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F1's most surprising winners

Steven Lynch October 7, 2011
Olivier Panis surprised everyone with victory in Monaco in 1996 © Sutton Images

Who was the most surprising winner of any Grand Prix? asked Dave Stott

That's rather a subjective question, and I suppose it depends exactly what you mean: statistically speaking I suppose it would be John Watson, who won the United States GP West at Long Beach in a McLaren after starting 22nd on the grid (the next-lowest grid position from which the winner has emerged is 18th). But I expect you mean the most unexpected name to crop up on the winners list, and I guess I'd probably go for Olivier Panis, who finished first at Monaco in a Ligier in 1996: he managed only four other points that year. Of current drivers Jarno Trulli also won in Monaco, in a Renault in 2004, but that was less of a surprise as he was in the middle of a consistent run, and ended that season with 46 points. Going back a bit it was undoubtedly a major surprise (not least to the other drivers) when Giancarlo Baghetti won the French GP at Reims in 1961 - it was the first time he had driven in a world championship Grand Prix!

I seem to remember a story about a driver who failed to qualify for his home Grand Prix, but started anyway. Who was this? asked Derek Potter

I suspect the man you're thinking of is Hans Heyer, who started the German GP at Hockenheim in 1977 even though he had failed to qualify. Heyer was the reigning German touring-car champion, and was offered a drive in the second Penske at his home GP. There were 30 cars trying to qualify for only 24 places on the grid, and Heyer ended up 27th. But come race day he sat in his car in the pit-lane ... and when there was some confusion at the start, followed by a first-corner collision between Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni, out went Heyer anyway, perhaps hoping that some generosity would be extended to a local boy. At first it looked as if it might work: the stewards seemed to ignore the illegal runner, but he managed only nine laps before his transmission failed (he at least lasted longer than his team-mate, Jean-Pierre Jarier, who had a similar problem after five laps). Heyer was officially disqualified after the race, and banned from the next one - and never chanced his arm in F1 again.

What did Stirling Moss say was the best classroom of all time? asked Anthony Bird

Sir Stirling Moss once remarked that "the best classroom of all time was the spot two car-lengths behind Juan Manuel Fangio," adding that "I learned more there than I ever did anywhere else." He meant that Fangio - who won the F1 title on five occasions - seemed to know, almost instinctively, exactly where to position the car, and where to brake, on every circuit. Moss, who was second in the world championship behind Fangio each year from 1955 to 1957 - and second again behind Mike Hawthorn in 1958 - always idolised the great Argentinean driver. Even when Moss finally beat him, to win his first GP at Aintree in 1955, he wasn't quite sure that Fangio hadn't let him win (they were team-mates at Mercedes at the time), and had to be assured by Fangio that "You were just better than me that day."

Watkins Glen was a favourite venue for F1 in the 1970s © Sutton Images
I was reading about the preparations for the new Grand Prix circuit in Austin. When was the last time there was an American GP, and has there ever been one in Texas before? asked Kyle Canning

Next year's United States GP at the new track in Austin will be the first F1 world championship Grand Prix in the States since 2007, when Lewis Hamilton won at Indianapolis. Austin is set to become the tenth American track to host a world championship grand prix, but only the second in Texas after Dallas, which staged a round of the 1984 championship, won by Keke Rosberg in a Williams. Excluding the ones already mentioned the others are Caesars Palace in Las Vegas (Nevada), Detroit in Michigan, Palm Beach and Riverside in California, Phoenix in Arizona, Sebring in Florida, and Watkins Glen in New York.

I've got a programme for something called the "Grand Prix des Frontieres", won the previous year by David Purley. It was a Formula Three race then (1971), but was it ever a Formula One event? asked Christopher Morrison

The Grand Prix des Frontieres was an annual event held at Chimay, in southern Belgium near the French border. It was held almost every year from 1929 to 1972, when racing was discontinued, largely for safety reasons, although "revival" meetings have been held there since 2008. The late David Purley won the last three such races, which as you say were F3 events. Two of the races were for Formula One cars, though neither was part of the official world championship. In 1949 (the year before the F1 championship was established), the Frenchman Guy Mairesse finished first in a Talbot, while in 1954 the race was won by the colourful Siamese Prince Bira, in a Maserati.

I was surprised to discover that Graham Hill took part in the Monte Carlo rally a couple of times. Has an F1 driver ever won the race? asked Mark Branson

As was mentioned here a short while ago, it was much more usual to find F1 drivers popping up in other events in the 1950s and '60s, when there were many fewer GPs and other team commitments were less demanding. I think the only Monte Carlo Rally winner to have a significant F1 career was the Englishman Vic Elford, who won the Monte Carlo in 1968: later that year "Quick Vic" made his F1 debut in a Cooper, and finished fourth in his first race, the French GP at Rouen. He also picked up a couple of points for fifth place in Canada later in what had been a busy year: a week after his rally triumph, the versatile Elford had co-driven the winner of the Daytona 24-hour race. He had a few more GPs in 1969 and 1971, although his busy schedule precluded a full F1 season.