There are moments in the history of Formula One that tear at one’s heart strings — that make even the most cynical observer of the F1 circus pine with empathy. Perhaps even bring a tear to the eye. These are a few of them.
Massa’s 39-Second Title
Interlagos — 2 Nov. 2008
It would be difficult even to imagine a more poignant moment. At the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix of 2008, Felipe Massa of Ferrari needed to win the race, with Lewis Hamilton of McLaren finishing 6th or worse, in order to secure the F1 World Championship. Massa impressively did exactly that, starting from pole position and putting his F2008 across the start-finish line first, taking the checkered flag as the race victor from Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel, with Hamilton well back in the pack behind several non-title contenders. Felipe and the Scuderia faithful went crazy! But as Hamilton rounded the last corner of a wet Interlgos track, Timo Glock was struggling with degrading dry tires and well off the pace. Hamilton passed for 5th and 39.09s later, Felipe’s championship was no more. Last race, last lap, last corner. A more epic but profoundly sad conclusion could hardly be scripted. On the slowing down lap Hamilton lifted his visor and dabbed his eyes, saying on the radio “I am speechless.” In parc férme, Massa lifted his own visor and put a gloved hand over his eyes. Then he clambered out, facing the crowd, tapped his heart three of four times, bowed and raised both hands with index fingers pointed up to the sky. At least I won the race; at least I did all I could do. Magnificently gracious in defeat, just one year later Felipe fractured his skull in a freak accident when hit by a spring that had fallen off the Brawn of Rubens Barrichello ahead. He returned to F1 and Ferrari in 2010, but by nearly all accounts was not the same driver as before.
Mansell’s Exploding Tire
Adelaide — 26 Oct. 1986
Nigel Mansell was not a wealthy or sponsored race driver, having mortgaged his home to save his first F1 drive with Lotus, and learned his craft the old fashioned way — with mistakes. For all his determination, Mansell was known as a “bad winner,” quick to complain, easily offended and always ready to retire (which he did three times). Yet Nigel, who broke Jackie Stewart’s record for most career GP wins by a British driver, was one of the unluckiest blokes ever to travel with the Formula One circus. The most profoundly poignant of such incidents was at Adelaide, Australia in the final race of the 1986 season. Mansell was driving the Williams-Honda turbo, and took pole position for the race, but this advantage was cancelled out following a poor start off the grid, with teammate Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Keke Rosberg all overtaking him and demoting the Brit down to fourth by the end of the first lap. A few laps into the race, Rosberg, in his final Grand Prix, took the lead from Piquet. This lead, however, wasn’t to last as the Finn retired on lap 63, handing the lead back to Piquet and elevating Mansell into P2, the World Championship all but clinched. Then the left rear tire on Nigel’s car suddenly exploded, sending his Williams careening down the tarmac in a shower of sparks. Nigel miraculously brought the car to a halt without hitting the barriers or anyone else, but the title was gone. Mansell did not complain, saying only how lucky he felt to be alive and in one piece. That World Championship title would have to wait another six years.
Clark’s Oil Leak
Prince George — 29 Dec. 1962
Jim Clark was recruited into Formula One by Colin Chapman, immediately receiving a cold reception for having caused the firing of popular Innes Ireland (who had won the first GP for Team Lotus) and being blamed, unfairly, for a first-lap Monza incident that claimed the life of championship-leading Ferrari driver Taffy von Trips in 1961. Clark was a sublime talent, however, able to communicate a car’s set-up needs to the engineers and drive smoothly, intuitively, under any conditions. In just his third Formula One season, driving the revolutionary monocoque Lotus 25, Clark and BRM’s Graham Hill battled for the World Championship. It all came down to the final race at the Prince George Circuit in East London, South Africa. As was his trademark, Clark bolted from the pole into P1, setting fastest lap and vanishing into the distance, building a lead of nearly 30s over the BRM, Hill resigned to losing the title. But then, just 20 laps from the checkered flag, an oil leak caused a retirement of Clark’s Lotus — resulting from a missing, simple lock washer on the distributor shaft housing — handing the World Championship to Hill. Jim Clark would go on to win impressive F1 drivers’ titles in 1963 and 1965, narrowly missing in 1967, and almost surely would have won the 1968 title had he not been astonishingly killed at Hockenheim, just 100 days after breaking the legendary Fangio’s record for career GP victories.
Fisichella’s Almost Spa Win
Belgium — 7 Sept. 2009
Giancarlo Fisichella may have come into Formula One in 1996 with high expectations, but his career never really blossomed as expected. After 12 seasons with Minardi, Jordan, Benetton and Renault, Fisi ended up driving for a newly formed Force India team in 2008. Basically a backmarker all year, Force India did something special at the mercurial Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium — putting Fisichella on the pole! Giancarlo turned the form book on its head and delivered a stunning lap of 1:46.308 to seal pole position, the 4th of his career, without doubt the most surprising. At the start Fisichella got away well as did the Ferrari of former F1 champion Kimi Räikkönen, who leapt from 6th on the grid to run 2nd as the cars braked into Les Combes. Championship-leading Jenson Button’s Brawn and Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren then took each other out going down the hill. The Italian drove well and courageously, battling for the lead with Räikkönen’s Ferrari for most of the race. But the F2009 employed KERS, which proved too powerful and was significantly quicker through Eau Rouge, leaving Giancarlo at a disadvantage, unable to muster the horsepower needed to overtake on Spa’s long, uphill Kemmel Straight. Räikkönen passed for the lead on the restart and held it. The gap at the flag was a slim 0.939s. It would have been just Fisichella’s 4th victory out of 229 Grands Prix; his last win posted at Malaysia in 2006 for Renault. In the post-race press conference, Giancarlo admitted the result was spectacular for Force India, but that “actually, we could have won the race.” Nonetheless, he was all smiles on the podium.
A Brooding Imola Podium
San Marino — 25 April 1982
The story is by now well-known. Running under team orders in a thinly attended San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in April 1982 — many F1 teams having boycotted due to the FOCA-FISA controversy — Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve was passed by his teammate Didier Peroni at the Tosa hairpin for the race lead and win. Incensed, Gilles vowed he would never speak to Pironi again. One glimpse of the podium photograph shows the depth of enmity and rage between the two men. This one, of course, is poignant only in retrospect. Two weeks later at Zolder in Belgium, pushing in qualifying to secure a grid spot in front of his estranged teammate, Gilles refused to lift when encountering slower traffic and cartwheeled off the track, the nose of his car in the sand, thrown from the Ferrari into the catch fence and to a premature death. Pironi himself would suffer massive leg injuries at Monza later in the season and, while alive, never raced again. That San Marino podium says it all.
Andretti’s Somber Title
Monza — 10 Sept. 1978
There are so many sad, unlucky and poignant moments in Mario Andretti’s motor racing career it is difficult to catalog them all — thrice snakebit while leading at Indianapolis, for instance. Mario had grown up in Italy in the shade of the Parco di Monza — enraptured by his hero, two-time F1 titleist Alberto Ascari — and as a boy dreamed of racing in Formula One. He was tagged by Lotus to drive in the 1968 U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, capturing pole position but retiring on lap 32 with a broken clutch. Not until 1975 did Andretti move full-time to Formula One. It was three years later (1978), driving the astounding Lotus 79 “wing car” — the first and best example of ground effects in F1, a car that rendered all other machines uncompetitive in just 12 months — that Andretti achieved his greatest success, winning six races and finishing four 1-2s with likable and talented teammate Ronnie Peterson. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza would be the clincher. Andretti took pole position alongside Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari), with Jean-Pierre Jabouille (Renault) in third place, Niki Lauda in 4th and Peterson in 5th. But the race starter was overenthusiastic, turning on the red lights before all the cars had lined up, and several cars in the middle of the field got a jump on those at the front. In a massive pile up, Peterson’s Lotus was rammed from behind. Peterson went into the barriers hard on the right hand side and his car caught fire; after James Hunt leapt from his McLaren and pulled Peterson from the burning Lotus, the Finn was airlifted away, although it took 20 minutes before medical help was dispatched to the scene. Mario finished 6th in the red-flaged race following a restart, capturing the World Championship, but his somber face afterwards shows how hollow the title really was. Niki Lauda, who won the race, did not even collect his trophy. More tragically even, Peterson would unexpectedly die the next morning after surgery on his shattered legs, completely without warning, from a freakish blood clot that caused a brain aneurysm. “Unhappily, motor racing is also this,” said Andretti stoically.