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.
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.
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 Räikkönen 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. Räikkönen 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Image © Red Bull/GEPA