|The Art of Becoming an F1 Champ|
|by Marcel Schot, Netherlands|
With this year's championship about to be decided at Suzuka in just a few weeks, the battle between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen joins a long list of Championship battles that were decided in many ways over the years. Some were predictable, some were decided early in the season, some resolved due to regulations and some due to a driver or a team's sheer domination. Oddly enough, after almost fifty World Championship rounds, some of the most exciting finales ever were in fact in the infant years, back in the 50's.
The first championship, in 1950, was actually decided in the final round, much like this year. However, the difference was that there were three contenders back then, all of them driving for Alfa Romeo. Before the race, Juan-Manuel Fangio was leading, followed by Luigi Fagioli (two points behind) and Nino Farina (four points behind).
Since only the best four results out of seven races counted, Fagioli's chances were actually very little. Having already scored four second places, he needed a win to pass Fangio, with the latter not scoring at all. Both Fangio and Farina had only scored in three races before, so whatever they scored in the final race at Monza, would count.
After qualifying, Fangio had his first point of the weekend for taking pole, eliminating Fagioli from the championship battle. Fangio's chances seemed to fade away when his gearbox failed in lap 10. The Argentine, however, stepped into the car of teammate Piero Taruffi and continued his race. Back in the 50's this was still allowed and awarded both drivers with half the points the car scored. But on lap 35, this car also broke down and there were only two Alfas left: Farina's and Fagioli's. With those cars being contenders for the top spots in the championship, Fangio's race had ended there, leaving Farina the championship.
Six years later something almost unthinkable happened. With again three contenders, Ferrari drivers Fangio and Peter Collins and Maserati's Jean Behra, the final race at Monza took off. Fangio had an eight point lead over both Collins and Behra, but saw his hopes diminished due to an unreliable car. Then after 35 of the 50 laps, it happened. Collins, contender for the championship himself, stopped voluntarily and allowed Fangio to continue in his car. In the end Fangio finished just 6 seconds behind Maserati driver Stirling Moss, securing his fourth championship.
The fact that Collins threw away his title chances is remarkable on its own, but gets even more amazing when one notices that Fangio's points would not have counted anyway. Due to the shared drive, the six points for second place were split - three for Fangio and three for Collins. The four best scores for each driver counted for the championship and the lowest of the five scores of the Argentine was four until then. Only a win would have given Fangio a higher score in the championship. Collins however, had scored only four times, thus having his Monza points counting, no matter what. If Collins had continued his race and won it, he would have become World Champion.
But not only in the earliest years of Formula One was the Championship fought three ways - almost a decade later, the next generation provided the watchers with likewise thriller endings.
In 1964 the dramatics of the last race showed again, with BRM's Graham Hill leading, followed by Ferrari driver John Surtees who was five points behind and outsider Jim Clark (Lotus) who needed a win without Hill scoring. Hill, having one of the worst races of the year, quickly saw his title chances decimated. The almost champion turned into a desperate onlooker, finishing two laps behind the leaders. After Hill went out of sight, Clark had become the sure bet, leading the race comfortably. However, just two laps from scoring his second consecutive title, his engine became troubled and Clark saw his lead crumble. In a perfect example of Ferrari team orders, Surtees' teammate Lorenzo Bandini let the Briton pass him to give Surtees second place in Mexico, just enough to pass the unlucky Graham Hill in the title chase. With this title Surtees became the only one to be World Champion both in a car and on a motorcycle.
Another special aspect of Surtees' championship is that he only won one race that season. This feat was unrepeated for many years, but in 1982 Williams' Keke Rosberg did the same, winning the championship with only 44 points in sixteen races. In an amazingly competitive season, that saw eleven different Grand Prix winners, the Finn proved the most constant driver, scoring points in ten out of sixteen races. Rosberg's luck was Didier Pironi's bad luck; leading the championship by nine points, Pironi struck Alain Prost's car in a wet practice session at Hockenheim, ending his career because of severe leg injuries.
With much of the deciders in the final race providing maximum excitement, it hasn't been like that in every season.
Back in 1974, the championship was again decided in the final race and much like now, it was a battle between a McLaren (Emerson Fittipaldi) and a Ferrari (Clay Regazzoni). Going into the final race tied at 52 points each, the race proved a total deception. Regazzoni retired and Fittipaldi finished only fourth. As if the disappointment wasn't big enough, the race was overshadowed by the death of Austrian Helmuth Koinigg.
Tragedy overshadowed the grand finale of the Formula One season more than once and oddly enough, most of the victims of the tragedy were teammates of the World Champion.
The first time tragedy struck was in 1961, when Phil Hill secured the world title for Ferrari at Monza, but only because his teammate and only rival Wolfgang von Trips was killed in the event. Twelve years later, another title was overshadowed by the winner's teammate getting killed. This time it was Francois Cevert who was killed in practice, causing the Tyrrell team to pull out of the event. Jackie Stewart had clinched the championship already at Monza, but at Watkins Glen he planned to retire with a championship and 100 races driven. When Cevert was killed, Stewart's third title lost its golden edge. In 1978, Mario Andretti suffered the same fate as Hill and Stewart before him. Andretti's only rival, teammate Ronnie Peterson, was killed at again Monza, handing Andretti the title.
Of the tragic seasons, 1970 stands out as the most tragic. At Monza, championship leader Jochen Rindt was killed in a terrible accident. The only man to keep the deceased Lotus driver from the title was Ferrari's Jacky Ickx. With two wins and a fourth place, he ended up five points short of a title which he really didn't want to win. Rindt was crowned World Championship posthumously.
Much like in 1970 some years saw one driver so much in charge, the championship was decided far before the end of the final race. Jim Clark and Lotus were so superior in 1963, they took the title after only six out of ten races. Six years later, Jackie Stewart also became the champion with three races to go. These feats were outshined by Nigel Mansell in 1992, when he claimed the title in Hungary, after only eleven of the sixteen races.
Though not always providing a special ending to a season, in quite a few years only one team contended for the title.
One of the best remembered seasons with such team domination has been 1979. Not for reason of dramatics, but for the simple fact that it's the last year a Ferrari driver has won the championship. In an Italian dream, Jody Scheckter secured the title with a win at Monza, leaving teammate Gilles Villeneuve with second place in the championship.
In 1976 another much spoken about championship was held. Niki Lauda had been in charge until his horrible accident at the Nurburgring made him miss two races. In absolutely terrifying weather conditions at the final race on the Japanese Fuji track, Lauda pulled out of the race, fearing his safety. James Hunt then only just managed the third place he required to clinch the title.
After his second title in 1977, Lauda also managed to win it all in 1984, seven years later. This one proved to be the closest possible winning margin. In the first year of McLaren's domination, the battle was down to teammates Lauda and Prost, separated by 3.5 points after half points had been awarded at Monaco when the race was stopped after 31 laps due to the rain. Prost won the final race, but Lauda easily cruised to second place, ending up with a half point lead in the end.
The 80's were the years where regulations and hard battles decided the title race. With Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna as the main actors - sometimes winning, sometimes losing - it was an era of much excitement until the final laps of the final races.
After winning steadily in 1985, the following year saw Prost winning his second consecutive title in what must be one of the most doubtful tactical decisions of the Williams team. Starting the race, McLaren driver Prost was behind both Williams drivers Mansell and Piquet, with all three having a good chance for the title. Mansell ended his quest with a blown rear tyre, after which Williams made Piquet come in for an additional tyre change. Piquet entered the pits leading and came out second behind Prost, enough for the Frenchman to become World Champion.
After losing the title in 1984 due to the half points rule at Monaco, Prost lost because of regulations again in 1988. In the sixteen races of the season, the Frenchman accumulated more points than teammate Ayrton Senna. Nonetheless, Senna was crowned World Champion, because only the best eleven results counted. Prost scored seven wins and six second places, while Senna collected eight wins, three second places, one fourth place and a sixth place. Senna scored 94 points of which 90 counted and Prost scored 105 points with only 87 counting for the championship.
Senna and Prost remained the only contenders for the years to come. In 1989 the Frenchman claimed the title and the year after Senna emerged on top. Both seasons were notoriously decided at Suzuka with the two clashing into each other. The first time, Senna drove inside at the chicane with seven laps to go, Prost closed the door and they touched, ending Prost's race. Senna was able to continue and take the checkered flag, only to be disqualified afterwards for getting a push-start after the shunt. The next year the two arch-rivals clashed on the opening lap, giving Senna the title in dramatic fashion.
The last decade has provided us with yet another generation of drivers and cars competing each other. Especially the second half of the 90s had been dominated by two rivals: Michael Schumacher and whoever drove for the Williams team.
Yet again, the 1994 title was decided by two arch-rivals clashing. Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill had been fighting tough all season, when in Adelaide the ultimate ending happened. Halfway the race, the two clashed, each blaming the other. However, both retired and Schumacher clinched the title, one point ahead of the Briton.
The following year, the German proved his superiority by winning his second consecutive title at the Pacific Grand Prix, three races to the end, with scoring nine wins altogether that year. After that, Schumacher moved to Ferrari, leaving Williams to dominate Formula One. In 1996, Damon Hill was granted the title, while his only rival, debuting teammate Jacques Villeneuve, lost a wheel at Suzuka. Last year Villeneuve managed to become World Champion in only his second season. In the final race at Jerez, his only rival Michael Schumacher drove into his rival, ending his own race and seeing his second position of the Championship taken away.
This takes us right up to this year's decider. With a battle between two drivers taken to the last race of the season for the nineteenth time, we'll have to see who keeps his cool the best. Both Schumacher and Hakkinen have shown they can put up a great battle and for both winning the title will be very special. For Hakkinen it would be his first win and for Schumacher the title would mean the return of the crown to Ferrari after 19 years. No matter who wins, the ones to gain the most are the viewers, getting yet again a showdown to the last lap.
|Marcel Schot||© 1998 Atlas Formula One Journal.|
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