Top ten… Underdog triumphs (Video)

Guest writer Ned Flanders aka Greg picks ten of the great underdog performances in F1.

One of the few things the 2010 season has been lacking is a shock underdog triumph.

So, for everyone who supports the dark horses of motor racing like I do, here are just a few occasions when the smaller teams of Formula 1 have had their moment in the spotlight.

Penske

1976 Austrian Grand Prix

Fans of American motorsport may find the association of the words ??Penske? and ??underdog? absurd. The team has been a dominant force in both NASCAR and IndyCar over the past four decades, with taking several championships across both series? and fifteen Indy 500 victories.

But Penske were the outsiders in their brief foray into Formula 1 from 1974 to 1976, battling against the preconceived notions that American constructors couldn?t make it at the highest level of motorsport.

By mid-1976, it seemed that the doubters were right. In 21 F1 races, Penske had managed just three points finishes. Worse, lead driver Mark Donohue was killed by a brain haemorrhage after an accident at the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix.

But the introduction of a new car, the PC4, sparked Penske?s season into life. Donohue?s replacement, Ulsterman John Watson, arrived at the Austrian GP in fine form. And with championship favourite Niki Lauda ruled out after his near-fatal crash at the Nurburgring two weeks earlier, the race was there for the taking.

Starting from the front row, Watson took the lead on lap 12 and held it until the end. It was a poignant victory for Penske after Donohue?s death at the circuit a year earlier, and it would be their last, as team owner Roger Penske withdrew his outfit back to the US at the end of the year.

Jordan

2003 Brazilian Grand Prix

Jordan?s fall from grace from their late nineties heyday was swift. From 2000 to 2002, the Silverstone-based outfit managed just a pair of podiums, a paltry amount for a team who had a driver in contention for the championship in 1999. Then Honda ended their engine supply leaving Jordan with Ford power in 2003.

But in the demolition derby that was the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, Giancarlo Fisichella piloted Jordan to an astonishing, against-the-odds victory, and his own maiden F1 win.

While the likes of Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button and Juan Pablo Montoya were all caught out by a small river running across turn three, Fisichella gradually moved up the order.

Eventually he passed Kimi R??ikk??nen for the lead but shortly afterwards the race was red flagged as Fernando Alonso had crashed into debris left by Mark Webber’s earlier accident. Jordan and Fisichella were the winners.

Except, this being F1, things weren?t as simple as that. R??ikk??nen was initially declared victor due to a mis-reading of the rules which explain which lap the result is taken from in the event of a race being stopped early. Although the matter was clarified after the race, and Fisichella reinstated as victor, it was a travesty that the popular Italian and his team were not able to celebrate their result on the podium as they deserved.

Arrows

1997 Hungarian Grand Prix

Despite making headlines by signing reigning world champion Damon Hill, the 1997 season initially proved another forgettable chapter in the history of for long-suffering F1 underachievers, Arrows.

However, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, the team finally burst into the limelight. The twisty Hungaroring circuit suited both their car and its Bridgestone tyres perfectly, and against all expectations Hill was in contention for victory. Qualifying third on the grid, he started well and on lap 11 overtook old adversary Michael Schumacher for the lead.

From then on, Hill was unstoppable, building a seemingly unassailable 35 second buffer over second placed Jacques Villeneueve. But with just three laps to go, the Arrows began to slow. Agonisingly for team and driver, the car had suffered a hydraulic failure, and although Hill used all his experience to coax the car home, he was powerless to prevent Villeneuve from taking the lead with less than half a lap to go.

Although Hill was able to salvage second place, equalling the teams best ever result, it was little consolation. Arrows had waited 20 years and almost 300 races to break its victory duck yet had blown its best ever chance. The subsequent realisation that the failed component which had cost them the win was a washer barely worth 50 pence only rubbed salt into the wounds.

Ligier

1996 Monaco Grand Prix

Street races tend to throw up unusual results. So do wet races. So when you get rain on race day in Monaco, as occurred in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, you can be sure that strange things are going to happen.

The sheer facts are extraordinary. 21 cars started the race. Within three laps, a third of them were out. When the chequered flag fell after two hours of racing, just three cars were still circulating. Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Jean Alesi all led but retired, the latter pair through mechanical failures.

The next – and last – man to head the field was Olivier Panis. The Frenchman had started 14th on the grid in his uncompetitive Ligier JS43, yet he had worked his way up the order as others dropped out. He also barged his way past Eddie Irvine at the hairpin.

Panis went on to cross the line on the final lap five seconds clear of David Coulthard to secure Ligier?s first win since Jacques Laffite triumphed at Montreal 15 years earlier. It was undoubtedly a lucky win but Panis had driven well in the treacherous conditions, and no one could begrudge him his success.

It was Ligier?s final Grand Prix victory, and Panis? sole win. The following year he suffered leg injuries in a crash at the Canadian Grand Prix, and he never looked like winning a race again.

Hesketh

1975 Dutch Grand Prix

Hesketh Racing was founded in 1972 by the eccentric young English Lord, Alexander Hesketh. He had inherited both the title ??Third Baron of Hesketh? and a large fortune from his father, and with more money than sense had proceeded to funnel a large portion of it into his own racing team.

In its short history in F3, F2 and ultimately F1, the team became notorious for their madcap antics, from booking their entire team personnel into five-star hotels at race meetings, drinking post-race champagne no matter how their cars had fared, and even the bizarre ritual of clucking to the ??Great Chicken in the Sky? for luck before the race. Every race meeting was seen as an excuse to party.

But Hesketh?s rebellious playboy behaviour hid a steely determination to succeed in F1. Lord Hesketh was desperate to prove to the F1 establishment that his privateer team could overcome the odds and win. Hesketh?s first two seasons with up and coming British star James Hunt yielded five podiums – an excellent return for such an inexperienced, low budget team.

But it was not until 1975 that the team finally achieved their ultimate goal. Qualifying third on the grid at Zandvoort, Hunt chose to start the race with a dry set up, even though the circuit was still damp from pre-race showers. It proved an inspired decision: Hunt made an early stop for dry tyres and, once his rivals had also stopped, he found himself in the lead.

For the final 20 laps, Hunt had the 1975 champion Niki Lauda snapping at his heels, but he was able to hold him off to record what was a hugely popular first victory for both team and driver.

Toro Rosso

2008 Italian Grand Prix

On an uncharacteristically gloomy Italian day at Monza in September 2008, Sebastian Vettel upset the odds to take a dominant debut victory for both himself and his team, Toro Rosso.

Just a few years earlier, such a victory would have seemed almost inconceivable. Toro Rosso are the successors to Formula 1?s perennial underachievers, Minardi, who had gone 345 races without a single podium, never mind a victory. For Italy?s second team to overcome the odds and win their home Grand Prix was a momentous occasion.

Some may dispute whether this was a true underdog victory. Millions of dollars had been lavished on the Adrian Newey-designed car which Vettel piloted at that season, courtesy of the team’s billionaire owner, Dietrich Mateschitz. And Toro Rosso had established themselves as a midfield team by mid-2008 with a succession of top 8 finishes. Hardly Minardi-esque, it must be said.

But, despite all the money now at the teams disposal, despite the change in ownership and rebranding, it is undeniable that Toro Rosso was a team known for over two decades as Minardi, a team that continues to race under an Italian racing license from the same Faenza base, with many employees who had worked for the team since the Minardi era. And they had gone and won their home Grand Prix. It was sensational stuff.

Stewart

1999 European Grand Prix

Few new teams in the modern era have been able to replicate the rapid success the Ford-backed Stewart team managed in its fleeting existence in the late nineties.

In only its fifth race, the team secured a second place finish at the Monaco Grand Prix courtesy of Rubens Barrichello, and proved itself capable of challenging for points on other occasions. To put that into perspective, the best result achieved by any of this year’s new teams is 12th.

But better was to come. In the lottery that was the 1999 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Johnny Herbert triumphed in one of those hair-raising wet-dry races the area is renowned for throwing up. Better still, his team mate Barrichello joined him on the podium.

The result was something of a fluke, as underdog triumphs often are. The pair had qualified 14th and 15th and might well have finished there had the weather gods not intervened. But regardless of this, it was an excellent and popular win for the fledgling team.

Tyrrell

1990 United States Grand Prix

The eighties was a difficult decade for Tyrell. The once-great team, which had dominated Formula 1 for a period in the early seventies, had been badly hit by the onset of the turbo era, winning just two races and finishing no higher than fifth in the constructors championship.

But, coinciding with the arrival of Jean Alesi in 1989, Tyrrell were to enjoy a brief renaissance. Considered one of the rising stars of motorsport, he bolstered his reputation with some impressive results – eight points in his first six races (back in the days when you didn’t get anything for finishing seventh) including fourth place on his debut at Paul Ricard a highlight.

Naturally, expectations were high for the 1990 season, but no one could have predicted what was to happen at the season-opening race at Phoenix. Starting from fourth on the grid, Alesi shot into the lead at the start, with Ayrton Senna in pursuit.

Incredibly, it took Senna until the half way mark to catch Alesi. Overtaking the Tyrell proved more troublesome. On lap 34 Senna made his move, darting through on the inside. But Alesi refused to back down, re-passing Senna into the next corner.

Next time around Senna made the same move again, but this time he made it stick. Alesi went on to finish a triumphant runner up to the McLaren, gaining plaudits for his speed and audacity. It was Tyrrell?s best finish for seven years.

Leyton House

1990 French Grand Prix

Japanese property tycoon Akira Akagi established Leyton House in 1989 after buying out March. With up-and-coming aerodynamicist Adrian Newey in charge of design and the talented Ivan Capelli in the cockpit, there was potential for success. But by early 1990, the team was mired in mediocrity. Merely qualifying for races, never mind scoring points, was proving a challenge.

Then, at the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, for one race only, something rather strange happened: Leyton House became the pace setters.

Normally, when a small team achieves a shock result, there are a few warning signs preceding it: improved pace in the previous races, for example, or perhaps increased suitability of a car to a certain track. Not with Leyton House. They went from non-qualifiers in the previous race at Mexico to running first and second for almost 20 laps of the French Grand Prix.

The explanation why was the pioneering aerodynamic work done by Newey. On the smooth Paul Ricard tarmac it worked perfectly, but on rougher surfaces the air wasn’t going where it was supposed to.

After a strong qualifying performance, Capelli and his team mate Mauricio Gugelmin ran in the midfield for the first half of the race, but as one by one the front runners pitted for tyres, the duo moved up the field until they led. And there was no mandatory pit stop rule in 1990.

Their opponents waited for their tyres to lose performance and their pace to drop, but Newey’s car kept its tyres intact and it became clear the Leyton House cars were planning to race without stopping.

But, while Newey?s car?s are fast, they also tend to be fragile, and so it proved at Paul Ricard. First Gugelmin retired from third place on lap 58. Then, with Alain Prost?s Ferrari on his tail, Capelli?s car developed a misfire. Despite holding the Ferrari off for several laps, Prost eventually found a way into the lead with just three laps to go.

Although the Leyton House held on to finish an excellent second, it was a crushing blow for both team and driver, neither of whom would ever record a victory.

Toleman

1984 Monaco Grand Prix

The 1984 season saw the arrival of one of the greatest talents in racing history: Ayrton Senna. Driving for the uncompetitive Toleman team (later renamed Benetton and now Renault), Senna was up to speed almost immediately, scoring points in just his second race and ending the season with an impressive trio of podiums. His form secured him a move to Lotus, and within a few years Senna was established as an F1 star.

The best performance of his debut season came in atrocious conditions on the streets of Monte-Carlo. Starting in the midfield, a combination of attrition and his wet weather skills propelled him up the order until only race leader Prost was ahead. As the gap rapidly began to close, Prost signalled frantically to race organisers to bring the race to a halt for safety reasons.

On lap 31 they controversially obliged, bringing Senna?s charge to a halt. Naturally, The Brazilian was furious at being denied a chance to take what could have been a remarkable victory in only his sixth Grand Prix start. Regardless, it had been an excellent drive to secure a runner?s up finish his team could scarcely have dreamed of.

We will never know who would have won had the race had it been allowed to continue to its full duration.

Perhaps Prost would have recovered his composure and rebuilt the gap? Perhaps Senna may not have lasted the distance himself, as his Toleman was notoriously unreliable. Alternatively, some analysts point out that the pair were being caught by the Tyrell of Stefan Bellof, who may have passed them both. We can only speculate.

But what about Brawn?

A team that didn’t exist the year before winning the world championship? Surely that counts as an “underdog triumph”? It’s a difficult call.

The car that became the Brawn BGP-001, which might have been the Honda RA109, benefited from a gigantic amount of investment and development before Honda pulled the plug on their F1 operation at the end of 2008.

It is true that, despite having a budget in place to compete in 2009, the team had to lay off large numbers of staff at the beginning og the year. But the fact they were competitive throughout an entire season shows this was not really the case of an underdog team claiming a one-off success.

Over to you

Of course, there have been many other superb drives by F1 minnows that would have been worthy of a place on the list here.

Mark Webber?s sensational qualifying performances with Jaguar, Luca Badoer?s heroics at the Nurburgring in 1999 with Minardi, and Force India?s debut podium at Spa last year are just three recent examples which spring to mind.

If you have any suggestions of your own, or you dispute any of my choices, leave a comment below.

F1 top tens


Read more top tens

Image ?? Red Bull/GEPA

Advert | Go Ad-free

92 comments on Top ten… Underdog triumphs (Video)

1 2 3
  1. plushpile (@plushpile) said on 14th October 2010, 10:31

    Alan Jones’ 1977 Austrian GP win in a Shadow is an underdog victory that comes to mind, as does Villenuve’s 1981 win at Jarama

    • The Sri Lankan said on 17th October 2010, 10:37

      Jarno Trulli – Magny Cours – 2008
      Timo Glock – Hungarian Gp – 2008

      its not every day that a TOYOTA gives grief to the likes of Mclaren and Ferrari

  2. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 14th October 2010, 10:35

    Great article Greg! But I have to nit-pick, Schumacher wasn’t leading the Monaco Grand Prix when he crashed; Hill got the jump on him at the start.

    I would also count Spa 2009, but for Raikkonen’s win as well as Fisichella’s pole. The Ferrari was never in any position to win a race all year on pace and yet after many of his rivals had been caught out in qualifying by setting their times on the soft tyre, Raikkonen (somewhat dodgily) got into 2nd and then the lead at the re-start.

    It’s why I’ve hated KERS ever since – it was the first and last time it was used to preserve the lead, rather than take it and waltz away. Fisichella could have won that race (if the lack of KERS existing hadn’t led Ferrari to build a better car in the first place, of course).

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 14th October 2010, 10:45

      I’ve tweaked the text accordingly.

      • awab216 said on 18th October 2010, 11:06

        How could you forget honda at the 2006 hungarian gp

        • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 18th October 2010, 11:08

          Honda weren’t underdogs in any sense in 2006.

          • A-Safieldin said on 18th October 2010, 19:01

            of course they were they consistently under preformed as a team in an under preforming car with a then driver who never lived up to the hype associated with him early in his career, and a number two driver who was clearly a ferrari reject. I understand that they were indeed a large team but honestly you cant deny that when they won you felt that it was a triumph of an underdog car team and driver

  3. Dan Thorn (@dan-thorn) said on 14th October 2010, 10:38

    Great article. Monaco 96 is a firm favourite of mine – Panis did a lot of passing that day and at one point was setting laps over 5 seconds quicker than anyone else! IIRC he was also fastest in the morning warm up. A lucky win maybe but it was just one of those days where everything comes together.

    Verstappen at Malaysia in 2001 was a gutsy drive, as was Andrea de Cesaris at Spa 1991.

    • Xanathos said on 14th October 2010, 11:22

      I remember Monaco 1996 very well, even if I’ve been only 8 years old at the time. The race was crazy, but Panis was impressive and I became a fan of him after that. I still think that he could have won another race in 97 if not for the accident at Montreal.

      • damonsmedley (@damonsmedley) said on 14th October 2010, 12:55

        I wish I could have seen it… I also sometimes wish I didn’t know so much about Formula 1 so I could go back and watch these races. But the fun is taken out of it considering I know the results for most of the classic, famous Grands Prix. I know I really would have enjoyed Spa ’98 and Monaco ’96 a lot more if I watched them without knowledge of the outcome.

      • George said on 14th October 2010, 18:09

        ’96-’97 are the earliest years I can remember, I recall being gutted when Panis broke his legs, and when Villeneuve passed Hill (my dad was a big Hill fan).

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 14th October 2010, 15:45

      I think that is my favourite as well. Shame about Panis breaking his legs the year after and never fully recovering.

      I also liked Herbert and Barricello in 1999, with the other underdog team Prost getting on the podium as well. That year it still looked like Prost was onto someting.

  4. Marco said on 14th October 2010, 10:47

    It was a great race for Olivier, because he also made some overtaking (Häkkinen, Brundle, Irvine, Herbert) and was very fast in those conditions… Already in warm up he set the fastest time, only problem was his low qualifying position… That was the reason for not having clean air in the race… Btw. in 1997 he was driving excellent in Argentina and Spain… In Buenos Aires he could have win, but engine stopped him… In Barcelona his big “friend” Irvine blocked him and he lost many seconds there… Remeber he crossed the finish line just some 5 second behind Villenevue 2nd and he started only 12… 1997 was definitely his best season and was very upset after his crash in Canada…

  5. jihelle (@jihelle) said on 14th October 2010, 10:54

    The Walter Wolf team maiden win in Argentina 1977 with Jody Scheckter at the wheel starting from 11th on the grid would deserve to be in the top ten. New team, new car, first race, first win. Quite amazing. And gosh, how these images from Watson’s win in Austria 1976 throw me back in time !!! The four leading cars abreast and swapping first place for several laps.No wonder I was hooked to Formula One at the time.

  6. Xanathos said on 14th October 2010, 11:25

    I think Spa 09 could be in there as well: A team which has never scored a point before (despite some near misses) suddenly standing on Pole Position and finishing second in an absolutely normal race!
    Just a reminder: Adrian Sutil qualified in 11th for that race. At that time, it was the team’s third best Qualifying result ever!

    • Burnout said on 14th October 2010, 18:52

      That was a wonderful race to watch. I remember wishing desperately for Fisi to find a way past, even though I’m a pretty big Raikkonen fan.

  7. Mark Young said on 14th October 2010, 11:28

    Wonderful article Ned/Greg

    The section on Leyton House was very evocative for me as i distinctly remember roaring them on as 12 year old back in 1990 and being shattered when Prost mugged them at the end of the race.

    I would also throw in
    Minardi – Mark Webber – Australia 2002 (How many races have seen a bigger crowd post race for fifth then the podium)
    and
    Arrows – Derek Warwick – Canada 1989 (Oh so close to a win!)

  8. jihelle (@jihelle) said on 14th October 2010, 11:37

    And Vittorio Brambilla only win in Austria in 1975 when he crashed just after passing the flag. But I am really showing my age here…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6a4mbwhuJfI

  9. Icarus said on 14th October 2010, 11:57

    I really think Force India at Spa in 2009 should be on this list, because unlike a few lucky wins here they qualified on pole ON MERIT, and would win the race if not for Raikonnen’s semi-fair move(which would be punished in 2010)and KERS – ON MERIT, and this a team that won no points at all before that and which was basically a laughing stock just few months ago before this race.

    • Casanova said on 14th October 2010, 13:10

      I was hoping it would be. It would have been amazing had they been regular midfield runners, but as a team that had never scored a point (in FI guise at least) it was truly something special.

      • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 14th October 2010, 18:40

        I kind of wanted to include that- it was of course an incredible performance, and completely unexpected- but I wanted to include a few older ones. Spa 2009 was barely a year ago, I assumed most people knew the story for themselves

  10. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 14th October 2010, 12:08

    Here’s one: Alessandro Nannini’s victory at Suzuka in 1989. Similar to Panis really, he never quite filled all his potential.

    • I thought of that one too. It was a great shame about both of those drivers as they did seem to have so much promise.

      • Daniel said on 14th October 2010, 15:36

        You can add Brundle to that list, Finished 2nd in the Tyrell in Detroit (later disqualified for a ridiculous technicality) only to break both ankles in Dallas the week later, wasn’t quite as quick after that.

  11. damonsmedley said on 14th October 2010, 12:08

    I always knew that Monaco 1996 was a classic, but having not witnessed it, this article had only inspired me to download it.

    I think the one that really stands out for me is Hill’s second place in Hungary. I was too young to understand what was happening at the time, but reading this really does highlight how cruel that race was. It really would have shown Frank Williams what a fool he was for dropping him in favour of the very un-memorable Heinz Harald Frentzen.

    The one I think you should have included is Jordan’s 1-2 in Spa 1998. Sure enough, attrition played a large part in the outcome, but watching that first lap pile-ip closely, you can see just how skilfully the two Jordan drivers negotiated the wreckage. I don’t believe I saw another car that wasn’t ahead of the accident, not get caught up in it. So really, for surviving that carnage, they get my praise. Obviously, being a top ten article you can not include every underdog triumph and I would have only included it because I was not previously aware of the successes of Leyton House, Penske and Hesketh as I haven’t been around or long enough!

    I really enjoyed reading this article Ned, very well done indeed. Big thumbs up from me! :)

  12. Paul Gilbert said on 14th October 2010, 12:09

    John Love’s near-win in South Africa 1967 is another contender.

  13. jihelle (@jihelle) said on 14th October 2010, 12:12

    Thanks Paul, at least someone’s memory on that topic goes back farther than mine. I feel much younger. That said, it’s also interesting to remember about Capelli’s near win in France in 1990 that the Leyton House car was so bad on other tracks that year that its designer got the boot. His name ? Adrian Newey….

    • Bear in mind that Leyton House only finished 9 times in 1990, out of a possible 32. The rest of the time the car either retired, failed to qualify or failed to start. Hardly surprising Newey was sacked in some ways.

      As a piece of F1 design it was incredibly advanced for its time, however. Just compare the CG901’s sweeping curves to the blocky straight lines on an 1988 McLaren or the chunky Ferrari from the same year (the CG901 had its roots in the March 881, hence using ’88 as the comparison year). Aerodynamically, I reckon the March/Leyton House designs were hugely influential on the looks of modern F1 cars.

      Just a pity Newey made no concession to driver comfort or operability. At Williams Newey had the sensible Patrick Head to channel his genius in the right direction and he’s never looked back.

      • Sasquatsch said on 15th October 2010, 13:54

        The Laytron House was difficult to drive on bumpy circuits because of the lack of stiffness in the car. That is more a problem in the production process than in the design. The team didn’t have the money for improving the production process.

        Newey admitted having made a mistake in the calculations of the diffuser, which resulted in a bad handling car before the French Grand Prix. A B-spec with the right diffuser solved this problem and the smooth track in France resulted in the suprising performance. By this time however, Newey already signed with Williams, resulting in the unbeatable FW14.

  14. Alex Bkk (@alex-bkk) said on 14th October 2010, 12:27

    Nice work Ned…I saw the title and said to myself, I wonder if he got Hill at Jordan and Hill at Arrows… and you nailed them you insightful media monster ;)

1 2 3

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments must abide by the comment policy. Comments may be moderated.
Want to post off-topic? Head to the forum.
See the FAQ for more information.