The first 100

August 7, 2008

Heikki Kovalainen’s rather fortuitous victory last weekend in the Hungarian GP made a special piece of World Championship history. He became the 100th different man to win a Grand Prix since the start of the modern series in 1950. In the spirit of being judgemental at the expense of men much braver and more talented than I, I’ve decided to take a look at the list. Who is on it, who shouldn’t be on it, and who fell between the lines?

Round and round in circles

One of the first notable things are ten American names, a legacy of the fact that, for the first 10 years of the Championship, the Indianapolis 500 was a part of the calendar. Aside from the fact that, in purely statistical terms, these drivers are amongst the most successful of all time (for example, George Amick‘s second place in his only Championship start, the 1958 event, gives him a points-per-starts ratio of 6.00, higher than that of Michael Schumacher), European racing history hasn’t been particularly kind to most of them. This tends to give them the appearance of being interlopers in a marble hall of success, which would be a very unfair assessment. Winning the 500 is an immense achievement even today, but in front-engined cars with narrow tyres, you were looking at a good 4 hours work with the Reaper waiting on every corner of every lap for 800 turns. So whilst you may have heard of Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan and Rodger Ward – a man who, unlike many of his fellows in the Indycar scene, continued to race in the American rounds of the Formula 1 championship after 1960 – people like Sam Hanks and Lee Wallard should stand out for more than just their curiousity value alone.

Race Oddity

Of the 100 winners, an impressive 33 were a one-time only event. Four of these – Jarno Trulli (Monaco 2004), Jenson Button (Hungary 2006), Robert Kubica (Canada 2008 ) and Heikki Kovalainen – are still current Grand Prix drivers, and ten are from the Indianapolis era. This leaves us with 19 people to hector and bully. Of course, motor racing being the activity it is, some of the 19 (Paul Hardcastle could well be taking note of this), only won once through sadder circumstances than others. Luigi Fagioli, the only man in the list to have been born in the 19th Century, became the oldest ever Grand Prix winner at Reims in 1951. It’s not impossible to imagine that, despite being an impressive 53, a man of his calibre behind the wheel could have added to his tally if not for a touring car accident the following summer. Racing’s brutal nature also foreclosed the career of Fagioli’s countryman Piero Taruffi, winner in Switzerland 1952, but for different reasons – after winning a particularly gruesome Mille Miglia in 1957, his wife persuaded him to retire.

Other stories are as poignant without being as henpecked. Luigi Musso (Argentina 1956, died at the French GP in 1958), Lorenzo Bandini (Austria 1964, died at the Monaco GP in 1967), Ludovico Scarfiotti (Italy 1966, died at the Roßfeldhöhenringstraße Hillclimb in 1968 ), François Cevert (United States 1971, died in practice for the United States GP in 1973) , Carlos Pace (Brazil 1975, died in a light aircraft crash in 1977) and Gunnar Nilsson (Belgium 1977, died of testicular cancer in 1978 ) all perished before they’d really been able to unlock their true potential. Of the remainder, they can be neatly divided into piles entitled “one day in the sun” and “plain bad luck”.

One day in the sun (but usually in the rain (and often in a BRM))

Our lucky devils include: Jo Bonnier – the solid but unspectacular Swede who racked up BRM’s first GP win in Holland in 1959. Twelve years later on from, Britain’s Peter Gethin gave them their penultimate success by winning the last great Monza slimstreamer – still the closest Grand Prix finish of them all – before the introduction of chicanes for 1972. In between, Giancarlo Baghetti won the 1961 French Grand Prix – famously on debut – before rapidly fading from prominence. 1975 was a notable year for the unworthy. Germany’s Jochen Mass and the unsolid but truly spectacular Vittorio “The Monza Gorilla” Brambilla scoring their only successes in Spain and Austria respectively. Mass’ triumph was aided by a race stoppage at the unsafe Montjuich Park circuit, caused by the race leader crashing out. Brambilla was aided by the rain, normally a substance guaranteed to cause him to have an accident, but that day at Österreichring he managed to hold out until just after the chequered flag. Upon which he knocked the nose off on the barrier. And whilst his drive from 14th on the grid at Monaco in 1996 was very skilled, you’d have to be a relative to claim that Olivier Panis ever really troubled the engravers before or after.

What might have been

Numerous names in the 33 could and should have been multiple offenders. Sticking out like a sore thumb is Jean Alesi, whose one win from 201 starts (at Montréal in 1995), was scant reward for a career of driving porcelain-fragile Ferraris very fast until bits fell off. He was robbed by car failures in Belgium 1991, and at Monza in 1994 and 1995. A change of team brought no respite, and the normally bulletproof Benetton let him down after he inherited the lead from Damon Hill at Monaco in 1996. However, his loss at the 1995 European Grand Prix was two-parts Schumacher, two-parts Alesi leaving the door open. Richie Ginther was a fellow similarly afflicted by the Ferrari curse, his sole win – at Mexico in 1965 – coming behind the wheel of a Honda. Jean-Pierre Beltoise had the talent to go further, but an arm injury early in his career inhibited him. His sole success was BRM’s last, at a streaming wet Monaco in 1972. Alessandro Nannini‘s sole win – at the legendary 1989 Japanese Grand Prix – had more than a whiff of luck about it, the Italian thrust into prominence after Ayrton Senna’s disqualification. Lest we forget, however, that Nannini was starting to come good as a consistent front runner, and it’s easy to imagine him – rather than Nelson Piquet or Michael Schumacher – racking up the early 1990s successes of his Benetton team. However, his loss of an arm in a helicopter accident shortly afterwards put a stop to a career which looked to just be taking off.

A special mention

Some drivers win more than once, dragging themselves out of the sad 33%. And all one can do is ask why. Jean-Pierre Jabouille is the archetype here. A testing mule for the Renault Turbo F1 car, Jabouille found himself in the right place at the right time at home in France in 1979. He surprised the world once again at Austria in 1980. The fact his two wins contribute 18 of his 21 career World Championship points speaks volumes.

The ones who got away

The list of 100 largely features a who’s-who of racing talent. But it is just as notable for some of its absentees. Some are missing due to circumstance, some due to fate. Others could easily have claimed a win, even just to join Vittorio Brambilla and Giancarlo Baghetti in the How On Earth? ward. I’ve looked for a cross-section of all of these.

The first mention has to go to New Zealand’s Chris Amon. Easily the finest driver to never win a World Championship Grand Prix, a man of whose luck was inversely proportional to his skill. Even his spells with top teams like Ferrari and Matra couldn’t push him over the edge once World Championship points were on the table. Away from the scoring table, Amon would happily win in non-Championship F1 races, sportscars, anything you had. Of the modern era, Nick Heidfeld could perhaps point to Amon as a precedent, but the German hasn’t quite managed to consistently threaten the leaders in the same way Amon did yet. Ditto Amon’s fellow antipodean, Mark Webber. Stories of what might have been surround many people in the history of Grand Prix racing, none more than Stefan Bellof, the brilliant German driver killed in a sportscar crash a year after his World Championship debut. Bellof – 3rd (and catching the leaders) at Monaco in 1984, the famous day when Ayrton Senna nearly won a soaking race in a Toleman – is, of course, far from a unique tale. Many other very talented drivers died before they were able to show what they could do – notable amongst them are Britons Tony Brise, Tom Pryce, and Roger Williamson.

Bellof’s teammate for his only season, Martin Brundle, was ultimately more lucky than Bellof but could still honestly say he deserved better. Ill-served by rubbish machinery, Brundle proved his class in winning the 1988 Sportscars World Championship. On his return to F1 in 1989, he regularly found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jean-Pierre Jarier was afflicted with a similar ability to go nowhere not particularly quickly. It’s notable that both men’s best ever chance came at the Ille Notre-Dame circuit in Montréal, and both were let down by their cars. Jarier – driving the dominant Lotus 79 at the 1978 event following the death of Ronnie Peterson in Italy – disappeared away at the front only for his machine to let him down, clearing the path for Gilles Villeneuve to become number 63 on the list instead. 14 years later, the circuit now named in Villeneuve’s honour, Brundle was about to assume the lead of a fractious Grand Prix when his Benetton’s Ford engine failed.

Finally, we can’t go without mentioning Italy’s legendary Andrea de Cesaris. Famous mostly for his preternatural ability to have accidents, de Cesaris was sporadically very, very rapid. Indeed, ironically for a man of his reputation, he would save his finest performances for Spa-Francorchamps, easily the most challenging venue on the calendar at the time. A charging drive in 1983 was curtailed by a failure of his Alfa Romeo’s turbo engine, whilst a similarly promising charge behind Ayrton Senna’s ailing McLaren Honda in the unfancied Jordan Ford in 1991 ended in a similar fashion. The cherry on the cake comes at Monaco in 1982. A race made chaotic by a rainstorm in the last few laps saw Alain Prost crash out in the Renault, only for the man who assumed his mantle – Riccardo Patrese – to spin on the next lap. Both de Cesaris and Ferrari’s Didier Pironi took the lead with a matter of miles to go, both running out of fuel and allowing Patrese to be number 69. De Cesaris remains, to this day, the driver with the longest Formula 1 career without a Grand Prix win – 208 race starts.

Nosey types or the bored can peruse the full list of 100 Grand Prix winners here (.doc file).

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2 Responses to “The first 100”

  1. Manley said

    What are the strange pop-up boxes all about?

    Apart from them, this is a very pleasing read, young sir.

  2. WeediaVed said

    Stunning post, I didn’t thought reading this was going to be so stunning when I looked at your url!

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