Updated: Feb 28, 2022
Once every couple of years, we witness a race which could be considered as among the best ever. And whilst it’s impossible to rank all these great races relative to one another, I decided to make a list of some of my favourites. If you happen to be the owner of an F1 TV Pro account, or perhaps have some old VHS tapes containing some of these races lying around, these races will be great entertainment for whenever F1 has a weekend off. But before we get into the list, I want to make it very clear that these races are not placed in any particular order, nor are they the 10 outright best races ever. I could easily have chosen 10 other races, and who knows? Perhaps I might in the future…
Written by Oskar Yigen, Edited by Aiden Hover
2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos
It looked as though it couldn’t get more exciting – the championship battle had come down to the final race of the season, between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, coupled with a slightly damp track that would only get wetter during the course of the race. But when Vettel was spun around on lap 1 after a poor getaway followed by contact with Bruno Senna at turn 4, the scene was set for one of the greatest title-deciders of Formula One’s history. Alonso needed to outscore Vettel by 13 points, something he temporarily achieved after his magical double overtake on teammate Felipe Massa and Mark Webber on lap 2, which saw him take third place. Vettel however, with damage to his left sidepod, steadily made progress through the field, and was soon back into championship-winning position. But as the rain fell heavier, a series of pit-stops and strategic decisions left him with all the work to do, dropping out of the points-paying positions yet again.
Meanwhile, chaos was unfolding at the front, with Nico Hülkenberg and Lewis Hamilton clashing and eventually allowing Jenson Button to take his final win in F1 whilst, crucially, gifting Alonso second place. But despite having everything thrown at him, Vettel managed to finish sixth and thereby manage to secure his third title by a mere 3 points after one of the most dramatic races in all of motorsport history.
Australia 1986, Adelaide Street Circuit
If the prelude to the 2012 Brazillian GP was exciting, F1 fans must’ve been close to exploding leading up to the final round of the 1986 championship. Three drivers were in contention of the title – Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet for Williams and Alain Prost for McLaren. The excitement was only helped by the fact that neither Mansell nor Prost had won a championship yet.
Mansell, being the clear favourite, took pole ahead of Piquet and Ayrton Senna, with Prost in fourth. The race didn’t go quite as Mansell had imagined though, as he had dropped to fourth before the end of the first lap. What then followed was a race of multiple championship-changing overtakes, spins and punctures – and just when the race looked to had settled down, with Mansell being in a position to take the title, the Briton had his infamous tyre failure with his left-rear tyre exploding spectacularly at 290 kph. In order to make sure something similar didn’t happen to Piquet, Williams had to pit him – at the cost of winning the championship. Therefore Prost – who had a puncture himself earlier in the race – took the championship by 2 points, after arguably the most memorable race of all time.
2011 Canadian Grand Prix, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
There have been many extraordinary comeback drives throughout the history of F1. Kimi Räikönnen in Japan in 2005 and the aforementioned Sebastian Vettel in Brazil in 2012. And even though both of these rank amongst some of the best drives ever, nothing comes close to the sheer madness that was Jenson Button’s 2011 Canadian Grand Prix.
Since it was pouring down over Montreal, the race started behind the safety car. But once it got going, chaos unfolded. Throughout the race, there never seemed to be a calm moment, as drivers were constantly clashing, spinning, and making mistakes. Couple this with a few safety cars and a lengthy red flag, and you’ve already got the recipe for a banger. But as most of you probably know, Jenson Button wasn’t satisfied with that – far from it.
After making contact with teammate Lewis Hamilton – which resulted in the young superstar’s retirement – clashing with Fernando Alonso, getting a drive-through penalty and making a total of 6 pit stops, Button caught up to race leader Vettel on the final lap, where a mistake sent the German-wide, allowing Button to go through and take the win in a race which is considered by many to be the best.
1999 European Grand Prix, Nürburgring
If chaos is the word to describe Canada 2011, sheer pandemonium best describes the 1999 European GP. It was set to be crucial even before lights-out, as a tense championship battle between Eddie Irvine for Ferrari, Mika Häkkinen for McLaren and surprisingly Heinz-Harald Frentzen for Jordan was ongoing. But when the race finally got underway – after the first start was aborted as a result of multiple drivers jumping it – well, words aren’t enough to allow you to comprehend what went on. Crashes, spins, mistakes, pit stop errors and more resulted in positions up and down the field – including the lead – constantly changing. All of it was made even more dramatic by the implications on the title fight, which seemed to be constantly evolving. However, I won’t spoil the final result of this one – it’s simply too good for you not to watch.
2020 Italian Grand Prix, Monza
Great races don’t always have to be action-packed. In fact, a race can be tense and exciting, even if the eventual winner leads the last 25 laps. At the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, exactly that was the case. Pierre Gasly utilised a perfectly timed safety car during which the pitlane at first was closed, bunching up the pack. After the pitlane was re-opened and everyone had made their pitstops, Gasly emerged in third place after running tenth for most of the race.
After the safety car period had ended, the race only ran under green flags for one lap before Charles Leclerc’s high-speed crash at Parabolica, which brought out the red flag. Under the stoppage, it quickly emerged that Lewis Hamilton would receive a 10 second stop/go penalty for making his pitstop whilst the pitlane was still closed. This put Gasly into de facto second place, which he himself turned into first place at the standing restart of the race, where he overtook Lance Stroll who just like Gasly had inherited a brilliant position. Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz – who was in second place before the safety car, and had seemed to be the fastest non-Mercedes driver throughout the weekend – had been compromised by the safety car and put back to sixth position. He quickly made progress though, and with 20 laps to go, he was back up to second place, 4 seconds behind Gasly. And so, the battle was on. Sainz chasing with a faster car with Gasly desperately trying to hold on and both wanting to win their first Formula One victory.
In the end, it came down to the final lap, Sainz finishing just 4 tenths of a second behind Gasly. The Frenchman took an emotional victory at his AlphaTauri team’s home track. Remarkably – with Stroll taking third place – the podium was the first since 2012 that didn’t have at least one of the three teams, Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari standing on it, not to mention that the race itself was a welcome relief to an, up to that point, quite dull 2020 season.
1996 Monaco Grand Prix, Monaco Street Circuit
Some of the previous races on this list had high attrition. But none will come close to the levels of the 1996 Monaco GP – all I need to tell you is that only the three drivers finishing on the podium actually completed all 75 laps. How in the world did that happen, you might ask? A big part of the answer was, as often is with that sort of race, rain. As the lights went out, the track was wet enough to require the use of intermediate tyres, though it wasn’t raining anymore. But if anyone had thought that this would spare the drivers from the carnage, they were wrong.
It took just 5 laps before the 21 drivers who had started the race were reduced to 13 thanks to a number of mechanical failures and driver errors, one of those being made by Michael Schumacher. The german – after losing his pole position advantage to Damon Hill off the line – only reached Lower Mirabeau before binning his car into the outside barrier. And from then on, it only got worse. Hill, who had been leading for most of the race, retired due to an engine failure on lap 40. Jean Alesi, who had inherited the lead after Hill’s retirement, suffered from a suspension failure. Meanwhile, drivers like Eddie Irvine, Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Häkinnen, Mika Salo, and Ralf Schumacher – the ones who would be expected to take the win in such a situation – were all having collisions with one another, eventually forcing them all to retire. But not only the front-runners had issues; drivers like Katayama, Rosset, Diniz, Berger, and Brundle, who were expected to take some sort of advantage in such circumstances, all retired due to either personal errors or mechanical troubles. And before anyone knew, only four drivers were left in the race. Olivier Panis, who after starting fourteenth had shown great skill in avoiding all the chaos around him, took his first and only victory in F1. David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert followed him onto the podium, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen was classified fourth even though he pulled into the pits to retire on the last lap of the race. A truly crazy race, definitely worth a watch – if not for the result itself then for some of the bizarre incidents which eliminated driver after driver.
1998 Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps
There are certain moments often used to describe Formula One – either because they define the essence of the sport, or because they’re outright crazy. What happened at the start of the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix definitely belongs to the latter category.
At the exit of turn 1 on the first lap, David Coulthard lost control of his McLaren on the extremely wet track and speared into the barriers, causing an accident which took out 13 drivers, all having greatly reduced vision as a result of the spray from the cars in front due to the wet track. The race was red-flagged, and it took an hour to clear away all the debris before the race could be restarted. Many spectators would’ve probably thought that the rest of the race couldn’t be anywhere nearly as insane as that first lap, in which case they’d be terribly wrong.
When the race was restarted, now with four drivers less (most drivers involved in the crash could still partake, since back then all teams had one spare car waiting in the garage in case one of the two primary cars was damaged), Mika Häkkinen immediately spun, taking himself and Johnny Herbert out of the race. Damon Hill took the lead, with Michael Schumacher in second place. The Ferrari driver clearly had a comfortable pace advantage, overtaking Hill on the seventh lap. From then on, Schumacher built up a thirty-second lead and looked set to take the win and with it, a good step towards the championship in his battle with Häkkinen.
That was until he came to lap David Coulthard, who had already caused the massive turn 1 accident. The Scottish driver slowed down to let Schumacher pass, but crucially he stayed on the racing line. Because of the spray, Schumacher failed to notice the slow-going McLaren until it was too late. And thus, another iconic image was created; Schumacher slamming into the back of Coulthard, and subsequently trundling around with his entire front-right wheel gone. All this led to Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher taking first and second place for Jordan in the teams’ maiden victory – and it’s only ever 1-2.
1990 Mexican Grand Prix, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez
This race isn’t traditionally brought into the conversation of the greatest ever. That’s a shame, as it – contrary to many other races on this list – was great because of the racing itself, and not only because of massive crashes and countless DNF’s.
Gerhard Berger for Mclaren started on pole, out-qualifying his teammate Ayrton Senna who started third, with Ricardo Patrese for Williams in second. The championship in 1990 was a fight between the two McLarens and the Ferrari drivers, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. In Mexico, the former had a dismal Saturday, qualifying a disappointing thirteenth. But as the green flags were waved on Sunday, he set off on an impressive recovery drive, eventually overtaking Mansell and Berger – who had lost the lead to Senna at the start – before taking second place with 15 laps to go. Senna’s tyres had degraded, so it didn’t take long before he was overtaken by Prost as well. But, as if that wasn’t bad enough for Senna, the Brazilian’s right-rear tyre punctured only three laps later, forcing him into retirement and leaving Mansell and Berger to duel over second place. Mansell came out on top with a breathtaking move around the outside of Peraltada, the final turn. The overtake, which was nothing less than sensational, secured Ferrari a highly unexpected 1-2 after a brilliantly exciting race.
2000 Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka
The second-to-last race on this list is probably not one that in isolation as a single race deserves to be here. However, whilst the on-track action perhaps wasn’t that great, the following years would prove to us the significance of it, as it marked the beginning of the era of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominance in F1. The German driver and his Italian team had been battling for the world championship throughout the season with a Finnish driver and his British team, namely Mika Häkkinen and McLaren, both drivers trying to achieve their third title, with Ferrari attempting to claim their first in 21 years.
Coming into the penultimate Grand Prix of the season in Japan, Schumacher had the chance to clinch the championship by winning the race, regardless of where Häkkinen finished. And it started well for the now 7-time world champion, setting the fastest time in three of the four practice sessions and ultimately securing pole position ahead of Häkkinen who would start alongside Schumacher on the front row. But Häkkinen got a better start than Schumacher and took the lead into the first corner, maintaining an average gap of around two seconds down to the championship leader in the first and second stints. But as McLaren called their driver in for his second and final stop, Schumacher stepped on the gas and used the power of the overcut (which back then was more effective than the undercut since refuelling was a factor – cars who had just pitted came out much heavier than before their stops, something which much outweighed the advantage of fresher tyres) to, after he’d also pitted, come out in front of Häkkinen and subsequently take the victory and the championship. At the final race of the season in Malaysia, Ferrari also secured the constructors’ championship, thus bringing much-awaited and missed glory home to Maranello.
1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza
Most of you have probably heard that when writing a book, an essay, or any text of a similar kind, one should always put most focus and effort into the ending. Why? Because that’s what people remember the most. Likewise, the last few laps of a Formula One race are often the ones that define it, at least in the eyes of many fans. And I’d forgive you for having heard only of the hair-raisingly close finish to the 1971 Italian GP, where the top five finished within a mere 6 tenths of a second, and the top four just 18 hundreds of a second. But if that’s all you’ve so far known of this – quite simply – unbelievable Grand Prix, you’re missing out. Because in order to set up such a finish, it takes an extraordinary race.
The build-up to the weekend was actually more one of relief than of excitement. Jackie Stewart had dominated the season up until that point and had already secured the championship. However, it was well-known amongst fans that he was highly unlikely to challenge for the win at the high-speed track that is Monza, seeing as the V8 Cosworth engine in the back of the Scotmans’ Tyrrell was up against the V12’s of various other teams.
As was predicted, Stewart qualified in a lowly P7, with the Matra of Chris Amon taking pole position. The New Zealander wouldn’t maintain this advantage for long though, as it only took him one lap to drop from first to eighth. Ronnie Peterson quickly took the lead, and behind him, all places were chopping and changing in epic fashion, something which continued the entire race.
Fast forward to around lap 45, and multiple drivers – including some of the favourites to take the win, polesitter Chris Amon for instance – had retired or been set back for various reasons. This left five drivers to fight for victory; Peter Gethin, Ronnie Peterson, François Cevert, Mike Hailwood, and Howden Ganley – made even more exciting by the fact that all of these drivers were yet to achieve their only win.
Not only did the battle come down to the final lap – it came down to the final corner. Coming into Parabolica on the 55th and final lap, Cevert led Peterson. Desperate to win whatever it took, they both broke too late and thereby ruined their exits off the corner. Gethin stole the win, crossing the line ahead of Peterson, Cevert, Hailwood, and Ganley in said order, as mentioned previously all covered by six tenths. And we dared to think that the Bahrain GP was exciting, with Lewis Hamilton taking the checkered flag seven-tenths in front of Max Verstappen – it pales somewhat in comparison to the in my opinion – even though I said in the introduction to this article that I wouldn’t rank these races in any particular order – the greatest race of all time.
As the 2021 season gets well and truly on the way, we can only hope for some races that come close to those I have mentioned today. We, as ever in motorsport, can only wait and see.