Terrible defending

March 11, 2009

As I have no doubt mentioned here before, British Formula 1 World Champions are the most numerous in the 59-year history of the competition.  Nine English or Scottish drivers have taken the biggest prize in motor racing home with them in a little bindle slung over their shoulders, miles ahead of competitors from anywhere else (Brazil and Finland are the closest rival, with three drivers apiece).  However, despite this, not one of them has ever successfully managed to defend their crown.  Trying to break this hoodoo is Lewis Hamilton’s Mission For The Year Ahead.

Whilst it would be patently false to say that anyone can win ONE championship, scoring back-to-back world crowns is as sure a method as any to guarantee legendary status in any sport.  Alberto Ascari (1952-53, Juan Manuel Fangio (1954-57), Sir Jack Brabham (1959-60), Alain Prost (1985-86), Ayrton Senna (1990-91), Michael Schumacher (1994-95 and 2000-04), Mika Häkkinen (1998-99) and Fernando Alonso (2005-06) are the only eight men to have achieved the feat.  In the good old British spirit of wallowing in fatalistic inevitibility, then, I thought I’d recap the catalogue of near-misses, catastrophies and downright failures which have prevented any of the British world title holders from joining their ranks.

1959 – Mike Hawthorn (did not defend)

Hawthorn’s 1958 championship came at a huge personal cost following the loss of his close friend and Ferrari teammate Peter Collins at the 1958 German Grand Prix.  Immediately after the season-ending Moroccan Grand Prix, in which a second place finish guaranteed him the crown by 1 point over Vanwall’s Stirling Moss, Hawthorn announced his retirement from Grand Prix motor racing.  He was killed just 3 months later after crashing his Jaguar on the A3 Guildford bypass.

1963 – Graham Hill (2 wins, 29 points, 2nd place in the championship)

There was an element of good fortune to Graham Hill’s 1962 title, as the crown looked set for Jim Clark and Lotus midway through the title-deciding South African Grand Prix.  However, as was so often the way, Clark’s Lotus car let him down.  In 1963, however, things went much more Clark’s way.  Out of 10 races, he won 7, finishing on the podium in two others.  Until the Schumacher-Ferrari era, it was perhaps the most comprehensive rout in a single season the sport had ever seen.

1964 – Jim Clark (3 wins, 32 points, 3rd place)

Clark’s Lotus trouble was again in evidence for his first attempt at a title defence.  He won more races than any of his rivals, but John Surtees in his Ferrari and, to a slightly lesser extent, Graham Hill’s BRM achieved far greater consistency.  Surtees two wins were backed up by four other podium finishes, in an era where only the best 6 results from the ten races counted towards the championship.  Even so, Clark again saw his title go up in smoke at the last race, when his engine blew on the last lap.  In the lead – as he so often was – he was on course to be World Champion.

1965 – John Surtees (3 podium finishes, 17 points, 5th place)

As it had been for Graham Hill in 1963, so it was for John Surtees in 1965.  The Lotus team put all the nuts on the right bolts and Jim Clark did the rest.   He won six of the first seven races, putting the championship to bed early.  Surtees, beset by Ferrari’s occasional wobbles, struggled to match his form of the previous year.  His second place in the season-opening South African race was his best finish of the season, and political pressures saw him and his team not even enter the final two American rounds of the championship at all.

1966 – Jim Clark (1 win, 16 points, 6th place)

1966 saw the reintroduction of 3 litre engines into F1, as opposed to 1.5 litre units.  Jack Brabham’s eponymous team pulled a fast one, securing rock solid reliability from Australian-made Repco units.  Brabham won four on the spin in mid-season, rendering the rest of the championship year a tussle for second place.  Clark’s Lotus – fitted with a Climax H16 unit which may possibly have been last used to power the Ark Royal – was hopelessly heavy and unreliable all year.  Typically his one win – at Watkins Glen for the US Grand Prix – was crushingly dominant.  However, in his other eight races, he retired 5 times, four of them car or engine related.

1970 – Jackie Stewart (1 win, 25 points, 5th place)

The field for Jackie Stewart’s first title in 1969 was very small – with only 13 cars regularly competing.  For a driver of Stewart’s skill, such a field plus a good car and a well-run team was always going to end well.  In 1970, his Matra chassis was replaced by a March which was starting to look hopelessly out of date, especially after Lotus introduced the revolutionary 72.  With it, Stewart’s great friend and rival Jochen Rindt racked up four consecutive wins in mid-season, doing enough to secure the title in spite of being killed in practice for the Italian Grand Prix and missing the final four events.  Stewart’s sole consolation in a sparse, retirement-filled and ultimately tragic year was a win at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama.

1972 – Jackie Stewart (4 wins, 45 points, 2nd place)

Stewart’s fortunes changed in 1971 with his Tyrrell team’s move into building their own car and the brilliant 001 and 003 cars which resulted.  In 1972, he faced a fierce duel with Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72.   Despite winning the first race, though, Stewart’s early season was patchy and this was followed up by the Scot being sidelined with a stomach ulcer.  Missing the Belgian race, won by Fittipaldi, left Stewart playing catch-up.  A subsequent run of bad races and retirements in Germany – where he was eliminated by Clay Regazzoni on the final lap – Austria and Italy – where his car never even got off the grid – put paid to his chances.

1974 – Jackie Stewart (did not defend)

Stewart became Britain’s most successful ever World Champion in 1973 with his third triumph.  It was a case of enough is enough, in a sport where – despite Stewart’s tireless safety campaigning – friends were lost on a yearly basis.  Stewart stood down at the end of the 1973 season, finishing a race early due to the death of his teammate François Cevert in practice for the final Grand Prix of the year.

1977 – James Hunt (3 wins, 40 points, 5th place)

Hunt’s 1976 triumph at the final race made him an unlikely, swashbuckling, national hero.  In 1977, however, his McLaren M23 car started to show its age badly.  Not until the introduction of the M26 mid-season did he manage to win a race, but even then he either won or retired, as the car succumbed to teething troubles.  Meanwhile, the man he beat to the 76 crown, Niki Lauda, completed his remarkable recovery from his accident at the Nürburgring by consistently picking up results – six second places as well as three wins – allowing him to walk out of Ferrari politics two races early as a two-time world champion.

1993 – Nigel Mansell (did not defend)

Mansell found himself in an enviable position in 1991, as undisputed number 1 driver at a Williams team who were on the cusp of producing the most sophisticated car ever seen in Formula 1.  The first season was beset with problems, but in 1992 he was untouchable, winning the first 5 races on the trot and then 4 more before the championship was three-quarters done.  However, Williams baulked at his salary demands for a third season, especially since they had Alain Prost under contract for 1993.  Mansell instead cut a deal with Paul Newman and Carl Haas, taking his frustrations out in America and becoming the first ever driver to win the IndyCar championship at his first attempt.

1997 – Damon Hill (1 podium finish, 7 points, 12th place)

Hill – whose inconsistent 1995 performance saw Williams see fit to not renew his contract for 1997, even in spite his 1996 heroics – shocked F1 by turning up at the unfashionable Arrows team, recently bought by Tom Walkinshaw Racing.  It did not start well, Hill only just scraping his car through qualifying into the race in Australia and then it failing him before the green light.  Of the other 16 rounds, Hill retired in 6 and in the majority of the others simply did not have a competitive enough car to make a mark.  He did not trouble the scorers at all until the British Grand Prix that summer, whilst his legendary, inspired, drive in Hungary – where he came within half a lap of the biggest shock victory Formula 1 would have ever seen before a hydraulic problem dropped him to second – was the only other points-scoring contribution of a miserable season.  In the meantime, his 1996 Williams teammate Jacques Villeneuve took the laurels, as well as Hill’s  mantle as Michael Schumacher’s great rival.

2009 – Lewis Hamilton (?)

Hamilton’s defence begins on March 29th in Melbourne.  A season preview should appear here between now and then.


One Response to “Terrible defending”

  1. Duffman said

    If I interpret the history of Hunt’s championship correctly, he only one the title because Lauder pulled out of the final race at Fuji which allowed James to take championship uncontested,,, sort of.

    Seems only fair that Lauda take the title the following year. He was the stand out driver of his time, not least for his extraordinary bravery.

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