Championship anti-climaxes: Other times the main event didn’t settle the title

Formula 1

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Max Verstappen could achieve an unusual feat this weekend by winning a Formula 1 world championship title outside of a grand prix.

The Red Bull driver has a strong chance of becoming a three-times world champion in the sprint race on Saturday.

Until 2021, Formula 1 only awarded points during the main event of a weekend, the grand prix itself. The introduction of points-paying sprint races changed that.

It therefore required unusual circumstances for an F1 title to be awarded outside of a grand prix. It has happened, however, and other series have also seen titles decided in curious ways.

Absent rival

There was a lot of politics and bickering going on at Williams in 1987, with the team’s drivers Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet each wanting to prove a point against each other. The pair largely had the title fight to themselves that year in their dominant Williams-Hondas.

Piquet clinched the 1987 title when Mansell crashed in practice
Piquet held the advantage over Mansell in the points table after the season-opener, and over the course of the first eight races they swapped around in the standings four times. But then Piquet started to build an advantage. He had a run of nine consecutive podium finishes and went into the penultimate round, the Japanese Grand Prix, with a championship lead of 12 points over Mansell.

It was an all-Williams fight for the title going into the first qualifying session on Friday. Trying to wrest the fastest time from Piquet, Mansell crashed heavily, injuring his back and was ruled out of participating in the rest of the weekend. Piquet therefore won the title as his only remaining rival was flown by helicopter to hospital.

Absent champion

A cardboard cut-out of Alex Dunne was crowned British Formula 4 champion at Brands Hatch last year. The real Dunne was at Monza for the penultimate round of the Italian F4 championship.

Dunne faced the dilemma of a date clash while competing for the title in both series. He had a big lead in British F4, but sat third in the Italian standings. Missing the Brands Hatch finale could cost him the title, but he would have no chance of becoming Italian F4 champion unless he headed to Monza.

His gamble paid off, as he became British champion at the same time as moving up to second place in the Italian standings that weekend.

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In qualifying

Bortoleto won this year’s F3 title on a Friday
Modern-day racing does not only award points for more positions than previously, with F1 drivers only scoring by finishing in the top six for many years, but also for other achievements such as pole position, fastest lap or most positions gained.

Last month, Fernando Alonso’s protege Gabriel Bortoleto became FIA Formula 3 champion in qualifying at Monza after his two title rivals Paul Aron and Pepe Marti failed to take pole. They sat 38 and 39 points respectively behind Bortoleto going into the weekend, with 39 points available to score. As pole position was worth two points, it meant Bortoleto had to remain 38 points ahead at the end of the session to clinch the title.

Bortleto’s title was sealed when the qualifying session was red-flagged with 10 minutes to go, securing pole position for Oliver Goethe. Aron was third at the time, Bortoleto fifth and Marti only 16th. Bortoleto was informed of his success as he returned to the pits, with both the weekends’ races still ahead of him.

Drugs test

There have been several cases of championships being decided by post-race stewarding decisions. But perhaps none as notorious as the 2002 Formula 3000 championship – the Formula 2 of its day.

A failed drug test cost Enge the 2002 F3000 crown
To this day, Tomas Enge maintains his innocence that he did not knowingly expose himself to any marijuana ahead of the race at the Hungaroring in August that year. But the random drugs test he failed that weekend ultimately led to him losing the title – after he had won it on-track.

Enge took victory from pole at the Hungaroring which put him on top of the points table for the first time and with only two races of the season left to go. He finished fourth in the next round at Spa-Francorchamps, dropping him one point behind Sebastien Bourdais.

The news of Enge’s failed drugs test broke ahead of the Monza season finale and he endured a stressful weekend and race to finish second and take the title. However it remained unclear what the consequences of his failed drugs test might be.

Eventually the punishment came: the stewards disqualified him from the Hungaroring race. Enge had spent just under three weeks as champion, and the changed result meant the title now went to Bourdais.

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More post-race wrangles

F1 has previously seen doubt hang over championships for days, even weeks, after the final race.

In 2007 McLaren’s appeal of the results of the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix meant Kimi Raikkonen had to wait 26 days after the final race to be confirmed as champion.

McLaren launched an appeal after post-race investigations into fuel temperatures in the cars of several teams had led to no penalties. The stakes were high, and a penalty would have benefited McLaren, as their driver Lewis Hamilton had lost the title by a single point and finished the race behind several of the investigated cars.

Some 14 years and seven championships later, Hamilton found himself on the losing end of another post-race row, and a much more explosive one. Now driving for Mercedes, his team protested the result of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after race director Michael Masi arrange a final lap restart in contravention of the rules, and Hamilton lost the lead, win and championship to Max Verstappen in deeply controversial circumstances.

Both Mercedes’ protests were rejected by stewards, but they retained the right of appeal, and over the next few days the team mulled its options. Eventually it chose not to force the issue, deciding that the FIA’s only available course of action was to cancel the result of the race entirely, which would not restore Hamilton’s lost title. Verstappen was confirmed as champion and, months later, Masi lost his job.

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However Hamilton hasn’t always had the raw end of the deal when it comes to post-race decisions settling championships. He took his final title win before reaching F1 in just those circumstances.

In the penultimate race of the 2006 GP2 (now Formula 2) season at Monza, Nelson Piquet Jnr reduced Hamilton’s lead to six points by holding him off in a battle for second place. There were seven points available to score in the next day’s decider, so Piquet had to win from seventh on the grid and take fastest lap (which delivered that seventh point) to have any hope of beating Hamilton to the title.

But then stewards noticed that Giorgio Pantano, who had claimed the bonus point for fastest lap, had done so while failing to slow for yellow flags. His lap time was deleted and Hamilton was found to have set the next-quickest time. Hours after the race, Hamilton picked up an extra point and, with it, the title.

Cancelled finale

Jamie Chadwick became a three-times champion of the short-lived W Series last year when it collapsed with three races left to run.

That meant three drivers were denied the opportunity to see if they could overhaul Chadwick in the standings – Beitske Visser, Alice Powell and Abbi Pulling. With a points lead equivalent to two race wins it seemed unlikely that Chadwick would end up in a losing position.

Gasly missed his third F1 start for doomed title bid
Pierre Gasly had more reason to feel hard done by when a cancellation cost him the chance to win the 2017 Japanese Super Formula title. He had been signed by Toro Rosso mid-season to make his Formula 1 debut in place of the struggling Daniil Kvyat, but the team decided to send Gasly back to Japan for the Super Formula finale at Suzuka, where he had a chance of winning the title.

Then Typhoon Lan hit Japan on the weekend of Gasly’s Super Formula return. Heavy rain delayed practice, caused the cancellation of one qualifying session and then the abandonment of the event entirely as conditions worsened.

Gasly had been just half a point behind Hiroaki Ishiura at the top of the standings, with four other drivers in contention to be champion. But none of them got a chance to see if they could beat Ishiura once the series organiser decided to cancel the weekend’s two races and not reschedule them.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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19 comments on “Championship anti-climaxes: Other times the main event didn’t settle the title”

  1. If he does this weekend it will be said that Max has never won a championship in a conventional way.

    1. The conventional way being out-scoring the other drivers in points earned throughout a season, of course.

      Which he did, all three times.

      1. @sjaakfoo Lighten up

        1. Indeed. Maybe something ‘triggered’ @sjaakfoo. :D

      2. I think you misunderstood as well, for another reason than the other poster: yes, verstappen outscored people and no one is saying his titles aren’t deserved, BUT the circumstances where they were mathematically settled were all strange: 2021 with a controversial stewards decision behind while behind SC and a last lap of the season overtake, 2022 with the mess about leclerc cutting the track at last lap and getting a post race penalty, plus the controversy about verstappen getting full points or not since due to heavy rain the race only went half distance, give or take, and then 2023 where potentially he can win it during a sprint, that’s the point that was being made.

        I have to say it’s quite unlucky to constantly win titles in controversial circumstances.

    2. Very few will say so, just a vocal small group.

      1. Omg stop already with the nonsense. The championship was won over the course of the season and Max was outstanding.

        1. And ofc you misunderstood, don’t you see he disagrees with the OP? What he’s saying is that very few will say verstappen won all his titles controversially.

  2. In 1983, Tom Walkinshaw Racing dominated the British Saloon Car Championship and Steve Soper won the championship. However, Frank Sytner protested the legality of the Rovers they had been driving, accusing them of running an illegal fuel injection system, and his protest was upheld six months later, disqualifying all three Rovers from the championship and gifting the title to Andy Rouse. I believe he actually won the 1984 title in the same week as he won the 1983 title!

  3. All this is interesting but AFAIAC the 2023 F1 championship decider was Miami, anybody had a doubt after that?

    1. Ofc not, but decider in the article here is meant as in “mathematically”, if verstappen had got a silverstone 1999-like crash just after miami, I’d have bet on perez for the title for example.

    2. Well, assuming the crash would result in missing many races ofc, since safety improved massively.

  4. Jack Brabham won the 1959 championship by pushing his car over the finish line at Sebring, having run out of fuel.

    Also an outside chance this article will need to be updated in the future, to add Felipe Massa’s 2008 title…

  5. John Surtees and Ayrton Senna won the 1964 and 1988 world championships respectively in odd circumstances: Both were outscored by rivals (Graham Hill and Alain Prost) but won the title due to the dropped scores rule.

  6. Ah, that Lewis 2007 bid. What an epic Championship that would have been. I certainly cheered for him. Wasn’t that gravel trap on pit entry in China thing decisive? Such a pity. I can’t recall a rookie winning a championship and would have liked to see it back then. (but maybe some one with better historic memory might point out a rookie winning a championship?)

    1. In Formula 1, it has never happened (Farina in 1950 certainly doesn’t count). In other series, some examples that spring to mind are Joachim Winkelhock in 1993, Gabriele Tarquini in 1994, Frank Biela in 1996 and Laurent Aiello in 1999 although they all shouldn’t really count as they were very experienced in other touring car categories beforehand. Perhaps a better example would be Will Hoy in 1991 as he had done some races before but never a full season in a category as high-profile as the BTCC. Rene Rast also won the 2017 DTM title in his first full season, although he had raced in other big categories previously.

      I think the most impressive example would be Jose Maria Lopez in the 2014 World Touring Car Championship. He joined Citroen, with the most competitive car, and was teammate to Yvan Muller, four-time WTCC champion (as well as Sebastien Loeb who was a rookie in the series). Lopez had raced once in the WTCC before, in Argentina in 2013, but had predominantly only raced in Argentine touring car series up to this point. And yet in his first WTCC season, Lopez took the championship comfortably ahead of Muller. He then repeated the trick in 2015 and 2016 to prove it was no fluke, and then quit the WTCC when Citroen subsequently pulled out.

      1. Wow. Never heard of Jose Maria Lopez accomplishment before but that’s seriously impressive.

        1. Remember when he made it onto an F1 entry list?

    2. It’s a shame indeed, hamilton had one of the most impressive rookie years and would’ve been great if he won that, his 2008 season was much less impressive by comparison, and it was massa’s best season.

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