What was the best underdog race win?

Does Sebastian Vettel's Monza win rank among the top underdog triumphs?

Does Sebastian Vettel's Monza win rank among the top underdog triumphs?

Carlos di Bello sent in this question via Skribit:

What are the top ten races where superior driving overcame inferior mechanical means?

I thought that was a good question to put to the collective wisdom of F1 Fanatic readers. What do you think was the best victory for a driver in a sub-par car? Here?s my suggestion:

Gilles Villeneuve, 1981 Spanish Grand Prix, Ferrari

Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari 126CK was a dog of a car – to put it bluntly. Yes, it was an improvement over the team’s disastrous 1980 effort, but it lacked the ground effect capabilities of its rivals and floundered in corners. If any circuit was going to demonstrate the handling shortcomings of the car it would be the twisty Jarama track, host of that year’s Spanish Grand Prix:

Instead what unfolded was a showcase of Villeneuve?s staggering talent. A lightning start left him running second, and perfectly poised to inherit the lead when Alan Jones crashed. That was on lap 14. When the chequered flag came out 66 laps later Villeneuve was, incredibly, still in the lead, with Jacques Laffite, John Watson, Carlos Reutemann and Elio de Angelis queued up behind him, covered by less than 1.24s.

What’s more, Villeneuve accomplished this without the kind of chopping and barging we’re used to seeing today. As ever his track manners were scrupulously fair. As Steven Roy wrote recently:

He didn?t do it by blocking or making ??one move?. He drove a perfect, clean line lap after lap after lap and won the race despite having four faster cars on his tail for the whole race. He knew that if he made one small mistake he could drop four positions.

No way should his Ferrari have even been in the points that day. Sad to think in this era of compulsory pit stops this extraordinary feat cannot be reproduced.

Who better to give the ultimate homage to a man who had shrugged off the deficiencies of his machinery to claim an improbable win than ace designer Gordon Murray?:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver put in a performance like that. Not one wheel out of place all afternoon.

Watch the video and judge for yourself:

That?s my choice for the greatest win by a driver in a car that wasn?t up to the task. What do you think was the best underdog triumph? Name your nominees in the comments, post quotes and video links, and we’ll vote on the top ten on Sunday.

This article was suggested by Carlos di Bello using Skribit. To suggest an idea for an F1 Fanatic article, use the Skribit box on the community page. You can also vote for other people?s article ideas.

Image (C) Red Bull / GEPA

Read more about the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix

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63 comments on What was the best underdog race win?

  1. A Singh said on 26th February 2009, 13:43

    Vettel in Monza – I was in awe how he managed to beat a McLaren on equal terms to pole and to win the race. Unbelievable.

    Also, Schumacher’s win in China, 2006. No-one was expecting him to win that day – the Bridgestones were vastly inferior to the Michelins in the wet. Yet somehow, Schumacher won, passing Alonso and Fisi in the process.

  2. Tricky one, what exactly constitutes an underdog? The clue is probably in the question – superior driving overcoming inferior mechanical means.

    Hill’s Hungary ’97 drive was a very good one, but he was very clearly aided by Bridgestones that just happened to suit the Arrows perfectly. Likewise, John Watson’s back of the grid drives in the early 1980s was a case of rubber that wouldn’t work over a lap but was perfect for a long stint. So arguably a mechanical advantage. Vettel drove a great race at Monza last year but the STR was no Minardi.

    Herbert winning for Stewart in 1999 owed something to luck, but the front runners all threw it away and Johnny didn’t. Olivier Panis’ win in Monaco was a stunning drive from 16th on the grid, but Panis also required a couple of mechanical retirements to pull it off.

    I’m minded to stick with Villeneuve in 1981.

  3. Antifia said on 26th February 2009, 13:52

    I would think that this discussion excludes the “freak” wins – the ones in which the best cars break down or crash and end up with a bunch of underdogs fighting for the victory. I am only thinking about races in which a driver in an inferior car was able to outperform the top cars (which finished the race in good order) due to his superior driving skills on the day. In this category, these are my top three pics (in chronological order):
    1. Senna / Monaco 1992
    2. Senna / Donnington 1993
    3. Vettel / Monza 2008
    Although not a win for the underdog, Monaco 1984 could probably be counted as such, and one of the best at that – Senna, a rookie in a Tolleman, started in 14th place and ended up second only because Jack Ickx decided to help his chap (A. Prost), ending the race before its half because it was raining – if you think Massa is lost in the wet, you should watch Prost at Silverstone 91, Interlagos 93, Donnington 93.

  4. Roger Carballo AKA Architrion said on 26th February 2009, 14:08

    Alonso, Hungary, 2003 is a good one. That car, powered by a wide V engine was really a dog of a car. But he managed to win fair and square, without the help or rain, no finisings VIPS or mechanical failures… Brilliant.

  5. anirudh said on 26th February 2009, 15:01

    guys, I just heard that the 2009 Force cars have fire up nd are running somewhere. Wont this be considered illegal testing?

    • anirudh said on 26th February 2009, 15:01


    • Scott Joslin said on 26th February 2009, 15:36

      anirudh – They are straightline testing. Renault, Williams and Mclaren have all done this already. I think they might have to declare how many Kilometers they run, but this is not considered illegal.

  6. JWRPayne said on 26th February 2009, 15:16

    Jim Clark, Monza 1967.

    “Jim Clark’s drive in the 1967 Italian Grand Prix is regarded one of the greatest ever in F1. After starting from pole, he was leading in his Lotus 49 (chassis R2), when a tyre punctured. He lost an entire lap while having the wheel changed in the pits. After rejoining sixteenth, Clark then showed his genius by driving at his own limit, something which was not required when leading. He ripped back through the field, progressively lowered the lap record, eventually equalling his pole time of 1m 28.5s, to regain the lost lap and the lead. He was narrowly ahead of Brabham and Surtees starting the last lap, but his car had not been filled with enough fuel for such a performance — it faltered, and finally coasted across the finish line in third place.”

    Enough said.

  7. Good call about Mansell’s first Ferrari race, Brazil 1989. That car didn’t finish another race until mid-season.

    Keke Rosberg won in the ’84 Williams – somewhere in the States? – and Nigel Roebuck went for this when he was asked a similar question.

  8. Bollywood Bub said on 26th February 2009, 15:50

    I liked Fisi´s win in Brazil ’03. I seem to recall his engine catching fire after he pulled in which was a pretty “stylish” way to finish a race.

    Leaving his first corner issue and the conspiracy theories aside, I also thought that Alonso´s win in Singapore was pretty hilarious.

  9. I only have Vettel to look at due to I have not been in F1 for a long time.

  10. Paul Sainsbury said on 26th February 2009, 17:07

    Mine wasn’t a win, but does anyone remember Jean Alesi battling against Senna at Phoenix?

    I think it was 1991. Alesi was in the Tyrell and shocked the hell out of Senna when he audaciously re-took the lead.

    Apparantly senna ‘wagged’ his finger at Jean after the race, and this was always taken by the French-Sicilian as a compliment and he cherishes the memory to this day. Great stuff.


    • Terry Fabulous said on 27th February 2009, 4:13

      I’m with you Paul.

      If you want a cheap nostalgic laugh, look at the grid for that race…
      It was a little messed up since it rained on Saturday so Friday’s times were used and the Pirelli tyres were the ones to be on.

      1. Berger – Mclaren
      2. Martini – MINARDI!!!
      3. De Cesaris – DALLARA!!!!! (His teammate Morbidelli didn’t even qualify)
      4. Alesi – Tyrell
      5. Senna – Mclaren

      Mansell in his Ferrai was 17th, one place behind Roberto Moreno in a Euro Brun.

      On a sad note, the race was only watched by 15,000 people and on a sadder note, THIRTY NINE FREAKING CARS turned up to qualify!! They had to kick out nine in pre-qualifying and another four in qualifying.

      Nowadays we would fall over ourselves letting anyone with a car and a driver onto the grid.

    • Terry Fabulous said on 27th February 2009, 4:14

      Sorry fact checking again!
      It was only 35 Cars that turned up,

      Only 17 more then what we have this year, not 19 more.

  11. James Brickles said on 26th February 2009, 17:16

    For underdog race drive, Jean Alesi in Phoenix 1990 has to be worth a mention.

    For underdog race win, James Hunt’s 1975 win in a Hesketh at Zandvoort should also be mentioned

    • Paul Sainsbury said on 26th February 2009, 17:37

      Yeah, forgot about Hunt in the Hesketh. Hard to believe really, that a privateer team who partied for England managed to pull off a win against Lauda and the might of Ferrari.

  12. Antifia – surely Senna’s win at Monaco ’92 was due as much to Mansell’s own wheel nut failure as his own brilliance in holding off a car on a track where overtaking is impossible?

    I’d have to say Mansell’s win at the 1987 British Grand Prix takes some beating, though some of Raikkonen’s incredible drives in 2005 where he had to drive through the field after umpteen 10-place grid penalties are worthy of credit too.

  13. senna donington park 1993 ??

  14. it was scheckter’s wolf argentina 1977 gp. no doubt about it.

  15. TommyB said on 26th February 2009, 18:27

    Tom – Bourdais was no where cos of the stall but he actually matched Vettels pace throughout the race

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