s much-improved 126C2, and Pironi ended up second in the points despite missing the last five races.

A record 11 different drivers won races. Renault pair Rene Arnoux and Prost took two each, but the cars failed too often for either to take the crown.

In his absence, Keke Rosberg and John Watson emerged from the record 11 different race winners to contest the crown. It took Rosberg until the 13th round to take his first win and overhaul Pironi in the points standings.

Watson kept the pressure up at the Las Vegas finale, but had to give best to Michele Alboreto’s Tyrrell. Fifth place for Rosberg was enough to claim the crown, having averaged less than three points per race.

1983: Renault throw it away

The season began with five different drivers and teams winning the first five races. However the battle for the championship soon resolved into a duel between Piquet and Prost.

It came to a head at Zandvoort where the pair uncharacteristically collided with each other. That opened the door for Ferrari, their drivers taking a one-two finish made brought both of them into the hunt for the title.

The persistently unlucky Patrick Tambay was out of contention before the final race, but Arnoux hung on in until his engine let him down at Kyalami.

The title battle ebbed and flowed between the two protagonists: Piquet seized the early initiative with Murray’s superb BT52, then Prost consistently out-scored him at mid-season to establish a healthy lead.

But in the final races Renault became complacent, while Brabham found ways to unlock even more power from their BMW engines. When Prost’s car failed in South Africa, Piquet cruised home to clinch the championship.

1986: Heartbreak for Mansell

By the mid-eighties McLaren-TAG’s supremacy was increasingly being threatened by Williams-Honda and Lotus-Renault. The three teams shared the spoils throughout 1986 until the penultimate round, when Gerhard Berger took his and Benetton’s first win, using BMW power.

Piquet won his first race with Williams but in the first half of the season no-one could get a firm grasp on the championship lead: Senna and Prost traded places at the top. Then Mansell broke through at mid-season, but even as they year drew to a close all four continued to pile up the points.

Senna was the first to fall. The Lotus driver was a dominant force in qualifying but the car lost its edge on full tanks and its reliability was too often suspect. His title hopes ended in Portugal, where Mansell’s fifth win of the season left him needing a third-place finish in either of the final races to claim the crown.

It all came to a head in one of the most spectacular championship-deciders ever seen. Mansell was holding the third place he needed at Adelaide on the 64th lap of 82 when his left-rear tyre exploded. Piquet now stood to claim the title, but he made a precautionary pit stop to avoid suffering the same fate, leaving an astonished Prost to win the race and claim the crown.

2010: Vettel wins four-way showdown

The 2010 championship gives cause for optimism that 2015 will be a more closely-fought campaign. While Brawn (now Mercedes) had stolen a march on the opposition following a major rules change the year before, in 2010 as many as five drivers from three teams were in contention for the title.

At different points in the season Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull all seemed to have the car to beat. Team orders were a major theme of the year: it was gloves off between the Red Bull and McLaren drivers, but in Germany Ferrari ordered Felipe Massa to make way for Fernando Alonso.

South Korea’s round of the championship looked like a watershed moment: Alonso took his third win in four races, and Sebastian Vettel’s retirement left his team mate Mark Webber as Alonso’s closest rival.

Vettel led Webber and Alonso home in Brazil – and onlookers questioned why Red Bull hadn’t told their drivers to swap positions. All three went to the final race in Abu Dhabi still with a chance of taking the title.

Lewis Hamilton was an outsider in the McLaren but team mate Jenson Button’s hopes of retaining his title had slipped away. However both were to play an important role in the outcome.

The pair followed Vettel home with Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov behind them. A tactical mis-step by Ferrari left Alonso a disastrous seventh in front of Webber – and handed Vettel a shock title win.

2012: Vettel and Alonso lead tight field

Seven different drivers won the first seven rounds, establishing a new record. The championship came down to a fight between Vettel and Alonso, but they faced some stiff opposition.

Among them was Kimi Raikkonen, who returned to F1 with Lotus after a two-year absence and stayed in the hunt with consistent points-scoring. Ironically he dropped out of contention when he finally won a race, at Yas Marina with two rounds to go.

The McLarens of Hamilton and Button should have been a more competitive force as well. The MP4-27 was the quickest car over a single lap, but broke down too often.

A thrilling showdown in Brazil decided the title. While Vettel and Alonso scrapped for the mid-to-low points places, the majority of the race was surprisingly led by Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India, until he collided with Hamilton.

Vettel bounced back from a first-lap spin to salvage sixth place, beating Alonso to the title by just three points.

Over to you

Which other championships do you think were the most competitive of all time? Are you expecting an open season this year?

Have your say in the comments.

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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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50 comments on “Top ten: Most competitive F1 championships”

  1. Helio Paiva Neto
    16th January 2015, 13:39

    I can’t believe 2008’s battle between Massa and Hamilton is not here.

    1. yeah.. You are right…

    2. You’re only saying that because the championship was decided by one point on the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the year…. :)

      Personally, I thought 2014 was a very competitive championship up until the last two races– it was just between two drivers on the same team.

      1. I disagree. Seven drivers from five teams won a race that year, and four drivers were still in the hunt until the last few rounds.

    3. If you take a close look back in 2008 you will definitely realise how unecpected and unfair it was for Massa to lose the champ in the last corner of the last lap of the last race. So if you ask me, i go with the 08 just because of the drama, the tension and the many overthrows of this season. In addition you have to take into account the fact that it was’t only about these two drivers. Kubica and Raikkonen also led the championship and if it hadn’t been for the BMW’s decision to postpone the development of the bmw f108,towards the 2009 changes, Kubica could have also been in play.

      1. Unfair how?

      2. Unfair, after Spa? You cannot be serious!

        1. Massa had the most wins,6 in number and they sould have been 9 if it hadn’t been for an engine failure in Hungary, the tragic mistake during the pit stop in Singapore and a spin in the Malaysian gp while he was leading the race.

          1. Having the most wins doesn’t mean winning the title ask Prost in 1984, or Senna in 1989. Of course, Ecclestone, the man who knee-jerked after 2013 with double points almost did the same with a “medals” system after 2008.

          2. All those things are part of racing (except possibly Singapore), but having a win taken off you when you haven’t actually broken a rule is not!

          3. It’s unfair that he spun out of the lead of his own accord? He deserved to win a race which he lost due to no mitigating factors besides his own error?

        2. Hamilton cut the corner and gained an unfair advantage. —> Penalty.

          1. yeah, that’s how it happened.
            And not only this, but he also regained the place to raikkonen before the next corner, which according to the 2008 rules was illegal.
            so the penalty was fair!
            as for massa, it just wasn’t to be no matter how much he deserved the title.

    4. If you take a close look back in 2008 you will definitely realise how unecpected and unfair it was for Massa to lose the champ in the last corner of the last lap of the last race. So if you ask me, i go with the 08 just because of the drama, the tension and the many overthrows of this season. In addition you have to take into account the fact that it was’t only about these two drivers. Kubica and Raikkonen also led the championship and if it hadn’t been for the BMW’s decision to postpone the development of the bmw f108,towards the 2009 changes, Kubica could have also been in play.

  2. I can’t comment on 60s,70s or 80s but that 2008 finale was way more intense than either 2010 or 2012. I miss 1994 there, that Schumacher/Hill collision was epic.

    1. However, I think it’s more about the quantity of contenders than the level of emotion… of both

    2. I still can’t watch the 2008 Brazilian GP without my heart going into my mouth!

      1. I watched the 2007 season a few years after Hamilton won his first title and still believed that history was wrong and that somehow he’ll win if I were to watch it.

        Spoiler: he didn’t.

    3. Schumacher was suspended for 4 GP’s. His skid plank was 1mm too small after spinning in Belgium over a ripple strip. He competed in

      only 12 GP’S in 1994. 😊🏁

    4. +1 on this one, and regardless that the situation was skewed because of so many off track factors, the championship was decided on the final race.

  3. 2010 was a brilliant, brilliant year. Great races, many contenders, even those outsiders like Kubica and Massa scoring podiums here and there… and the title down to the wire. Sad it was at Yas Marinas…

    I’m sure we’d have had a cracker of a championship deciding race had it been held at Interlagos… F1 missed big time there…

    1. OmarR-Pepper (@)
      16th January 2015, 14:50

      f1 should have a rule: whenever the championship is about to be decided, the next race must be held in Interlagos… to be honest, I wouldn’t mind having two races at Interlagos and dropping Sochi or Singapore.

  4. 1999, 2003 and 2008 strike me by their absence.

    1999 because six different drivers from four different teams scored victories, and Hakkinen and Irvine fought it out until the last round, with Frentzen only dropping out of contention fairly late on.

    2003 because five different teams won races, with seven different drivers and the championship went down to a three-way shootout for the title.

    2008 again because seven different drivers won with five different teams, and with five drivers having a realistic shot a the title over the course of the season.

    1. 2003 was superb too ! mind it was 8 drivers winning races, Kimi and DC, Rubens and MSC, Alonso, Ralf and Montoya and Fisichella. Amaizing to have so many cars, so many colours on the grid (red, yellow, light blue, blue, black and silver, green) and so many different engines.

      It truly was a mixed year !

      1. @wificats @fer-no65 I might have put 2003 on here but really after the pre-Monza rules change it was pretty obvious how it was going to turn out. There was only one (team) winner from that point on.

        1. @keithcollantine
          That rule change didn’t effect the championship. Temperature did.

          Barrichello dominated a cold race in Silverstone, before Ferrari got trashed by the Michelin teams in Germany and Hungary.
          In Monza, the temperatures were closer to what they were in Silverstone. Nonetheless, Montoya was absolutely up there with Schumacher pace wise, hunting him down until Frentzen halted his charge and cost him several seconds.
          Williams was the fastest car in the dry conditions at Indianapolis, but the rain gifted Schumi and Ferrari victory. Bridgestone was always superior to Michelin in the wet (see Brazil earlier that year).
          Lastly, Montoya and Williams were dominating in Suzuka before his car failed. Again, this has nothing to do with tyres, but rather BMW-Williams’s reliability.

          The tyre change did not change the fact that Williams was, in the dry, still on balance the fastest car in the last 3 races of 2003. They didn’t win any of them because of either annoying backmarkers (Monza), rain (Indy), or a car failure (Suzuka).

        2. @keithcollantine
          Monza tyre changes didn’t have that much effect on the championship. Williams and Raikkonen missed the title only by a few points, and Montoya was out after a drive through penalty at Indy where also Ralf retired. Indy practically cost Williams both of the championships.
          And you have listed 1982, which was the most controversial season in the history of F1 (still, it was undoubtedly one of the most dramatic).

  5. 2007: Raikkonen, Hamilton & Alonso

    1. Hello people! !!!!
      Definitely one of the most competitives seasons

  6. I can’t believe that 2003 is not on here. 8 different winners from 5 different teams across just 16 races. 3 different drivers from 3 different teams competing for the WDC. Ferrari vs Williams vs McLaren. Schumi vs Kimi vs JPM.

  7. 2008 wasn’t very competitive though – only mclaren and ferrari won races

    1. Exactly.

      2010/2102 – Amazing
      2014 – Yawn

    2. @frood19 … And Toro Rosso, and BMW Sauber, and Renault.

      1. Yep. Don’t know if he has it mixed up with 2007.

  8. Haven’t followed F1 for a long time, but I believe 2008 was epic season in terms of championship battle.

  9. Keith, Hülkenberg finished 5th in Brazil in 2012 after his penalty for hitting Hamilton.

  10. I personally would have had 2003 and 2008 in there, those were highly competitive seasons, especially the latter with having both Ferraris, Hamilton and Kubica all in with a really strong shout at the halfway point of the season.

    1. @craig-o At the expense of which seasons which are on the list?

      1. @keithcollantine I would have had those two in favour of ’68 and ’81. I just feel that there was very little to choose between the top three teams for much of the season in both cases, although Ferrari improved after the mid-season regulation change in 2003 and BMW stopped developing in 2008, three teams remained with a shout at having their driver being the champion until the penultimate round.

  11. 2008 it is for me a lot of different winners and it went to the last race.

  12. Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but I thought 1990 was a good year as well, even though it didn’t go to the last round due to the points system at the time.

  13. 2007 was well remembered for Raikkonen’s first year at Ferrari and he won the WDC on his first year there. Also remembered for Alonso sabotaging Mclaren. LOL!
    For me, 2012 was the most exciting.. The cliff hanger started when Vettel spun out and everyone thought “that’s it, Alonso’s got it in the bag”. Somehow, Vettel managed to drive the wrecked car to secure the 2012 championship. That was truly an amazing fighting spirit from that young man.
    2010 was also fantastic with Vettel nervously pushing himself to win the Abu Dhabi race. The ‘what could have been’ questions immediately popped out after the race when Alonso was called in at the wrong time and got stuck behind a Lotus-Renault for the rest of the race. This subsequently led to the introduction of the DRS system. If you love DRS, then you can thank Alonso for it. LOL…

  14. Both ’07 and ’08 were more deserving than ’10 and ’12 in my opinion but each to their own.

  15. The premise that more winners equals more competitive doesn’t ring entirely true with me, but I can’t satisfactorily explain why not.

    But to give an example, the competition between the Mercs in 2014 was far more compelling than 2013, a season which was more competitive using this measure (yet not on the final points tally).

  16. Are you serious!? Where is 2003? It was one of the best seasons in the motorsport history (together with epic WRC season that year).

  17. 1976 is missing and hasn’t been discussed yet. Obviously Nikki Lauda’s accident creates the stage for the finale between Hunt and Lauda… 1 point separated the drivers at the end of one of the most remarkable seasons ever witnessed.

  18. 2007 and 2008 are definitely missed here.

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