Top ten: Worst world championship title defences

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Winning one drivers’ championship title is hard. Sustaining the motivation and performance necessary to do it all again the next year is even harder.

Sebastian Vettel successfully defended his first three titles but his crown finally slipped last year. Not only that, but for the first time since Jacques Villeneuve 16 years ago the defending champion failed to win a single race.

But Vettel at least managed to end the season among the top five in the drivers’ championship. That’s something none of these drivers, who endured even more difficult title defences, managed to do.

1980: Jody Scheckter

Team: Ferrari
Position: 19th
Points: 2

Ferrari’s cup overflowed late in 1979. At home in Italy the scarlet 312T4’s crossed the line one-two, sealing the championship for Jody Scheckter with team mate Gilles Villeneuve runner-up in the points table.

However the team had one eye on the opposition, particularly the promise of Renault’s turbocharged engine, and had commenced work on its own turbo power unit. In the meantime the team’s venerable flat-12 engine remained in service for another year but the modifications made to it and the T4 chassis for 1980 spectacularly failed to bear fruit.

Short on downforce, lacking reliability and struggling with their Michelin tyres, the season was an unmitigated disaster. Defending champion Scheckter took a single points finish at Long Beach, soon decided to retire from the sport, and in his penultimate appearance failed even to get the wretched T5 on the starting grid.

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1997: Damon Hill

Team: Arrows
Position: 12th
Points: 7

Damon Hill won the championship with Williams in 1996 and the team produced another superb car the following year. Unfortunately for Hill he was no longer driving for them.

During Hill’s troubled 1995 campaign Frank Williams had already decided Heinz-Harald Frentzen would take his place for 1997. Upon his departure Hill came close to agreeing terms with McLaren but ended up driving for the win-less Arrows team.

When his car broke down on the way to the grid at the first race of the season it proved a depressing omen of what was to come. But the team’s new Bridgestone tyres occasionally proved the ace in their hand – such as in Hungary where Hill sensationally passed arch-rival Michael Schumacher and was on his way to a dream victory.

But on the penultimate tour the failure of a minor hydraulic part caused his car to slow dramatically, and former team mate Jacques Villeneuve took the win from him.

1979: Mario Andretti

Team: Lotus
Position: 12th
Points: 14

Having dominated the 1978 championship with the ground effect-harnessing 79 chassis, Lotus’s 1979 design took the concept to extremes in the pursuit of even more performance. But the radical Lotus 80 proved a failure.

On paper – and in the wind-tunnel – the 80 had promised immense levels of downforce. But the team couldn’t realise them on the race track without suffering severe ride and handling problems.

That wrecked Mario Andretti’s hopes of holding on to his championship. Indeed, Andretti scored more than half of his meagre points total that year while the team was still using the old car. By the end of the year they had abandoned the new car completely.

1961: Jack Brabham

Team: Cooper
Position: 11th
Points: 4

Jack Brabham and Cooper cleaned up in 1959 and 1960 using a tidy rear-engined car which changed the course of F1 car development. But for 1961 a huge change in the regulations shook up the grid – and Ferrari were better prepared than anyone.

With F1 engine capacities trimmed to 1.5 litres, Ferrari’s V6 engine easily outgunned the four-cylinder Coventry-Climax units used by Cooper. And so, having won five races the year before, Brabham never made it onto the podium in 1961.

He enjoyed more success away from F1, taking the rear-engined Cooper to the Indianapolis 500 where it performed promisingly. Within a few years, others had followed Brabham’s lead and conquered the 500-mile classic in similar cars.

1982: Nelson Piquet

Team: Brabham
Position: 11th
Points: 20

Curiously, three-times world champion Piquet never finished in the top four in the season following any of his title wins. In 1982 the unreliable new BMW turbo engine in his Brabham was often the cause of his troubles.

The car was particularly ill-suited to the narrow Detroit street circuit – that and an electrical problem in qualifying conspired to thwart his efforts to get the car on the grid.

But one week later in Canada he not only got the car through qualifying but he won the race as well. Another victory might have followed in Germany but he tripped over the lapped Eliseo Salazar. The reigning champion then threw punches and kicks at the bemused ATS driver.

The pain he experienced with BMW had its reward the following year however, when Piquet regained his title.

1985: Niki Lauda

Team: McLaren
Position: 10th
Points: 14

Having pipped team mate Alain Prost to the 1984 championship, Niki Lauda remained at McLaren for a tilt at a fourth title the following year.

But he might as well have stayed at home as he suffered the most appalling unreliability. Lauda managed just three points finishes all season while Prost netted his first title.

The only saving grace for Lauda was a gritty final victory at Zandvoort, taken under immense pressure from his team mate.

1969: Graham Hill

Team: Lotus
Position: 7th
Points: 19

Given the potency of the Lotus 49, Hill’s 1968 championship had been a close-run thing. Nonetheless when he began his title defence with second place in South Africa and his traditional victory in Monaco, Hill appeared quite capable of retaining his crown.

But that proved the last win of his career. As the season wore on Hill was increasingly overshadowed by new team mate Jochen Rindt. By the time they reached the penultimate round at Watkins Glen Hill had only added a further four points to his tally.

Then came the accident which almost ended his career. Having detached his seat belts following a spin, a tyre deflation caused him to lose control of his car again and Hill was thrown out of the car, suffering serious leg injuries.

1962: Phil Hill

Team: Ferrari
Position: 6th
Points: 14

Triumph and tragedy came hand-in-hand for Ferrari at the end of 1961. Phil Hill clinched the title on the day team mate Wolfgang von Trips was killed in a crash along with 15 spectators at Ferrari’s home race at Monza.

Then at the end of the year a group of top Ferrari staff quit the team following a dispute with founder Enzo Ferrari. Soon afterwards Hill had his own first-hand experience of the toxic politics at work in Maranello.

He brought the car home on the podium at the first three races of the year, but team manager Eugenio Dragoni was unimpressed with his efforts and gave a damning assessment of Hill’s driving to Ferrari by telephone.

Unmotivated and piloting a car increasingly eclipsed by the likes of BRM and Lotus, Hill failed to score in the remaining races. At the end of the year he joined the Ferrari deserters at the newly formed ATS team.

1988: Nelson Piquet

Team: Lotus
Position: 6th
Points: 22

The 1988 season was a poor year for anyone who wasn’t driving a McLaren-Honda MP4-4. That went for reigning champion Piquet as well, even though he had moved from Williams to Lotus in order to keep the coveted Honda power beneath his right foot.

Despite having the same specification engines as McLaren, Lotus found their 100T was badly outclassed. At times they even failed to beat rivals who lacked turbo power.

Although Piquet began the year with a couple of podium finishes, later results called his motivation into question, including a series of spins and accidents. He was even out-qualified at Spa by Honda rent-a-driver Satoru Nakajima.

1966: Jim Clark

Team: Lotus
Position: 6th
Points: 16

A major change in the engine regulations for 1966 caught several teams on the hop. Among them were Lotus, who were late to find a suitable engine for the new three-litre specification.

What they eventually obtained was a unit which utterly contradicted team founder Colin Chapman’s demands for simplicity and lightness. BRM’s 16-cylinder H16 was extremely complicated, not especially powerful and very heavy.

It was only thanks to inspired driving on Clark’s part that the failure-prone engine won a race, fitted to Lotus’s 43 chassis, in the penultimate race of the year at Watkins Glen.

The undefended titles

Alberto Ascari arguably set the benchmark for worst championship defences in 1954. He spent much of the year waiting for Lancia to debut their D50 grand prix car, and only appeared in four points-scoring rounds. That left him 25th at the end of the year with 1.14 points (for the story of how he scored one-seventh of a point, see here).

Two years earlier Juan Manuel Fangio had been forced to leave his first title undefended after suffering a neck injury at the beginning of 1952. He also stepped down from his final title defence two races into the 1958 season.

The driver who won the championship that year, Mike Hawthorn, announced his retirement at the end of the season, meaning the crown was undefended once more. Sadly Hawthorn was killed in a road accident just weeks later.

Tragedy also surrounded the circumstances of the 1970 champion, Jochen Rindt, who lost his life before the season ended and his title was confirmed.

Concerns over safety prompted Jackie Stewart to decided he would retire at the end of 1973, the year which produced his third world championship.

Only two other drivers declined to defend their titles: Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost after taking titles for Williams, in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Mansell opted to race in IndyCar after learning of Prost’s deal to join him at Williams. Prost in turn elected to cut his deal short by a year as team principal Frank Williams was coming under pressure to hire Senna to drive alongside him.

Over to you

Which unsuccessful F1 title defences stand out in your memory? Which champions in other categories struggled to hold on to their titles?

And will Lewis Hamilton enjoy better luck defending his title this year than he did in 2009? 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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60 comments on “Top ten: Worst world championship title defences”

  1. Shouldn’t the part at the end with Mansell and Prost be 1992 & 1993 not 1993 & 1994

    1. No, because it is referring to the years in which they would have defended their titles, not the years they won them.

      1. Yes, but I think it’s misleading. I spent a while getting confused about why Senna was being hired in 1995…

        I think it would be clearer to write it as either:
        “Only two other drivers declined to defend their titles: Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost in 1993 and 1994 respectively, following their titles for Williams.”

        “Only two other drivers declined to defend their titles: Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost, after taking titles for Williams in 1992 and 1993 respectively.” (moved the comma)

  2. Hill in Hungary – How heartbreaking was that??

    1. tgu (@thegrapeunwashed)
      16th February 2015, 16:02

      @ecwdanselby the finish was heart-breaking, particularly as he’d vowed to win a race at the start of the season, but the drive was stunning – he should be very proud of finishing second in that car.

  3. I still never really understand the reasoning for Damon going to race for Arrows after winning the title.

    He claimed that McLaren didn’t value his world champion status, but surely racing for either them or Ferrari would of paid off more in the long term. He may not of claimed another championship but Id say his status and marketing power would be much higher if he was 1996 world champion and then raced ~5 years for Ferrari with a cap full of race wins (with the Ferarri of 97 – 01, you’d imagine he’d of picked up a few victories!!).

    Instead he raced a year for Arrows and then his F1 career went out with a wimper with 2 seasons in a Jordan (aside from that single Wet win in Belgium). It would be like Nico Rosberg winning the title last year and moving to Sauber for the 2015 season!!

    1. I think it is worth remembering that Hill was 36/37 and was looking for one more payday before retirement as opposed to a long-term project like Schumacher at Ferrari.
      McLaren were not at the level of Ferrari/Williams/Benetton in 96. Plus there was real anomosity between Schumacher and Hill at the time so I doubt he’d have been happy as his no 2 at Ferrari.

      Obviously with hindsight rejecting McLaren was a huge mistake but I’m not sure he would have wanted/been able to handle the pressure of another WDC fight.

    2. I think that Damon was probably left in a similar situation to Alonso in late 2007 and to an extent, last year. It’s not only that there were only really three teams capable of winning: Ferrari, where his arch-nemesis was, Williams, where he was deposed, and McLaren, who had signed with Mercedes and only one season previously signed Coulthard. Benetton were in the same position signing top drivers at the start of 1996 and weren’t really wanting too much change. This sounds weird given Hill was world champion but his stock was not a lot higher than the other top drivers of the day. Any team picking up Hill would have been seen as picking up the champion’s reject and at 36, wasn’t a worthwhile future investment. I’m sure enquiries were made from Jordan, Sauber, Stewart and even Prost but with Tom Walkinshaw, who helped Benetton to their titles, at the helm and a willingness from sponsors to change the car livery to blue and white to keep Hill’s profile high, it does look like the only place to go. I imagine the salary wasn’t too much of a problem either and given Hill appears a shrewd businessman nearing the end of his career, it does appear to be a factor. Yamaha were also an unknown quantity and as Keith points out Bridgestone were certainly a company on the rise.

      So, yeah, it does appear to be mad at face value but in his shoes it was probably the right decision.

    3. As an avid follower of F1 since the early 90’s and a MASSIVE Damon Hill fan, I don’t remember Damon being close to agreeing terms with McLaren. Was that really the case?

      I do remember Damon commenting that Ron Dennis wasn’t returning his calls and feeling like he wasn’t wanted at McLaren so didn’t really pursue it.

      He was close to joining Jordan for ’97 but decided they didn’t have the facilities required to challenge at the front. Arrows, fresh from takeover by Tom Walkinshaw, did have a lot of new kit and it persuaded him. Am sure money was also a factor.

      I know his options were limited, but I don’t think McLaren were ever a real option.

      I’ve got all the Autosport mags from those years so am quite keen to go back and so some reading now :)

      1. It thought Hill was closer to signing for McLaren at the end of 97 & only just signed for Jordan for 98 ’ B&H paid his salary after Eddie J turned down his demands. (There’s a story about Damon catching a lift on Eddie’s private jet after missing a flight)…? Think the car he passed up on over a disagreement about his his flat fee before performance bonuses. What might have been!

        1. Damon explains this himself in his book F1 Through the eyes of Damon Hill. The deal he would have had with McLaren would only have paid him if he won races, and he would be earning less than Mika who at the time had not won a race never mind a WC and Damon had won 21 races and was the regning champion.

    4. Hill was probably the only Englishman that Ferrari didn’t want for for 97! Couldn’t have ever seen him in the same team as Schumacher…

  4. Well, Schumacher’s 2005 title defence wasn’t pretty good, though that was largely due to the tyres regulations. Still, winning the one race which 6 cars started would’ve got him on this list ;)
    That and his battle with Alonso in Imola.

    1. a lot of his championships were due to tyre regs, and bridgstone favouring Ferrari and unlimited testing. in 2003, schumacher pretty much one the championship because of the regs being changed before monza. 2005 was fair, it was equal. schumachers title defense was good, its not like he came 10th in the championship.

    2. OmarR-Pepper (@)
      16th February 2015, 17:12

      @carlitox I remember in that Indy 2005, Schum almost collided with Barrichelo when one of them was leaving the pits. I remember both Ferrari drivers with sour faces on the podium, while Tiago Monteiro was overexcited.

      1. @omarr-pepper It was an awful race, but I was so happy seeing Tiago Monteiro celebrating his podum.

        1. shame that karthikeyan could not get up there…;)

    3. While it’s true Schumacher was nowhere near the top of the WDC battle in 2005, he still finished the season in 3rd place, ahead of both Montoya and Fisichella. That’s a lot better than anyone on this list.

  5. If Michael Schumacher would’ve won title 2006, it would’ve been undefended also. Sad some drivers retire while still driving at their best.

  6. Just absolurely perfect Keith!
    What a language, English is not my natuve but you manage to inject the excitement and blast into whatever you write. Bernie,you need this guy to save F1!

    1. +1
      Actually, Bernie step down and let this guy save F1.

  7. how about Nigel Mansell for abandoning f1 and not trying a title defense!
    Hamiltons 2009 defense was a slap in the face, the car was nowhere for the first half of the year.

    1. how about Nigel Mansell for abandoning F1 and not trying a title defense!

      It’s mentioned in the article, and as I noted it’s not as if he’s the only person who won a title and then left.

    2. On the plus side, I think 2009 made Hamilton a much, much better driver.

      1. Hamilton drove brilliant in 2009. Taking victory in Hungary was a nice feature seeing where they started the season.
        And let’s not forget, the first race win for a kers equipped car!

        1. @solidg And a DRS-equipped car.

  8. tgu (@thegrapeunwashed)
    16th February 2015, 16:08

    The one that stands out for me is Hakkinen, as the pressure of living up to number #1 billing increasingly got to him, to the point where he was weeping into the bushes at Monza, having binned it. He was fast enough to win another title, he just couldn’t get his head around it – perhaps he never quite believed he was up to Schumacher’s mark. But he was a great driver and a great character – the two don’t always go hand in hand.

    1. @thegrapeunwashed I disagree to your mention of Hakkinen in the context of this list. Sure he cried in the bushes at Monza 99′ but he still managed to defend his title that season. And he was very close to defending his title for a second consecutive time in 2000, leading the standings until 2 races to go

      So yes, he had trouble to deal with the pressure but dealt with it nonetheless. Better than Schumacher in fact who always cracked under pressure when the title got to the wire

      1. tgu (@thegrapeunwashed)
        16th February 2015, 19:47

        @montreal95 @hotbottoms @kpcart

        Yes, sorry everyone – faulty memory on my part.

      2. didn’t crack when he won it in 2000 after a race long duel with Hakkinen did he?

        until 2001 Schumacher’s Ferraris were never the best car on the grid, most of them years it was down to his super human efforts that they were ever in the running (97/98 especially and 96 he was supreme in a pretty poor car)

    2. @thegrapeunwashed
      Häkkinen wept in 1999 and he won his second championship that year, so I don’t think that counts as a bad title defense.

    3. i dont think that makes it a “worst” title defense. he defended as hard as he could. and it is only your oppinon that he couldn’t get his head around it. he got his head in order in 98 and 99 so i dont feel you have thought this through, it certainly wasn’t the worst title defence, there have been far far worse, infact hakinnen’s was very good.

    4. oh and i forgot to add, Hakkinen wasnt seen as number one billing, in that era Shumacher was seen as the best driver, and the pressure was on him to win in a ferrari, and not on Hakkinen who had just won 2 championships. Hakkinen was satisfied with that and soon left f1, he felt nothing more to achieve.

  9. Everytime someone who cannot put things in perspective and says Vettel is only average for his title defense and 2014 season I’ll send them a link to this article because those aren’t really you’re most average drivers.

    1. OmarR-Pepper (@)
      16th February 2015, 17:16

      @xtwl you are right… or you can also send them reminders of Schum 2005, Alonso 2008 and Hamilton 2010. I know Hamilton won 2 races, but ended up 5th too, and beaten by rookie Sebastian. So everything depends on many, many factors. And on machinery too, as the article above clearly shows.

      1. @omarr-pepper And then you have to read those comments ‘yes, but at least x won a race,…’. It’s a plain wonder anybody else than a Mercedes GP car won a race last season.

      2. @omarr-pepper, I think that calling Vettel a rookie by 2010 is stretching things a bit – Vettel had been a full time test driver for BMW-Sauber since 2006, where he’d participated in a number of race weekends, and been racing for Toro Rosso since the middle of the 2007 season.

        In terms of relative experience, Vettel was actually almost as experienced as Hamilton was in 2010 – unless you are arguing that Hamilton was also a rookie in 2010, I don’t think that Hamilton had a significant advantage in terms of experience compared to him.

        Also, you’ve also miscalculated Hamilton’s position in the WDC – he finished in 4th place in the WDC that year, not 5th.

        1. Not only that, but Hamilton’s defense was 2009– Button was the defender in 2010. ;)

      3. OmarR-Pepper (@)
        17th February 2015, 3:21

        OOps yes it was 2009

  10. Vettel in 2014 wins the worst recent title defence by a long shot. At least Schumacher in 2005 and Hamilton in 2009 were able to extract the maximum out of the 3rd or 4th best car. Vettel got trashed my his own teammate.

    Raikkonen in 2008 is up there too. The F2008 was actually the best car on the grid, but he couldn’t do anything with it and spent half the season crashing.

    1. Agreed, Vettel’s 2014 defence was terrible by any standards. In fact, as I’ve said on here before he took another first:

      In 2014 Vettel was the first ever defending F1 champion to fail to win a race all season while another driver in the same car did!

      Sure there are other drivers who have failed to win races in their defending years (Hill, Villeneuve, etc) but neither did any of their teammates. Usually because they were in awful cars. The RB10 wasn’t the best car but Ricciardo showed it was a race winning car.

      1. @swordsman_uk A car that wins races only when other cars retire or have big failures is not a race-winning car. Is a car that was in the right place in the right time.

        Kudos to Riccardo for being there instead of Vettel, definitely, nothing will take him the merits of that.

    2. Worst recent title defence or not, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vettel won his 5th championship before Ricciardo wins his first.

    3. @kingshark I’d put Alonso’s 2007 up there, too. Not only got he beaten by a rookie, but the fallout of that year would decide his next 7 years of failures.

      1. Four race wins and only 1 point from the WDC as the worst title defence ever is stretching things a bit methinks

    4. Kimi did lead the standings in 2008 at the early stages, and then Ferrari decided to favour Massa with their mid-season suspension changes. I would not call 3rd place in the WDC a bad defense.

      1. @kaiie
        Perhaps, but Kimi made a string of uncharacteristic mistakes in 2008 including Australia, Monaco, Silverstone, Belgium, and Singapore.

        He also ended the season on level points with Kubica, who had a WAY inferior BMW as opposed to the Ferrari F2008.

  11. Surely Schumacher in 2005, one win in a 6 car race which launched him from fifth to distant third in championship

  12. I thought Hill was on the verge of signing for McLaren at the end of 97 (& only just signed for Jordan for 98 ’cause of the B&H tobacco money)…? Think the car he passed up on (disagreeing his flat fee before performance bonuses). And, think of the performance bonuses! He would have won the first race of 97 in a McLaren though. :)

  13. No Briton has ever defended his title, we may expect Nico to win this year if Merc are doing well… or Vettel if Ferrari really made great progress…

  14. 97 was the first season i watched properly in F1, always remember being thrilled when Hill came 6th at Silverstone even though i was a Schumacher fan (probably wasn’t many hill and schumacher fans around at that time!!).

    I think Hill did ok in 97 considering the machinery he had, although he did have some awful races that year, i think the got out qualified by Pedro Diniz, the regular 90s pay driver.

    Other than that, Schumacher 2005 season was disappointing by his extremely high standards, Hamilton was hampered by an awful 09 car at the start of the season (he actually scored more points than anyone else over the 2nd half of the season IIRC)

    But i think Vettel will come back stronger, there’s no doubt Ricciardo blew him away but there were a number of mitigating factors so it was more than just the case of Ricciardo was better than Vettel.

  15. No British driver has defended the title before if i am not mistaken. But if any brit was going to do it it has to be Hamilton. I think because of the unpredictability of Hamilton he might not win it but will be there and there about….heres hoping for a great F1 season…

  16. We know Hamilton, Vettel & Rossi are the top ones in F1. And already Hamiton are top in 2015 and near win the championship in 2015.

  17. Senna 1992? That was a fergettable year!

    1. fOrgettable I mean.

  18. Of all these 10 worst championship defended, the title of champion for the year 1961 by Jack Brabham is really motivational. That’s what a true champion deserve

  19. now you can add Nico Rosberg to the list!!!!

  20. The Jim Clark Trust has received a boost as it heads into the final three weeks of its campaign to raise the required £300,000 to open the Jim Clark Museum in his home town of Duns

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