The longest season in Formula 1 history will go down to the wire in Abu Dhabi in a week’s time with Lewis Hamilton having a real challenge on his hands to defend his title. Nico Rosberg only needs to finish on the podium to take the 2016 F1 crown which should be a very doable task for the German.
But as we’ve seen in the past, it’s rarely a straightforward time when the championship goes down to the final race.
So that got me thinking, which have been the best title deciders in F1?
I decided to pick out my personal top ten and rank them from best to worst and explain why they were all special. If we have a race in Abu Dhabi like any of these the Yas Marina circuit will have produced a classic.
10th 1996: And I’ve got to stop, because I’ve got a lump in my throat
In 1996 Williams had by far the best car on the grid and their two drivers were the only ones who could realistically win the title. Hill looked like he had the title wrapped up but a Villeneuve win in Portugal threw a tad bit of doubt into the mix. This was all the more impressive by the Indy Car World Champion as this was only his first season in F1.
Jacques claimed pole at the final round in Japan with his teammate alongside him but the British driver took the lead into the first corner as Villeneuve made an awful start. The Canadian was sixth by the end of the first lap and had a real job on to catch Damon.
Hill was showing signs of nerves and was even nearly overtaken by Gerhard Berger and Villeneuve was making ground up. But Jacques’ wheel fell off on lap 37 and put him out of the race. The title would be Damon’s no matter what happened to him.
The race wasn’t too special, even if Villeneuve somehow caught and passed Hill the latter would’ve had to have finished in about fifth or sixth for there to have been the first Canadian world champion. But crowing the first son of a world champion to become a champion himself was something rather unique.
Will we see another on Sunday?
9th 1997: You hit the wrong part of him, my friend
Next year’s battle involved Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve (son of Gilles). Going into the final race Schumacher was just one point ahead of the Canadian and both had to be on their A-game to get a good result in Jerez.
Ferrari employed very Italian tactics at the previous race in Japan but the Scuderia technically did nothing wrong. Add that to the fact that Villeneuve ended up being disqualified from the race and there was a lot of anger in the Williams camp.
Qualifying also deserves a mention as three drivers set the exact same time (to the thousandth of a second!) for pole position, which I don’t believe has happened before or since.
Villeneuve started from pole but failed to make it count as Schumacher took the lead early on. The German retained the lead for most of the first two-thirds of the race but Jacques was catching the Ferrari. On lap 48 he attempted to overtake Schumacher and momentarily got ahead before Michael did something that was somewhat predictable. He swerved violently right into the Williams’ side-pod, broke his suspension and retired. It was a tactical gamble that didn’t pay off as Villeneuve’s car was still race-worthy.
Jacques ended up finishing third and securing his sole F1 title, Schumacher was disqualified from the championship in utter disgrace. This was undoubtedly the lowest point in the German’s otherwise stellar career.
But this wasn’t the first time that Schumacher had been involved in a controversial title fight…
8th 1998: Hakkinen v Schumacher round 1
The following year Schumacher was again involved in the title showdown, this time with McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen. Hakkinen had never even won a race before the aforementioned European GP in Jerez but had a stunning season in 1998 and lead the standings by four points going into the final race in Japan.
The qualifying battle between the two protagonists was more exciting than some of 2016’s Grand Prix and Schumacher took pole by just a tenth of a second. Nobody was within a second of these two and Irvine was nearly 2 seconds behind his teammate.
They were both absolutely on it that weekend, there was no room for error.
After an aborted start the cars lined up for the second time on the grid but the yellow flags waved once more for a stalled car. Incredibly it was the pole man, which meant that his scarlet Ferrari would be gracing the back of the grid. Third time was the charm and the grid finally got away without any more problems. Hakkinen lead from Irvine while Schumacher had a mammoth task to get up to the front but he sensationally overtook ten cars on the first lap to get up to twelfth.
Schumacher was going through the field like a hot knife through butter until he hit a stumbling block in the form of two of his old friends; Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill (more on him later). Suzuka is a notoriously hard track to overtake on and Hill was never going to make it easy for the Ferrari to get up into the points. By the time that the pit stops had been carried out Schumacher was over half a minute behind race leader Mika Hakkinen and his title chances were looking slim at best.
And then, on lap 32, it was all over.
Schumacher’s right-rear tyre blew because he ran over debris and he was out. An incredible charge from last to third was all for nothing. That’s racing.
Hakkinen would win the next championship as well after Schumacher broke his leg in Silverstone. The two would again duke it out in Japan in the year 2000 with Schumacher winning Ferrari’s first drivers’ championship for 21 years. And then the rest, as they say, is history.
7th 1994: A championship won by default
With the tragic passing of Ayrton Senna in San Marino the door was very much open for a new champion to take their place at the top of the sport. There were two leading candidates; Damon Hill, the late Brazilian’s teammate and Michael Schumacher of Benetton. Schumacher had started the season in incredible form, winning six of the first seven races. However, through a variety of penalties and improved form from Damon the title went to the final round, the Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide. Schumacher had an advantage of just 1 point but started in front of Hill on the grid. He converted his advantage into a lead with Hill not far behind but unable to challenge.
On lap 36 Schumacher made an uncharacteristic mistake and ran wide, hitting the wall on the tight street circuit. This possibly damaged his car but we’ll never know because what happened next has gone down in infamy in F1.
Hill didn’t see the accident, he only saw the Benetton coming back onto the track, and attempted to get past the German. But Schumacher wasn’t having any of it and collided with Damon, taking himself out of the race (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Hill tried to continue but his suspension was too damaged and he was in tears.
Some say it was a racing incident, others say that Michael drove into Hill. But the history books will always say that, that day Schumacher won the first of his seven titles and would defend his crown the following year. F1 is a cruel mistress at times.
6th 2007: A rookie world champion?
Now onto a more recent confrontation:
The 2007 title was contested between three drivers; defending double world champion Fernando Alonso, rookie Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s new hope, Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton was simply amazing, he showed no signs of being in his first season of F1 at all, no mistakes whatsoever. That was until he ran into the gravel trap in China anyway. But all was far from lost for Hamilton as he had a four point lead on his teammate Alonso and an eight on Raikkonen (remember, it was just 10 points for a win back then).
Home favourite Massa got pole from Hamilton, Raikkonen and Alonso but the order would immediately shake up off of the grid. Raikkonen overtook Hamilton into the first corner which unsettled the Briton and allowed Alonso to go through at the bottom of the Senna S. Lewis was desperate to make up lost ground and lunged his teammate into turn 4. But he locked up, ran wide got all sorts of rubbish on his tyres and fell to eighth.
It couldn’t have been much worse for the title favourite after a few kilometres.
Hamilton got up to sixth before a bizarre gearbox issue sent him down to eighteenth. Lewis proceeded to drive the wheels off his car but finished in seventh and a lap down to the Ferraris. The red cars pulled out a huge lead, swapped places and Raikkonen won his first title, which given his previous seasons was fully deserved. Alonso finished almost a minute off the lead in third, nobody could touch the Scuderia that day.
Raikkonen won the championship by a point from Hamilton and Alonso, one of the closest title races ever.
5th 1964: Loco in Mexico
This is a story that often doesn’t get told because it was well before F1 was broadcast live on TV to the masses. Nevertheless it was an amazing race with a lot of twists and turns.
Going into the final round at Mexico three drivers could still win the world title; John Surtees, Graham Hill and Jim Clark. Hill lead on 39 (despite actually recording 41), Surtees had 34 and Clark had an outside shot with 30. Clark qualified his Lotus on pole (as usual) Surtees was in fourth and Hill in sixth. Clark kept his lead at the start but he needed his two title rivals to finish outside of the points to have a chance. Hill had gotten up to third with Surtees well back behind them in fifth. Hill would still be winning the title if things stayed as there were. But they didn’t.
Hill was ran into by Bandini, who was Surtees’ teammate, and spun. He lost a few places but worse was to come as he lost power due to a broken exhaust and slowly sunk down the field. With Hill out of the points Clark now had the title in his hands (the points system was weird back then). But then more drama as with just one lap to go Clark’s engine packed up and Surtees won the title by a point when Bandini let him through.
I would’ve loved to watch this live, it sounded like an amazing race.
If this battle happened today the media campaign against Bandini would’ve been relentless but as this was the sixties everybody got on with their lives instead.
John Surtees interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyn1n2R1a-g
4th 1986: AND LOOK AT THAT!!!
22 years later three drivers were again fighting for the title in the final race, this time in Adelaide, Australia. Just like 1996 the Williams was the car to beat with their two drivers, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet the favourites for the title. Defending champion Alain Prost had done brilliantly to remain in the title hunt and was actually ahead of Piquet in the standings.
Mansell had a 6 point advantage over Prost and a 7 point lead on Piquet. He also had the edge in qualifying, claiming pole ahead of his Brazilian teammate. In the race he gave up the lead and fell back to 4th, behind Rosberg, Senna and Piquet but he was still in the championship position. After 23 laps Piquet spun losing a few places in the process and Prost got a puncture which forced him to pit and drop back even further.
Things were looking very good for Mansell. 25 laps to go and the three contenders were running 2nd, 3rd and 4th and when Rosberg retired Nigel was up to 3rd, the place that he needed to win the title. But then disaster struck:
And the great Murray Walker shouted the words “And look at that! And colossally that’s Mansell, that is Nigel Mansell.” so loud that he nearly broke the microphone for Mansell’s tyre had exploded at one of the fastest points of the track he was out. Now the advantage swung towards Piquet but the Brazilian pit to prevent the problem that afflicted his teammate reoccurring. Prost lead and Prost won despite Piquet’s best efforts to catch the Frenchman. He now joined an elite group of drivers to become back-to-back world champions.
This is why the likes of Bernie Ecclestone consider Alain Prost the greatest ever driver.
3rd – 1976: Hunt v Lauda
If you’ve seen the movie Rush then you’ll know how special this title battle was. I honestly believe that this is the best title fight in Formula 1 history as forty years later this still hasn’t been matched for drama.
To understand the final race of the season you need to have a rundown of the rest of the year.
After just six races being completed defending champion Niki Lauda had built up an immense 36 point lead. That may not sound like much nowadays but back then it was just nine points for a win. By the time that the German Grand Prix rolled around four races later the Austrian still had a sizable lead of 23 points over McLaren’s James Hunt.
But then, the green hell struck Lauda in one of F1’s nastiest crashes.
Lauda lost control of his Ferrari, speared into the barriers and was collected by two cars. This ruptured the fuel tank and, despite the best efforts of his fellow drivers, culminated in Niki’s near-death experience. To add insult to injury Hunt would win the race and reduce the Austrian’s lead to 2 points when he would make a miraculous return in Monza, the home of Ferrari.
Make no mistake about it Lauda would’ve never passed the red tape of F1 today to race, his balaclava was apparently as red as his car with blood every time he got out of it. Lauda would go onto finish an incredible fourth with Hunt retiring, much to the delight of the Tifosi.
The Race itself:
Hunt went into the final race three points behind but survival was very much the aim as Noah would’ve complained it was too wet. With the cautious nature of F1 these days (and rightfully so given recent events) I don’t think there’s any way that they’d race in those conditions nowadays. The pressure of a worldwide audience was likely too much for the organisers to not start the race. Then again, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of it being that wet in the desert in 7 days time.
Lauda was incensed at the decision to start the race and he was even less happy at starting behind Hunt. James Hunt took the advantage at the start and took the lead and just few laps later Lauda withdrew. Hunt now only needed the three points for finishing in fourth to win the title and he was still leading. Branbilla tried to overtake but he spun off and McLaren now had a 1-2 but the track was drying and a tyre change was required. However in true Hunt-like fashion he stayed out and suffered a puncture and lost four places, he had to overtake at least one driver to win the title. He did so, getting past Jones and Regazzoni (Lauda’s teammate) to win the title.
Lauda would win the next year’s championship and later another in 1984 while Hunt would fade into F1 obscurity before becoming Murray Walker’s partner in the commentary box.
A mention should also go to Mario Andretti who lapped the entire field in a sensational drive.
2nd – 2012: The battle for the youngest triple World Champion
The 2012 championship was amazing, there’s no two ways about it and it got a great sendoff in Brazil. Fernando Alonso had driven one of the finest campaigns I’ve ever seen, he barely put a wheel wrong all year in his average Ferrari car and somehow still had a chance to win the title against Vettel’s Red Bull. Two double world champions but there could only be one winner.
It was dry at the start but it wouldn’t last, Interlagos being one of F1’s less predictable venues. Neither contender qualified particularly well, Vettel in 4th and Alonso all the way down in 8th! To win the title Alonso had to at minimum claim a podium to have any chance, this would be a tall order from the Spaniard.
Off the start Alonso was predictably aggressive, climbing to fifth, while Vettel dropped down to seventh. Despite still being in a championship position Vettel wasn’t taking any prisoners, cutting in front of Bruno Senna, spinning his Red Bull and falling to the back of the field. He had substantial floor damage but still continued nevertheless.
Alonso then put a stunning overtake on both his teammate and Mark Webber in the sister Red Bull going into the Senna-S. Alonso was now in championship position and Vettel threw caution to the wind. But just a few laps later his missed his braking point, ran wide and allowed Nico Hulkenberg through. Rain began to fall and Vettel was slicing through the field like his idol, Michael Schumacher, did fourteen years ago. Alonso, Vettel and many others decided to pit for intermediate tyres but crucially Button and the Hulk did not. This paid dividends in a few laps as the rain failed to intensify and the dries were still good enough. That meant another pit stop was required and those drivers lost around 40 seconds to the leading pair. Hulkenberg then did the unthinkable and overtook Button to put his Force India into the lead, incredible.
A lifeline was then thrown to those cars that pit earlier as the Safety Car was called out. Sensationally, Vettel was now directly behind Alonso after spinning at the fourth corner he had overtaken seventeen cars in twenty-two laps. I don’t care what car you’re in, that’s amazing and with damage, no less!
At the restart Vettel began to drop back, Kobayashi and Massa both overtook him but it was alright for Vettel, with Alonso still off the podium he was in a good enough place to win the title. Alonso was a good distance behind top three and his title chances were waning but on lap 54 that all changed. Hulkenberg attempted to overtake Hamilton for the lead but the German crashed into the McLaren and sent the British driver out of the race. This later gave him a drive through and spoiled what had been a fantastic drive.
The rain then started again and Vettel was the first one in for wet weather tyres but as his radio wasn’t working his pit crew weren’t ready and this lost him time. The German was down in seventh after the stops and Alonso had taken second place after Massa let him through (not for first time). Alonso was now in the championship position but couldn’t realistically improve as Button was about 30 seconds down the road. But Vettel got the sixth place he needed to win the title and who gave it him? None other than Schumi himself in his final race in the sport.
The rain intensified and Di Resta brought out the safety car when he crashed going up the hill on the pit straight. Those final laps at a set pace must’ve been the most agonising in his life as Sebastian has won the title.
What a race.
1st – 2008: IS THAT GLOCK!?!
Is anyone actually surprised that this made the top of the list?
I don’t care what anybody else says, this is the best championship decider in F1 ever.
It was so incredible that this may even be the best title decider in any sport, not just Formula one. Only Manchester City’s final minute winner in 2012 springs to mind as a challenger to that in my mind.
Lewis Hamilton very much had a point to prove after being so unlucky to miss out on the title the previous year. His only real challenger for the title was Ferrari’s Felipe Massa who would have home advantage for the final race. Massa absorbed the Brazilian crowd’s energy to claim pole position at Interlagos, Hamilton in a respectable fourth when he required fifth to win the title.
The track was damp at the start and every driver started on the inters with both title challengers retaining their respective positions. Fischella, in an awful Force India, took a gamble onto dry tyres and it paid off, sending him up so far that he likely got a nose-bleed. When the pit stops had shaken out Massa still lead but Hamilton was down in sixth, not good enough for the title.
Hamilton eventually got past Fisi and was up to a championship position once again. The status-quo was more or less maintained until lap 63 when rain began to fall. Everybody had to pit for wet weather tyres but crucially Timo Glock gambled and stayed out as the rain wasn’t too intense and he had nothing to lose in an under-performing Toyota.
On lap 69 of 71 Hamilton was running in fifth but Vettel was all over his heels and would love to hand a title to Maranello. Robert Kubica had a horrible race but now had a good amount of pace and unlapped himself from Vettel and then Hamilton. However, this threw the British driver off-line and Vettel sneaked through to send the crowd into bedlam. If stayed like this Massa would become the fourth Brazilian world champion and with just a few laps to go it looked like that would happen.
Hamilton tried everything to stay with Vettel but the Toro Rosso driver was showing his class, much like when he won in Italy earlier in the season and he couldn’t keep with him. It was all over, Massa crossed the line the winner and the 2008 world champion.
Hamilton was literally miles back, he went into the final lap behind Vettel and about 5 seconds behind Glock with the German still doing competitive times. Lewis entered the final corner and to this day I still have to do a double take of what happened. A red and white Toyota was crawling around the last lap, it was Glock.
The commentators were going mental, I was going mental, most of Britain’s F1 fan-base was going mental. Ferrari had celebrated prematurely because Lewis Hamilton had become the youngest ever world champion at just twenty-three years old by a single point.
Eight years ago I was pretty new to F1 and I was a die-hard Hamilton fan but I had total respect for Felipe after that race. He took that title defeat with dignity and passion, just like he did the same when he retired in Brazil last week. Lewis won the title but that day Massa won the hearts of millions worldwide.
If you look at the 2008 race in isolation it wasn’t that special, Massa getting a win, Alonso gets a great podium and Hamilton scrapes an underwhelming fifth place at the last corner. But when you put the race into context, it’s one of the best Grand Prix of all time.
So why is this the best title decider ever? Because it went down to the last proper corner of the last lap of the last race. You cannot get any later than that.
I can hear you all now; “George, why haven’t you included 1988, 89 or 90?” It’s true that they were great title deciders but they weren’t the final race of the season so they don’t qualify for this list. There are many other deciders and rarely were they without drama but this is a top 10 list so some didn’t make the cut.
But what’s your favourite title decider in F1? One of the 10 I mentioned or a different one? Tweet me @GeorgeyHowson95 and we can have a good chat about it.