Formula One

Top F1 title deciders: The battles that went down to the wire

Over the years, Formula 1 has enjoyed its fair share of both dominant seasons and nail-biting season finales. We have already looked into the former, so let’s look into the top F1 title deciders. These are the races we have decided to make the list, in chronological order:

1964 Mexico Grand Prix

John Surtees earlier in the 1964 season, at the Dutch Grand Prix.
Photo by Harry Pot / Wikimedia Commons

The 1964 season had one of the most underrated season finales, with three contenders from three teams: BRM’s Graham Hill had a clear advantage and would clinch the title with a top two finish, but Ferrari’s John Surtees and Lotus’ Jim Clark would be a tough opposition.

Clark maintained slim championship hopes, but the opening few laps at Mexico were promising for him. Graham Hill dropped a few places to tenth because of issues with his goggles, while Surtees had a misfiring engine, which returned to normal operation a few laps later.

The BRM driver recovered to third, but it all went to ruins, as he tried to pass Surtees’ teammate, Lorenzo Bandini. The pair made contact and Hill retired, still hoping his rivals would not do enough to overhaul him in the standings.

Heading to the finish, Clark was leading from Dan Gurney, with Bandini third and Surtees up to fourth, so the title was in the Scot’s hands. On the penultimate lap though, it all changed! Clark’s engine seized and he retired, just a lap and a half away from his second consecutive championship!

Surtees needed to finish at least second to become champion, so the crown was back in Hill’s hands, but not for long. Bandini moved aside for his teammate and Surtees was through. The Englishman took his first F1 world championship, adding to the seven he won in motorcycling!

1986 Australian Grand Prix

Alain Prost in his McLaren during the 1986 season.
Photo by Grand Prix Photo / Icon Sport

In 1986, three drivers entered the final race with a chance at taking the title. Nigel Mansell had a buffer that meant that a podium finish would clinch the championship for him, no matter how his two opponents, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet, performed. With pole on Saturday, things looked even better for the Briton.

Mansell had a bad getaway though, dropping to fourth, while Piquet went on to lead the first six laps. On the next one, Keke Rosberg took over at the front, from Piquet, Mansell and Prost. By lap 23, the three title contenders were in reverse order, as Piquet spun and Prost overtook Mansell.

Five laps later, the Frenchman had to pit because of a slow puncture and dropped back to fourth, whilst the Williams drivers swapped order once again. Twenty laps later, Prost was already on Mansell’s tail and passed him easily, while Rosberg retired. As such, Piquet was leading from Prost and Mansell, so the latter was still in control.

Then came the defining moment of the championship, with eighteen laps remaining. Mansell suffered a spectacular puncture and crashed out of the race, giving Piquet the championship lead provisionally. Williams was fearful of a similar failure on Piquet’s car and called him to pit for a new set of tyres.

Despite trying to close the gap and reclaim the lead, it was not enough. Prost won by four seconds and took his second championship, running out of fuel just a few meters after the finish line.

2008 Brazilian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa before the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, one of the top F1 title deciders of all time.
Photo by XPB / Icon Sport

Entering the final race of a spectacular and controversial season, Lewis Hamilton was the championship leader, seven points ahead of Felipe Massa. With ten points being given for a race win, the Briton had a clear advantage and a fifth-place finish would seal the title for him.

Massa qualified on pole position on home soil, with Hamilton fourth. A shower just four minutes before the start had the potential to create carnage, but the two title contenders kept their places not only after the start, but for much of the race, even after the track dried.

With eight laps remaining, there was one more twist. Rain returned and most drivers pitted for intermediates with five laps remaining. Not everyone did so though, with Timo Glock most notably electing not to pit, which propelled him from sixth to fourth. That came at the expense of Hamilton, who dropped to fifth, the last place that would grant him the title, as Massa was leading.

The McLaren driver had Sebastian Vettel hot on his tail and the pressure was on. With three laps remaining, Hamilton made a mistake and run wide. Vettel capitalised and dropped him to sixth, taking the championship away from him! The rain was intensifying though and that was bad news for Glock, who was still on slick tyres and was losing heaps of time.

Vettel and Hamilton started closing in, while Massa finished, securing the victory and -as it looked like- the championship. Heading towards the final corner, as the McLaren was trying desperately to find a way past the Toro Rosso, a slowing Glock appeared, struggling for grip. The pair went past the Toyota and Hamilton was up to an all-important fifth, taking the championship!

Although Felipe Massa is trying to get the 2008 crown fifteen years on, no one can forget one of the most special moments in Formula 1 history.

2012 Brazilian Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel spun and hit on the first lap of the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix
Photo by XPB / Icon Sport

The most recent of the top F1 title deciders we will revisit took place at Interlagos in 2012. It was a fight between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, each fighting for his third championship. The Red Bull driver held an advantage of thirteen points and was on hot form, so the Ferrari one was hoping for an opportunity to come his way in order to challenge for the title.

That opportunity did not come in qualifying, as Alonso qualified eighth, four places behind Vettel. It did arrive on the first lap though. The German had a slow getaway and was then squeezed in the first corner by his teammate, Mark Webber, which dropped him in the mid-pack, in seventh. At Turn 4, Bruno Senna locked up and smashed into the Red Bull twice.

Somehow, the car stayed intact and Vettel continued, albeit in last position. Despite the tricky conditions with light rain coming and going, Vettel was able to recover up to the top seven by the halfway stage of the race, which would be good enough for him. Alonso was running fourth, which turned into second when Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg crashed into each other.

Rain intensified and that proved problematic for Vettel, who elected to stop for intermediates, but his team was not expecting him because of team radio issues. Despite a slow stop, he didn’t drop too far back and the title was in his grasp. After a few anxious laps, Vettel finished in sixth position, whilst a disconsolate Alonso was second and missed out on the championship by three points.

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