Biggest Late-Season Comebacks in Formula 1 History

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistNovember 2, 2016

Biggest Late-Season Comebacks in Formula 1 History

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    Lewis Hamilton's task might seem impossible, but history suggests it isn't.
    Lewis Hamilton's task might seem impossible, but history suggests it isn't.Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Lewis Hamilton is in the midst of what would be a historic comeback, should he be able to catch his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, for the Formula One drivers' title. Historic, but not altogether unprecedented.

    With four races remaining this season, Hamilton trailed Rosberg by 33 points, with 25 available for a victory. Two straight victories for the Brit, with his team-mate following him home in second each time, has reduced the gap to 19 points—but there are only two races left.

    It might sound like an impossible task—and with Rosberg's near-bulletproof reliability thus far, it might be—but history should give Hamilton some hope.

    The scoring systems have changed over the years, with race wins worth nine points, then 10, now 25, but seven times in the past, a driver has made up a deficit of at least one victory's worth of points with three or fewer races remaining to win the title.

    The only caveat for Hamilton fans hoping history repeats itself this year: All but one of those eventual champions (Sebastian Vettel in 2010) benefited from at least one retirement by their opponent in those final races.

2010: Sebastian Vettel

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    Sebastian Vettel won his first title in 2010.
    Sebastian Vettel won his first title in 2010.KARIM SAHIB/Getty Images

    Looking back, Vettel's four straight titles for Red Bull from 2010 to 2013 have an aura of inevitability to them. At the time, though, that streak almost never got started.

    In 2010, the German never led the championship until he won the final race of the year, in Abu Dhabi, overhauling not only Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, but also his team-mate, Mark Webber.

    At the Korean Grand Prix, the third-last race of the year, Vettel's engine blew up 10 laps from the finish while he was leading the race. Alonso took the win, putting him 25 points ahead (exactly one race win) of the unlucky German.

    Vettel won in Brazil, with Alonso coming third, meaning the Spaniard entered the final race with a 15-point lead over Vettel and Webber splitting the two, eight points behind Alonso. Second place in Abu Dhabi would have clinched the championship for Alonso, while Webber needed a victory to be sure of the title.

    Vettel needed a win and a lot of help.

    He got it in the form of a safety car and a questionable pit-stop strategy (at least in hindsight) from Ferrari.

    The German won the race, while Alonso and Webber finished seventh and eighth, respectively, handing Vettel the title by four points.

2007: Kimi Raikkonen

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    Kimi Raikkonen won Ferrari's last drivers' championship.
    Kimi Raikkonen won Ferrari's last drivers' championship.Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Hamilton won the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix, giving him a 12-point lead over his McLaren team-mate, Alonso, with two races remaining. With 10 points on the table for a win, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was an afterthought in third place, 17 points back.

    At the Chinese Grand Prix, though, Hamilton made one of the biggest blunders in F1 history. Sitting in second place, he was in position to clinch the title, but he ran wide on heavily worn tyres as he tried to pit, beaching his car in a gravel trap.

    Raikkonen won the race, while Alonso followed him home in second. Still, Hamilton led his team-mate by four points and Raikkonen by seven heading into the last race. A second-place finish would clinch the title for the Brit, no matter what his opponents did.

    Hamilton qualified second in Brazil, behind Felipe Massa, but was passed by Raikkonen and Alonso on the first lap. In the heat of battle, Hamilton locked his brakes and ran wide, falling back to eighth place. Then, there was more trouble for the Brit, as he suffered a gearbox problem and fell to 18th before it could be corrected.

    Although he eventually recovered to seventh, it wasn't enough. Raikkonen won the race and the title by a single point over the two McLaren drivers.

1986: Alain Prost

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    Alain Prost at the 1986 Monaco Grand Prix.
    Alain Prost at the 1986 Monaco Grand Prix.Associated Press

    The 1986 world championship was a close fight between McLaren's Alain Prost and the two Williams team-mates, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet.

    After Mansell won the Portuguese Grand Prix, he sat 10 points ahead of Piquet and 11 ahead of Prost with two races remaining. A win was worth nine points in those days and only the 11 best results for each driver counted toward the championship (although that rule would not have changed the outcome in 1986, as it would have some other years).

    Prost finished second in Mexico, with both Williams a lap down—Piquet was fourth and Mansell fifth. Due to the 11-best rule, the Brit effectively did not score any points for the race, so the trio entered the final grand prix of the season with Mansell on 70 points, Prost six points adrift and Piquet a further point behind.

    A fourth-place finish in Australia would have clinched the title for Mansell, but, despite qualifying on pole, it was not to be.

    Running third on Lap 64, one of Mansell's rear tyres exploded on Adelaide's back straight, ending his race. Williams pitted Piquet for new tyres, handing the lead to Prost.

    Despite a desperate charge at the end of the race, Piquet finished four seconds behind the Frenchman, who claimed his second straight title.

1983: Nelson Piquet

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    Nelson Piquet won the 1983 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.
    Nelson Piquet won the 1983 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.Mike Powell/Getty Images

    In 1983, the situation was reversed, with Prost, then driving for Renault, leading Brabham's Piquet by 14 points with three races left (Ferrari's Rene Arnoux split the two, eight points behind Prost).

    Piquet won at Monza with Arnoux second, while Prost retired with a turbo failure. The Brazilian won again at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, although Prost came second, leaving the Frenchman two points ahead going into the final race. Arnoux finished out of the points, leaving him eight points back.

    The season ended in South Africa, with Arnoux retiring on Lap 9 and Prost before the midway point of the race. Piquet was leading at the time but slowed to preserve his car, ultimately finishing third and taking the title by two points.

1976: James Hunt

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    James Hunt at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.
    James Hunt at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.Tony Duffy/Getty Images

    The 1976 season was one of the most dramatic in F1 history, punctuated by controversies, disqualifications, reinstatements and Niki Lauda's horrific crash at the Nurburgring.

    After Lauda's comeback at the Italian Grand Prix, where he finished fourth, the Austrian led James Hunt by five points with three races to go. That lead increased to 17, though, before the next race, as an appeal of the British Grand Prix was finally decided and Hunt was disqualified—two months after the race.

    No problem for the carefree Brit, who won from pole in Canada while Lauda struggled to an eighth-place finish, nearly a minute-and-a-half behind. Hunt won again from pole at the U.S. Grand Prix in Watkins Glen, while Lauda managed to finish third after starting fifth.

    That result left Lauda with a three-point lead heading into the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji. If you don't know what happened there, I'll wait while you go watch Rush.

    Lauda withdrew from the race, which was started in heavy rain over the protests of several drivers.

    "My life is worth more than a title," he said, per Brad Spurgeon of the New York Times.

    Hunt was leading but started to lose places as the track dried. With Lauda's retirement, he needed to finish fourth to clinch the title. He dropped to fifth after a late pit stop but passed Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni in the final laps to finish third and clinch the title.

1974: Emerson Fittipaldi

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    Emerson Fittipaldi at the 1974 Brazilian Grand Prix, on his way to a home victory.
    Emerson Fittipaldi at the 1974 Brazilian Grand Prix, on his way to a home victory.Associated Press

    In 1974, McLaren's Emerson Fittipaldi was seeking his second drivers' title in three years. His chief rival was Ferrari's Regazzoni, who enjoyed a nine-point lead over the Brazilian with three races remaining (Jody Scheckter and Lauda were also in the mix, five and eight points adrift, respectively, at that point).

    Fittipaldi finished second at Monza, while Scheckter was third. Meanwhile, both Ferraris, Regazzoni and Lauda, retired with engine problems. In fact, Lauda suffered five retirements in a row to end the season, while Scheckter had three in the final four races.

    In Canada, Fittipaldi won by 13 seconds over his Swiss rival, Regazzoni. That result left them tied at 52 points heading into the final round, the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

    Both Fittipaldi and Regazzoni struggled in qualifying, starting eighth and ninth, respectively. The Swiss driver eventually finished four laps down, while the Brazilian came home fourth to take the title by three points.

1964: John Surtees

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    John Surtees in his blue (!) Ferrari at the 1964 U.S. Grand Prix.
    John Surtees in his blue (!) Ferrari at the 1964 U.S. Grand Prix.Alvis Upitis/Getty Images

    With three races remaining, the 1964 season looked like a two-way fight between Lotus' Jim Clark and BRM's Graham Hill. Hill led with 32 points, while Clark had 30; John Surtees was a distant third, sitting on 19 points.

    But then Surtees won from pole in Italy, while Hill and Clark both retired. Hill won at Watkins Glen, but Surtees finished second, while Clark suffered two fuel-injection failures, first in his own car and then in team-mate Mike Spence's (back then, drivers could share cars during a race). The Scot eventually finished seventh, out of the points.

    The final race was in Mexico, and Hill arrived with a five-point lead over Surtees and Clark a further four points back. Only the best six results from the season would count—and this time, it would make a difference.

    Clark was leading the race and on course for the title in the closing laps, with Surtees and Hill too far back to make a difference. On the second-last lap, though, Clark's engine broke down, promoting Surtees to third, behind his team-mate, Lorenzo Bandini.

    Surtees needed second to pass Hill for the championship, though, and the team signalled for Bandini to move aside and let the Brit pass. He did, and Surtees claimed the title by a single point (although Hill's total was actually one more than Surtees', he could not count his fifth-place finish in Belgium).

        

    Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:

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