Formula One

Top Comeback Drives in F1 History – Turning things around

One of the most demanding and awe-inspiring performances are those of drivers coming through the field, seeing no difficulties in overtaking their opportunities. For that reason, we will look five top comeback drives in F1 history.

Juan Manuel Fangio – 1957 German Grand Prix

Juan Manuel Fangio's comeback in the 1957 German GP is one of the top comeback drives in F1 history.
Photo by Grand Prix Photo / Icon Sport

By 1957, Juan Manuel Fangio was already a legendary driver, with four World Championships under his belt. A fifth was waiting to be confirmed, as a great start to the campaign with Maserati had put him in prime spot by the time the paddock visited the Nordschleife.

In qualifying, Fangio completed the 23-kilometer lap 3 seconds faster than Mike Hawthorn and claimed pole ahead of a 22-lap race. There were contrasting strategies at play though, with the Argentine electing to stop once, while Hawthorn and his Ferrari teammate, Peter Collins, would go to the finish without a visit in the pits.

Fangio led early on and pulled out a 30-second gap before his stop. That was a disaster though. The Maserati mechanics lost a wheel nut, costing Fangio half a minute extra. When he returned to the race, he was fifty seconds behind the two Ferrari drivers, with ten laps remaining.

Over those ten laps, Fangio broke the Nordschleife track record nine times and his gap to the Ferraris was coming down at a rate of knots. At the start of the penultimate lap, he passed Collins and Hawthorn -despite trying to fight back- had no answer for the mighty Argentine, who cruised to victory.

Fangio not only claimed one of the most astonishing victories in history, but sealed his fifth crown with his 24th and final victory in Formula 1.

Jim Clark – 1967 Italian Grand Prix

Jim Clark leading the field early in the 1967 Italian GP.
Photo by Grand Prix Photo / Icon Sport

Ten years later, it was another legend’s turn to shine, as he so often did. Jim Clark and Lotus were a top combination in the 1960s and often only reliability and misfortune could stop their dominance. And that was the case in Monza.

Clark scored pole position and he was in the leading battle for the first laps, which consisted of a few cars slipstreaming each other. On lap twelve the race change for the Scot though, as a puncture forced him to stop and he dropped a lap behind the leaders.

Amazingly, Clark clawed his way back through the field, regaining his lap and plenty of positions. When the other Lotus, driven by Graham Hill, stopped after an engine failure on lap 58, Clark became the new leader and was thought to cruise to victory for the remaining ten laps.

On the final lap though, his engine started to cut off, seemingly running out of fuel. The Lotus slowed and crawled across the line for an unfancied third-place finish. After the race, it was discovered that there was more fuel in the Lotus, more than enough to finish without issues, but the fuel pump never picked it up.

John Watson – 1983 United States Grand Prix West

Niki Lauda ahead of John Watson early in the race in Long Beach
Photo by Jean Claude Buguin / Icon Sport

Often underrated in the memory of fans, John Watson was a great driver on his day, with five victories and twenty podiums to his name, despite never driving the best equipment.

McLaren had a good car, but with the aging Cosworth DFV engine John Watson and Niki Lauda were lacking power in comparison to other teams. It also struggled to set their cars up properly at Long Beach, thus leaving the two drivers down in 22nd and 23rd.

But amazingly, both drivers were able not only to carve their way through the field on Sunday, but dominate. Lauda got ahead of his teammate on the opening laps and the pair started passing one car after the other, staying out of trouble as well on a day that featured a few collisions. By lap 28 of 75, they both were in the points and Watson found the opportunity to pass the Austrian.

Seventeen laps later, Watson and Lauda passed Jacques Laffite to run first and second and pulled away. At the finish, Watson scored his fifth and final victory, almost half a minute ahead of Lauda, who suffered a cramp in the final laps. Third-placed Rene Arnoux amazingly finished a minute and fourteen seconds behind the winner, who had gained 21 places en route to victory!

Kimi Raikkonen – 2005 Japanese Grand Prix

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Photo by Hoch Zwei / Icon Sport

With the drivers’ championship already clinched in favour of Fernando Alonso, the focus turned to the battle of the constructors between McLaren and Renault at the penultimate race of the 2005 season.

However, a shower during qualifying turned everything upside down, as each driver took to the track in a pre-determined order based on the previous race. Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya qualified from sixteenth to eighteenth, with Giancarlo Fisichella in third.

Montoya was eliminated in a first-lap incident, leaving Alonso and Raikkonen to rise through the field. Their recoveries were highlighted by a spectacular overtake by Alonso on Michael Schumacher at the fearsome 130R. Raikkonen was got ahead of the champion though, overhauling him through strategy.

When the McLaren emerged from the pits with eight laps remaining, he was second and six second behind Fisichella, but the gap closed very soon. Raikkonen’s spectacular drive was capped off with an overtake for victory, around the outside at the first corner in the final lap! He brought the car home to win from seventeenth, ahead of Fisichella, while Alonso joined them on the podium.

Jenson Button – 2011 Canadian Grand Prix

Jenson Button celebrates winning the 2011 Canadian GP
Photo by Hoch Zwei / Icon Sport

With five victories in six races, Sebastian Vettel headed to Canada as the favourite to win. Jenson Button had not emerged victorious in more than a year and qualifying seventh was not promising either.

Rain on Sunday was though, as the 2009 champion thrived in rainy conditions. The first half was not indicative of a memorable drive. A collision with his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, and another with Fernando Alonso eliminated both drivers, but Button escaped with just a puncture on the latter incident. A drive-through penalty for speeding under the safety car only compounded his misery and dropped him to 21st and last place.

But over the final thirty laps, Button excelled. After brave moves and correct timing on switching tyres on drying track, his progress was instant. With six laps remaining, Button passed Webber and Michael Schumacher, setting after Vettel. The gap between them was a second at the start of the last lap and the German was feeling the pressure. Halfway through the lap, he made an error, went off the track and Button was through! He was first across the line, taking a victory that looked so unlikely just an hour earlier!

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