Formula One

Best driver moves in Formula 1 history – Which drivers made career choices that paid off?

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Photo by Hoch Zwei / Icon Sport

As it has been proven many times, being at the right team at the right time is one of the most crucial aspects to success in Formula 1. Lots of drivers have seen their careers take big hits just from one bad decision, but some have felt the opposite effect. So what does it take for a move to feature in such a list? Well, achieving success with the team is the main factor and doing so quickly is important as well. Also, we take into account the fact that the decision was up to the driver and the amount of risk in the decision.

Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes (2013)

In his first six season in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton drove his chrome McLaren cars to great successes. Bursting onto the scene and almost winning the championship as a rookie and a teammate to the reigning double world champion, Fernando Alonso, was only the start. The following season, in a thrilling finale, the Brit was crowned champion at the age of 23. Challenging times also took place in that relationship, such as the 2009 and 2011 season, but those were followed by more successful ones in 2010 and 2012, both of which saw Hamilton bounce back and challenge for the title. Especially in the last of the aforementioned seasons, he was a force to be reckoned with. Following the Italian Grand Prix, which he won, he was second to Fernando Alonso in the standings and mechanical failures from the lead in both Singapore and Abu Dhabi left him with no chances to reclaim the crown.

But the relationship between Hamilton and McLaren was much more deep than that and the 21 victoris they claimed together. He entered the team’s ranks all the way back in 1998, when Ron Dennis recruited him and offered a place at McLaren’s junior team. The support continued as Hamilton climbed up the karting and junior single-seater ranks. When Hamilton won the 2006 GP2 title, he was promptly promoted to the Formula 1 team, thrown straight away to title-contending machinery.

These factors contributed in making Hamilton’s move to Mercedes a huge surprise. Mercedes itself was a fair bit behind McLaren, scoring 142 points and one win en route to fifth in the constructors championship. The British team had 378 points and seven wins, good enough for third. The general feeling among Formula 1 fans can be summed up by one quote from Jeremy Clarkson, who told Hamilton when he appeared on Top Gear back on 2013: “You have move from McLaren to Mercedes. Is that not a bit like moving from Manchester United to West Ham?”

Well, long story short, the move proved to be the right one. Ten years have passed since then and in those Hamilton has added six championships and 82 victories to his tally. The first year created a few more questionmarks, as Mercedes was clearly not a top team and the newcomer won only once that season, but the introduction of the V6-turbo hybrid engines made the German manufacturer and the Brit an all-conquering combination. In the meantime, McLaren floundered and are still rebuilding and hoping to return to former glory, having only won once since Hamilton left.

Niki Lauda to McLaren (1982)

It is only fitting that we continue the list with the man that recruited Hamilton to Mercedes, none other than Niki Lauda. At the time, the Austrian was already a double world champion, having won the 1975 championship for Ferrari, escaped his infamous horrific accident at the Nordschleife in 1976 and added a second crown to his collection the following season. Falling out with the Scuderia had big consequences though, as it meant his departure from it. He moved to Brabham, but it proved to be an unsuccessful move. Before the 1979 Canadian GP, Lauda quit the team during practice, citing that he had enough of driving around in circles.

Now away from the track, Lauda started his business ventures, including his airline, Lauda Air. However, the itch came back and he returned to Formula 1 for 1982, with McLaren and its main sponsor, Marlboro, offering the Austrian and unprecedented salary. The team was in a bad stretch though, having finished sixth the previous season and with just one victory over the preceding four years. Well, Lauda’s return was triumphant, as he won in just his third race back and following it up with another victory en route to fifth in the standings. 1983 was not good, with two podiums to start the season and then only a pair of sixth places as the best result in the rest of the season. But change was on the horizon.

McLaren was about to leave its old Cosworth DFV engines and embark on a journey with TAG-Porsche’s turbocharged engines from 1984. And once the season started, McLaren was the team to beat, winning twelve of the sixteen races on the calendar. Therefore, the title played out between Lauda and his new teammate, Alain Prost. In the end, the Austrian prevailed, claiming the title by just half a point over the Frenchman. For 1985, things did not go well and Lauda only won one race, before retiring at the end of the season, with his legend status reinforced.

Nigel Mansell to Williams (1991)

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Photo by Grand Prix Photo / Icon Sport

Nigel Mansell’s second season in Ferrari, in 1990, was a disaster. He had won on his debut for the Italian team and claimed podium results in each of his only five other finishes in the season, but he was unhappy when the team signed Alain Prost ahead of 1990. His performance was inferior to his teammate’s and it all came to a head at Silverstone. Mansell felt that his car was not performing like it did at the previous race, where he had claimed pole. A confrontation followed with the Brit feeling like he was sabotaged. Despite claiming pole, he retired from the race and stunned the paddock by announcing his retirement at the end of the season.

Frank Williams saw an opportunity and lured Mansell to his team, making him overturn his decision when he was promised no.1 status at the team. It was a reunion for the two sides, as Mansell achieved most of his success with the British team, including a close shot at the 1986 championship and plenty of victories. Williams provided him with a fast car straightaway and although he narrowly missed out on the 1991 title, he was dominant in the following campaign and accomplished his dream of becoming a world champion. He then retired, as Williams was in contact with Prost to join the team. Despite two brief returns in the championship, that was the last -and most significant- full season in Mansell’s F1 career.

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