There’s nothing like a championship-deciding, last-race-of-the-season nail-biter.
This year we have the added piquancy of one of the title contenders racing on home ground – something I’ve never seen in almost 20 years of watching Grands Prix.
Here are some of the most memorable title deciders for me – what’s yours?
2003 Japanese Grand Prix – Michael Schumacher vs Kimi Raikkonen
This was memorable for being simply bizarre. No way should Kimi Raikkonen have been in with a shout of the title but a stirring drive in the rain at Indianapolis kept him in the hunt.
The cards were hugely stacked in Schumacher’s favour as he held a nine-point advantage going into the final race. But a damp qualifying session left him 14th on the grid, and from there he almost contrived to throw the title away.
First he lost his front wing, then brother Ralf came millimetre-close to taking him out. All the while Raikkonen was running second behind Rubens Barrichello and up until the dying laps a problem for the Brazilian might have swung things to Raikkonen. It didn’t of course, but seeing the new champion roll in eighth was a most peculiar way to decide the title.
2000 Japanese Grand Prix – Michael Schumacher versus Mika Hakkinen
OK, not the last race of the season, but still a classic.
This was one to savour. Schumacher and Hakkinen were at peak form in 2000, and a few months before the title-deciding race at Japan I’d been at Spa to witness their amazing duel first-hand. Ferrari’s historical baggage – then 21 years without a driver’s title – made it even more special.
As Journeyer wrote a few weeks ago, Suzuka has been the scene of some tremendous championship encounters. In truth, this was not its finest. The tension was incredible, but the final move that decided the title – a shuffle in the pits – left me a bit cold.
No, I was never a great fan of Michael Schumacher. But you’d need a heart of ice to not warm to the shouts of joy when he finally broke the Scuderia’s losing streak.
2007 Brazilian Grand Prix – Kimi Raikkonen vs Lewis Hamilton vs Fernando Alonso
The tension was off the scale last year. The bitterness between McLaren and Ferrari over spygate was only surpassed by the open hostility between McLaren duo Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Alonso even had an FIA observer in his garage after he’d complained he didn’t trust McLaren enough to give him a shot at beating Hamilton.
When Hamilton fumbled the first lap and fell to eighth it was looking a bit Suzuka ’03 again. Still the required fifth place that would make him champion seemed well within his grasp.
But a gearbox problem for the McLaren on lap eight changed the complexion of the race entirely: Hamilton plunged down the field to 18th, and suddenly Raikkonen, third going into the race, was poised to seize the title. Hamilton charged through the field but, his plight worsened by a strategic error, only made it to the lower reaches of the points.
Even then the increasingly fraught battle between Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld left you wondering if they were about to crash into each other and make Hamilton champion. It never happened, and Raikkonen pulled off a stunning turnaround to claim the title having trailed Hamilton by 17 points two races earlier.
Then came the nonsense over the Williams and BMW fuel temperatures which is best overlooked…
1997 European Grand Prix – Michael Schumacher vs Jacques Villeneuve
For my money still the most extraordinary title decider I’ve ever seen. It was a pure, no-holds-barred contest between two title rivals every lap of the way – until that fateful collision.
Schumacher led at the start, Villeneuve in the Williams giving chase. But as the race progressed the Williams began to loom larger in the Ferrari’s mirrors. Suddenly it fell back – Villeneuve was temporarily obstructed by Norberto Fontana, who later confessed he’d been ordered by Ferrari’s Jean Todt to make life difficult for Villeneuve.
Villeneuve reeled the Ferrari in again. It was later suggested Schumacher knew there was a problem with his Ferrari. Villeneuve wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass him by – and dived down the inside of the Ferrari at Curva Dry Sack…
We all know how this story ends, so let’s pause for and consider how rare it is to see an F1 title deciding by a passing move between two rivals. On the few occasions it has, it usually ended in tears. This time was no exception, but it remains a rare and exceptional championship-deciding moment.
Watching the onboard footage of those famous seconds gives two impressions – one, that Schumacher brazenly swerved in to hit Villeneuve. The second, that is he had only stayed his hand, Villeneuve might well have run wide (he already had two wheels on the grass) and Schumacher could have taken the place back…
Instead the wounded Williams scrabbled around the corner while Schumacher’s F310 spun its rear wheels hopelessly in the gravel. On ITV Martin Brundle, clearly revelling in the schadenfraude, exclaimed: “that didn’t work Michael – you hit the wrong part of him my friend”.
Villeneuve still had a race to finish and here events took an even more extraordinary turn as Williams waved the white flag to McLaren, letting both their drivers pass by for a one-two. But the title, incredibly, went to Villeneuve.
What are your favourite F1 season memories? Share them below…
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