• Top ten ... comebacks to title success

Seasons of two halves

ESPN Staff
August 9, 2012

With four drivers in with a chance of hunting down Fernando Alonso's 40 point lead in the championship, ESPNF1 looks back at ten of the best comebacks in the second half of an F1 season

Sebastian Vettel won the 2010 championship despite not leading the title race until the final round © Getty Images


Sebastian Vettel did not lead the driver's championship until the final round in his first year of title success. With five rounds to go he was fifth in the standings and 24 points adrift of Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber. But despite being dubbed the "crash kid" after his collision with Jenson Button in Belgium, he hit back with three victories in the final five races and even a blown engine at the Korean Grand Prix didn't stop his charge. Heading into the final race he was still in third and 15 points shy of Fernando Alonso, but rather than heed calls to support his team-mate's bid for the title - Webber was seven points ahead - he went all out for victory and came out on top. The win set him up perfectly for a second title in 2011 and he has never looked back.


With just two races to go in 2007, Kimi Raikkonen was 17 points off Lewis Hamilton at a time when a win only counted for 10 points. Hamilton should have wrapped up the title at the penultimate round in China, but ended his race in a pit lane gravel trap while Raikkonen cruised to victory. The scene was then set for a fantastic showdown in Brazil, but it was still the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Fernando Alonso that were expected to settle their season-long grudge match with Raikkonen still seven points off the top. However, Ferrari had the fastest car in Brazil, and when Hamilton lost positions at the start and then temporarily lost drive on lap eight Raikkonen was in with a chance. His Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa played his part by positioning his car between Raikkonen and Alonso and the Finn took the title by a single point. Arguably McLaren had lost rather than Raikkonen winning, but the Ferrari driver's comeback in the final two races was not to be sniffed at.


Jacques Villeneuve was 14 points off Michael Schumacher after eight races in 1997, despite both taking three victories. It was perhaps surprising that Villeneuve was so far behind as he clearly had the fastest car and had taken pole position at five of the first six races. But a gearbox issue at Imola and a couple of accidents in Monaco and Canada created a worrying gap to the Ferrari driver and meant more victories were required in the second half of the season. Villeneuve took four to Schumacher's two over the next eight races and lined up one point behind the German heading into a showdown at the final race at Jerez. Schumacher got an early lead in the race but Villeneuve closed in and as he attempted to pass the Ferrari cut across his bows, breaking its own suspension while Villeneuve managed to limp on. "The car felt very strange. The hit was very hard. It was not a small thing," the Williams driver said after finishing third and securing the title. Schumacher, meanwhile, was disqualified from the championship for his actions.

Ayrton Senna crashed at Monaco in 1988, handing team-mate and rival Alain Prost an early-season advantage © Sutton Images


McLaren was the team to beat in 1988 and the remarkably quick MP4-4 won the first seven races with ease. The only problem for Ayrton Senna was that he had been disqualified from the opening race and crashed out of the lead in Monaco. As a result he was 15 points off Prost heading towards the midway point of the season and, such was the dominance of the McLaren, he could only hope to take three points out of Prost's lead at each round if both finished. However, he remained relaxed and his luck changed at the British Grand Prix when he won and Prost retired with an inexplicable handling problem. "The handling of my car was terrible from the start," Prost said. "Understeer here, oversteer there...I was getting into huge slides, taking huge risks, to run 15th. Why risk a big accident, maybe break a leg or something, and put myself out for the rest of the year - so I can maybe be 12th or something? Everyone does what he wants with his own car and his own life. I know maybe I lost the championship today, but I decided to stop." Senna smelt blood and led Prost home at the next three races to take a three point lead in the title chase. Prost rallied back with three more wins in the final five races but had to drop three of his second place finishes under the points system, giving Senna the title by three points.


With five races remaining in the 1986 season, Alain Prost was fourth in the standings and 11 points off Nigel Mansell, who appeared to be on his way to a well-deserved first title. With two races remaining Mansell was 10 points clear and going into the final round he still had a six point lead. However, excessive tyre wear led to an almighty blow-out on Mansell's car in Australia and brought his race and title chances to a dramatic end. "At that speed, self-preservation is all you have in mind," he said afterwards. With Williams fearing team-mate Nelson Piquet would suffer a similar or worse fate, it pitted the Brazilian and handed victory and the title to Prost and McLaren. Mansell was resolute and particularly patriotic in defeat: "I promise you I'll bounce back. I'm British."


Niki Lauda was an unlikely champion in 1984. At the time he was three years into his comeback at McLaren but was paired with the up-and-coming Alain Prost, and a quick glance at their qualifying results showed that the young Frenchman was the quicker of the two. At the halfway point of the season Lauda was 11.5 points behind Prost and fell to third in the standings behind Elio de Angelis at the following round. But Lauda was a seasoned-campaigner and his canny race craft and depth of experience meant he eventually took the title by half a point. His comeback was impressive as he coaxed his McLaren to the finish at the final seven races, often taking advantage of the retirements of others. Prost won every race he finished in the same period but his three DNFs at the British, Austrian and Italian Grands Prix meant he lost the championship by the narrowest margin in the history of the sport.


At the midway point of the 1982 championship, Keke Rosberg was fifth in the standings and 13 points shy of leader John Watson. The death of Gilles Villeneuve at the Belgian Grand Prix had shocked the sport and left it without one of its greatest talents and a potential 1982 champion. Villeneuve's Ferrari team-mate Didier Pironi took up the challenge but missed the final four rounds after a nasty accident of his own. That left the title wide open and Rosberg was among those poised to take advantage. At the 14th round - the Swiss Grand Prix held at Dijon-Prenois in France - he finally won his first race of the season and leapfrogged to the top of the drivers' standings, three points clear of Pironi and 11 points clear of Alain Prost. Victories for Rene Arnoux and Michele Alboreto eventually gave Rosberg victory as 10 different drivers stood on the top of the podium over the 16 races.

The 1981 title race went down to the final round and was won by Nelson Piquet by a single point © Sutton Images


After seven of 15 races in 1981, Nelson Piquet was 15 points off championship leader Carlos Reutemann thanks to a series of spins and collisions at the Belgian, Monaco and Spanish Grands Prix. It was clear that Piquet's Brabham was quick - it featured hydropneumatic suspension to circumvent the regulations attempting to limit ground effects - but Reutemann's Williams was no slouch. A series of points finishes, including a win in Germany, drew Piquet to within a point of Reutemann for a showdown in Las Vegas. The race, which was held in the car park of the Caesar's Palace Hotel, proved brutal and Reutemann suffered with handling issues throughout. Piquet passed Reutemann on lap 17 and from that point onwards it became an endurance race with the tight, anti-clockwise circuit playing havoc with the drivers' necks. "I remember seeing there were still 33 laps to go," Piquet recalled. "I couldn't believe it. By then I was already finished. I couldn't keep my head straight. I just kept going because I knew if I was in front of Carlos then I had the championship." He eventually crossed the line fifth and on his return to the pits he collapsed in the cockpit, vomiting. Nevertheless, he was the new world champion.


Niki Lauda looked destined to take his second title in as many years midway through 1976 and had a 26-point lead going into the tenth round at the Nurburgring (which was actually a 31-point lead once James Hunt's eventual disqualification in September from the British GP was taken into account). But the daunting 14-mile circuit not only threatened to put an end to Lauda's chances of winning the title, it also threatened to take his life. On the second lap of the race, Lauda's car swapped ends heading into Bergwerk and burst into flames as it collided with the barriers. Lauda just about survived but his burns were horrendous and against medical advice he returned to the cockpit in Italy to participate in the final four races. He went into the final round with a three-point lead over Hunt, but so bad were the conditions he withdrew in protest after one lap. "There is a limit in any sport of profession," he said. Hunt led until near the end when he had to pit as his tyres were shredded, but he returned to take third and so edged out Lauda by one point in the title race.


Jim Clark had a mighty 20-point lead over eventual champion John Surtees after the first five rounds of the 1964 season. The Lotus driver looked set to defend his championship, but a series of mechanical failures at every round of the second half of the season brought an end to his charge as it allowed Surtees and Graham Hill to close in. All three drivers went to the finale in Mexico City with a crack at the title, but Hill was soon out of contention after a collision with Surtees' Ferrari team-mate Lorenzo Bandini. Clark looked set to snatch title once more after leading throughout when, almost predictably, his Lotus suffered an oil leak and he was forced to retire with two laps remaining. Surtees had worked his way through the field and was waved into second place behind Dan Gurney by team-mate Bandini. In so doing, he took the title and became the first man to be world champion on four wheels and two.