Even on its quietest days, Formula One is a glamour sport. The noise, the colour, and the money all add up to theatre on four wheels.
It is a high octane drama that is compelling, often surprising and certainly never dull—even if the races sometimes are.
F1 has delivered many moments that are indelibly etched in the minds of fans.
Moments like Michael Schumacher squeezing Rubens Barrichello against the wall in Hungary, Jim Clark charging back from being lapped only to run out of fuel in sight of victory, or Gerhard Berger’s fiery crash at the infamous Tamburello bend at Imola.
There are times that leave us gasping in horror and others that have us cheering with delight.
What follows are what I consider to be the ten (eleven with the addition of Niki Lauda) most memorable moments from my time watching Formula One racing.
F1 under lights, Singapore 2008
It was heralded as the new era of F1. Bernie Ecclestone was fulfilling his dream of world domination and opening up new markets, while still trying to ensure that he maintained the revenue from TV broadcasts in F1’s home markets in Europe.
Not satisfied with being controversial in its own right—there was a great deal of skepticism about night racing—the inaugural race also brought lots of drama with Fernando Alonso’s victory being overshadowed with allegations the Nelson Piquet Jr. deliberately crashed his car to give Alonso an advantage during the ensuing safety car period.
The ensuing investigation saw long time F1 identity, Flavio Briattore, leave the sport in disgrace.
Senna and Prost get into a tangle
There have been few sporting rivalries more intense than between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost and while rivalries are usually good for a sport, sometimes they can get out of hand.
When they occur within a team, the potential for the rivalry to drive development is huge, but if the rivalry boils over then the down-side can be just as big.
In 1988, McLaren saw the benefits of being home to these two superstars of the sport, winning 15 of the 16 races in that season.
Prost claimed the most points for the season and Senna took the championship due to the strange rule that saw only their best 11 results count towards the championship.
Despite a number of relatively minor incidents throughout the year, the rivalry was contained. 1989, however, saw the competition between the two boil over.
In the season’s penultimate race at Suzuka, Senna needed to win to retain any chance at the championship, however the two rivals collided when Senna attempted an overtaking manoeuvre and Prost slammed the door, causing the cars to interlock wheels and damage to Senna’s car.
Prost took out the championship and then left the team.
Senna returned the favour the following year, deliberately ramming the now Ferrari driver to claim the 1990 title, but it the sight of the two locked together in their McLarens is one that sticks in the mind.
Only six cars started the 2005 US Grand Prix
The 2005 US Grand Prix was a ridiculous spectacle and one where the intransigence of one team and a deeply unpopular FIA President ruined any chance of fans the world over seeing a good race.
After a series of tyre failures on the Michelin shod runners as a result of the high speed and banked turn 13 at Indianapolis, caused the tyre manufacturer to come out with the embarrassing admission that they could not provide safe tyres for the race.
In emergency discussions, a compromise of installing a chicane on that corner to slow the cars down and while two of the three Bridgestone runners agreed, Ferrari’s Jean Todt refused and had the backing of Max Mosely who threatened to cancel the race if a chicane was installed.
The result was a farce with only six cars competing and gave Ferrari their best result for the year.
Amusingly, despite there being only six drivers on the track, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello almost ended up taking each other out after the second pit stop.
Felipe Massa leads the world championship decider, Brazil 2008
While fans of McLaren and Lewis Hamilton would have found this race memorable for the fact that Hamilton broke all sorts of records, it was the race itself that was a thoroughly memorable way to end a championship year.
Heading into the race, Hamilton was seven points ahead of Felipe Massa, meaning that the Brazilian had to win the race and have Hamilton finish sixth or lower for him to win the championship.
Massa put himself in the best possible position, leaving the result almost entirely in Hamilton’s hands.
As rain began to fall with six laps remaining and Hamilton holding on to fourth place things got really interesting.
Everyone, except Timo Glock, pitted for wet tyres and Hamilton fell to sixth place as he ran wide and was passed by Vettel and looked like he was going to fall at the final hurdle again as he had done in 2007.
Fortunately for Hamilton, the heavens opened on the final lap and Glock was now completely unable to get any grip allowing Hamilton to pass him on the final bend to secure fifth place and the 2008 World Driver’s Championship.
An amazing end to an amazing year.
Modern F1 fans will have grown used to seeing races won quite substantial margins, but it wasn’t always so.
Many years ago, cars could follow each other closely and could take different lines through corners without spearing off into the gravel traps. The cars could actually race and overtake. It was the golden age of Formula One.
The 1971 Italian Grand Prix produced not only the closest finish in F1, but it was remarkable for a number of reasons. For 32 years it held the title of the fastest grand prix with an average speed of over 150 mph.
This incredible race, after nearly 200 miles, was won by BRM’s Peter Gethin, who came from fourth on the final lap to clinch it by one hundredth of a second from Ronnie Peterson.
In what must have been a timing official’s nightmare, the first five cars all finished in a hair over six tenths of a second.
To put that into context, in the 200m men’s sprint final at the Beijing Olympics the top five finishers were separated by over a second.
Michael Schumacher is regarded by many as being the finest F1 driver of all time. Not everyone agrees with that, of course, but his string of records is unsurpassed.
He has the most championships, most race wins, most wins in a single season, most pole positions, most conversions of poles into races wins and the list goes on.
But, as brilliant as Schumacher unquestionably is, he has a dark side. His will to win is legendary and sometimes, when backed into a corner, he has been known to cross the line.
In the final race of the 1994 championship, Schumacher and Damon Hill collided which prevented Hill from going on to take the title.
Schumacher defended it as a racing incident, but many believed that it was a deliberate move.
In 1997, however, in an identical championship position this time with Jacques Villeneuve, Schumacher was again involved in a collision when his rival attempted a passing manoeuvre.
On this occasion, there was no doubt—Schumacher deliberately tried to take Villeneuve out of the race, even flicking the car a little to the left before turning in and slamming his Ferrari into Villeneuve’s Williams.
It didn’t work, Villeneuve went on to finish in the points and secure the championship while Schumacher, who was initially cleared of wrongdoing by track stewards, was summoned to face the FIA and was subsequently excluded from the championship and put a very black mark on his legacy.
While Schumacher’s ruthlessness was there for everyone to see, he also has a human side and when he let it show, everyone was taken by surprise.
When Schumacher won the 2000 Italian Grand Prix, he equalled the number of wins achieved by his idol, Ayrton Senna.
While everyone knew it would be an important milestone for Schumacher, people were taken aback by his reaction in the post race press conference.
He broke down in uncontrollable tears and had to be consoled by his fiercest and most respected opponent, Mikka Hakkinen.
It is often overlooked that Schumacher was following Senna when the Brazilian ran off the road and was killed.
The accident obviously had a much deeper impact than anyone realised and that press conference is one of the most confronting and memorable moments in F1.
Long before Lewis Hamilton turned snatching defeat from the jaws of victory into an art form, Nigel Mansell was breaking the hearts of British motor sport fans the world over.
The 1986 F1 season gave Mansell his first opportunity at a championship. Driving the Honda-powered Williams—obviously the dominant car of the day—Mansell secured five wins and was leading the championship going into the final race, with teammate Nelson Piquet and McLaren’s Alain Prost snapping at his heels.
His six-point lead meant that Mansell only had to finish third to secure the championship and looked to be on track to do so until, 18 laps from the end, his left rear tyre exploded on Brabham straight while he was reportedly doing 180 mph.
From there on it was a wild ride and, with a combination of good luck and great skill, he brought the car to a safe halt in the run-off area. His championship tilt was over.
It may not have been Mansell’s finest hour, but anyone who saw it would have a hard time forgetting it.
At the 1979 French GP at Dijon, Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux shared two of the most intense laps, hard fought racing laps to be seen.
They swapped positions multiple times, banged wheels, overlapped wheels and drove side-by-side through corners before Arnoux finally prevailed and took second place.
The skill and nerves of steel required to drive like that are impossible for mere mortals to put into words. Best just to watch and be amazed.
Niki Lauda lived through everyone’s worst nightmare—being burned alive. He was trapped in his burning car after an horrific accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix and would not have survived were it not for the tremendous courage of fellow drivers Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl along with Brett Lunger who was involved in the crash.
Lauda was dragged from the car and, although badly burned and having inhaled hot gases damaging his lungs, he was able to walk around at the side of the track. He did lapse into a coma later but miraculously recovered and was cleared to race only six weeks later.
The photo is from a press conference held on the Thursday before the 1976 Italian Grand Prix and gives some idea of the burns that Lauda suffered. He lost his right ear and his face and head are badly scarred, but he only underwent corrective surgery to make his eyelids works again. His trademark cap covers most of the damage.
It’s difficult to imagine the mental strength and absolute courage that would be required to climb back into the cockpit of a car after the horror experience that Lauda had been through. To see him take to the grid was astonishing enough, but qualifying fifth and finishing fourth in the race earned him the respect of sports fans across the globe.
Lauda’s comeback is one of sport’s greatest triumph over adversity stories. That he survived was remarkable, that he returned to racing so quickly beggars belief. Thanks to Jeff for pointing out this gaping hole in the list.
medical teams try desperately to save Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna was, without doubt, one of the finest drivers to ever sit in a racing car. His ability to produce frighteningly fast qualifying laps and his skill in the wet is the stuff of legend.
He always pushed the limit and, in the end, paid the ultimate price for pushing just that little bit too far.
The crash that ended the life of Senna was unremarkable when compared to many others that happen every race weekend.
He ran off the road on the infamous Tamburello bend at Imola doing an estimated 190 mph, skated over the gravel trap and impacted the wall doing 135 mph.
The impact inflicted terrible injuries and the image of Senna sitting motionless in the car, which had rebounded back into the middle of the track, had F1 fans around the world holding their breath.
There was an instinctive feeling that something momentous had happened.
Of course, the dreadful news eventually came through that Senna, like Roland Ratzenberger only 24 hours earlier, had died as a result of his injuries. The F1 world went into mourning.
Senna’s legacy survives to this day, not only in the memory of his racing spirit and achievements, but in the improvements that were made to F1 cars in the wake of his death and as a direct result of his injuries.
There has not been another driver death since that horrible weekend in 1994.
Let’s hope it’s a record that continues to stand for some time to come