Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
Formula One has seen plenty of closely-fought championship battles in its decorated and fabled history. On more than one occasion, the World Champion has been decided in the final or penultimate race of the season. In fact, last year's title decider between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton was the 30th time the champion was crowned in the season's final race.
While the championship decider was indeed an eventful affair, that race is now part of an elusive list of eventful races which saw a new world champion being crowned. Without further ado, let us turn back the clock to look through the history books of Formula One at these races and how they panned out.
1959 US Grand Prix: Pushing the car over the line
This was the first race that took place in the USA and ran under the 'US Grand Prix' banner. In an earlier article 'Where has Formula One Raced in The United States?', I had written about this race, held at the Sebring International Raceway, Florida. Three drivers entered the season finale with a chance to become the World Champion - Australian driver Jack Brabham, and British drivers Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks. The trio had won two races each that season, Brabham at the opening round in Monaco and later at the British GP; Moss having won two consecutive races before the finale, the Portuguese and Italian Grands Prix; and Brooks who took victories at the French and German Grands Prix, the latter held at the infamous AVUS circuit.
Brabham led the standings with 31 points to his name, Moss second with 25.5 points, and Brooks with 23 points. Moss drew first blood, taking pole position and continuing his momentum from the prior rounds. Brabham lined up alongside him in second and Brooks in fourth. On race day, Moss and Brooks were out of the running for the title early on (Moss out of the race itself), leaving Brabham with the lead of the race and a free run to the title. He paced himself to the finish, but only 400 yards from the finish line on the last lap, his car sputtered to a halt. His decision not to start the race on full tanks had come back to hurt him. He was passed by Bruce McLaren, Maurice Trintignant, and a recovering Tony Brooks. Pushing his car across the finish line, Brabham finished fourth, took three vital points, and was crowned World Champion of 1959. An eventful start to F1 in the USA, indeed!
1974 US Grand Prix: Level on points entering the finale
For the first time in the sport's history, two drivers had come into the season finale level on points. Ferrari's Clay Regazzoni and McLaren's Emerson Fittipaldi were level on 52 points each after Fittipaldi won out in the round prior at the Canadian Grand Prix. Regazzoni was second.
And what a location to crown a world champion - the famous Watkins Glen in New York. The rough, fast track saw Carlos Reutemann take pole position for Brabham. Fittipaldi and Regazzoni qualified only eighth and ninth respectively. An attritious and tragedy-marred race saw Reutemann win out ahead of Carlos Pace and James Hunt. Ferrari's challenge faded away during the race, as Regazzoni was struggling with a defective damper which saw his car's front end being all over the place and difficult to handle. His teammate Niki Lauda tried to hold up the cars ahead but to no avail; he too pulled out of the race following his compatriot Helmut Koinigg's death. Regazzoni had to make an extra pit stop for his team to adjust the anti-roll bar, but his challenge was all but over. Meanwhile, Fittipaldi made his way up to fourth, scoring three vital points and claiming the title. McLaren claimed their first constructors' title that season, thanks to Fittipaldi and Denny Hulme's efforts.
1976 Japanese Grand Prix: A thrilling rivalry ends with Hunt as Champion
This rivalry can be touted as one of the best in Formula One. Niki Lauda vs James Hunt. Ferrari vs McLaren. A gripping rivalry that kept the fans on the edge of their seats and one decided in the final round, by a singular point. Lauda initially took a big lead in the standings, as Hunt struggled to get off the mark, 24 points to six points of Hunt's. Things changed after the Spanish GP, though, when Hunt's disqualification was overturned and he kept his victory, and at the infamous Nordschleife when Lauda's massive crash forced him to miss two races. Hunt ate into his championship lead, pushing the Austrian to make an earlier-than-usual return at Ferrari's home race, Monza. Lauda defied pain to finish third in the race and took another podium two races later at Watkins Glen, but Hunt's two successive wins at Canada and "The Glen" took the title down to the finale at the Fuji Speedway, Japan.
Lauda led Hunt by three points going into the finale. Mario Andretti took pole position ahead of Hunt and Lauda. On race day, there was debate regarding the race taking place, due to the standing water and fog, yet the organisers agreed to go ahead, much to the dislike of many drivers. Hunt moved into the lead from John Watson and Andretti. Two laps later, Lauda pulled into the pits to retire, citing the dangerous conditions. He later stated that his life was more important than a world title. Hunt led the race from Andretti and Vittorio Brambilla. Late in the race, on lap 62, the track began to dry, and Hunt, suffering from tyre wear, was passed by Andretti and Patrick Depailler. He pitted and fell to fifth, behind Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni. Depailler pitted and came out ahead of Hunt. The duo made their way past Jones and Regazzoni, who were on fading tyres. Hunt was now third, having secured enough points to win the title. Initially in disbelief, Hunt was convinced that he was indeed World Champion, by one point.
This rivalry was so gripping that it was made into a film, Rush, 37 years later.
1984 Portuguese Grand Prix: The small matter of “half a point”
The 1984 season saw McLaren teammates Lauda and nine-time race winner Alain Prost battle for the title. This season would be remembered for being the only one wherein the champion didn't take a single pole position during the season. More importantly, Lauda won the title by a mere half a point from Prost. This is the closest margin of victory to date.
McLaren had taken 11 of the 15 race wins leading up to the finale, five going to Lauda and six going to the Frenchman, Prost. Prost had been the better qualifier, taking three poles to Lauda's none. However, the Austrian came into his own on race day, finishing on the podium in all but one of the races when he completed the race. He led the Frenchman by 3.5 points going into the season finale at Estoril, Portugal. Prost drew first blood in qualifying, securing a front-row start for the race, while Lauda was down in 11th. On race day, however, the Austrian put in a determined drive, getting up to third after passing Ayrton Senna in the Toleman. Prost was leading the race after Piquet's pace faded away. Nigel Mansell was second, obstructing Lauda from the title. However, Mansell had a spin on lap 52, following the front brakes failing on his Lotus 95T, and was out. This promoted Lauda to second where he finished the race, but crucially, won the title by half a point from Prost.
1986 Australian Grand Prix: Tyre issues for Williams, Prost snatches the title
A three-way battle ensued during the 1986 season between the Williams drivers Nelson Piquet and Mansell, and Prost in the McLaren. The three drivers had shared 12 wins in 15 races that season, five going Mansell's way, four going to Piquet's, and three to Prost. Post his disqualification from the Italian GP for illegally changing cars, Prost found himself eight points behind Mansell in the standings. Subsequent second places at Portugal and Mexico saw the Frenchman reduce the gap to six points, with Piquet only a point behind Prost.
In the season finale at Adelaide, Mansell surged ahead taking pole position for the race just ahead of Piquet, with Senna and Prost right behind. The lead switched between Mansell, Senna, and Piquet in the initial laps, but eventually, Prost's teammate Keke Rosberg took the lead from Piquet on lap seven and drove off. Piquet spun on lap 23, allowing Mansell to get past. Prost suffered a puncture and had to pit. With 25 laps to go, Piquet, Mansell, and Prost were second, third, and fourth, respectively. However, the race turned on its head on lap 63, as the leader Rosberg suffered a right-rear tyre failure and retired from the race. The trio of championship contenders was now leading. Prost had passed Mansell too for third and was promoted to second as Rosberg retired. Only a lap later, Mansell's left tyre spectacularly exploded on the Brabham straight, much to everyone's surprise. This was expressed when Murray Walker exclaimed, "And look at that!" Fearing the same issue for Piquet, the Williams team called him in, which gave Prost the lead in the race. The Frenchman withstood a late charge from Piquet, winning the race by only 4.205 seconds from the Brazilian to become a double World Champion.
1994 Australian Grand Prix: A controversial incident decides the championship
The 1994 season saw two drivers hotly contesting to win their first World Championship. Benetton driver Michael Schumacher and Williams driver Damon Hill fought tooth and nail throughout the season. Schumacher charged ahead taking five wins from the first six races, but Hill wasn't one to give up without a fight. The Brit took an important win at Silverstone when Schumacher ran into controversy, having not served a five-second stop-go penalty within the stipulated three laps, and even ignoring a black flag, as Benetton were debating the matter with the stewards. This led to him getting a two-race ban at the Belgian GP, forcing him to miss the Italian and Portuguese Grands Prix. One point separated them going into the season finale at Adelaide.
Mansell took pole position for the race, ahead of Schumacher and Hill. The latter two got ahead at the start and pulled away from the rest of the field. Even after the round of pit stops, they were separated only by a second. Things changed dramatically on lap 35 when Schumacher went wide and hit the wall at the East Terrace corner. This allowed Hill to close up. Sensing an opportunity, Hill dived down the inside but Schumacher tried to defend. The two made contact as Schumacher was sent into the air, going over the Williams' wheel, and the German instantly retired. Hill made it back to the pits but was out with a broken suspension. Thus, Schumacher was crowned World Champion for the first time, albeit under controversial circumstances.
2007 Brazilian Grand Prix: An unlikely candidate emerges as World Champion
21 years after Mansell, Piquet, and Prost battled for the title, 2007 saw another three-way battle between McLaren drivers rookie Lewis Hamilton, reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso, and Ferrari's Kimi Räikkönen. Hamilton was by far the most consistent throughout the season, finishing on the podium in all but three races as the caravan arrived at the penultimate round, the Chinese Grand Prix. Hamilton led Alonso by 12 points and Räikkönen by 17 points, the latter requiring a huge effort to win the title. However, in a wet-to-dry race, Hamilton drove straight into the gravel entering the pits, as he was on tyres with little to no grip. Räikkönen took the race win, narrowing the gap to the Brit to seven points.
At the season finale in Brazil, Räikkönen's teammate Massa took pole position from Hamilton and Räikkönen, with Alonso fourth. On race day, Massa and Räikkönen pulled away as the Brit locked up at turn four and went wide, rejoining in eighth place. Not too long after, he slowed to a crawl as he couldn't find the gears on his car. After about 30 seconds, he got going again having reset the car's computer but was down in 18th. He needed at least a fifth-place finish to secure the title had Räikkönen won. An attempted three-stop strategy didn't play out, either, as Räikkönen took the lead from Massa after the second round of pit stops. He went on to win the race from Massa and Alonso, and Hamilton finished only seventh. Räikkönen was thus crowned World Champion by a single point from the McLaren duo.
2008 Brazilian Grand Prix: “Is that Glock?” Yes, it is.
The 2008 championship was hotly contested by Massa and Hamilton this time. The Brit, hungry for redemption after narrowly missing out on the title the year prior, started the season strongly, winning the season opener at Albert Park, Australia. However, both Hamilton and Massa had up-and-down results, a few great results sprinkled with the odd low scores and DNFs. In a season that had as many as seven different winners, only two remained in contention for the title, which was decided on the last lap at the season finale in Brazil.
Hamilton led Massa by seven points coming into the weekend. The Brit had to finish at least fifth, should Massa win the race, to be crowned World Champion. Massa set about on his mission to win the title, taking pole position in front of his home crowd. Hamilton qualified in fourth; if he finished the race in the same position, he would be the champion. However, race day was far from normal and Hamilton was stuck in the pack. Meanwhile, Massa was unstoppable as he shot into a lead he would only relinquish during the pit stops. Hamilton found himself behind the likes of Giancarlo Fisichella, whom he overtook only after a few laps. The race once again took a twist on lap 63 when light rain began to fall on the track. Most drivers changed to intermediate tyres, except Timo Glock who stayed out on slick tyres. He was ahead of Hamilton on the track in fourth. Sebastian Vettel was closing down on Hamilton and moved ahead when the Brit ran wide on lap 69, as he let the lapped BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica past. Massa crossed the line on lap 71 to win his home race, but Vettel and Hamilton were closing down on Timo Glock as it began to rain heavier. The duo got past Glock at the last proper corner, with the commentators saying, "Is that Glock?" on air. This came much to the dismay and disbelief of the Ferrari crew who were already celebrating Massa as World Champion. Hamilton was fifth, and therefore, was World Champion by one point in one of the tensest season finales of Formula One.
2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Level on points, yet another last-lap shootout
13 years later, it was Hamilton at the receiving end of another last-lap battle, this time with the Dutch superstar Max Verstappen. Verstappen and Hamilton had shared an intense rivalry in 2021, often reaching boiling point at moments throughout the season. The championship lead had changed six times through the season's 21 races, but eventually, the championship-contending duo came into the season finale in Abu Dhabi level on points for the first time in 47 years.
Qualifying was to be an exciting affair and the top ten shootouts didn't disappoint. Verstappen, aided by a tow down the straights from his teammate Sergio Perez, took pole position from Hamilton and Lando Norris. Race day proved to be out of the ordinary once again. Verstappen lost the lead to Hamilton off the line but attempted a late lunge down the inside of turn six. This forced Hamilton to go off the track and he rejoined, still in the lead. The next defining moment came after the first round of pit stops. Verstappen and Hamilton pitted, but Red Bull left Perez out to hold the Brit back. And so he did, on laps 20 and 21, with a brilliant defence that was on the limit, as Verstappen caught the pair by around seven seconds in one lap. However, he was unable to keep up with Hamilton's pace on the hard tyres. With time running out, Red Bull rolled the dice and pitted the Dutchman onto another set of hard tyres during a virtual safety car period on lap 38. He still couldn't reel Hamilton enough to overtake him for the title.
Suddenly, on lap 53, the race took a turn. Williams driver Nicholas Latifi, who had been engaged in a battle with Mick Schumacher, crashed out at turn 14, bringing out the Safety Car. Red Bull brought Verstappen in for soft tyres, whereas Hamilton was forced to stay out on the hard tyres; he would have lost track position had he pitted then. Although, there were doubts regarding the race restarting, as there appeared to be less than sufficient time to complete the restart procedure. Five lapped cars in between Verstappen and Hamilton were allowed to unlap themselves on lap 57, with the race restarting on the final lap, lap 58, much to the dismay of the Mercedes pit wall. Verstappen overtook Hamilton in turn five and thwarted Hamilton's attempts to get past. He crossed the line and was World Champion for the first time in one of motor racing's most dramatic and controversial finishes.