Top 10: World championship battles: Part 1

After the fantastically entertaining end to the 2012 season, perhaps it’s time to look back and see how 2012 compares to some classic seasons in F1’s history.

Part 1 of this article deals with the 1958-1981 seasons:

1958 – Mike Hawthorn vs Stirling Moss

The 1958 season was an amazing spectacle for several reasons. The first two races were won by the rear-engined Cooper team, spelling a new revolution in F1 car design. Sheer driver talent was able to out-pace the fastest cars on the grid, as shown by Stirling Moss. And Bernie Ecclestone entered into qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix. I’m not joking.

After switching teams in Monaco, and retiring from 2nd place after a duel with Hawthorn, Moss was able to take his first win of the season in Zandvoort. However, a series of engine failures scuppered his charge, and allowed Mike to draw equal to his compatriot in the standings.

Silverstone proved to be a definitive race of that year – despite battling with all his heart, Stirling’s Vanwall ruled him out of a home victory.

A dominate drive in Portugal – by an astonishing 5 minutes – gave Stirling a chance, but a gearbox failure in Monza ended all hopes.  To this day, he is regarded as “the best driver never to win a world championship” for this very season. He did enter the final race with a chance of victory, and did everything he could to secure it – another crushing victory and fastest lap – but Hawthorn’s 2nd place sealed his fate.

1961 – Phil Hill vs Wolfgang von Trips

1961 saw the introduction of the 1.5 litre engine formula, which hugely benefited the Ferrari team, allowing them to win their first every constructor’s championship. Stirling Moss was still able to showcase his talents though, holding off the clearly faster Ferraris in Monaco to take his only win of the season.

After that though, the battle was clearly between teammates Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. For the next two races, these two drivers finished 1-2 with less than a second between them each time. Still, they weren’t just battling with each other – Hill had a spectacular 20-lap battle against the Lotus of Lim Clark at Zandvoort.

At Reims-Geaux, when Von Trips retired with an engine failure, the race was Hill’s for the taking. 16 seconds in the lead, he spun at the Thillois chicane, and then clashed with Stirling Moss, ruining any chances of victory. Amazingly, despite his car being in the middle of the track, Hill jumped out and push-started his Ferrari 156, running over his own foot in the process. Despite his sheer bravery, he lost the chance to finish in the points, and the two were still separated by only a point.

Von Trips led home Hill at Silverstone, to sneak back into the lead of the championship. However, it proved to be his last ever Grand Prix victory. Moss prevented a Ferrari win in the “Green Hell” of the Nurburgring, but the team still secured an easy constructor’s title. But, the hopes of an incredible climax to a year-long driver battle were cut short, when Von Trips was killed in a crash at Monza, handing the win and championship to Hill.

Ferrari were devastated, and pulled out of the last race out of respect. It was a horrible ending to what should have been Ferrari’s greatest year in Formula One.

1964 – John Surtees vs Graham Hill vs Jim Clark

1964 saw a strange points system ultimately decide the world championship, where the title winner hadn’t scored the most points.

Here, Graham Hill had scored one more point than John Surtees, but since only the top 6 results were counted, a 3rd placed finish in Silverstone for Surtees swung the title back into his hands. Hill, on the other hand, took 1st and 2nd more often, but not 6 times. Jim Clark, meanwhile, was all set to win the championship without the points system, but the final race of the season put pay to that.

One of the most dramatic title conclusions ever took place in Mexico City, where Hill (39 points) led Surtees (34) and Clark (32 points) entering the weekend. Having dominated the whole weekend, Clark claimed pole position, and sailed into the distance during the race. Hill was battling with Lorenzo Bandini for 3rd place, but the Ferrari driver slammed into the back of Hill’s cooper, causing him to spin. A cracked exhaust crippled his car, causing him to drop down the order, and seemingly out of the championship.

On the second last lap, the title was in Clark’s hands, before his engine seized and his Lotus slowed to a halt. The title swung back into Hill’s favour… but not for long.

Realizing the situation, the Ferrari team furiously signalled to Bandini, telling him to slow down and allow teammate Surtees past. The Italian did so entering the final lap, and Surtees inherited 2 extra points, leapfrogging him over Hill by a single point.

If it was done today, it would be called ugly, unsporting and unfair – and rightly so. But as Ferrari have proved to this very day, they will do anything to their drivers to win the championship.

1976 – James Hunt vs Niki Lauda

1976 was the year that Tyrrell entered their bizarre 6-wheeler, which remains the most controversial F1 invention ever. It also saw the now-legendary battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, which threw Formula 1 into the modern era.

The season began with Lauda absolutely crushing the opposition – 4 wins and 2 second places from the first 6 races spoke for itself. At the time, Hunt’s second career victory in Spain was rescinded in controversial circumstances, with the FIA stating that Hunt’s car was too wide after the race. McLaren counter-claimed that this was due to the rear tyres expanding, and the win was handed back – 2 months later.

Following a win in France, Hunt was disqualified again in Silverstone. A red flag stopped the race on lap 1, and Hunt rejoined the race in the spare car, which was illegal at the time. Ferrari has lodged the appeal to the FIA, despite the fact that one of their drivers had done the same thing.

This time, the victory was gone for good. Lauda had gained 18 points from the post-race decision, and was now a near-unassailable 23 points ahead of the McLaren driver. However, the championship was turned on its head at the Nurburgring, where a massive high-speed crash for Lauda nearly ended his life, and shocked the paddock to its core.

Ferrari withdrew from the following race out of respect, and the focus was on Hunt to reduce the points gap. He delivered, with a 4th place and victory in Niki’s absence. Once the Ferrari driver had recovered from his horrific crash, the deficit was only 2 points.

In the following races, Hunt thrived while Lauda struggled. Niki’s troubled became crystal clear after the penultimate race at Watkins Glen where, after fighting to stay 3rd, Lauda removed his helmet to reveal a balaclava soaked in blood.

In the final race of the season, torrential rain and fog caused huge concern amongst the drivers, particularly Lauda. Nevertheless, the race was started, but the title battle had a huge twist – Lauda coasted back to the pits, claiming “My life is worth more than a title”.

This left Hunt needing only 4th to secure the championship. He was leading the race with 13 laps to go, when a drying track worked to the advantage of the cars behind. A disastrous tyre failure forced James to pit, dropping him to 5th. He chased after the drivers ahead, and with only 3 laps to go, swept past Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni to win his only world championship.

1981 – Alan Jones vs Jacques Laffite vs Carlos Reutemann vs Nelson Piquet vs Alain Prost

The title says it all – this was the first championship ever to have 5 drivers battling for the title with two races to go. It also saw an astonishing 7 different race winners in only 16 races.

The season began in fraught circumstances. The Concorde Agreement was only signed 10 days before the first race, without which many teams would have not entered. Goodyear dropped out as tyre supplier in the preceding December, so drivers struggled massively in the opening races adjusting to the new Michelin rubber. A late ban on side skirts meant that the cars were changed immensely throughout the year. All of this led to an unprecedented amount of unpredictability.

Added to this was an inter-team rivalry, as Carlos Reutemann refused to hand the lead over to Williams teammate and team leader Alan Jones in Jacarepagua. Jones not showing up on the podium signalled a fraught relationship between the two from then on.

The Spanish Grand Prix that year saw an intense battle fought between 5 drivers, as Gilles Villeneuve held them all off for one of his greatest victories, and his first in 2 years. However, he was unable to participate in the 5-way title battle, which whittled down to three drivers by the final race.

Entering the race weekend, Reutemann led Piquet by a single point, with Laffite another 6 points off. At the start of the race, Carlos immediately began to suffer from a failing gearbox, slipping to 5th by lap 2. An ill-handling car meant that Laffite was unable to keep up with the frontrunners, and he slid out of contention.

Piquet held 5th place, which initially appeared as if it wouldn’t be enough. However, Reutemann’s gearbox proved to be decisive, with the Argentinian dropping to 8th with only 7 laps to go, handing the title lead back to Piquet. The two points for 5th place would be enough – if he was able to stay there.

The oppressive heat and anti-clockwise nature of the Caesar’s Palace track was torturing the drivers, and Nelson’s head was visibly rolling about in the cockpit. He just about made it around the final laps, but had to take 15 minutes to recover from heat exhaustion before taking the podium. Piquet’s struggles meant that the title was undecided until the very last corner – but it wasn’t the last time that this happened.

Part 2 of this article will be up soon.

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