Unless Sebastian Vettel can ‘do a Kimi’, this year’s battle for the drivers’ championship is between the Brawn drivers.
F1 being the way it is, drivers championships often end up being fought between team mates. And while Ross Brawn insists everything will be done to ensure a level playing field between Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, if it all ends in tears it wouldn’t be the first time.
Here’s some of the most memorable title fights between team mates – and how they were resolved.
1956: Peter Collins and Juan-Manuel Fangio
We will surely never see a championship decider like this again. Ferrari team mates Juan-Manuel Fangio and Peter Collins were separated by eight points going into the final round at Monza. Leader Fangio was the clear favourite to win – Collins needing to win and set fastest lap (which then earned an extra point) with his team mate not scoring, to take the title.
That opportunity presented itself when Fangio’s steering column broke during the race. But when Collins came in for a routine pit stop he volunteered his car to Fangio (also allowed at the time), surrendering any hope of the championship on the spot.
It’s hard to understand why Collins did this without appreciating how different Grand Prix racing was 53 years ago. This is how Collins explained it:
All I could think of out there was if I won the race and the championship I would become an instant celebrity. People would make demands of me. I would be expected at all times to act like ‘the champion’. Driving would not be fun any more. I wanted things to go on just as they were, so I handed my car over to Fangio. I would not have been proud of beating him through his bad luck. I am only 25 years old and have plenty of time to win the championship on my own.
Sadly, he didn’t. Collins was killed at the Nurburgring two years later.
1984-5: Alain Prost and Niki Lauda
In Niki Lauda’s autobiography “To Hell and Back” the chapter on 1984 has the title ‘The Toughest Year’. He had this to say about Alain Prost joining him at McLaren that year:
I only knew one thing about Alain – that he was fast. […] Everything Alain did in the early stages only served to reinforce my uneasiness. He had an unerring instinct for consolidating and devloping his position within the team: he kept turning up for no apparent reason at the McLaren works in England, he skilfully kept himself in the picture and built up his own PR image.
Prost dazzled the team with his speed too, regularly out-qualifying Lauda, who fell back on his tactical cunning to gain the wins and points he needed to lead the title battle. Not for the last time, one McLaren driver felt his boss’s affections rested more with the other driver. Lauda began looking for exit options – he signed for Renault for 1985 but the deal fell through when the team came under political pressure over the amount he was to be paid.
Resigning himself to staying at McLaren for another year, Lauda knuckled down to the task of beating Prost. In the second half of the season the pair won at alternating races: Prost at the Hockenheimring, Lauda at home in Austria, Prost at Zandvoort, Lauda Monza, and Prost at the Nurburgring, which set up a title-deciding duel in Portugal.
The all-McLaren battle for the championship was decided when the brakes on Nigel Mansell’s Lotus failed, allowing Lauda through into second. It was enough for the Austrian to snatch the championship by half a point, in the closest championship call of all time.
Hopes of a similarly close battle in 1985 were dashed as Lauda suffered a string of mechanical failures. He had by now comprehensively fallen out with Ron Dennis, but refused to link that with the recurring problems affecting his car.
Nonetheless, he scored a deeply satisfying final win at Zandvoort, withstanding gigantic pressure from Prost in the dying laps. The French driver took the championship, but just three years later he found himself cast in Lauda’s role.
1986-7: Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet
Nelson Piquet insisted Frank Williams had promised him number one status at Williams in 1986 when he signed the Brazilian driver. But the team patriach wasn’t around at the start of the season following a car accident which left him paralysed. Mansell, who was unlikely to be cowed in any event, seized the initiative and regularly out-performed his higher-paid team mate.
It all ended in tears. The pair went into the last race of the season both able to win the title, but Mansell’s infamous tyre explosion handed the championship to Prost. This is the risk of allowing team mates to race each other – as McLaren also discovered to their cost with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in 2007.
The Williams-Hondas were so crushingly dominant in 1987 that no-one could prevent their drivers from winning the championship. But this did nothing to improve the mood at the team, where Mansell was vexed by Piquet showing up with new developments he knew nothing about, such as active suspension at Monza.
When Mansell crashed and injured his back in practice at Suzuka, it brought the championship to an early an anti-climactic conclusion.
1988-9: Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost
It was at Estoril once again where the first salvo was fired in the war between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
In the post-Schumacher era we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at one driver defending a position from his team mate by squeezing him to the inside of the track. We would be more likely to ask why the leading driver allowed his rival to draw alongside in the first place.
But driving standards hadn’t been pushed that far 21 years ago, and Senna’s uncompromising tactics drew strong criticism at the time. Not least from Prost, who vowed: “If he wants the championship that badly, he can have it.”
The moment came as Senna looked to be on the verge of blowing the 1988 championship. Two weeks earlier an altercation with a backmarker prevented him claiming his seventh win in eight races. Prost won at Portugal, and the following race at Spain as well. Senna finally stopped the rot at Suzuka, scoring his eighth win of the year to cement his first championship.
By the time the McLaren duo returned to Suzuka for another championship decider their relationship had plunged to a new low. Prost, stung by (he claimed) Senna reneging on a pre-race agreement at Imola, chose to leave McLaren for Ferrari. He gave Ron Dennis the ultimate insult by throwing his Italian Grand Prix winner’s trophy to the crowd from the podium. McLaren, meanwhile, reacted angrily to insinuations from FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre that it or engine supplier Honda might favour Senna over the departing Prost.
At Suzuka, only a win would keep Senna in the title hunt, and he lunged down the inside of Prost at the chicane on lap 47 in a bid to take the lead. Prost seized the opportunity to prove he wanted the championship every bit as badly as Senna did. He swerved right, their wheels interlocked, and both cars skidded to a halt at the edge of the chicane. The title was Prost’s.
For all the cynicism that Senna practised in his motor racing, particularly against his arch-rival, Prost’s act of deliberately taking out a rival to win a championship was a new low. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that Senna did much the same thing to Prost when the opportunity presented itself 12 months later.
1996: Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve
It’s not always a given that two team mates disputing a world championship are doomed to fall out. Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, both sons of great Grand Prix drivers, resolved the 1996 title battle about as amicably as you can hope for in Formula 1.
This was despite Williams informing Hill a few races before the end of the season that his services would not be needed in 1997. The rookie Villeneuve’s title hopes ended at the last round in – where else? – Suzuka, when he lost a wheel as Hill motored to victory in the race and the championship.
It doesn’t always work out this way – but, happily for Brawn, it looks like their drivers have got it in them to keep things clean. Even if it looks increasingly likely that Barrichello, as Hill, may not be with the team next year.