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Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill's collisions are an example of tensions that can decide a championship (Feature Image Credit: F1 in the 1990s on Twitter)

When title bids go wrong: failed attempts at F1 glory

Charles Leclerc is not the first driver to have seen a title bid fail

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As Max Verstappen closes in on his second title in two years, Charles Leclerc’s bid has gone spectacularly wrong. His failed title bid joins a list of drivers that have seen their chances of an F1 championship fade away. 

Mika Hakkinen’s speed counted for nothing in 2001, his McLaren MP4-16 struggling for pace and reliability all season (Image Credit: @McLaren on Twitter)

Every driver on the grid believes rightly or wrongly that they can win the F1 World Championship. It is the most prized possession in motorsport and is coveted throughout the world.

Years of planning go into a driver landing in F1. Only a select few of these find themselves in a seat that can challenge for the title.

A title fight requires many elements to come together during a season.  Consistent results, reliability, ingenuity, and capitalising on your rival’s misfortune are the tip of the iceberg a driver must navigate around to join the fabled names engraved on F1’s Drivers’ World Championship trophy. Verstappen is the latest to add his name to this elite group.

Needing a fast car is a given; however, this is pointless if results don’t materialise, as Leclerc has found out this season.

The other crucial aspect is the psychological toughness of the driver. Mistakes and tough results happen to all grand prix drivers, but when in the midst of a title bid, a driver must recover quickly from any unforced errors. Self-inflicted errors need to be avoided as this plagues the driver and the team.

Throughout recent history, many drivers have looked set for their best year in F1 only for it to turn into a tale of regret and an example of what might have been. Never for the same reason, but always caused by multiple factors.

Damon Hill: 1995
Damon Hill in the Williams FW17 (Image Credit: @WilliamsRacing on Twitter)

Williams and Hill set their sights on both titles for 1995, having lost the drivers’ title to Michael Schumacher in controversial fashion the previous season. Hill had high confidence in the FW17, and the chassis was the best on the grid. The scene was set for Williams and Hill to have the upper hand over Benetton and Schumacher, and bring the drivers’ title back to Grove, while also aiming to win the constructors’ title for the fourth consecutive year.

Qualifying across the season belonged to Williams with 12 out of 17 pole positions. However, in the races, it was a different story. The first race in Brazil characterised Hill’s season. Scintillating qualifying pace, but unable to convert this into a win. Hill led, but spun out at end of the Senna S chicane. He would win at the next two rounds, with Schumacher unable to catch the Williams in Argentina, before throwing away a certain victory in San Marino by crashing out.

However, at this point, the season turned. Hill spun out of races, retired through car failure, and took himself along with title rival Schumacher out of the British Grand Prix.  A combination of poor form, mistakes and reliability ensured the British driver did not win again until seven rounds later in Hungary. Hill would collide with Schumacher again in Italy, both beached in the gravel and once again out of the race.

The mistakes were not just down to Hill. Williams also had a worse record than its rival in the pit lane. Benetton were masters at pit stops and strategy calls. Technical Director Ross Brawn oversaw the strategy side, with his calls becoming legendary at Ferrari. Williams by comparison had a looser approach, with Adrian Newey once stating in a press conference “sometimes you get it wrong, sometimes you get it right”. Schumacher won the title with two races remaining after Hill spun out of another race, this time at the Nurburgring.

The two teams operated very differently in 1995, and this showed in the results.  The combination of driver and team failure saw a combined five wins for Williams in 1995 – four from Hill, and one from Coulthard. Alesi’s Ferrari won in Canada, while the remaining 12 races were won by Benetton. A comprehensive defeat for Williams, the final race showed the wasted potential of both car and driver. Hill dominated the race and won by over a minute.

A combination of driver error and reliability cost Williams in 1995. The team had the best car but did not piece together consistency, reliability and driver performance.  Both Hill’s form and Williams’s reliability would need to be addressed that season, but this was not possible due to the entrenched issues. We can never truly know what goes on behind the scenes in a team, but tensions would no doubt be present from both sides.

Hill and Williams would win the title a year later, the FW18 the class of the 1996 field, with reliability and consistency resulting in an emphatic win of both championships.

David Coulthard: 2001
David Coulthard gives teammate Mika Hakkinen a lift back to the pits after the Finn retired on the final lap (Image Credit: @F1_Images on Twitter)

The battle between McLaren and Ferrari dominated F1 from 1998 to 2000. McLaren won both championships in 1998 and 1999, with Schumacher and Ferrari striking back in 2000.

For McLaren, 2001 was supposed to be the year McLaren would fight back and regain both titles. However, reliability was the downfall of the team. Two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen suffered appalling reliability throughout the season. Hakkinen lined up third on the grid at the Brazilian Grand Prix, only to stall when the lights went out. The entire field rushed past him while he hoped no one hit him.

However, the most infamous failure occurred two races later at the Spanish Grand Prix. After taking the lead from Schumacher in the pits, the Finn was cruising to a certain victory. On the final lap, his MP4-16’s clutch failed and the silver car ground to a halt. David Coulthard gave his teammate a lift back to the pits.

Two wins at Silverstone and Indianapolis were the highlights of a disappointing season. The reliability issues caused Hakkinen to take a sabbatical year in 2002. He never returned to an F1 cockpit, opting to retire once his sabbatical ended.

With Hakkinen plagued by endless bad luck and reliability, the title challenge fell to Coulthard. While the Scot had more reliability than his luckless teammate, he still suffered failures that hampered his bid. The start of the season showed much promise for Coulthard, with a win and three podiums in the first four rounds. His fifth place in Spain was followed by an emphatic win in Austria.

However, from Monaco, his championship bid dramatically fell apart. After qualifying in pole position in Monte Carlo, Coulthard’s prospects of a win on the legendary streets evaporated. As the field set off on the formation lap, his MP4-16 suffered a launch-control problem, relegating him to the back of the grid for the start. This was the second time in three races he had been struck by software gremlins at the start of a race. Stuck behind the Arrows of Enrique Bernoldi for much of the race, Coulthard recovered to P5, while Schumacher won.

The Scot would not win again in 2001, only reaching the podium four times in the remaining 10 races, as well as retiring from four. While the Ferrari F2001 demonstrated bulletproof reliability the MP4-16 suffered a total of 10 retirements across the season.

The speed of Ferrari was evident from the first race, and McLaren simply could not keep up with the prancing horse. Poor performance and reliability meant Coulthard finished 58 points away from World Champion Schumacher, and only nine points clear of third-placed Rubens Barrichello in the second Ferrari.

Coulthard and Hakkinen raced hard and consistently with the MP4-16, but a sustained title fight across the season was impossible due to the reliability and uncompetitive nature of the car.

Feature Image Credit: F1 in the 1990s on Twitter

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