Some of the most remarkable Grands Prix ever witnessed a driver well off the pace charging decisively through the field to take (or almost) the checkered flag. The best comebacks of all time are remembered here.
Senna’s Magnum Opus
Suzukua — 30 Oct. 1988
In the 15th and penultimate race of the 1988 Formula One season, Ayrton Senna could clinch the World Driver’s Championship at Suzuka Circuit no matter what McLaren teammate Alain Prost did. This scenario was perfect for Senna. He seemed to be created for such a task — grab pole, go faster than anyone else, and win. The McLaren front row for the Japanese GP was the team’s remarkable 11th of the year, but its two drivers had far different fortunes at the start. Prost led off the grid from Gerhard Berger and Ivan Capelli. Pole-sitter (by 0.324s) Senna stalled; by the time the Honda engine in his MP4/13 restarted, he was left well back in 14th place. “It was the only start I missed all year, and it was the most important,” Senna would relate later. “When I dropped the clutch, the engine died, and then when I got it going, it did it again. I thought — ‘I am going to have to drive as hard as I can, but it will be impossible to catch Alain.’” The Brazilian nonetheless gained six places by lap two and then passed Riccardo Patrese, Thierry Boutsen, Alessandro Nannini and Michele Alboreto to take 4th place on lap four. On lap 14 the weather started to come into contention as rain began on parts of the circuit, benefitting Senna, who was particularly skilled in wet conditions. Capelli seized an historic chance on the following lap as his sea-green March-Judd nosed ahead of Prost to take the lead for one glorious moment in front of the pits, the first time a non-turbo car had led a Grand Prix in more than four years. His limelight in P1 only lasted for a few hundred meters, however, as the extra power of the Honda turbo engine allowed Prost to regain the race lead going into the next corner.
Alain Prost was indeed a potent and formidable adversary, not to be taken lightly. He had, after all, won two of the previous three World Championships and at that time had won more Grands Prix than anyone in history. Yet within another dozen tours, Senna was catching Prost rapidly, through traffic. On lap 27, as the duo attempted to lap Andrea de Cesaris, Satoru Nakajima and Maurício Gugelmin, Senna managed to force his way through as Prost was delayed by the Italian’s Rial. Commentator James Hunt famously called de Cesaris a “disgrace” for blocking Prost and publicly lambasted him during the BBC telecast for his driving. Senna then put in a succession of fast laps, breaking the track record and building a lead of more than three seconds. His 8th win of the year, by a margin of more than 13s, beat the F1 season record then held by Jim Clark and Prost, catapulting Senna to the 1st of his three World Championships. There was certainly no mistaking the elation that Senna felt as he crossed the line, punching the sky with both arms. Ayrton had pulled off the unimaginable with a stupefying performance. He won the Championship in the best possible fashion, beating the dominant driver of the day fair and square despite the huge obstacles that were thrown his way. After his victory at Estoril in 1985, Senna was given the nickname “Magic,” and at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1988 he proved how appropriate that nickname truly was. Classifications.
Last To 1st In 30 Laps
Montréal — 12 June 2011
At Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in June 2011, the Canadian Grand Prix made history as the longest ever in F1, lasting more than four hours after the race was delayed due to torrential rains, and with a record five Safety Car deployments. High drama came at the very end. It was on the 70th and last lap that Jenson Button forced defending World Champion and race leader Sebastian Vettel into an error, overtaking the young German’s spinning Red Bull to score an epic victory. Button’s win is sure to go down as one of the classic comeback drives in F1 history because less than half way into the event, the 2009 titleist (starting a relatively poor 7th on the grid as McLaren struggled with low-downforce speed) had fallen back, way back. Going across the start-finish line at the end of lap seven, Lewis Hamilton tried to pass Button and the McLaren teammates collided, with the left side of Hamilton’s car striking the pit wall. (“What is he doing?” screamed Button on his radio.) Hamilton was out, and after pitting to check for damage on his car, the team decided to change Button to intermediates as the rain began to subside. In light of what happened next it was an absurd decision. The heavens opened and the Englishman was forced into the pits yet again for wet tires. The race was stopped soon afterwards to let the flooded track recover. Yet after the restart, Button promptly collided with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, sending the Spaniard out of the race.
Button somehow made it round to the pits in his stricken car. Jenson was soon back in the box again, however, for a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the Safety Car, by lap 40, he emerged from pit exit in 21st place out of 21, more than 100 seconds behind Vettel. At that point, you thought, Jenson was out of it, even if the race was only half over. He was dead last, indeed — except that the latest Safety Car (from his own incident) meant that in reality Button was only 16s behind Vettel’s RB7. This time McLaren fitted the English driver’s car with super-soft option tires, which on the now-drying track made all the difference. Button began to slaughter the opposition, gaining two seconds a lap on the leaders. With 16 laps remaining he caught Mark Webber and Michael Schumacher who were fighting for 2nd and 3rd. Button roared past the pair of them and into 2nd place with five laps left. Vettel was now only 3s ahead. It was suddenly clear that one of the most surprising comebacks ever witnessed in F1 was in the cards, and there was a palpable air of disbelief to the voice of the McLaren radio mechanic as he told Button the driver was in a position to win the GP, despite having pitted six times. After taking the checkered flag in unbelievably dramatic style — pressuring Vettel into his first serious mistake, an almost slow-motion, ugly-looking half-spin, in a season Vettel utterly dominated — a wild-eyed Jenson called the performance, his 10th career win, “the best race of my life.” “What a race. What a race,” Buttton screamed as he crossed the finish line to spark scenes of wild celebration in the McLaren garage and across a bedraggled Ile Notre Dame in general. Team principal Martin Witmarsh said simply “I think it was one of the best wins in the history of F1, let alone his.” Classifications.
The Monza Master
Monza — 10 Sept. 1967
The 1967 Grand Prix of Italy at Monza is considered by many to be one of the best Formula One races in history. It was perhaps also the finest drive of Scotsman Jim Clark’s F1 career. The irony is that Clark didn’t even win the race. With Clark’s Lotus starting from pole position, Jack Brabham took the lead at the green flag, but on the 2nd lap Dan Gurney went ahead followed by Graham Hill, Clark, Bruce McLaren, Jackie Stewart and Denny Hulme. By the end of the 3rd lap on the fast, pre-chicane Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, Clark was in the lead, and for a dozen or so laps drove his classically consistent, smooth style to stretch out a good-sized lead. But on lap 14, disaster loomed.
One of Clark’s rear tires had a cut and needed to be replaced. He lost an entire lap while having the wheel changed in the pits, and the Scotsman found himself a lap behind the leaders in 15th place out of 18 starters. Rejoining the race, Clark ripped back through the field, progressively lowering the circuit record and eventually equalling his pole time of 1m 28.5s. Clark pushed his Lotus 49/3 to the edge, squaring up to pass the third-placed Surtees when Hill went out on lap 59 with an engine failure. Clark thus moved into 2nd and gradually caught Brabham and took the lead — having made up a complete lap. But it was not yet over, and with two broken Ford-Cosworth V8 engines already in the pits, Lotus team boss Colin Chapman had his fingers crossed. On the final lap, the three cars of Clark, Brabham and Surtees went into the awesome Curva Grande one behind the other when suddenly Clark’s engine cut out, which caused the car to twitch sideways. This forced Surtees and Brabham to do a lightning quick dodge round the Lotus, demonstrating why Grand Prix drivers are supremely skilled. On the final lap, the Cosworth strained for a last few drops of gasoline. Clark pummeled his red steering wheel in frustration as the low-slung, green and yellow Lotus coasted slowly toward the finish line. He was ahead of Brabham and John Surtees starting the lap, but the car had not been filled with enough fuel for such a performance. When the tumult and the shouting died down, which was nearly two hours later, the Lotus mechanics found that there still had been 11 liters left the fuel tanks in Clark’s Lotus, so he had not run out of fuel, rather the pumps had failed to pick up the last drops. After all was said and done, there had been a total of 12 lead changes in the race. Just as it is rare for one to see that many lead changes during a race today, it was a remarkably competitive race even then. Surtees won, which proved to be Honda’s first and last victory under the 3.0 liter engine formula used in F1 starting in 1966. Jim Clark’s car gently rolled past the line shortly thereafter, just a bit short of what could have been the greatest victory of his career. A truely astonishing performance not seen since the days of Nuvolari, Fangio or Moss. Classifications.
Watson’s Brilliant Drive
Long Beach — 27 March 1983
After giving McLaren the team’s first victory in more than three seasons at the 1981 British Grand Prix (and also securing the first F1 win for a carbon fiber monocoque), John Watson — nicknamed “Wattie” — established a well-deserved reputation for stunning drives from the back of the field. At Detroit in 1982, he overtook three cars in one lap deep into the race on a tight, temporary street circuit that was supposedly impossible to pass on; working his way from 17th starting position on the grid, he charged through the field to score an astounding victory. But it was a year later, at the U.S. Grand Prix West in Long Beach harbor, another street circuit, that Watson cemented himself in Formula One legend. Watson was always renowned for being a great racer, and the Northern Irishman’s overtaking skills were never seen to better effect than in this race.
Patrick Tambay captured pole position in the Ferrari, alongside René Arnoux, but the normally-aspirated McLarens of Watson and teammate Niki Lauda suffered from lack of heat in their Michelin tires, were never able to arrive at a balanced setup and could manage only 22nd and 23rd positions in qualifying. While Tambay, Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite battled up front in the gorgeous California sunshine, Watson and Lauda moved steadily through the field. By lap 28, the McLarens were lying 3rd and 4th, having passed Marc Surer, Danny Sullivan and Johnny Cecotto. Lauda had led the duo off the line but had also been clearing the way all afternoon while Watson was looking after his tires. On lap 33 Watson made his move and dived past his teammate. “Niki didn’t exactly invite me to pass,” Watson observed after the race. “But we are both elderly and I had the tire advantage.” When Watson got by Lauda at the end of Shoreline Drive, he was 20 seconds behind the two leaders. With Watson closing the gap to the front and Laffite’s tires going off quickly, Ricardo Patrese challenged Laffite for the lead. He slid wide, and Watson and Lauda both passed before he rejoined the track. Soon after, the McLarens passed Laffite as well and were now P1 and P2, respectively. Yet suffering from a cramp in his right leg, Lauda could not challenge Watson in the later stages, and the Ulsterman took the checkered flag nearly a half minute ahead for his 5th career victory. Watson had required just 70 minutes to make up 22 places. It was, and remains, the farthest back from which a modern Grand Prix driver had ever come to win a Formula One race. It was also the last Formula One GP held in Long Beach, as in a sign of things to come, rising licensing fees for the promoters caused a switch to IndyCars for the 1984 race. Classifications.
Letting Michael Be Michael
Spa — 27 August 1995
The polarizing figure of Michael Schumacher cannot be exemplified better than in the Belgian Grand Prix of 1995. The then-young Schumacher and Damon Hill both qualified further down the grid than usual (16th and 8th, respectively) in a wet-dry qualifying session, with Schumi demolishing his monocoque in a Saturday practice crash, yielding an all-Ferrari front row of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi. Alesi and Johnny Herbert each led the race — showing off with a tremendous side-by-side duel through Eau Rouge and up the long Kemmel Straight — but Alesi broke down and Herbert struggled for pace once the track was dry. By then, Schumacher had already moved up to 10th, leaving Herbert and David Coulthard to battle for the lead after Alesi dropped out on lap 3 with a broken rear suspension. After two spins by Herbert, Coulthard was leading from Hill, moving Schumacher up to 5th, 12s back. By lap 15, however, as Coulthard lost his gearbox and Berger and Hill refueled, Schumacher took the lead. It then started to rain and while Hill went back to the pits for wets, Schumacher stayed out in the Benetton on his dry weather tires. The Williams driver rapidly caught up with the German, but despite a pace six seconds per lap slower, Schumacher was able to keep Hill behind him until he went off the wet track and Hill passed. Almost immediately the changing Spa circuit conditions began to favor slicks once more and Schumacher re-passed Hill who pitted again, this time for slicks himself.
Having brilliantly overtaken virtually the entire field, Schumacher won easily from there, posting his 16th GP victory to move into a tie with Sterling Moss for all-time Formula One career victories. Schumacher and Hill staged what was one of many entertaining but bad-tempered on track battles that season. Observers were impressed by Schumacher’s ability to hold off Hill through the fast chicane at Les Combes in damp conditions while the Williams driver was on the racing line using wet tires and Schumacher on the wetter part of the track shod with dry weather slicks. But Hill was incensed by his rival’s wheel-banging tactics. Hill later commented that “We had some pretty hairy moments and I am not satisfied with being driven into. I don’t think that was acceptable. F1 cars are not go-karts.” Despite a remarkable drive from the back of the grid, Schumacher’s victory by more than 19s was overshadowed by his aggressiveness, and he was was assessed a one-race suspension by the FIA. It was, in many ways, a sign of things to come. Classifications.
Suzuka — 9 Oct. 2005
Demonstrating again how wet conditions are the ultimate equalizer in Formula One, the Japanese Grand Prix of 2005 delivered. Many fans expected a processional race after Fernando Alonso clinched the World Championship two weeks earlier in Brazil. But in qualifying the circuit was subject to heavy downpours, leaving the familiar faces well down the order, with Ralf Schumacher scoring an unlikely pole — the final of his career. By Sunday, the weather was warm and sunny, a nice fast track and a good circuit for the McLarens to excel. Yet with teammates Kimi Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya both stranded far back on the grid (17th and 18th) a win seemed to be a difficult thing even to imagine. At the start, it was chaos. Alonso, in his Renault, went flying through the field from 16th. Alonso was already up to 8th at the end of the first lap while Räikkönen was taking a look at Jacques Villeneuve’s Sauber when both missed an apex, bumping over the greencrete and rejoining in the path of Montoya. As the Colombian pulled left to sweep past Villeneuve, the Sauber driver moved the same way, pitching the McLaren straight into a retaining wall and wiping off the left side of the car. Cue the Safety Car for six laps.
Midway thorugh the race, after the typical series of confusing pit stops and refueling, it was actually Giancarlo Fisichella who looked like the favorite to win the Grand Prix, as he was 20 seconds ahead. The other stops meant that Fisichella had risen into the lead with a clear track from which he could surely now dominate proceedings. But Fisichella pitted, rejoined behind Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Räikkönen, and fell back quite quickly doing slow laps. After Button and Webber pitted together, Räikkönen had only two laps to press his advantage over the pair but did so expertly, pulling out of the pits with nine laps to go in 2nd to Fisichella, having somehow cut the Italian’s lead to just 9s. The Iceman then set the fastest lap of the race at 1:31.540, only 5s behind Fisichella and closing. Fisichella was told to “push, push and push” by his team on the radio, but to no avail. With Räikkönen bearing down on him at over a second per lap, Fisichella went to pieces, going defensive for the last two laps and allowing Kimi a tow on pit straight. As they began the final lap, Räikkönen tucked up behind the Renault down the main straight, darted to the left — missing the rear of the leader by mere inches — and swept stunningly by around the outside of the first corner to take an amazing win. Peter Windsor described Räikkönen’s move on Fisichella as “a sharp Finnish knife cutting through a tender piece of Italian Salami.” Kimi prevailed by just under 2s, despite having led for only six laps in total, scoring his final victory for McLaren. Classifications.