What were Formula 1’s greatest unexpected underdog triumphs?

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Formula 1 is different to so many other forms of competition in world sport. Rather than being a battle between two teams or individuals where only one can be victorious, a grand prix sees 20 drivers each have a theoretical chance of winning once the lights go out.

Naturally, however, the biggest teams with the largest budgets and the greatest resources tend to have by far the most success. But that does not mean that smaller teams and drivers who rarely find themselves in the hunt for points, podiums or even victories do not sometimes get their days in the sun.

They have become fewer and farther between. But Alexander Albon’s run to seventh place in the Canadian Grand Prix put us in mind of some of the truly great underdog feats we’ve enjoyed in the past. The RaceFans writers named their favourites:

When Eagle took flight

In an age where F1 is dominated by a billion-dollar marketing conglomerate and the world’s biggest automotive giants are flocking to it based solely on the fickle whims of suits in a boardroom, it’s easy to forget how its legacy was built on the pioneering pursuits of privateers who embodied the true spirit of what it is to be racers.

F1’s first two decades were defined by these have-a-go heroes, but the success of Dan Gurney and his Anglo American Racers is an especially romantic story of triumph. Born from Gurney’s All-American Racers venture with trailblazing Texan Carroll Shelby, ‘Eagle’ – as they would race as – was a bold team that aimed to take the best in the world head-on with some of the finest racing talent the United States had to offer at the time.

After debuting at Spa-Francorchamps in the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix, the team more than held their own against the established giants of Lotus, Ferrari, Brabham and Cooper. Gurney scored a fifth-place finish in only their second race in Reims, then put his car on the front row at Brands Hatch a fortnight later.

Gurney (number 36) rebounded from poor start
The 1967 season began with three straight retirements for Gurney and Eagle. But at the next round in Belgium, Gurney stuck his car between the two Lotus 49s of Jim Clark and Graham Hill at the front of the grid. At the start, Clark leapt off the grid, Gurney merely stumbled and Hill didn’t get away at all. Gurney fell to eighth, but by the end of lap two he’d battled back up to third, 11 seconds behind Jackie Stewart with Clark leading.

Clark suffered an engine problem approaching mid-distance, handing the lead to Stewart. Gurney had been in Stewart’s mirrors, but pitted to report low fuel pressure, then set off again in pursuit of the BRM. Eventually, gear selection problems slowed Stewart, allowing Gurney through into the lead.

The Eagle raced away to its maiden win by over a minute, completing the fastest grand prix ever seen up to that point. Even if it was the only win AAR ever achieved in the world championship, it remains one of the great American achievements in international motorsport and a true underdog triumph that we will likely never see again in F1.

Will Wood

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Onyx reach the grid, then the podium

The 1989 season had a record 39 cars enter some rounds – almost double today’s thin entry. One such race was the Portuguese Grand Prix, and from that vast contingent came two notable underdog feats.

F1 newcomers Onyx reached the podium thanks to Johansson
One was Pierluigi Martini putting F1’s most beloved backmarkers, Minardi, in the lead for the only time in their history. But after he dropped back, another even more obscure team triumphed.

For their first season, Onyx produced a neat chassis powered by the popular Cosworth DFV engine and joined the ranks of those who had to pre-qualify each weekend just to earn a chance of making the cut for the grid. Prior to Estoril, Onyx showed potential with a fifth-place finish for former Ferrari and McLaren racer Stefan Johansson.

He was their only representative on the grid in Portugal. Previous team mate Bertrand Gachot was shown the door after making public comments which irked team owner Jean-Pierre van Rossem (a man for whom the word ‘eccentric’ falls well short). His replacement, rookie JJ Lehto, flew in pre-qualifying but a cruelly-timed technical failure denied him a place on the grid.

Johansson started 12th and worked his way forward, passing Martini for fifth after half-distance and inheriting third when Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell controversially collided. Riccardo Patrese elbowed the Onyx out of the rostrum places, but his new FW13 succumbed to overheating three laps later.

The key to Johansson’s success was careful tyre management: he nursed his starting set of Goodyears to the finish. Not only was the door open to newcomers in 1989, drivers weren’t forced to make arbitrary pit stops for the benefit of ‘the show’.

Not that past F1 was always better than present. Johansson’s skilful drive was largely missed by the cameras during the race – though to be fair the Senna-Mansell collision was merely one scene in an event packed with drama. And afterwards the organisers started the podium ceremony without Johansson, who was delayed when his car ran out of fuel on his in-lap.

Onyx never came close to scaling such heights again. They failed to muster another points-scoring top-six finish before collapsing amid questions over Van Rossem’s financial dealing the following year.

Keith Collantine

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Force India stun at Spa

Giancarlo Fisichella had only finished in the top 10 on three occasions in 29 races with Force India before turning up to Spa-Francorchamps at the end of August 2009 and taking pole position. It was not a fluke performance, as to reach Q3 he had topped Q1 and been fourth in Q2.

Then on Sunday Fisichella put in a drive worthy of victory. Unfortunately it only resulted in second place, as Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen beat him by less than a second. On top of that, in unusual circumstances two weeks later the pair were team mates.

Raikkonen qualified sixth, was up to fourth by the opening corner, passed BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld off-track to take third before Raidillon and then slipstreamed past the other F1.09 of Robert Kubica for second.

A crash behind meant the Safety Car was called out, and on the lap five restart Raikkonen took the lead from Fisichella at the start of the Kemmel Straight. The Ferrari driver was aided on the straights by his Kinetic Energy Recovery System, which Force India did not have, and Fisichella spent the rest of the afternoon within a second of Raikkonen’s rear wing.

It was the first time Force India had ever scored points in F1 – and the suitability of their car to low-downforce circuits was shown in the next race at Monza as Fisichella’s team mate Adrian Sutil finished fourth with fastest lap. But it was arguably an underdog triumph for Ferrari as it was the first time all season they had been in contention to win a race.

Under today’s tighter track limits rules Raikkonen would likely have been penalised for his off-track move on the first lap, and Fisichella’s faultless drive could have been rewarded with a win. He didn’t get a chance to go one better with Force India as Ferrari snapped him up four days after the race to replace the struggling Luca Badoer as Raikkonen’s team mate.

Ida Wood

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Ousted Gasly triumphs

F1 has an amazing way of surprising you when you least expect it, and in 2020 it delivered an extraordinary change in fortune for Pierre Gasly.

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri, Monza, 2020
Gasly took an emotional first win at Monza
In the middle of a bizarre year when the Covid-19 pandemic upended all sense of normality, F1 arrived at Monza where the usual vast crowds of tifosi could not be admitted. The tight restrictions on who could attend races meant I was covering proceedings from my living room, while a tiny, masked-up contingent travelled to the tracks.

The race turned on a Safety Car period which led to pole winner Lewis Hamilton receiving a ten-second stop-and-go penalty, which left him seventh at the flag. Gasly, who had the fortune to pit before the race was neutralised, worked his way to the front and held off McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jnr to win.

It was only the second win for the team which started life in 1985 as Minardi, became Toro Rosso and was rebranded again as AlphaTauri that year.

Staying back after the celebrations to soak in all the emotion, the young Frenchman perched himself on the edge of the podium with his head in his hands. After, he admitted when he crossed the finish line, he couldn’t believe what he had done. As the sound of the French national anthem rung around the track, with no fans to cheer him on, he said he “thought of all the mechanics, the engineers, all the men and women at AlphaTauri who work behind the scenes to make a moment like that possible.”

Two details made Gasly’s triumph all the more special. One was the pain he had gone through after his friend Anthoine Hubert died the year before following a crash during an F2 race at Spa.

Around the same time Gasly also suffered the setback of being ousted from Red Bull’s driver line-up after just half a season in the car. Afterwards Hamilton spoke for many when he said Gasly deserved his surprise success.

“Pierre is just a really nice guy,” he said. “I think he has a lot of talent and I don’t think he was necessarily treated fairly at Red Bull in the end when he got demoted.”

It felt like a wonderful moment in F1 with a driver who, with all his hardship and pain of losing his friend and a tough time at Red Bull in 2019, deserved his moment on the top step of the podium.

Claire Cottingham

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Over to you

What are your favourite underdog moments from F1’s history? Share your picks in the comments.

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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36 comments on “What were Formula 1’s greatest unexpected underdog triumphs?”

  1. One of my favourite such stories from the early days is the Argentinian Grand Prix in 1958. Stirling Moss was by no means an underdog, but a change in fuel regulations caused Vanwall to miss the first race of the season and he was driving last year’s Cooper (for privateer Rob Walker, even), with a 2-litre Climax engine in a 2.5-litre format.

    The story has been told many times – Moss and Walker convinced everyone else he wasn’t a threat because he was going to lose two laps changing tyres, then managed to run the race without stopping at all. The full version is in All My Races, and it was a brilliant piece of race strategy and mechanical sympathy.

  2. Derek Edwards
    28th June 2023, 13:00

    Piercarlo Ghinzani in the Osella, 5th at Dallas in 1984 in searing heat while the track was breaking up, world champions hitting the wall, others spinning into retirement and Our Nige fainting trying to push their cars over the line. Kept it all together for his only ever points score.

  3. There is a really good documentary about the Onyx team and it’s legendary ‘sponsor’ Jean Pierre van Rossem made by Belga Sport. An absolute must see. The story has got everything that made F1 so amazing in the late 80’s early 90’s. You can watch it on YouTube (mostly Dutch spoken, not sure how good the YouTube translation works):

  4. Hesketh’s first and only win at Zandvoort in 1975 is kind of a huge and amazing underdog win, but the 1970s were so chaotic due to teams only just beginning to understand aerodynamics that it’s sometimes hard to think of anybody as all that much of an underdog – and after all, Hunt had already finished second that year and would go on to be fourth in the championship. So it depends on how you think about it.

  5. Webber’s fifth place in the 2002 Australian Grand Prix is the one that came to mind.
    Sure, all the retirements helped, but that post-race euphoria was so palpable that even 12-year-old me was swept up in the excitement.

    There’s Jules’ point finish with Marussia that’s only getting finer with age, and Maldonado’s mature, measured drive to victory over Alonso in 2012.
    Man, I’d give everything to see Frank Williams being brought to tears like that ever again

    1. Webber taking points for Minardi, with its then Australian team boss at the Australian GP, is a good call. He had a bit of scrap with the debuting Toyota of Mika Salo towards the end, if I recall correctly.

  6. Jonathan Parkin
    28th June 2023, 13:49

    How about Damon Hill’s second place at Hungary in 1997 in an Arrows. Was so so nearly a win and it still hurts to this day that it wasn’t. I would dearly love to go back in time and make Jacques Villeneuve get stuck in the grass for three or four seconds allowing Damon to escape

    1. All the more painful as it was a mechanical problem that slowed Damon down, he would have still beaten the Williams otherwise. After the race I didn’t know whether to be gutted at the loss of the win, or delighted with the second place. I console myself with the overtake of Schumacher by Damon, at Hungary of all places!

    2. I was going to cite that one. I found it especially surprising since I don’t think Hill was particularly special.

      Speaking of less than special, who can forget fan favorite Pastor Maldonado’s 2012 Barcelona victory. Really wasn’t an under dog story as that Williams was legitimately very fast. Pastor not cracking under the pressure from Alonso was the bigger achievement. Kimi and Alonso holding him on their shoulders was an especially sporting move from the two guys on the podium.

  7. Clearly, tales of Lance’s utterly heroic surge to the rarefied heights of 9th place in Montreal this year will give a frisson to all who hear of it for generations. And yet so few recognise genius in its own time. SAD!

  8. Pastor Maldonado winning the 2012 Grand Prix of Catalunya.

    Bearing in mind:

    • He held off an attacking Fernando Alonso.
    • He only finished in the top 10 on 5 occasions that season.
    • Williams finished 8th out of 12 teams that season.

    1. That was was legitimately fast though. The drivers, particularly Pastor, threw way good results time after time. It was also a season where certain teams, due to the teams not understanding the Pirellis, would suddenly show up at a track and be blazing fast while the WDC/WCC contenders might suddenly be way off the pace. Eight different winners in the first eight races.

      I am/was a huge Williams fan. So, despite not being a big Pastor fan, I loved the victory. As I noted above, Fernando and Kimi holding PM on their shoulders on the podium made for a very cool moment.

  9. Olivier Panis Monaco 1996.

    1. Exactly! Panis was an underdog for scoring points (back then awarded for 1-6th place), let alone winning the race.

      The Monaco 1996 GP is one of the most iconic rain/catastrophy/plot twist/underdog win races in history.

      1. Absolutely! That race was a classic! Nurburgring 1999 also comes to mind, when Herbert won the European Grand Prix for Stewart. But not as epic as Monaco 96.

        1. Spa 1998 surely is up there as well!

    2. CD (@clipperdael)
      28th June 2023, 19:24

      What a mental race that was. It was all my mate and I talked about the next days at school.
      Years later, must have been around 2000, I bought a couple of VHS tapes of F1 race weekends from the 90’s from some sketchy seller on eBay who had recorded the qualifying and race sessions off the BBC and Eurosport. I paid like 100 of my precious schoolkid money for like five tapes but it was totally worth it to me. Monaco 96 I watched many times, Belgium 95 was another I remember. Easier and cheaper to find these in 2023!

  10. I do love these articles. The fact RaceFans contributors span many decades and we all have different memories of things and different bits of history we’re fond of.

    I’m too young to have seen a Vanwall or an Onyx. But I often find myself indulging in footage and stories. Hill 97’ Hungary, I think it was quite a while later I heard the ‘swishing hydraulics’ thing. At the time I thought it was some terrible defensive work. Heartbreaking for him regardless.

    1. @bernasaurus I would say that Will Wood is perhaps stretching things a bit in his article though – he calls Lotus, Brabham and Cooper “established giants”, but Cooper and Lotus were only 8 years old, having both been founded in 1958, whilst Brabham was only 4 years old (they were founded in 1962), when AAR entered in 1966. It’d be a bit like calling the modern day Haas team an “established giant” because they’ve been around for 7 years.

      It also has to be said that AAR was actually a much better funded organisation than some of those supposed “established giants”. According to Gurney, back in the 1960’s, the AAR team had a budget of “roughly $600,000” for four engines, including the prototype engine, for the 1967 season – to put in perspective how large that budget was for the time, Brabham allocated £10,000, or about $28,000 at the time, for the initial development of the Repco 620 V8 engine in 1966, whilst the initial development budget for the Ford Cosworth DFV was £100,000, or about $280,000.

      In fact, when Ford was approaching Ferrari in the 1960’s about the attempted buyout, Ford were proposing to Enzo Ferrari that his motorsport division could have a budget of about 450 million lire a year, or about $720,000, before needing to apply to the main board of Ford for more money. That kind of implies that Ford thought that Ferrari wouldn’t be spending more than that sort of money on motorsport activities at the time – and that was being split between sportscar racing and Formula 1 in that era.

      For that era, Gurney’s AAR was a well funded team – at least comparable to those supposed “established giants”, if not likely wealthier than at least some of those teams.

  11. Mia Salo winning the 1999 German GP.

    From being dropped by Arrows in 1998, substituting at BAR in its first year – taking their season best result in the process – then sitting on the sidelines again until Schumacher broke his leg, to a rather underwhelming and criticised debut for the Scuderia in Austria… to winning a race!

    Or well… he would have had he not been told to let Irvine past.

    But still.

    1. Oh yeah, I remember how bitter he looked standing on the 2nd place on the podium. I felt for him.

    2. At least Eddie gave him the winners trophy afterwards.

    3. I still wish he’d just said no, and won the race despite then probably being fired! What made it worse was at the end of the season, it didn’t matter as Irvine didn’t win the title anyway.

  12. MB (@muralibhats)
    28th June 2023, 17:34

    Kimi in the Lotus – and fighting WDC till the last race

    1. someone or something
      28th June 2023, 23:33

      That never happened. He was out of mathematical contention at the conclusion of the antepenultimate race in 2012 (ironically after winning said race).
      And in 2013, Vettel crowned himself champion with three races to go, by virtue of distancing Alonso by more points than were left on the table. With regards to Räikkönen, he achieved the same feat at the Japanese Grand Prix, four races before the end of the season.
      And as for calling the 2012/13 Lotus an ‘underdog’, with 24 podium finishes in 39 races, well …

  13. perez first win.

  14. Two races from the 1990s that weren’t mentioned yet:

    Barrichello’s pole position at Spa in 1994 with Jordan

    The triple underdog podium in Canada 1995:

    Alesi’s only win for Ferrari, sided by two Jordans: Barrichello in 2nd and Irvine in 3rd

  15. Brawn GP

    someone could argue it was not a small team but it was a team worth £1

    1. Imagine next year someone buying Haas and turning it to a Johnson GP and winning the title

    2. @qeki Surprised this is not in the list. It’s not just a single race, it’s a whole championship.

  16. 1971 Italian GP, won by Peter Gethin 0.01secs in front of Ronnie Peterson. Francois Cevert, Mike Hailwood and Howden Ganley followed shortly after [0.61 seconds] making it the closest finish in F1 history.

  17. Giancarlo Baghetti, winning the 1961 French Grand Prix on his debut as a GP driver. I’m pretty sure no one anticipated that. He never won another Grand Prix.

    1. That Sharknose drove itself to victory. Forget the hybrid era Mercs, the blown diffusser RBRs (or the present ones), even the McL MP4s, (which dominated the season even more but in great part because of the drivers), the Sharknose was by far the most dominant car ever en F1

  18. For me, the most astounding under-dog win was Tony Brooks in the Connaught at Syracuse, Sicily. Granted, it was not a round of the World Championship, but it was a Formula One race.

    Shows my age, but it has stuck with me!

    Thank you for a wonderful article.

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