Sebastian Vettel has entered the summer break with a 38 point lead, prompting many to claim that this championship is over. Collective sighs have been heard throughout the F1 world, but, as history has taught us, it is far too early to engrave Vettel’s name on the championship trophy for a fourth time.
Firstly, let’s get apply some maths to this. Vettel’s lead is 38 points. Divide that by 25 (number of points for a race win), and you will find that the German driver’s lead is equivalent to 1.52 race wins. Under the old points system (10 for a win), that’s a deficit greater than 15 points which has to be made up in the second half of the season. Keeping up? Good. We take a look back at some of the most unlikely and spectacular comebacks in the history of Formula One that suggest Vettel’s grip on the 2013 championship is less tighter than first imagined.
James Hunt vs Niki Lauda, 1976 (35 point deficit – 3.9 race wins)
The 1976 Formula One season is without a doubt one of the most enthralling in the history of the sport, and it is set to be profiled in the film ‘Rush’, due for release in September (see video below). Niki Lauda was on-track to claim a second world championship before the horrific crash at the Nurburgring that nearly claimed his life. He subsequently missed the next three races (a paltry figure given the severity of the incident), allowing Hunt to close in. Following the seventh round of the season, Lauda was a full 35 points ahead of Hunt which, with 9 points for a win, appeared to be an unassailable figure. However, a sensational run saw Hunt close the gap and eventually edge out the Austrian driver by a solitary point in Fuji where Lauda withdrew. Despite the circumstances, it was a remarkable turnover.
Nelson Piquet vs Carlos Reutemann, 1981 (17 point deficit – 1.9 race wins)
Carlos Reutemann is often forgotten as having come close to a world championship (a fate that may bestow Felipe Massa in years to come), but he was in the box seat come the middle of 1981. With just six rounds to go, the Argentinian led Nelson Piquet by seventeen points and Williams looked set to be celebrating a second title in a row. Instead, Reutemann scored just six points in the final six races as Piquet took the opportunity to reel him in, drawing level after just three races before himself scoring just five points in the final three rounds. Essentially, neither driver really took advantage in the final few rounds, but Reutemann’s loss has confined him to the ‘nearly-men’ box in the Formula One attic. Piquet, on the other hand, went on to win a further two titles.
Keke Rosberg vs Didier Pironi, 1982 (16 point deficit – 1.8 race wins)
Back when Nico was merely a thought in his father’s mind, Keke Rosberg was racing for Williams and establishing Finland’s affinity with Formula One. His title victory in 1982 was somewhat unconvincing, having won just one race all season but consistently scoring to take advantage of his rivals’ misfortune. Didier Pironi looked poised to claim Ferrari’s second title in four years – eventually, it would take twenty-one years for Schumacher to follow Jody Scheckter’s example. However, the season was one tinged with sadness following the death of Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder. His teammate, Pironi, led by sixteen points over Rosberg with five races to go and was instead focusing on McLaren’s John Watson, just nine points behind. However, a huge crash at Hockenheim ended the Frenchman’s season and career, leaving the championship in the balance. Rosberg went on a fine run in the final five races to win the championship ahead of the Frenchman and Watson. Another great comeback, but, like 1976, under abnormal circumstances.
Kimi Raikkonen vs Lewis Hamilton, 2007 (17 point deficit – 1.7 race wins)
Fast-forward twenty-five years and Ferrari are beginning the post-Schumacher era headed up by Kimi Raikkonen who, along with defending world champion Fernando Alonso, was expected to be in the thick of the title fight. Instead, a young upstart by the name of Lewis Hamilton turned up on the scene and so very nearly won it. Heading into the penultimate race in China, the Briton led Raikkonen by 17 points, requiring not one, but two miraculous races for the Finn to win his first world title. In Shanghai, a wet race was led by Hamilton off the start, only for a dud tyre call by McLaren to cost him a huge amount of time. When the belated call came to pit, Hamilton’s tyres failed him further as he ran on at pit entry and became beached in the gravel. Raikkonen claimed the victory ahead of Alonso, but Hamilton still had a four point lead heading into the final round in Brazil. Once again though, the Formula One gods played against the McLaren rookie as, after a poor start that saw him drop back to P8, he suffered a gearbox problem which caused him to sink like a stone through the field. Eventually, Hamilton recovered to finish the race seventh whilst clever strategy from Ferrari allowed Raikkonen to leap-frog Massa for the lead and clinch the title by a solitary point from both Hamilton and Alonso in arguably the most remarkable turnaround in F1 history.
Sebastian Vettel vs Fernando Alonso & Mark Webber, 2010 (10 point deficit – 1 race win)
One race win may not be a great gap, but Sebastian Vettel’s surge in form to win his first world championship in 2010 certainly makes it one of the great title comebacks. Heading to Korea, Mark Webber enjoyed a fourteen point lead from Alonso and Vettel, but an early retirement doused the Aussie’s hopes of a first title. With Vettel leading, all the of signs began to point to the second Red Bull, but an engine failure forced him to retire and handed Alonso a twenty-five point lead over Vettel; the German’s championship hopes appeared to be over. However, he rallied in Brazil to head up a Red Bull one-two ahead of Webber, closing the gap to Alonso to a still-sizeable fifteen points. Game, set and match Ferrari? Oh no. At the final round in Abu Dhabi, Vettel ran away at the front followed by the two McLarens as Alonso and Webber began to battle on-track. The Ferrari made the mistake of pitting to cover Webber without considering the other Red Bull, and subsequently got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov, unable to find a way past for a mammoth 38 laps and shooting himself in the foot in the process. At the front, Vettel took the championship lead for the first and only time in 2010 – good timing, Seb.
Sebastian Vettel vs Fernando Alonso, 2012 (40 point defecit – 1.6 race wins)
They have history, these two. In 2012, Fernando Alonso was handed a pig of a car, causing many to write off the Spaniard before the season had even begun, not to mention Vettel’s sensational record in 2011. However, come the summer break, Alonso was enjoying an improbable 40 point lead thanks to six other drivers winning races and taking points off each other. Vettel had won just once and, after qualifying P11 in Belgium, the German driver appeared to be on the ropes. However, a large accident caused by Romain Grosjean put Alonso out on the spot, whilst Vettel produced a good drive to storm to P2, cutting the gap. At Monza though, a DNF for Vettel and P3 for Alonso re-established the gap to 39 points.
What followed was a sensational run of form from Vettel, winning four races on the bounce which, combined with a non-score for Alonso in Japan, handed the Red Bull driver a thirteen point lead. However, after being excluded from qualifying in Abu Dhabi, Alonso looked to be on-top once again, only for Vettel to inexplicably finish a brilliant P3 after starting in the pits. Despite his best efforts, Alonso simply could not cut the gap in the final two rounds, eventually losing out to Vettel by just three points. The pertinent point from the 2012 run-in was that whoever has the quickest car is always favourite. Alonso was stuck in the third-quickest car for the second half of the year, making any result above P5 an achievement. No championship lead is safe.
All of these tales will forewarn Vettel of a potential implosion and drop in form, as even the largest championship leads can be overturned – something the Red Bull driver has himself proven en route to two of his three titles.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and Lothar Spurzem.