Racefans Top 21 Greatest Formula 1 Grand Prix of All Time [Part 3]
15. 1987 Shell Oils British Grand Prix
“Piquet is just a vile man”. Nigel Mansell never really held his teammate Nelson Piquet in high regard, but after 1986, who could blame him. In their first season as teammates at Williams Honda, Piquet, ever-increasingly frustrated by the competitiveness of his teammate, resorted to the oft-used, occasionally successful strategy of accusing the British team of favouring the British driver. Unimpressed by the team’s lack of compassion and clearly unconcerned with his own personal image, Piquet got personal, referring to Mansell as an “uneducated blockhead” and labelling his wife “unattractive”. While Piquet’s comments were bizarre to the point of madness, it could’ve been worse. After all Mansell had kids.
It is perhaps somewhat surprising that in spite of this very public feud, that not only did Mansell not punch Piquet in the face, but that the two remained teammates for the 1987 season. What isn’t as surprising is that with inter-team hatred at an all-time high and with the dominant Williams Honda FW11B at their disposal, Mansell and Piquet would wage war against each other throughout the season, and in no greater fashion than at the 1987 Shell Oils British Grand Prix.
By the time the circus arrived at Silverstone, the form of the field had been established with Mansell supreme in qualifying, recording pole positions in five of the first six races, only to relinquish this in the race for more reasons than he had excuses for. Still the British hope had won in San Marino and last time out in France so the home crowd turned up to Silverstone with ‘expectation’, the most dangerous emotion that any British sports fan could possess aside from confidence. Reigning double world champion Alain Prost on the other hand had won two races despite a Hondaless McLaren. The super fast Ayrton Senna continued to ensure that if there was a functioning drivers union in the 80s then he was its poster boy, repeatedly displaying just how successful a bad car could be if driven well. While the Lotus 99t may have had a new Honda badge replacing Renault, the engine was anything but, Lotus forced to use year-old engines because Williams’ had exclusive rights to the new one. This fact would not have been known to the casual observer so Honda provided Lotus with the services of Satoru Nakajima so that the Japanese driver could circulate at the rear of the field and sometimes by himself, thus displaying the progress of the Honda engine in just one year. While Nakajima was recruited to garner the support of Japanese fans, his presence, or should that be performance? only drew greater light on the qualities of Senna who would attain god-like status in the years that followed.
With the Williams’ locking out the front row, all present expected it to remain that way throughout the race. While both Williams got away swiftly, it was their focus on each other that saw Alain Prost slide down the outside of both and take the lead round the outside heading through Copse. So ‘The Professor’ led, followed by Piquet, Mansell, Senna and Boutsen, still proving that even if the Benetton’s livery was out of fashion, the Ford turbo wasn’t. For Prost, the lead would be short lived as Piquet regained the lead into Maggots, followed soon after by Mansell on the run down Hangar straight.
On lap 12 Mansell’s car began to suffer from a vibration, attributable to a loose wheel weight. By lap 36, and with a five second gap to his teammate ever increasing on wearing tyres, Mansell opted to pit, a risk-free solution given that Senna’s Lotus was so far behind Mansell he was ahead of him. As Mansell exited the pits the stage was set. 28 laps to hunt down a double world champion teammate, 29 seconds down the road. It was Britain v Brazil, Red 5 v White 6, The Moustache v The Mouth!! Immediately aware that new wheels and tyres had rectified the problem, Mansell went for it…
With the home crowd going beserk, Mansell continually reduced the lead to Piquet so that by the time he was on the back of his teammate with two laps to go, he had broken the lap record 11 times in the last 15 laps. Approaching Piquet on the run down Hangar Straight, Mansell jinked left, Piquet began to cover, only for Mansell to sweep right and to the inside at Stowe. This didn’t stop Piquet who came across on Mansell, the two cars touching at 200mph but Mansell was through and the crowd simply erupted. One of the greatest pursuits had culminated with one of the greatest overtaking manouevers and as Mansell crossed the finish line the crowd broke ranks, flooded the circuit,and Mansell’s car obligingly ran out of fuel.
Following the conclusion to the race, Mansell revealed that his fuel gauge had been on empty for the final laps of the race, opting to run out of fuel in the lead than to cruise home in second. While retirements leading later races would rob Mansell of the world title in 1987, victory in the 1987 British Grand Prix is considered by many as his greatest achievement. Not bad for an uneducated blockhead.
14. 2008 ING Belgian Grand Prix
The Belgian Grand Prix at the famed Spa-Francorchamps circuit is considered by many to be the most spectacular race track on the current Formula 1 calendar and, on more than one occasion, has been known to produce brilliant races, combining great drama with incredible skill. It is perhaps no surprise then that eight races into the top 20 and I find myself describing the events of the third Belgian Grand Prix in the list so far.
For 2008 the Belgian Grand Prix was round 13 of the 18 round championship season. As expected, the challenge for the title was firmly between Ferrari and McLaren as it quickly became apparent that just as Renault were unable to provide the talent of Alonso with a competitive car, his replacement Kovaleinen lacked the talent to be competitive at McLaren. As neither Renault or Kovaleinen failed to do anything in 2007 not many were surprised. While Robert Kubica in the BMW Sauber was a surprise winner and championship leader at the Canadian Grand Prix, the consistency of the McLaren in the hands of Lewis Hamilton, and the Ferrari of a resurgent Felipe Massa were such that by the time the teams awoke in Belgium following their sleep at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Hamilton led the championship on 70 points with Massa second on 64 and Raikkonen third on 57.
The grid showed no sign of changing the seasons pecking order with Hamilton claiming his fifth pole position of the season ahead of Massa, an impressive Kovaleinen in third, and an equally disappointing Raikkonen in fourth, still explaining to journalists how he won in 2004 with the McLaren MP4-19B from 10th on the grid.
Despite damp track conditions the entire field started on slick tyres with rain only feared to arrive later in the race. Lights out and while the front runners scrambled for grip, Jarno Trulli starting from 11th, got a blinder, carving up the mid-field, only to be carved up himself by Bourdais, who failed to break for the La Source hairpin. Down the hill, up Eau Rouge and along the Kemmel straight, Raikkonen, already up to third after passing Kovaleinen off the start, drew alongside Massa and began to squeeze him toward the the fence, which at 300km/h, very quickly takes on meaning. Massa chose to live and Raikkonen set about catching Hamilton. Lap 2 and into La Source, Hamilton outbreaked himself into the hairpin, drifting wide and spinning on the damp track off-line. Arriving at the hairpin, Raikkonen was forced to take to the outside run-off, made famous by Nigel Mansell in 1990, and made larger by the powers that be every year since. Unlike Mansell however, Raikkonen only found a distinct lack of grip, allowing Hamilton to flick spin the McLaren and remain ahead of the rejoining Ferrari on the approach to Eau Rouge. Emerging over the crest and with greater momentum, Raikkonen pulled up alongside Hamilton, taking the lead on the approach to Le Combes.
For the next thirty-five laps, during which the leaders pitted twice, Raikkonen held a five second lead over Hamilton and appeared assured of a fourth victory in Belgium. According to the script, Hamilton was meant to fall back, satisfied in the knowledge he would extend his championship lead. However, it became quickly apparent that this was not occuring as Hamilton loomed on the reigning champion. Unfortunately for Raikkonen, the harder compound tyre was not performing like those on Hamilton’s McLaren, nor was the threat of rain helping him either. Earlier in the season Hamilton had displayed a mastery at changeable conditions with victory in both Monaco and Silverstone and, as the rain began to fall on lap 41, Hamilton closed on Raikkonen through Blanchimont and was past the Ferrari on the approach to the final hairpins. Raikkonen, desperately holding onto the inside line, made sure that he remained alongside at the apex, widening his exit in a bid to force Hamilton behind. Hamilton, quickly running out of room, opted to cut the final corner by taking to the extensive run-off area. Emerging from the final turn, Hamilton handed the lead back to Raikkonen as the two cars went down the straight, and immediately resumed his attack on the Ferrari into La Source. As Raikkonen blocked left, Hamilton darted right and into the lead. As the cars entered the apex of La Source, Raikkonen attempted the ‘up and under’ technique, succeeding only in doing this to the front right corner of his wing against Hamilton’s right rear tyre.
Half-way through the lap and entering the downhill double left hand turn at Pouhon, Hamilton slid wide, once again utilising the newly installed run off which appeared to be widening throughout the race. This was nothing however compared to Raikkonen, who slid wide and stayed wide in a bid to limit his turning imput on the greasy surface and making a mockery of the notion that tarmac run-offs are safer than gravel traps. Had the race been held five years earlier no one would’ve finished, not least Nico Rosberg, who having also utilised the tarmac run off at the Fagnes chicane, returned to the circuit directly in front of Hamilton, forcing the Englishman to take to only one of two areas of grass on the verge of the circuit. Through sheer instinct Raikkonen narrowly missed the evading Hamilton and squeezed past Rosberg to take the lead. As Raikkonen exit the Fagnes a dab of the Finnish foot saw him suddenly spinning, coming perilously close to the outside fence on the other piece of grass beside the circuit. So Hamilton lead Raikkonen once more!! But Raikkonen wasn’t done yet, behind Hamilton and with the rain increasing on the run through Blanchimont Raikkonen tried to get past a backmarker, got wide on the outside kerb and lost control, the car slewing across the track and slamming into the outside wall to the delight of the McLaren pit crew. Now he was done. Raikkonen’s run at Spa had ended and with it too, his hopes of back-to-back titles.
With the rain increasing, Hamilton utilised his lead over second place Massa to carefully reel off what must have been one of the slowest final laps by a winning driver since the days when the old Nurburgring was used. While Hamilton stayed calm, the same could not be said of his father in the McLaren garage, who continued to prove that even in the GFC there was still someone with fame and fortune willing to dress like a used car salesman. The advantage of changing tyres was best shown by Heidfeld and Alonso who both opted for intermediates on the final lap. Despite this decision dropping them down to ninth and tenth, they were still able to rejoin the track and be third and fourth by the end of the lap!! However Heidfeld and Alonso’s strategy came at the expense of Bourdais’ sanity. He’d led his teammate Vettel throughout the race in fifth and moved as high as third on the final lap, only to end up finishing seventh by the end. In an interview after the race Bourdais was close to tears as the pressure of trying to retain his drive overcame the Frenchman. Only a week later it got worse, Bourdais stalling his car on the grid for the warm up after qualifying fourth. Less than a year later, the man who had out-driven Vettel around Spa would be out of a job, a timely reminder that without the headline grabbing result, time spent in Formula 1 can be fleeting.
However, the 2008 Belgium Grand Prix raged on long after the chequered flag fell. The race stewards, no doubt acting on a complaint brought by Ferrari under their ‘Don’t understand? Get it banned!!’ policy, imposed a 25 second penalty on Lewis Hamilton for gaining an advantage from cutting the final turn by overtaking Raikkonen into La Source. Despite an uproar over the decision, Felipe Massa, the newly announced winner of the race highlighted in a press conference for the Italian Grand Prix, that Hamilton had obviously attained an advantage because throughout the entire race, no driver had been able to overtake another driver into the La Source hairpin. No one argued with this logic.
13. 1961 Monaco Grand Prix
The first race to feature on the Top 21 list at a time when the absence of seat belts on Formula 1 cars was viewed as a safety feature, the rationale being that a driver had more chance of surviving an impact if thrown clear rather than endure the perils of a 1960s Formula 1 car where if the car didn’t crush you (note the token roll hoop managing to just clear the helmets of Moss and Ginther in the photo above), the propensity for the car to catch fire almost certainly would and that’s provided you didn’t strike an inanimate object of which the streets of Monaco were in large supply. While Moss was permitted to race with the side bodywork removed from his Lotus to assist ventilation, you could’t help think that it may also served as an alternate means of escape.
While the Monaco street circuit has remained virtually unchanged for its entire existence, it is the principality itself that certainly has. With the absence of barriers it is easy to see why Monaco earned a reputation as the ‘pretty city’. Nowadays the character of the city is largely shielded by an unyielding concrete canyon lining either side of the track and in part this is not necessarily a bad thing because aside from the run up Beau Rivage, through Casino Square and down through Mirabeau, the reality is far removed from it’s 1961 guise, as every man, woman and dog scrambles for their piece of tax-free territory, at the growing expense of architecture, good taste and common sense. Still the race must go on, and on that front there is a lot that hasn’t changed.
Unlike nowadays where the Formula 1 World Championship has become accustomed to commencing half way around the world in Australia, in 1961 the Monaco Grand Prix heralded in a new season. For 1961 major regulation changes had seen the reduction in engine capacity from 2.5 litres to 1.5 litres. The purpose, to reduce speeds, increase safety and bring down the costs to teams competing in the sport in order to encourage new manufacturers to enter. 50 years on and Formula 1 is still trying. Despite the regulation changes, the 1961 season was contested by some major names in Formula 1 including BRM, Cooper, Lotus, Porsche and Ferrari, with the prancing horse debuting it’s stunning 156 ‘shark nose’ in a three car team to be driven by the Americans Ritchie Ginther and Phil Hill, together with the German, Wolfgang Von Trips. Ferrari with three factory run cars and others running privateer entries, the re-introduction of this state of play has received continued support from Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo in recent years.
At the start Ferrari’s Ritchie Ginther took the lead ahead of Jim Clark in the works Lotus with pole sitter Moss in the Rob Walker entered Lotus in third. Almost immediately though Clark was in trouble, suffering from the kind of mechanical unreliability that makes you appreciate the perils of drawing a corelation between a drivers results and their talent. Understanding the realities of achieving victory in the early eras of Formula 1 only heightens the admiration for the risks they took in the pursuit to achieve them. Back then a driver would trust the skill in his hands to place his life on the line, only to either have the car let him down by going out of control or not go at all. On lap 14 Ginther dropped to third allowing Moss through to first and the Porsche of Jo Bonnier through to third. With Bonnier holding up the Ferrari’s Moss was able pull out a ten second lead after 25 laps despite the Lotus Climax 18 being as much as bhp less than the Ferrari 156. By lap 50 and with Bonnier cleared it was Phil Hill’s turn to lead the Ferrari charge, reducing the lead to 8 seconds. By lap 60 the gap was 3 seconds. On lap 75, Ginther, appearing to show greater pace than his teammate Hill, was signalled by his team to pass (a familiar scenario indeed). However, try as he might, Ginther could do nothing to take the lead away from Moss who would go on to record what many believe was his greatest win in Formula 1, 3.6 seconds clear of Ginther in second.
In an interview following the race Moss commented that “I was driving flat out from approximately the third lap till the hundredth. I don’t know how much quicker I could’ve gone but very little. I was really right on the limit.” An inferior machine with a brilliant driver beind the wheel defending against stronger opposition, flat out through the streets of Monaco for lap after lap… this will never change.
12. 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix
First hosting a Formula 1 race in 1986, the Hungarian Grand Prix has always been held at the Hungaroring, located in Mogyorod, near the capital city of Budapest. As the race was pitched as Formula 1s first venture behind the Iron Curtain, it was perhaps only appropriate that the track layout would ensure that regardless of a drivers skill and effort, he would never get ahead of his fellow competitor. Over recent years I have been continually astounded that the Hungarian Grand Prix has not only remained on the Formula 1 calendar, but it’s existence has never been threatened. This, despite the sports greatest venues in Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps facing constant scrutiny, but more on that another time.
It’s very rare that you can recall exactly where you were when sitting down to watch a Formula 1 race, even more amazing when you didn’t even watch the entire race, and astounding when the race was held at the Hungaroring. This is exactly the case however with my recollection of the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix. While staying at my grandparents house was always enjoyable, my grandfather had very little time for me staying up all night watching a sport he had very little time for, at the expense of something he did, my education. As already outlined in the description of the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, the mighty McLaren MP4/13 was undoubtedly the class of the field, so it was with a heavy heart to discover on Sunday morning that the McLarens had qualified first and second on the grid, and even more demoralising to watch them pull away from the start in Melbourne-esque fashion. Faced with the seeming inevitability of being punished by both my grandfather and the ensuing 77 laps, I remained reluctant to switch the television off but eventually conceeded… while my decision does not give me sleepless nights, it is one that together with the decision not to even record the race, I continue to regret.
Aware that the McLarens were running away with the Grand Prix, and with limited opportunities to overtake, Ferrari chief engineer and team strategist Ross Brawn needed a change of plan in an effort to jump the McLarens and keep Schumahcher’s champonship hopes alive. On lap 25, aware that the McLarens and most of the field were probably going to adopt a two-stop pit strategy, Brawn decided that Ferrari were going to adopt a three-stop strategy. For Schumacher, the pace of the top 3 runners was such that even if the plan did not come off, he would still finish third, or would he? Coming out from the pits after his first stop Schumacher found himself stuck behind the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve and even Schumacher thought the strategy may well have been over before it started. For six laps Schumacher was behind Villeneuve during which time Coulthard and Hakkinen pitted and rejoined in first and second, the Finn leading the Scot by over 3 seconds. By the time Villeneuve pitted, Hakkinen was 7.4 seconds up the road from Schumacher who set about reducing the lead, aware that he had less fuel and a full pit stop worth of time to make up. In four laps Schumacher reduced the lead to 3.6 seconds and closed on Coulthard.
On lap 43 Schumacher pitted after completing an 18-lap stint and crucially only fuelled for 6.8 seconds. In a very curious move, McLaren appeared to cover the Ferrari strategy, with Coulthard pitting on lap 44, however the McLaren remained in the pits for considerably longer, ensuring that Coulthard surrendered second place to Schumacher and would face a 33 lap stint to finish the race. On lap 46 it was Hakkinen’s turn to pit surrendering track position to Schumacher as well and emerging from the pits in second ahead of Coulthard. Schumacher would later recount the instructions received from Brawn, “You have 19 laps to make up 25 seconds”, the kind of instruction that if put to Jean Alesi would make team owners nervous and track marshals scared.
In the ensuing laps one McLaren, Hakkinen’s, self-destructed with what was later revealed to be a lose anti-roll bar which had jammed one the suspension pushrods, while Coulthard’s, hampered by a heavy fuel load and an inability to perform on the softer compound tyre, began to lap at over two seconds a lap slower than the Ferrari. This meant that by the time Schumacher pitted on lap 62 he emerged with a 5 second lead on Coulthard. For McLaren, the capitulation of their team at the hands of a Ross Brawn devised, Schumacher implemented strategy, no doubt would’ve made many in the Williams pit look to their British counterparts, smile, and say “now you now how we felt”.
Schumacher’s performance in the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix simply makes a mockery of the statement “(insert finishing position) was the cars potential today” used by some drivers to validate their performance in the face of a low finishing position. The simple fact is that had both McLaren’s been reliable, the Ferrari’s ‘potential’ was third, but because of the performance from Schumacher, he elevated the Ferrari to an incredible victory and in the process transformed the Grand Prix into one of the all time greats.
In part 4 we get into the business end of the top 21 with positions 11 through 7. As would be expected the races are evolving from the mere memorable to the truly iconic. As always feel free to comment and provide your thoughts on the races chosen so far and what you think is to come? All the best.