This weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is poised to go down in the history books, hopefully for all of the right reasons. It looks set to become the only double points race in the history of Formula 1, but with a championship on the line following a bitter season-long tussle between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, the stage is set for a thrilling race under the lights.
Hamilton heads into the final race of the season with a 17-point lead over his teammate, yet he must finish in the top two to be guaranteed the championship due to the controversial double points rule. For Rosberg, winning is a must, but his hopes still appear to be pinned on his teammate hitting trouble across the course of the race.
With three previous last-race title showdowns under his belt (and just one win), Hamilton will have the experience in Abu Dhabi, but he insists that it feels like he is still vying for his first world championship. The Briton’s title win at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix will forever remain in F1 history as one of the dramatic finales to a championship.
So without further ado, here are some of the greatest F1 title showdowns the sport has enjoyed over the years – let us hope that 2014 takes some inspiration from them.
1976 – Hunt beats Lauda in F1’s Hollywood story
For those of you who will have seen Ron Howard’s excellent film Rush, this championship fight will be fresh in the memory despite happening almost 40 years ago. As an intense rivalry between McLaren and Ferrari brewed in 1976, their leading drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda found themselves at the forefront of a fight for the world championship.
Having established a healthy lead over the Briton, Lauda’s hunger for victory nearly cost him his life. In treacherous conditions at the Nordschleife in Germany, the Austrian crashed into the barrier at high-speed, with his car being engulfed in a fireball. He was left with severe burns to his head and face, yet remarkably managed to not only combat his injuries but in fact return to Formula 1 just three races later at Monza.
Come the final race of the year in Fuji, Japan, Lauda still enjoyed a three-point lead over Hunt, and looked poised to end a dark season with the second world title that he so craved. However, with heavy fog and rain making conditions dangerous, the Austria took the brave decision to retire from the race despite nothing being wrong with the car – he did not want to risk losing his life again.
Coming through to third at the flag, Hunt won the championship by a single point – it was a dramatic end to a dramatic racing season.
1994 – Schumacher forces his way to a first title
1994 is a racing season that will be remembered for all of the wrong reasons, with the weekend at San Marino and the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger being the darkest depth the sport has hit in modern times. However, through the mist came the rise of a young German that would go on to break every record going: Michael Schumacher.
His first world title was not shy of controversy, though. The legality of the Benetton car that Schumacher was driving was brought into question on a number of occasions, and he was excluded from two races and disqualified from a further two due to misdemeanors across the course of the season. These setbacks allowed Williams’ Damon Hill to come into the fight for the championship.
At the final race of the year, Schumacher simply needed to beat Hill to become world champion. The season culminated with a titanic fight on track between them at the Australian Grand Prix, which ended with Schumacher hitting Hill before bouncing into the barriers himself. Although Hill was able to continue in the aftermath of the incident, the damage to his car had been done: he was ultimately forced to retire, giving the title to Schumacher.
1997 – Jacques’ Jerez joy as Schumacher turns red
Just as the 1994 championship was decided by an on-track clash, 1997 was very similar – only this time, it was Schumacher who came off worst.
After bringing himself back into championship contention following Jacques Villenueve’s disqualification from the Japanese Grand Prix, Schumacher was gunning to beat the Canadian at the European Grand Prix in Jerez and secure his first world title since joining Ferrari. However, he was forced to start from P2 on the grid after setting an identical time to Villeneuve, only later in the qualifying session.
An epic on-track battle ensued after Schumacher moved into the lead, with Villeneuve passing the Ferrari driver on lap 48. Not willing to give up the position, the German driver swiped his car across, making contact with the Williams, sending Schumacher into the gravel. Villeneuve went on to finish the race in third place, taking the title, whilst Schumacher was disqualified from the championship and forced to become an FIA road safety ambassador for 1998 as punishment for his actions.
2007 – Kimi capitalizes on Lewis’ misfortune
When Lewis Hamilton broke onto the F1 scene as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in 2007, he shook up the sport by running the established drivers close for the world championship in his rookie year. After losing a chance to seal it in China following a strategy error, the Briton headed to the final race of the year in Brazil knowing that a top-three finish would be enough to win the title.
However, after being forced wide on the first lap and dropping to seventh, a gearbox glitch saw Hamilton drop through the field like a stone. Despite rallying to finish P7 at the flag, it wasn’t enough to secure him the title.
McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso finished the race in third to tie with Hamilton on 109 points, but, from out of nowhere, Kimi Raikkonen was the man to pick up the pieces and win the title. Having trailed Hamilton by 17 points heading into the penultimate race of the year in China, the Finn edged out his rivals by a solitary point come the flag in Brazil.
2008 – Hamilton snatches glory from Massa
As mentioned at the start of this article, the 2008 finale was the most dramatic that the sport has ever seen. In a wet race at Interlagos, home hero Felipe Massa did all he could in his bid to win the world championship, claiming a second victory on home soil and sending the local fans into raptures. They genuinely thought that the first Brazilian champion since Senna had been crowned.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Hamilton, who needed to finish just fifth to win the championship, had slipped behind Sebastian Vettel to sixth in the final round of pit stops prompted by a late rain shower. Toyota’s Timo Glock had opted to brave the weather on dry tires, leaving him a sitting duck for the oncoming cars in the final stages of the race.
At the last corner on the last lap of the last race of the year, Hamilton made his move, slithering up the inside of the Toyota into Juncao and moving into fifth place. It was enough to win the title by the same margin he had lost it the year before – one point. Few title deciders can rival this one for drama – and if you haven’t seen the Ferrari headbutt incident that followed, watch this.
2010 – Vettel does it at the last
2010 was a vintage year for the F1 title fight, with five drivers getting in the mix: Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Come the final race of the year, all except Button stood a chance of winning the championship, with Webber and Alonso the most likely candidates.
However, a dramatic final race in Abu Dhabi – much as we hope to get this year – saw Webber’s pit crew make a strategy error that Alonso’s team followed to cover the Australian. This left both drivers stuck behind Renault’s Vitaly Petrov in seventh and eight place, with neither finding a way past before the flag.
At the front, Vettel had managed to get the jump on them all. Having never led the championship until this point, the German driver became the sport’s youngest ever world champion by four points ahead of Alonso. This victory set the tone for the next three years of dominance at the top of the sport. He wouldn’t have it all his own way, though…
2012 – Even a spin can’t stop Seb in Brazil
2012 saw Alonso enter the deciding race of the year as an underdog, with Vettel the sure-bet for the title. However, on lap one, the German driver was hit by Williams’ Bruno Senna, sending him into a spin and to the very back of the field. Alonso now had a fighting chance to win his first title with Ferrari.
However, keen to prove his credentials as a double world champion, Vettel fought back brilliantly amid changing weather conditions to finish sixth. With Alonso only second to McLaren’s Jenson Button, the Red Bull driver had his third title in the bag by just three points. Yet again, he had denied the Spaniard that elusive title with Ferrari. One has to question how things would be different today if both the 2010 and 2012 championships had gone a different way.
2014 certainly has the makings of a classic showdown between the Mercedes teammates. Up to now, double points has not played a part in deciding this year’s championship, and the hope for the sport is that it will not on Sunday. If it does though, the old line “them’s the rules” will be uttered – Lewis and Nico played by the same set of rules; call it living and dying by the sword.
Quite where the most pressure lies is hard to tell. However, we will either have a newly-crowned two-time champion on Sunday night in the shape of Lewis Hamilton, or a 33rd different F1 title winner in Nico Rosberg.
Either way, we are set for a classic end to a classic, if not slightly subdued, Formula 1 season. May the best man win.