Underdog: (noun) ‘A person in a competition, usually in sport, who is popularly expected to do badly, thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest’.
Well, that is what it says in the dictionary but nobody told these five F1 drivers who made our list for getting a result thought far beyond the capabilities of them or possibly the car they had to do the job.
So, in descending order of greatness, our fab five F1 underdogs…
5. DAMON HILL – 1997 HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX
A reigning world champion an underdog? It certainly applied to Damon Hill for the 1997 season.
Despite winning the 1996 F1 drivers title for Williams, Hill was dropped for 1997, replaced by rising German star, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who the team considered a better bet.
There were talks of a race seat at McLaren, Benetton and Ferrari but instead, Hill ended up at Arrows, who had yet to win a race in their twenty year history and had only managed to score one point the previous year, compared to the 175 hoovered up by Williams.
Things did not start well for Damon - and that is putting it mildly. His first ten races of the campaign were littered with retirements, though he did nail a point in front of his home crowd at Silverstone.
Come Hungary though and Hill found the track suited both the car and its Bridgestone tyres. Having qualified a superb third, Damon soon got past Jacques Villeneuve in the Williams and shortly after, Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari and then proceeded to comfortably lead the race, at one point he was a whopping 35 seconds in front.
Sadly, we all know what happened next. Three laps from the end, the car suffered a hydraulic glitch and with just half a lap to go, the poorly Arrows was passed by Villeneuve for the win. Just to rub salt into his wounds, this was his previous employers 100th Grand Prix victory.
Hill would win in F1 again but that was the closest Arrows ever got. The cost of the part that failed? A 50p washer. Fifty flippin’ pence.
4. PASTOR MALDONADO – 2012 SPANISH GRAND PRIX
When you look at the trail of broken cars and shattered carbon fibre that was Pastor Maldonado’s F1 career, you have to sometimes remind yourself that he well and truly seized his moment when it came, in winning the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix for Williams.
There are those who argue, that had original polesitter, Lewis Hamilton, not been kicked to the back of the field for a fuel infringement, that Maldonado would not have seen him for dust. Probably true but Pastor had got himself to second on the grid so fully deserved his shot at victory.
Maldonado had the Ferrari of local boy Fernando Alonso breathing down his neck for much of the race but even this pressure didn’t put our hero off as he took his and Venezuela’s sole F1 win.
Talking of hero, the excitement of the day was not over as after the race a large fire broke out in his team garage. Camera crews filmed Pastor rescuing his twelve year old cousin Manuel from the scene.
Quite a day, all in all.
3. IVAN CAPELLI – 1990 FRENCH GRAND PRIX
The 1990 French Grand Prix almost gave us one of the biggest upsets in F1 history. Popular Italian driver Ivan Capelli was driving for the Leyton House team and it was fair to say, the year up to this point had been something of a disaster. Three retirements, two DNQ’s and a 10th place finish was all he had to show for his efforts.
The Leyton House CG901, designed by one Adrian Newey, was a beauty to look at and had a powerful Judd V8 engine but Capelli and team-mate Mauricio Gugelmin, found it cramped and uncomfortable and a nightmare to set up. This saw Newey get fired - but not before he’d introduced a B-spec of the car ahead of the French race.
The improvement was nothing short of miraculous. Capelli qualified in seventh place and for much of the race he and Gugelmin ran in first and second.
While Gugelmin’s engine blew on lap 57, Capelli ploughed on with his, running at 1,500 rpm higher than was best for it, in order to keep Alain Prost and his Ferrari at bay. Sadly, just three laps from the flag the car developed a misfire and Prost took the lead and the win, leaving a happy yet desperately disappointed Capelli to take second, just ahead of Ayrton Senna in the McLaren Honda.
As it turned out, that was his one and only big chance. The rest of the year was one of unremitting unreliability which continued through 1991 before he endured a season of hell with Ferrari in 1992.
What a difference that lost win might have made.
2. SEBASTIAN VETTEL – 2008 ITALIAN GRAND PRIX
We’ve kind of got used to thinking of Toro Rosso as a fairly well funded, slick outfit, regularly capable of bagging points, so it is worth reminding ourselves that just a couple of years prior to this win, they were perennial under-achievers, Minardi.
Very wet weather for qualifying caught out most of the contenders for the top spot on the grid but 21 year old Sebastian Vettel was out at the right time and was super confident in the conditions, so became the youngest ever pole sitter in F1.
Despite this stellar performance, most thought there was no way he and his little team could keep the likes of Ferrari and McLaren behind them on Sunday for too long.
Like qualifying, the race was a wet affair and spray was a big issue for everybody behind Vettel, who pretty soon built up an impressive lead, enough to see him safely through the pit stops to finish a hefty twelve seconds ahead of second place man, McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen.
Clearly, F1’s now youngest ever race winner was going places…
1. OLIVIER PANIS, 1996 MONACO GRAND PRIX
As with Vettel’s Monza win, if ever proof were needed that a bit of the wet stuff can produce a shock result, Olivier Panis’ victory at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix is it.
Reckoned by many to be the greatest F1 race of all time, the race saw lead change after lead change as drivers fell foul of the conditions
True, you could argue that his win was down to this significant attrition, which saw the record set for the fewest number of cars (three) to be running at the end of a Grand Prix but that just adds to the epic job Olivier did.
Starting from 14th on the grid, Panis not only had to pick his way through the carnage happening all around him but he did it with seriously impressive speed, he was a man on a mission.
Towards the end of this crazy race, only David Coulthard in his McLaren was a threat, just four seconds behind at the flag, followed by Johnny Herbert for Sauber (another epic underdog drive if ever there was one) another half minute down the road.
21 years on and Panis remains the last French driver to win a Grand Prix…
Honourable underdog mentions go to:
- Andrea de Cesaris
At the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix (when Michael Schumacher made his debut in the other Jordan) he was running in second place for Eddie's team until his engine let go three laps from the end.
- Mark Webber
At the 2002 Australian Grand Prix, Webber was fifth on his F1 debut, scoring Minardi's first points in three years at his home race.
- Giancarlo Fisichella
At the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, a race of utter chaos that had Kimi Raikkonen on the top step of the podium, it was later found Fisichella had in fact won. He finally got his winners trophy at the next race in a slightly bizarre handover ceremony on the grid.
- Jules Bianchi
The 2014 Monaco Grand Prix saw Jules secure a hard fought ninth place finish, scoring Marussia’s first points in their three year existence.
- Markus Winkelhock
At the 2007 European Grand Prix Wilkelhock became the only driver in F1 history to start last on the grid and lead the race in his first and last Grand Prix.