What was the best underdog race win?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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

63 comments on “What was the best underdog race win?”

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  1. 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.

    1. Not a win though… just realised…

    2. ha, worth remembering though. Compare with Bourdais who ended up nowhere after losing a lap at Monza last year.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

  5. Paul Sainsbury
    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.


    1. Terry Fabulous
      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.

    2. Terry Fabulous
      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.

  6. James Brickles
    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

    1. Paul Sainsbury
      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.

  7. 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.

  8. senna donington park 1993 ??

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

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

  11. One from the history books, Moss in 1958 Argentine GP.

    To quote Robert Edwards’ biography, “Effectively one eyed, with a broken clutch, a ‘crash’ gearbox and tyres worn down to the canvas, he had taken on the entire Ferrari works effort and left it floundering.” Moss was driving an out-of-date F2 car with a 1.96 litre engine against 2.4 litre F1 cars. It would have taken so long to change the tyres on his car he’d have lost a lap and a half so had to run the 80 lap race on tyres reckoned to have about 40 laps of life in them. As if all that wasn’t enough his wife had accidentally scratched his cornea a few days before the race.

  12. I am glad that Tom has mentioned Keke at last. The crazy Finn was an underdog in almost every GP he raced and never failed to drive as though he expected to win, regardless of the machinery he was given. The race Tom refers to was actually the Dallas GP in 1984 but any of the races in 1982 would do as well, ignoring the fact that he won only one of them (the “Swiss” GP at Dijon). If we were to have a “Greatest Underdog Championship Win” contest, Keke Rosberg would be the winner hands down.

  13. Hello Clive

    I’ve got to go with Moss ’58. That started the rear wheel revolution in F1. Even Lotus still had FWD.

  14. Sorry Keith, been reading F1 Insight!

  15. theRoswellite
    27th February 2009, 0:24

    Leslie….????…..are you speaking of the Rear Engine revolution? The front engined and rear engined cars all had rear wheel drive, not front wheel drive, or four wheel drive. Please correct me if this is wrong, or not what you were speaking of.

    1. Thanks for the correction, I did mean rear engined…….a little early morning brain fade!

  16. I’m going for a tie between Alonso and the Hungaroaring in 03 and Alesi’s win at Montreal in 95. Both can be considered very special wins.

    I’m pretty sure there have been many better wins in earlier years..unfortunately, memories to go back that far for me.

  17. theRoswellite
    27th February 2009, 6:05

    As no one is probably reading this thread anymore, I’ll sneak in a bit of a minority report……

    How about a Grand Prix where…..

    1. Driver is a full time……dental student.
    2. Team shows up to the race 2 days late.
    3. The race is this drivers first GP.
    4. He sits in his car for the first time on Saturday morning.
    5. Drivers first time on this course, a street course.
    6. Walls, ditches, trees and telegraph poles await any errors.
    7. In Italy, driver beats entire Maserati team.
    8. Drivers car is basically…uncompetitive, and unreliable.
    9. Some of the defeated: Musso, Salvadori, Villoresi, Schell.
    10. In disbelief, organizers check engine after the race.

    Enough of an underdog scenario?

    Race: Grand Prix of Syracuse, 1955.
    Car: Connaught
    Driver: Tony Brooks

    (If you don’t think non-championship races should count, then I’ll take Moss at Monaco in 1961)

    1. I like that one and Moss/Monaco was my second choice. Thanks for the creative post….just to prove someone is watching.

    2. Oh, and if we can talk non-championship races, how about Moss at Oulton/Aintree? in the wet in the Ferguson 4WD. I was there but can’t remember which circuit, can’t remember much come to think about it.

      My wife is hoping I’ll forget to race at Philip Island in March!

    3. Paul Sainsbury
      27th February 2009, 10:34

      Of course, Moss at Monaco in ’61! Now that really is a candidate for best underdog win of all time. 9 years before I was born, would love to have been around for that one.

  18. As someone pointed out, Vettel’s win in Italy 2008 was impressive because he started from pole on his merit alongside a McLaren that couldn’t pass him for the whole race… in fact, who didn’t even threatened him!

    Like I said before, that win finally convinced me that Vettel’s is much more than a hyped driver, but a great talent…

    Before him, I’ll vote on Frentzen’s wins with Jordan in 1999… he wasn’t really an underdog like Vettel with his Toro Rosso, but was always with inferior machinery and fought not only for race wins but, briefly, for the title…

  19. and that was with a 10-6-4-3-2-1 pointscoring system…

  20. My Votes
    Best 1st win by underdog: Panis Monaco 96. That was a soaking wet race, several drivers crashed out in front (including Schumi)and Panis was the fastest car on track for part of the race.
    Almost win: Hill, Hungary 97
    The master in a slow car: Senna, Donnington 93
    The new guy: Alonso Imola 05 He drove perfectly for those final 12 laps with Schumacher on his gearbox. Schmi caught Alonso at nearly 2 sec per lap and couldn’t get past. That’s when I realized how good Alonso is! (was the underdog, after that race, he certainly was not)

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