Closest Championship Wins in F1 History
“Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose”
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This quote by the legendary Ayrton Senna is one of the most famous ones in sports. Many a coach, manager, and captains have used this line to motivate their teams and even themselves, to strive to achieve their potential. To fire themselves up when the competition heats up.
However, in the world of sports, there can be only one winner. One man-or one team-who gets to lift the trophy and pop that bottle of champagne. They are the ones who kept their cool when it mattered and one-upped their closest rivals.
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Formula One has also seen its fair share of exciting and close calls-where the answer to the question “who will lift the cup” was left to the last second of the last race.
Here are some of the closest nail-biting F1 cup wins of all time, where the point difference was 3 or less-
- Emerson Fittipaldi, 1974 – won by 3 points versus Clay Regazzoni
Fittipaldi and Regazzoni had an amazing season, going neck-to-neck in every race. Both the drivers had got seven podiums each by the time of the last race-day, at the Watkins Glen circuit in the US. They were even level on points.
On the penultimate day, Fittipaldi and Regazzoni started at 8 and 9 positions respectively. The race was tight, but Regazzoni was having trouble handling his car, and even changing tyres twice made no difference. In the latter half of the race, Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter retired, promoting Fittipaldi to fourth. But that was all he needed, as Regazzoni crossed the line at 11 position.
- Ayrton Senna, 1988 – won by 3 points versus Alain Prost
1988 was the breakthrough year for Senna, as he won his first Championship, pipping the in-form Alain Prost by three points.
Senna won the championship even though he did not score the most points over the course of the season. This was due to only the points gained in each racers’ best 11 races being counted. Thus, even though Prost won seven races and came second in seven more, Senna won by virtue of having better finishes.
- Sebastian Vettel, 2012 – won by 3 points versus Fernando Alonso
Vettel entered the final race-day in Brazil, 13 points ahead of his closest rival Alonso. While Alonso had an outside chance, most people saw Vettel winning his third Championship in a row without a lot of difficulty.
Coming out on the track, the racers found themselves in a tricky situation. The tarmac was wet, but not so much that they would think to use wet tyres, but also not quite dry, that they would get grip using the slicks. Chaos ensued, with many racers crashing in the first half of the race. Alonso held on, motivated by the erring Vettel behind him. But after many racers retired, Vettel found himself in 6, which was enough to win the Championship, as Alonso lost the race to Jenson Button, coming in second.
- Nelson Piquet, 1983 – won by 2 points vs Alain Prost
Piquet entered the 1983 season finale at the South African GP two points behind leader Alain Prost. The Frenchman had led the standings most of the season, and was expected to win the Championship.
Raceday came, and Piquet led the line at the starting grid, with Prost at 5. Prost fought his way up, reaching third position, till turbo failure on lap 44 forced him out. At that point, finishing in the top four was enough for Piquet to win. And he did just that, coming in at No. 3 and lifting the trophy.
- Alain Prost, 1986 – won by 2 points versus Nigel Mansell, 3 off Nelson Piquet
The 1986 season was the closest in recent history, with Prost, Mansell and Piquet all contending for the championship till the final race-day.
At the start of the race in Adelaide, Mansell was leading Prost by seven points, and very much had the Championship in the bag. But Mansell went through surprisingly bad luck when he blew his tyre, which ended his race. Piquet was leading at the time of the accident, and the team brought him in for an unscheduled pit-stop fearing that the same might happen to him. This led Prost to take the lead, and finish top, winning the Australian Grand Prix and the Championship too.
- Mika Hakkinen, 1999 – won by 2 points versus Eddie Irvine
Hakkinen had won the 1998 Championship, the first of his career, and went through the 1999 season with the same fervor and intensity, hoping to retain his title. But during the course of the season, Eddie Irvine constantly one-upped him.
Hakkinen thus entered the Japanese GP two points behind Irvine. But during the race, Irvine was constantly held up by Hakkinen’s teammate, David Coulthard, and that slowed his pace significantly. Coulthard spun off some time later, allowing Irvine to get past him eventually, but till this time Hakkinen was already far ahead of him. Hakkinen ultimately finished first, looking down at a glowering Irvine standing on the podium at third place.
- Michael Schumacher, 2003 – won by 2 points versus Kimi Raikkonen
The legendary Michael Schumacher was at the peak of his career in F1 when he started the 2003 season, having won the previous three years. As the year went on, it became clear that this season the race for the Championship was a three-horse race, between Schumacher, the Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya and the up-and-coming Kimi Raikkonen.
Schumacher entered the final race at 92 points, 9 points ahead of Raikkonen and 10 ahead of Montoya. Thinking the trophy was in the bag, Schumacher spent most of the race in a contemplative mood, enjoying the race than actually trying to win. But when his team notified him that Raikkonen was moving up to the leader, Schumacher snapped away from his daydream and raced to an eighth-place finish, which was technically enough for him to win the trophy. And win it he did, by two points at the end, as Raikkonen only managed to come in second.
- James Hunt, 1976 – won by 1 point versus Niki Lauda
The 1976 championship is one of the most documented in racing history (re : Rush), and rightly so, as it was a fierce title race. No one could have rightly guessed the winner all season, as it all came down to the wire in Japan.
Reaching the final race day, Lauda was leading Hunt by three points, but extremely bad weather forced the Ferrari driver and many others to retire, citing “undriveable” conditions. But Hunt did not withdraw, and finished the race bagging third position, which was all he needed to claim the spoils.
- Michael Schumacher, 1994 – won by 1 point versus Damon Hill
Although for many the 1994 season was one of the most tragic, due to the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, it was also the breakout season for Schumacher (albeit a controversial one), getting him the first of his record 7 championships.
All throughout the season Damon Hill and Schumacher shared the spoils, bagging podiums one race after another. But on the final day, during the 35 lap, Schumacher appeared to turn in aggressively, momentarily contacting Hill’s car. The German’s car then flung into the air and was badly damaged, ending his race. Hill’s car appeared to be fine, but after a while it was found that his left wishbone was broken, and he subsequently had to retire. This handed Schumi his trophy, amidst cries of foul play by the other teams.
- Kimi Raikkonen, 2007 – won by 1 point versus Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso
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The 2007 season was one of the most competitive in recent history, coming right down to the last day.
Leading up to D-day in Brazil, Raikkonen had bagged 11 podium finishes, while Hamilton had 12 and Alonso also 11. Hamilton was the favorite, as he was seven points ahead of Raikkonen. But during the race, gearbox issues dragged Hamilton back as he finished seventh, and Raikkonen managed to consolidate to win the race and the Cup, leaving both Alonso and Hamilton with bad memories.
- Lewis Hamilton, 2008 – won by 1 point versus Felipe Massa
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Nevertheless, this year proved to be the year of Hamilton. Entering the final race-day in Brazil, Hamilton had a seven point lead over Massa, which meant the former had to at least get 5 position to get his trophy. And get it he did, holding on to that 5 place all throughout the race, handing Massa a bittersweet victory. Lewis Hamilton denied Felipe Massa one of the sweetest championship wins in his career.
- Niki Lauda, 1984 – won by versus Alain Prost
And to top the list, one of the most bizarre and one-off seasons in F1 history concluded when Niki Lauda was declared the Champion by just half a point!
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The reason for this weird occurrence was due to bad weather conditions at the Monaco Grand Prix. The track was extremely wet, leading many racers to slip, skid and slide. Also, the huge variation between surface wetness between the tunnel sections and the outdoor section led to quite a few crashes, and the race was ultimately abandoned. Drivers still on the tarmac gained half points. Lauda had to retire in that race, and though Prost won the race, he only got half the points, which at the end made all the difference. This is why it was one of the closest championship wins.
Perhaps lady luck wanted to give a fitting farewell to Niki Lauda, as he retired from motor-sports after that season.