Formula 1's closest championship battles

Posted by Rob Watts on 03 June, 2021

With Max Verstappen and Lewis appearing evenly matched so far this season, could we be set for F1’s closest title fight in years? Here‘s our rundown of some memorable Formula 1 championship battles that were decided by the smallest of margins…

1984 - Niki Lauda 72 pts v Alain Prost by 71½ pts

The closest championship battle in F1 history, Austrian Niki Lauda secured his third drivers’ world title by defeating McLaren teammate Alain Prost by just half a point in his penultimate season before retirement. Lauda returned to F1 with McLaren following a two-year sabbatical and found himself with the chance to win a third world title just two years later. Despite having held the upper hand over teammate John Watson during his first two seasons back in the sport, he found the younger and faster Prost a very different challenge.

Realising he couldn’t match the young Frenchman on outright speed, Lauda often started behind his teammate as he instead opted to concentrate on race setup. His decision paid dividends as he pipped the Frenchman to the title at the final race in Portugal through being a more consistent points scorer across the year. Lauda won five grands prix in 1984 to Prost’s five, but only once finished outside the top two all year. He also became only the second driver ever to win the world championship without scoring a single pole position all season.

2008 - Lewis Hamilton 98 pts v Felipe Massa 97 pts

“Is that Glock? Is that Glock going slowly? It is!” ...OK, so we probably all remember how this one ended. It was not only one of the narrowest title wins in F1 history, but also arguably the most dramatic and famous of them all. The then 23-year-old Lewis Hamilton became F1’s youngest ever World Champion (at the time) with a last corner overtake on the final lap of the final race of the season in Brazil.

It was so close that when Felipe Massa crossed the line, he thought he’d actually done enough to be crowned champion until around 30 seconds later when Hamilton grabbed fifth and the extra point needed to eclipse the Brazilian. Massa actually won one more grand prix than Hamilton across the season, but there was little else to separate them. Between them, they started 13 out of 18 races on pole (seven for Hamilton, six for Massa) and delivered some of the closest and most tense racing of any championship fight in recent decades.

2007 - Kimi Räikkönen 110 pts v Lewis Hamilton & Fernando Alonso 109 pts

A year earlier, fans were treated to a three-way title fight that went down to the wire featuring Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and the warring McLaren teammates of Fernando Alonso (seeking a third straight title) and Lewis Hamilton (in his debut season). Räikkönen clinched it by a point after a remarkable run of form that saw him claim nine podiums from the final 10 races; five of them wins. In doing so, he became only the third Ferrari driver to be crowned champion in their maiden season with the team and the first to do so since Jody Scheckter in 1979.

Räikkönen actually only led the standings on two separate occasions (after the first and last rounds) and was 26 points adrift of leader Hamilton (with 10 points for a win) after seven races. For much of the season it seemed the title was McLaren’s to lose, but their reluctance (or perhaps inability) to prioritise one drive over the other left the door ajar for Räikkönen to sneak through and pip them both. The final standings saw Hamilton and Alonso remarkably tied on points, with Räikkönen one ahead having entered the season finale third in the standings.

1994 - Michael Schumacher 92 pts v Damon Hill 91 pts

An eventful season during which the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were tragically lost culminated in the title being decided at the last race in controversial circumstances that are still hotly contested to this day. Michael Schumacher secured his first Formula 1 world title while driving for Benetton, and it was a dominant run of six wins from the opening seven races that laid the foundations for his eventual victory over rival Damon Hill. Hill was able to fight back in the second half of the season and entered the season finale in Adelaide one point adrift of Schumacher after a memorable victory at the previous race in Japan.

The championship was ultimately decided in Schumacher’s favour when the two drivers clashed in a moment the German claimed to be “a racing incident”, although many still debate the sincerity of that to this day. With Schumacher eliminated on the spot, Hill needed only to finish fifth to secure the title for himself, but there was no fairytale ending for the Brit. Through contact with Schumacher’s Benetton, Hill’s front left wishbone had been badly damaged, forcing him into retirement at the end of the lap.

1976 - James Hunt 69 pts v Niki Lauda 68 pts

You might already be familiar with the events of this year if you’ve seen the film RUSH. An extraordinary season, during which McLaren’s James Hunt clinched his one and only world title ahead of Ferrari rival Niki Lauda, with the Brit securing his crown after finishing third at the final race in Japan. Aside from a series of disqualifications between the two title contenders, some of which were overturned on appeal, Lauda’s fiery crash at the German Grand Prix was the main story of the season. It looked for a while as though Lauda might succumb to his injuries, but remarkably he survived and only missed two rounds of the championship.

He made his return, heavily bandaged up and still suffering the effects of his accident, just six weeks later at Ferrari’s home race at Monza. Lauda defied the odds to finish fourth on his return and took the championship down to the wire with a podium at the United States Grand Prix four weeks later. The season finale took place in appalling wet conditions in Fuji, with some drivers even appealing for the race to be cancelled. Lauda was one of those, and fearing for his safety, he pulled into the pits to retire after just two laps. With the Austrian failing to score, Hunt’s podium finish was enough to send the title his way.

1981 - Nelson Piquet 50 pts v Carlos Reutemann 49 pts

The remarkable 1981 season could lay claim to being one of the most competitive in recent decades. Brabham driver Nelson Piquet, then 29-years-old, triumphed over veteran Argentine Carlos Reutemann who was 10 years his elder. Aside from the numerous political battles raging off track, 1981 was perhaps most notable for the fiercely competitive grid that saw the top five separated by just seven points in the final standings.

Piquet trailed Reutemann for much of the season and was a point adrift heading into the season finale in Las Vegas, but his fifth-place finish was enough for him to be crowned champion as his Williams rival failed to score. It was to be the final full F1 season for Reutemann, who hung up his helmet just two races into the 1982 campaign, while Piquet used his maiden triumph as a springboard to greater success, winning further titles in ‘83 and ‘87.

1999 - Mika Häkkinen 76 pts v Eddie Irvine 74 pts

Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine found himself thrust into the midst of a surprise title challenge when teammate Michael Schumacher broke his leg halfway through the season in an accident during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Irvine stepped up to take a brace of mid-season victories and looked on course to complete one of the biggest shock title wins in F1 history when he arrived at the last race with a four-point lead over Häkkinen. However, the title wasn’t to be his, as the Finn cruised to a comfortable win at the Suzuka season finale to shatter his and Ferrari’s dream.

1986 - Alain Prost 72 pts v Nigel Mansell 70 pts

One of the most thrilling seasons in F1 history, 1986 delivered a titanic three-way fight featuring F1 heavyweights Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, and Nelson Piquet. Prost became the first back-to-back champion since Jack Brabham in 1960 after a dramatic and famous season-finale in Adelaide, during which title favourite Mansell’s left rear tire exploded on the Brabham Straight at 180 mph. Prost took the win to pip a dejected Mansell by just two points in the final standings, despite the Englishman having held the championship lead for seven consecutive races before the finale in Australia.

2003 - Michael Schumacher 93 pts v Kimi Räikkönen 91 pts

After two straight years of Ferrari dominance, the 2003 season was surprisingly close, with both McLaren’s Kimi Räikkönen and Williams’ Juan-Pablo Montoya emerging as credible title contenders. Eight different drivers claimed victory during the 2003 season, with three doing so for the first time. Michael Schumacher secured six to Räikkönen’s one, but it was the Finn’s consistency that kept him in contention until the final race. An eighth-place finish at the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix was enough for Schumacher to confirm a fourth consecutive world title win.

1983 - Nelson Piquet 59 pts v Alain Prost 57 pts

Nelson Piquet became F1 World Champion for the second time, despite having trailed Alain Prost by 14 points with just three races to go. After a tensely-fought season that featured eight different winners, the final standings saw just 10 points separating the top three, with Piquet just two clear of Prost at the very top. Prost had led the championship for much of the season, but a run of three retirements in the final four races left him vulnerable. It was to be Piquet who stepped up to capitalise, winning two of the final three races to snatch the title away from Prost. Piquet’s ‘83 title was the last F1 championship win for the famous Brabham team.

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