Racefans Top 21 Greatest Formula 1 Grand Prix of All Time [Part 4]
11. 2011 Canadian Grand Prix
When the cars lined up for the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix on the revered Circuit Gilles Villeneuve there was a genuine sense of excitement that someone other than Sebastian Vettel would grace the top step of the podium. While pole position on Saturday, in-spite of an altercation with the still-undefeated Wall of Champions on Friday, was somewhat ominous, Formula 1 fans know all too well that at Montreal… strange things can happen. Sadly the Montreal circuit, like so few these days, is seen as an ‘old-style’ circuit, the kind that remind a driver why he earns so much money and why drivers of the past walk with a limp. Montreal is like Monaco but with more speed and amidst a prettier city, a race that may not have hosted F1 as often, but whose races are ever-increasingly more memorable. And while it is a race that fails to attract the celebrity and glamour of Monaco, it more than makes up for it by not attracting the celebrity and glamour of Monaco. Where newly constructed F1 circuits are all but forced to construct run off areas the size of small suburbs, Montreal’s take on safety would be best described by a United States gun lobbyist in that “It’s not the walls that kill race car drivers, it’s the drivers that kill drivers.” Safety aside however, the awareness of instant retirement brings greater opportunity for overtaking and rewards committed and precision driving, which in turn ensures an unpredictable and exciting race. And that’s even before you consider the rain because in 2011 it came down with purpose.
As the track was damp before the start of the race, the officials declared the race to be wet, a sort of pre-emptive “I told you so” to any team prepared to double down on what in Formula 1, is already a hefty wager. What a declared wet race did do, was to enable the race to start behind a safety car so that the drivers could determine where the water was at it’s deepest and to what degree of nothingness could be seen from behind the car in front. However, as a spectator in the crowd that weekend it was somewhat confusing to see the safety car out in conditions suitable to cricket and inappropriate for an umbrella. So for an agonising 4 laps, the curtain raiser to a thrilling race was the boredom of a procession which, while under the guise of safety, appeared more under the desire for advertising because when the race finally got under way it took all of two corners for the first incident to take place. While Vettel stormed into his now customary lead, Webber was pushed into a spin by an over-anxious Hamilton and forced to rejoin at the back of the field.
By lap six Vettel lead the two Ferrari’s of Alonso and Massa, followed by the two Mercedes of Rosberg and Schumacher and then the McLaren’s of Button and Hamilton. Hamilton, recovering from his opening lap error, went by Button and set about Schumacher. On lap six Hamilton tried to pass Schumacher at the hairpin but ran wide and lost out to Button behind. Regaining ground throughout lap 7 and capitalising on a poor exit by Button on to the start/finish straight, Hamilton loomed alongside as the cars approached the start line. It was at this point that Button, allegedly unaware of his teammates presence, decided to lean left when he had always stayed straight. The ensuing collision sent Hamilton into the wall from which he was lucky to regain control. Over the in-car radio Button made his feelings known, “What is he doing?!!” It’s moments like these that spectators wish teammates could hear each others radio messages because Hamilton would not have been lost for words. With his left rear tyre resembling a chamois Hamilton stopped the car on the side of the road and got out to inspect the damage. It’s at this point that Hamilton would’ve really had some words to say because aside from a chipped Enkei and a punctured Pirelli, the McLaren’s suspension remained intact, the motor sporting equivalent of an own goal.
Button would come into the pits to check for damage and put on intermediate tyres only to be brought back in again for speeding behind the safety car, dropping him to 18th position. As Button made ground on those in front, the two Mercedes, desperate to obtain an advantage that it’s car could not, opted for intermediates together with the hapless Alonso. Almost instantly their gamble failed as the rain returned and they all came back in for the genuine article. The rain returned so much that for the first time since 1965 the Il Notre-Dame looked set to be reclaimed by the Saint Lawrence seaway. With driving impossible, the race was stopped to give teams enough time to compare wet weather uniforms, and Hamilton to show the visiting Rhianna something more dangerous than Chris Brown. Over the public announcement system, organisers assured spectators that while the delay would be lengthy there was a break in the clouds ahead. As the organisers were relying on the very system that brought Alonso in for intermediates 10 minutes earlier, confidence was not high.
For an hour and a half the track officials tried in vain to channel the water off the circuit and into the surrounding grass verges. But it was only after the rain stopped that any progress could be made and some two hours after lap 25 had been completed, lap 26 got under way, but not before the obligatory eight lap safety inspection that reminded everyone at the circuit that even if they couldn’t do it in the race, a Mercedes could still lead the field in Formula 1.
With the safety car clear Vettel resumed regular service while behind it was anything but. Not satisfied with one world champion Button looked to carve up another, this time clipping the rear of Alonso’s Ferrari sending him spinning into the outside wall and beached on the high curbing at turn 4. For Alonso, who hadn’t retired since Belgium 2010 some 13 races ago, it was a hard pill to swallow. He needn’t have worried, his next retirement would be Belgium 2012 some 23 grand prix later. For Button, no terminal damage or penalty was the best possible outcome despite falling to last in the order. After the safety came back in, the next twenty laps would be dictated by the return of both Schumacher, Button and Webber, the three carving through the field thanks to superior tyre strategy and in the case of Schumacher, showing speed not yet seen in silver. In one beautifully timed move on lap 51 Schumacher squeezed past the battling Kobayashi and Massa to take second place. With ten laps to go Heidfeld looked to get past fifth placed Kobayashi only to dislodge his front wing which obligingly parted company with the car, flying underneath the front tyres and sending the German into the escape road. Four races later this would represent retirement and bring an end to a 185-race career without a single win, a record that would leave Heidfeld second but hardly surprised.
While the rain had been hard to clear, one marshal made clearing the debris look almost suicidal, tripping as he ran onto the track and finding himself face-to-face with the Sauber of Kobayashi. Fortunately the marshal escaped to tell the tale, like the marshal who ran across the bows of Ayrton Senna during the 1991 Monaco Grand Prix, but unlike the marshal who ran in front of Tom Pryce at Kyalami in 1977 with horrific consequences. But the race goes on and for a Formula 1 record sixth and last time, the safety car came out again to set up a 10 lap grandstand finish between Vettel, Schumacher, Webber and Button.
At the restart, Vettel scampered away, leaving his team mate to negotiate the seven time world champion, still looking for his first podium position since returning to the sport. For Webber, whose inability to overtake was becoming as uncanny as his inability to start, it took three attempts to get past, by which time Button had already got past them both. The Schumacher podium would have to wait another day. Having come from dead last during the race, Button continued to close on Vettel. Having led every lap from pole position Vettel went wide on the entrance to turn 6, on the final lap, got onto the damp part of the circuit and slewed wide onto the run-off. To the cheers of those who remained, Button snatched the lead and the win after two collisions and a drive-through penalty. Had the race been run on aggregate Vettel would have won by over a lap, as it was though, Formula 1 had grabbed a 4 hour classic amidst the likelihood of a 25 lap farce, made all the more apparent by the fact that only 40 minutes after the race finished, the rain returned harder than it had before.
10. 1971 Italian Grand Prix
At number ten and the first race to feature from the 1970s. While many will look to the finish of the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez between Mansell and Senna or the finish to the 1982 Austrian Grand Prix between De Angelis and Rosberg, few can argue that the finish to the 1971 Italian Grand Prix was the closest finish in Formula 1 history, with the top 5 drivers separated by 6 tenths of a second after 55 uninterrupted racing laps.
To this day the Italian Grand Prix stands as one of the four classics on the Formula 1 calendar alongside the Grand Prix of Monaco, Belgian and Britain. However, while the race continues to be run on the same park land racecourse, the stories of how the event took place in 1971 truly highlight how much the sport of Formula 1 has changed both on and off the circuit.
While chicanes may have been installed since the 1971 race, little has changed on what Monza is about and that is speed. On no other circuit do the Formula 1 cars of today appear as visibly different than on the straights of Monza. While the chicanes have slowed the cars down, the test amongst teams and drivers remains, what’s the fastest an F1 car can go through a corner with the least amount of downforce? In 1971 the understanding of drafting/slipstreaming was well known, what was less understood was how to harness that which you could not see. With limited surfaces to disrupt the flow of air over the cars, the Italian Grand Prix was reknowned for being dominated by cars drafting one another and as a result, conducive to close racing.
The 1971 championship was dictated by teams such as Tyrrell, Lotus, BRM, March, Matra, McLaren and Ferrari and while drivers such as Jackie Stewart, Clay Regazzoni, Jacky Ickx, Chris Amon, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jo Siffert were some of the sports leading drivers, none of them would feature in one of the sports most incredible finishes, but that’s not to say they didn’t have an impact.
While the Sunday morning Italian newspapers would report that Ickx’s Ferrari had snared pole with a time of 1m 22.82s, all was not as it seemed. In the primitive days of analogue lap timing, when the drivers wives worked the watches, results were far from instantaneous. Nigel Roebuck wrote of Michelle Dubosc, a genius in the fine art of lap timing multiple cars (a genuine multi-tasker), who worked for the Matra team in 1971. Following Saturday qualifying Dubosc had claimed that Matra’s driver Chris Amon had recorded a lap of 1m 22.40s. Due to her impeccable reputation the official times were re-checked by race officials to reveal that Amon had completed a lap in exactly the time Dubosc had claimed. So to the immense disappointment of the Sunday revellers, a French car driven by a kiwi, would start the Italian Grand Prix on pole. But come race start Ferrari would have the last laugh.
Where Formula 1 cars of today are capable of remaining stationary on the grid for some time, all while being monitored for the slightest movement, the 1970s was a different game, in fact unlike Formula 1 of today starts had more creeps than the Catholic Church and, as in the church, few were identified. So it was that instead of coming to a brief stop before taking the start, Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni simply slowed on approach to his grid slot and nailed the accelerator. The Ferrari had come from eighth on the grid but could just as easily have come from last, such was his lead by the first corner. While nowadays it would have been seen, detected, and mathematically dismissed as a jump start, race officials only saw it as further proof that god was Italian.
While speed is utmost in the minds of most at Monza, speed in the 1970s brought with it the serious issue of reliability. If ever there was a car breaker it was Monza and as ever, failures did not discriminate. By lap eight Helmut Marko retired with a misfire and left the paddock to go and find an Australian to blame for it (not really but I couldn’t resist). The only Australian in the field, Tim Schenken, retired his Brabham with a broken rear sub-frame caused by a tyre vibration, the kind of early detection that may have sacrificed the race but could have inevitably done the same to the driver. By quarter race distance Peterson led Cevert, Regazzoni, Stewart and Ickx with Gethin only ninth having started the race eleventh.
Lap 16 and Stewart and Ickx were out with an engine failure and a transmission failure respectively. This was soon followed by Regazzoni in the other Ferrari also with a transmission failure much to the dismay of the local crowd who had referred to the rest of the field by the number on there car. Further back in the field Nanni Galli retired with failed electrics while Henri Pescarolo retired the Frank Williams entered March with failed suspension, but not before recording his only ever career fastest lap.
For the next thirty laps the lead would change between Peterson, Hailwood, then Siffert who would relinquish it when his transmission went the way of the Ferraris. Cevert then took the bridge only to be taken over by Amon who led with nine laps to go, but always in close company of the pursuing field. Amon’s charge would falter when the visor on his crash helmet came off. While a lack of eye wear at speeds of 154 mph would be enough to send any current day driver for the pits, it was fuel vaporisation that would see the kiwi fall to sixth by race end in another brilliant drive that deserved the top spot. So after 54 laps the race would effectively be contested between four drivers, all of whom had reluctantly led a lap, but were determined to lead the last. Across the line and it was Peterson, Cevert, Hailwood and Gethin.
Through Ascari curve and heading down to the final turn at the parabolica and Cevert had the lead. From behind, Peterson went for the inside while Gethin went for the inside of both of them, capitalising on the dual slipstream. Peterson had to settle for the outside line to prevent collision with Gethin while Cevert took the tighter line to pick up the slipstream of Gethin’s BRM down the start/finish line. With no obstruction, Hailwood had got the perfect run through the parabolica and was drafting Cevert off the corner. Ganley was only a couple of tenths behind but his chance at victory and a podium were gone. Down the straight and Hailwood began to lose touch on Cevert who closed on Peterson, who closed on Gethin. As the cars fanned out for the flag Peterson got alongside Gethin and Cevert was blown wide, the three cars loomed for the line… Gethin got it!! Peterson second, Cevert third, Hailwood fourth and Ganley fifth in a flash of sixth tenths.
For Gethin, the 1971 Italian Grand Prix would prove to be his only victory in a career spanning 31 Formula 1 Grand Prix. Gethin passed away on 5 December 2011, aged 71.
9. 2005 Fuji Television Japanese Grand Prix
Not many races can claim to have decided as many championships as that of the Suzuka circuit, however for the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix only the constructors title would remain up for grabs as the event played host to the now customary second-last event of the season. Like walking into a Rick Astley concert, the event didn’t appear to promise anything memorable, however, much like leaving a Rick Astley concert it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable events in recent memory. The 2005 championship had been decided a race earlier in Brazil with Fernando Alonso taking the title, the Spaniard putting in breathtaking early season results and remaining consistent throughout the year, in the face of a resurgent McLaren in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen.
Qualifying at Suzuka had been interrupted by rain towards the end of the session, ensuring that the front runners would be starting form the rear of the grid, with Alonso starting 16th, Kimi starting 17th (largely due to an engine change), and Montoya 18th. At the front of the field the home crowd had a lot to be excited about with a Toyota claiming pole in the hands of Ralf Schumacher and Jenson Button’s BAR Honda alongside, his team mate and home town favourite Takuma Sato lined up 5th. While qualifying had created a lottery amongst the grid order, many were skeptical about the pace of the Toyota, many surprised it was able to complete the formation lap without running out of fuel. Toyota were not unaccustomed to using the recently introduced qualifying system as a way to steal the headlines on a Saturday, safe in the knowledge that a similar Sunday result was out of their grasp. At the United States Grand Prix earlier in the year, many rivals had suggested that Toyota had deliberately light-fuelled Jarno Trulli kowing that the Michelin teams were unlikely to race the following day.
Ralf Schumacher’s fuel gauge ensured there were six lights glowing at the front of the field as the Toyota lept off the line to lead the opening lap. Even the weight of the local support was not enough however, to prevent Sato under steering off at the opening turn and into the gravel trap, narrowly avoiding Barrichello in the Ferrari. By the end of the opening lap Alonso had got up to eighth, Raikkonen was struggling to make ground, and Montoya was into the wall after Villeneuve moved across on him on the final turn. The replay showed that while Montoya had managed to get his car near to the side of the Sauber, an attempt around the outside on the final turn at Suzuka was hardly a strategic play. In one ill-conceived move Montoya had almost obliterated any chance that McLaren had at the constructors title. While the season had been highlighted by wins in Britain, Italy and last time out in Brazil, Montoya had missed races early on following a famous injury allegedly obtained while playing tennis, one of the worst excuses ever made when you considered Montoya’s physique and that no-one had ever seen hold a racquet. While some said the excuse was made to protect the terms of his contract others thought it could quite easily have been protecting him from prosecution.
After twelve laps, seven of which were under safety car to clear Montoya’s McLaren, Ralf Schumacher came into the pits, handing the lead to Fisichella in the other Renault. While some viewed the early intervention of the safety car as ruining Toyota’s plan to run Ralf on a three-stop strategy, the plan would never have been implemented except for the fact the fact that Toyota wanted the pole. Once achieved, the Toyota could do what was expected of it and run expensively in the mid-field. This is what Jarno Trulli was doing until he was unceremoniously carved up at the chicane by the recovering Sato. Sato would later be excluded from the race results, and while it would not be the end of his career in Formula 1, it would be for his time in a top flight team, a sad end to another driver with a personality that Formula 1 craves but an inconsistency it can’t afford to consume.
Out on the track and Alonso, still brimming with confidence following his championship win, was demonstrating just how much this could affect your driving. Looming on Schumacher down the long back straight, the Spaniard lined up the 7-time world champion and flat to the floor in one sweeping move, took the outside entry into 130R, cutting straight across at the apex. If ever there was a moment that symbolised the changing of the guard in Formula 1 this was it. While Alonso was moving through the field Raikkonen was shadowing his every move and after the first pit stops it was Raikkonen who had got the upper hand as the two championship leaders emerged in fourth and fifth with only Webber, Button and Fisichella to deal with.
The final period of the race would be set up by the second pit stops. Following a long opening stint, Raikkonen had made up ground on Alonso when on low fuel. It was no surprise then that Raikkonen was able to haul in Button and Webber so that by the time they both pitted Raikkonen was able to pull out a big enough lead that when he pitted on lap 45, he rejoined 5.4 seconds behind race leader Fisichella with 8 laps to go. Alonso may not have been quick enough to pass his opponents in the pits but his race craft provided a fantastic compliment to the qualifying pace displayed by Raikkonen out front. On lap 49 Alonso forced his way past the Williams of Webber, even taking to the grass in a brilliant piece of driving aggression. With the action behind settled attention focused to the front as Raikkonen set about the task of bridging the gap to Fisichella who at one point in the race had held a lead of 19 seconds.
From 5.4 seconds, to 4.3, to 3, then to 1.8, the possible had become the inevitable and like a tennis player conceding the fourth set, Fisichella seemed prepared to concede the catch in order to defend the pass. Approaching the chicane on the second last lap though and Fisichella made an awful error, defending the inside line on the approach when Raikkonen had already moved back onto the racing line leaving the Italian with a poor exit down the hill and across the start/finish straight. Desperate to hold the inside line, Fisichella went towards the pit wall with Raikkonen shadowing him in order to pick up the slipstream. Bursting out from behind and the split-second manouvers were not done yet as Fisichella desperately shifted back to the left as Raikkonen moved alongside, the two cars almost touched as Raikkonen re-adjusted his position left and swooped right across the bows of the Renault and into the lead to the roar of the crowd and the delight of Ron Dennis. The thrill of the chase, the tension of the hunt, and the brilliance of the kill had been a pleasure to watch in a race that provided some of the greatest overtaking ever seen in a Formula 1 race, and a lasting vindication to the only season in the modern era to ban tyre changes.
8. 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix
The 2003 Formula 1 World Championship could well be remembered as the year that both Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen truly cemented themselves as champions of the future, both winning their first grand prix in Hungary and Malaysia respectively. Following a year of dominance from Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, the likes of which had not been seen since the year before, there was much concern that 2003 would be more of the same again. However with some of the biggest rule changes ever introduced into Formula 1 at the beginning of the season, hopes rested with a new one-lap qualifying format designed to mix things up on the grid and hopefully in the race. In Australia it quickly became clear that rule changes would not be necessary as a resurgent McLaren, Williams and Renault put the fight to Ferrari around Albert Park. While the Australian Grand Prix was an opening night thriller, round 3 in Brazil was a genuine classic, pulled from the pages of a Hollywood script with twists and turns, heart stopping moments, and a finale that kept many guessing long after the show had ended. Well… two weeks to be exact.
It is by no means a surprise for Formula 1 teams to arrive at the Interlargos circuit in Sao Paulo with the threat of rain hanging over a race weekend. Ten years earlier, Ayrton Senna had taken his second home victory, punctuated by mid-race monsoonal conditions which even caught out Alain Prost, sending the then three time world champion slewing across the front straight and into the path of Christian Fittipaldi’s stranded Minardi. However in 2003 the threat of rain had not been forecast, so in accordance with new rules to limit the carbon footprint and cost of Formula 1, teams were required to choose between bringing an intermediate tyre or a wet tyre. Once the rain began, the pitfalls of the new rule became obvious. As Formula 1 teams run on fuel and maths, and as there are statistically less torrents than teems, it was not surprising that no team would have brought a wet tyre. As the rain continued to fall on the grid, there was a great deal of anxiety in the air. There was something else in the air… irony. Because it was a cost saving regulation that had forced 60 million dollars worth of bespoke racing machinery, to be let loose against one another on tyres designed to disperse damp and nothing much else. For the owners, all that was left was to find a chair, have a stiff drink in one hand, a calculator in the other and the CV at the ready.
For almost the first time in Formula 1 history, a race was appropriately commenced behind the safety car with home town hero Rubens Barrichello starting at the front ahead of David Coulthard, an impressive Mark Webber third and Raikkonen in the other McLaren fourth. For the first few laps everything seemed to be working well, the Michelin intermediates were doing the job and the cars stayed on the track. Out front, Coulthard took the lead off Barrichello at the start but it was Raikkonen who was on the move taking Webber, Barrichello and Coulthard in three sublime moves to take the lead on lap 10. As rain continued to fall, front suspension failure on the Jordan of Ralph Firman sent him careering into Panis’ Toyota and bringing out the safety car. Similar to their blunder in Germany in 2000, McLaren failed to pit both cars so that when the race resumed, Raikkonen still led but with all those behind having made their first stop. Unseen by all present, Firman’s out of control EJ 13 had narrowly avoided slamming into its on track likeness, an incident that while all would’ve seen as unlucky, would never have said was race-defining.
With half the race completed track conditions were suitable for the intermediate tyre, that was albeit for the awkward presence of a river which had emerged mid-way through the long left hand bend at turn 3. While some were quick to attribute the water to the topography of the circuit surrounds others simply blamed the circuit in general, a facility that had given Silverstone a reason not to renovate. On lap 25 Montoya, who had been running strongly in the early part of the race, hit the river and headed straight to the wall. He would soon be joined by Pizzonia, fresh from writing off a Jaguar S-Type R in pre-season testing, and now doing the same with the F1 car as well. While these incidents only attracted the yellow flags it wasn’t until Michael Schumacher joined the used car lot that organisers felt the need for a safety car. When the safety car came in the carnage continued with Button catching a slide through the river only to have the car go straight for the wall, the British driver lucky to escape unhurt. With Jos Verstappen’s car hoisted over the wall, the scene was reminiscent of the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix, where retirement was hard to accept, and finding a place to park hard to achieve.
With Raikkonen pitting and the retirements at turn 3, Coulthard had re-taken the lead ahead of Barrichello, determined to finally win his home grand prix at his eleventh attempt, after previously finishing 4th in 1994. I mention the ’94 result not only because it was his best finish, but his only one at the time. But on lap 45 Barrichello capitalised on an error from Coulthard and moved into the lead, that home win looking ever closer. Two laps later however and the No. 2 Ferrari ground to a halt with a fuel feed problem. As Barrichello took to his now customary mid race spectator point, the local fans were left to ponder whether another years salary on next years race was really worth it. Lap 52 and Coulthard pitted from the lead, handing it back to Raikkonen who was under intense pressure from the surprising presence of Fisichella in the Jordan. Then on lap 54 Fisichella got past Raikkonen who offered little fight after correcting a spin on the run down the Mergulho corner.
While Webber had managed to avoid hitting the wall despite a spin at the infamous turn 3, he made sure his car hit everything on the next attempt, losing it at the flat out left hander onto the start/finish straight, the car caught the edge of the tyre wall which sent it spinning against the concrete wall before bouncing back across the track and into the guard rail. Despite the crash being minutes old and the safety car boards well displayed, third place Alonso, apparently unable to hear his team radio, kept his foot buried in the throttle. Rising over the crest of the circuit Alonso left himself no chance to react to Webber’s front left tyre and wheel assembly left stranded on the racing line. The Renault ploughed into the debris, sending him left and head-on into the tyre wall protecting the pit wall, ricocheting back across the track and into the outside retaining wall. The crash, one of the most fearsome seen in Formula 1, and perhaps only surpassed by Robert Kubica’s at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix, would’ve been life-threatening ten years earlier. So it was with great relief that Alonso emerged slowly from the car, and promptly back to the track surface.
While Alonso was placed in an ambulance, attention turned to the most important thing, the result. While Fisichella had led when the safety car was called, the rules stated correctly that the result of the race is taken from the running order two laps earlier. It was at this point that race officials, still struggling with the Interlagos lap counter which comprised of an egg timer and an abacus, correctly ruled that Fisichella had taken the lead during lap 54 but incorrectly believed the race had been stopped while he was on lap 55. Instead however, Fisichella had dodged past the debris from Webber’s car and across the line to start a new lap just before the red flag was waved. As Fisichella pulled into the pits his Cosworth promptly caught fire, ensuring that any illegalities fitted, would be incinerated before the FIA could conduct their tests. On the day however, Raikkonen was presented with the winner’s trophy. Had Fisichella been Brazilian the locals would have looted the circuit. As it was, Fisichella was presented with his first winner’s trophy at Imola two weeks later, disappointed he could not have celebrated on the podium. However, having inadvertently avoided colliding with his team mate, having just cross the line before the red flag, and having unintentionally avoided engine failure before the race ended, he had a lot to be thankful for. After all, Barrichello suffered a fuel feed failure while leading with 8 laps to go… he would never win the Brazilian Grand Prix.
7. 1957 German Grand Prix
Ask any Formula 1 enthusiast what is the greatest race of all time and frequently you will be told of the 1957 German Grand Prix, a race that took place so long ago that the dominant red Italian cars in the field, were not Ferraris. That isn’t to say that Ferrari weren’t present, they were, and in some force. However, it took the genius of the late five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio to claim what would be his 24th and final victory at the wheel of the iconic Maserati 250F, clinching his fifth world championship and all at the age of 45.
While the 22 laps of the Nordschleife may have made life easy for the lap timers and ensured the lap charts were devoid of detail, the task for the drivers was far from routine. The 23 kilometre 72-turn lap that twists, plunges and rises over 300 metres of elevation change through the picturesque Eifel mountains, is the greatest motor racing circuit in the world. Period. Like the ascent of Alpe d’Huez, the road is adorned with graffiti marking the names and marques that have competed and conquered the famous ring. In fact, a great part of it’s charm exists in the fact that it still remains. You need only see what little remains of the old Hockenheimring to appreciate just how fortunate we are that not only does the layout still exist to this day, but is maintained to a standard that allows both professionals and amateurs alike, the opportunity to forever strive for that perfect lap. Because that’s what the Nurburgring is, the opportunity never to achieve perfection but to always improve.
Even before the flag fell the story of the race was set, with Fangio aware that the works Ferrari’s would run the race on full tanks and not have to pit, he opted to run the race half-full and utilise the softer compound Pirelli tyres. This plan would however require him to make a pit-stop, a procedure rarely undertaken during a Formula 1 race and never by a team intending to win. In fact it wouldn’t be until 1982 that the Brabham team would utilise pit-stop strategy in a bid to gain an advantage over it’s opponents, and even that took some difficulty doing, but that’s a story for another time.
At the fall of the flag it quickly became apparent that this would be a race in three between the Ferrari’s of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins against the Maserati of Fangio. Utilising the lighter fuel and softer rubber, Fangio took the lead and began to pull away, knowing that the mechanical advancements present on the state-of-the-art 250F would be handed over to the function of a funnel and a mallet come pit stop time. The pitfalls of which would soon come to light.
On lap 13 and with a 30 second lead over the Ferrari’s of Hawthorn and Collins, Fangio came in to make his one and only pit stop. With the clock running and the pressure on, the rear left wheel man loosened the knock-on knock-off wheel nuts only to find that in his haste to remove the wheel, the nut had bounced underneath the car. Changing the tyres and refuelling the car had cost Fangio over 1 minute and the Argentine returned to the race now 48 seconds behind second place Collins with 9 laps remaining. Blasting out of the pits Fangio set to the task of tracking down the Ferrari’s ahead. Over the next 10 laps Fangio broke and re-broke the lap record nine times. In the first lap alone, Fangio was able to take fifteen and a half seconds out of Hawthorn’s lead so that by the start of the second last lap, the champion was lining up the kill.
On the second last lap Fangio made his move and while the lap chart will show number ‘1’ moving from third to first, it fails to tell of how Fangio only managed to take the lead from Hawthorn after putting two wheels on the grass, a perilous move in any four wheel car but particularly one with tyres narrower than those of a modern motorcycle.
Fangio took the chequered flag for what would be his final win and final championship, unlike so many champions of sport, the master left with his greatest performance. Speaking about his performance that day, Fangio would be quoted as saying that the “Nurburgring was my favourite track. I fell totally in love with it and I believe that on that day in 1957 I finally managed to master it.”
In my mind there is an obvious question that emerges from this review and that is, why is a race that is so revered only eighth? It is certainly something that I do struggle to grasp with but must conclude that its position on the top 21 list is largely affected not by what the race lacked but what others had. It does Fangio’s seminal motor racing performance no justice by pulling it apart. Put simply it is the defining motor race of the 1950s.
15 down and 6 to go. There remains a lot of races still to choose from the initial list and as is no doubt becoming increasingly apparent, some of the most famous races are not going to make it. Who will make the final instalments of the Racefans top 21 list? Do you agree with the inclusion of those already mentioned and what do you think should be in the top five greatest Formula 1 Grand Prix of all time?