The Nearly Men: The 10 Drivers Closest to Winning the F1 World Title
This season certainly hasn't been a close title race. But this week back in 1999, a certain Eddie Irvine found himself on the brink of being one of the unlikeliest world champions in recent memory.
The ever colourful and often controversial Ulsterman found himself leading the championship by four points from Mika Hakkinen going into the final round, thanks mainly to the returning Michael Schumacher handing him victory in Malaysia.
But it wasn’t to be, as Hakkinen won the decider in Japan to win by two points and Irvine finished third.
One of the current members of the class of 2013 came closer than anyone ever has to winning the title without actually doing so but he is in good company.
Here are the top 10 drivers to have come within a whisker of winning the world title without actually doing so, ranked by how close they actually came.
Although his greatest achievement is seen as winning a race in a car bearing his own name and founding one of the most successful teams in F1 history, Bruce McLaren also came mighty close to winning the world title.
McLaren lost out to the great Jack Brabham by nine points in a 1960 season that saw him win once and finish on the podium a further five times.
Swede Ronnie Peterson is widely regarded as the most talented driver never to win the world title. Peterson was second behind the dominant Jackie Stewart in 1971, but the title looked set to go down to the wire with three races of the 1978 season remaining.
Mario Andretti led the standings by 12 points going into the Italian Grand Prix but Peterson was caught up in a first corner pile-up that sent his Lotus into the barriers before it came back onto the circuit ablaze. Peterson was freed from the wreckage with only minor burns, but he had severe leg fractures.
Although not thought to be life threatening, Peterson’s condition worsened overnight and he was diagnosed with fat embolism, went into full renal failure and tragically died.
Who knows what he might have gone on to achieve.
10. Jacky Ickx, 1970
One of the most versatile and successful drivers of his day, the popular Jacky Ickx won multiple Le Mans titles but never won the F1 title despite over a decade of trying.
Belgian Ickx won twice in 1969 but eventually finished a distant second to the dominant Jackie Stewart. He would come much closer a year later after moving from Brabham to Ferrari.
Five retirements in the first seven races proved Ickx’s downfall as Austria’s Jochen Rindt won five of the opening eight races. Ickx won in Austria as the home favourite retired. And after Rindt tragically lost his life in Italy, Ickx won two of the final three races to close the final gap to just five points.
But a fourth place finish in America cost him, as Rindt became the sport’s only posthumous world champion.
9. Didier Pironi, 1982
Didier Pironi would have certainly gone on to become France’s first ever world champion had a serious accident in Hockenheim not ended his F1 career.
Pironi had already won twice and finished on the podium on a further four occasions, as he led the 1982 championship by nine points going into the German Grand Prix.
During a wet qualifying session, Pironi ploughed into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault, launching his Ferrari into the air. Although he escaped with his life, he suffered career-ending leg injuries and Keke Rosberg went on to win the title by just five points from the Frenchman despite Pironi missing the final five races.
8. Gilles Villeneuve, 1979
The legendary Gilles Villeneuve came close to becoming a world champion for Ferrari in 1979 but was pipped to the post by teammate Jody Scheckter.
Villeneuve was a fan favourite for his aggressive and often risky daredevil approach to driving and it reaped rewards in South Africa, Long Beach and Watkins Glen. He also finished second on four occasions.
But despite winning as many races, Scheckter’s greater consistency proved decisive and he took the title by four points.
7. Tony Brooks, 1959
Going into the final round of the 1959 season, Tony Brooks, Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham all had the chance of becoming world champion.
Brabham led the championship and was in the box seat going into the final lap in the lead following Moss’s retirement. But he ran out of fuel and had to push his car across the finish line with Brooks passing him for third.
But third was not enough and Brabham won the first of his three championships by a margin of four points.
6. Clay Regazzoni, 1974
Despite notching only one victory to title rival Emerson Fittipaldi’s three, the consistent Clay Regazzoni went into the title decider at Watkins Glen level on points with Fittipaldi.
But Regazzoni endured a nightmare of a weekend having qualified only ninth. And a defective front damper on race day scuppered his chances as Fittipaldi finished fourth to his 11th to take the title by three points.
5. Eddie Irvine, 1999
If anyone had said that Eddie Irvine would be leading the 1999 F1 championship going into the final round before the start of the season, they would have been laughed out of town.
Irvine was seen merely as a supporting act to teammate Michael Schumacher’s title ambitions but all this changed when Schumacher broke his leg in a first lap crash at Silverstone. Irvine had already won the season opener in Australia, and he took up the mantle of team-leader admirably with further victories in Austria, Germany and Malaysia where the returning Schumacher helped allowed him the win.
He led the title race by four points going into the decider in Japan but it all proved to be in vain as Mika Hakkinen won the title decider to pip the Ulsterman by two points.
4. Carlos Reutemann, 1981
Like Eddie Irvine, Argentine Carlos Reutemann went into the title decider of his greatest season leading the championship standings.
He had won only two races to title rival Nelson Piquet’s three but had scored five other podium finishes to give him the narrowest advantage.
Alas, the pressure was all too much, and Reutemann endured a nightmare race in Caesars Palace to finish eighth despite starting from pole as fifth place for Piquet to seal the first of his three drivers’ titles by a single point.
3. Stirling Moss, 1958
Universally recognised as the greatest driver never to win the world championship, Stirling Moss was runner-up on no fewer than four occasions.
Three times Moss was runner-up to the great Juan Manuel Fangio, the closest of these being by just three points in 1956.
Moss surely would have won the title in 1958 but for a generous act of sportsmanship on behalf of fellow Brit and title rival Mike Hawthorn.
Hawthorn was disqualified from the Portuguese Grand Prix until Moss intervened to the stewards to have the disqualification overturned and his points reinstated.
Moss retired in Italy with Hawthorn finishing second, meaning that he had to win in Morocco with the bonus of a fastest lap and Hawthorn had to finish third or lower to win the title.
Moss kept his side of the bargain and achieved both of his goals, and yet, Hawthorn did his bit to finish second and take the title by a single point.
2. Wolfgang Von Trips, 1961
Three years after Stirling Moss’s near miss, another driver would miss out by a single point but in far more tragic circumstances.
Germany’s Wolfgang von Trips led the championship standings by four points from Ferrari teammate Phil Hill going into the penultimate round in Monza having won in the Netherlands and Britain, and having finished second in Belgium and Germany.
Bu the title race ended in tragedy when von Trips collided with Jim Clark at Monza, his Ferrari ploughing into the crowd, killing himself and 14 spectators.
Hill went on to win the race and took the title by a single point despite Ferrari withdrawing from the season-ending race in the USA.
1. Felipe Massa, 2008
Never has any driver come as close to winning the world championship without actually doing so than Brazil’s Felipe Massa.
Going into the final round on Massa’s home territory, the Brazilian needed to win the race and, Lewis Hamilton to finish sixth or lower to lift the title.
In changing conditions it looked as if that very result had indeed happened and Massa celebrated becoming the champion with sobs of joy that were shared by his family in the pit lane.
Moments later, and played out in front of millions of viewers worldwide, those sobs of joy became sobs of despair as Hamilton overtook Timo Glock’s struggling Toyota on the final corner of the final lap to win the title by a single point in the closest championship finish in F1 history.
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