As you may be aware, tomorrow will see the final race of the 2021 Formula One season, and for the first time in many years, we go into the finale with the Drivers’ Championship still on the line: Max Verstappen and Sir Lewis Hamilton are exactly level on points. It’s exciting, if you’re a fan; and if you’re a recent fan it must seem remarkable. The battle for the title hasn’t gone to the wire since 2016, and even then that was only a contest between teammates. In the big picture, however, title-deciders aren’t actually that rare: of the 70 seasons of F1 completed so far, 30 have seen at least two drivers separated by less than the available number of points at the final race – and it’s not just because the early seasons had fewer races. As little as a decade ago, this sort of title-decider was commonplace, or even the norm: between 1994 and 2013 inclusive, 11 seasons came down to the final race, and only 9 didn’t. But it’s easy to forget those old races, so I thought I’d quickly run down (for my own benefit, mostly), every title-decider in F1 history so far, as we wait to see what happens tomorow…
1950: 3 points (3 drivers)
The first championship was an in-house contest between three Alfa Romeo drivers: the experienced Luigi Fagioli and Nino Farina (both GP winners in the 1930s) and young (only 39!) upstart Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio had dominated the 1949 season (along with Alberto Ascari), but didn’t have 1950 all his own way: Farina and Fangio traded wins for the first four races (discounting the Indy 500, theoretically a championship race but not contested by any championship contender), before Fangio pulled ahead by winning the fifth. The veteran Fagioli, meanwhile, had shown impressive consistency, coming second in four races. Arriving in Monza for the finale, therefore, Fangio led on 26 points, ahead of Fagioli on 24 and Farina on 22, with 8 points for a win. However, only the best four races counted for the title (to allow for the reliability problems of the era), which meant that a win for Fagioli would only count for 2 points (as it would have to replace one of his 6-point 2nds) – he could only take the title with both a win and a fastest lap (for which there was a bonus point available). Farina and Fangio, however, could earn the full 8, and a win would ensure either the title. It was a race of attrition, in which only 7 out of 27 cars finished; and although Fangio took pole, he double-retired (his car failed, so he stole someone else’s car, until that also failed), allowing Farina to take the win and, overtaking both his teammates, the title.
1951: 6 points (3(?) drivers)
After an inaugural season hamstrung by mechanical problems, Ferrari returned to the front in 1951, setting up a final-race decider between the two greatest drivers of the era: Alfa’s Fangio and Ferrari’s Ascari. Ascari needed to finish ahead of Fangio in the final race, and to himself be either 1st or 2nd. Ascari’s teammate, José Froilán González, could also have taken the title, had he won the race with the fastest lap, and Fangio not scored – at least I think that’s true, though thanks to complicated rules involving count-backs, race-dropping, and car-stealing (Fangio had a win in Fagioli’s car, leading Fagioli to quit the sport on the spot, while González had had his own 2nd place stolen by Ascari). In any case, it was again the cars that let the Ferrari drivers down, with high tyre degradation leading to an excess of pit-stops; Fangio cruised to victory in both the race and the championship.
1956: 3 points (2 drivers)
It seemed unlikely, going into the final race, that Fangio could lose the title: his rival Peter Collins would have to win the race, with Fangio third or lower, to overtake him. But when Fangio retired, leaving Collins in second place and only a few seconds behind the all-important lead (held by Stirling Moss), it suddenly seemed achievable… except that Collins preferred to lose, and voluntarily handed his car over to Fangio to allow the superior driver to defeat him for the title (and Moss to overtake him for 2nd in the championship standings). Collin’s generosity is particularly striking in light of the fact that Fangio was only in contention at all because Collins had previously given him his car in Monaco – where Fangio had crashed twice, before deciding to simply sit in the garage and relax for twenty laps, before calling Collins in from 2nd so that Fangio could hijack his race. Had Collins simply kept his own cars (and been allowed to do so), his results would have seen him win the title easily; Fangio, meanwhile, had only succeeded in finishing three races under his own steam all year, having also stolen Luigi Musso’s car in Argentina.
1958: 1 point (2 drivers)
Stirling Moss took the fastest lap, and won the race by a minute and a half after backing off in the later stages, but Mike Hawthorn’s second place was enough to win him the title by a single point. As in 1956, the title was essentially abdicated by English politeness – after Hawthorn had been penalised in the Portuguese GP, Moss had demanded that his rival’s points be reinstated, ultimately leading to his loss of the championship.
1959: 4 points (3 drivers)
A win for either Moss or Tony Brooks would have taken the title; indeed, Moss only needed a podium. But Moss retired (he only finished three races that season), and Brooks could manage only third, one place ahead of title-winner Jack Brabham. All three drivers had won 2 of the 9 races; however, in a season when only the best five results counted, only 4 of the 41 drivers to enter races that year (not even counting the Indy 500 competitors) actually achieved 5 whole results, and Brabham was the only man to make the top 5 in at least 5 races. (the only man to finish more races than Brabham was the veteran Maurice Trintignant, who astonishingly finished all 8 races he contested).
(1961: 1 point)
The 1961 season did not go down to the final race in the US; with two races to go, three drivers were in the hunt, but after the penultimate race Phil Hill was champion. It feels worth mentioning this season, however, for one particular reason: the only reason Hill wasn’t forced to wait until his home race to take the title was that his rival, Wolfgang von Tripps, died in the penultimate race, in Italy. In this case, only mortal biology, not mathematics, ensured that the title could not change hands at the last race.
1962: 12 points (2 drivers)
With 20 laps to go, the title was in the lap of Jim Clark – victory in the race, which Clark was leading comfortably, would have seen him end level on points with Graham Hill, and take the title through number of victories. But Clark’s fragile Lotus couldn’t hold it together, succumbing to an oil leak, and handing both race and championship to Hill. It would be the fourth race that season in which Clark would take pole only to retire.
1964: 1 point (3 drivers)
With 1 lap to go, the title was in the lap of Jim Clark – victory in the race, which Clark was leading comfortably, would see him end level on points with Graham Hill, and take the title through number of victories. But Clark’s fragile Lotus couldn’t hold it together, succumbing to an oil leak, and handing both race and championship to Hill – or at least so it seemed until the final few corners, when Ferrari team orders, communicated through frantic trackside waving after some last-moment mental arithmetic, succeeded in moving John Surtees from 3rd place into 2nd, to snatch the title from Hill by a single point. [In fact, Hill finished the season having collected one point more than Surtees – but lost due to the rule that he could only count points from his best six races.] As the three rivals raced for different teams, this was also the first season in which three constructors – Ferrari, BRM and Lotus – entered the final GP with a chance (and a viable chance!) of the Constructor’s Title.
1967: 5 points (2 drivers)
Clark’s five retirements in the season had already cost him the title by the Mexican GP – his chances were blown in his legendary drive at Monza two races earlier (he pitted to replace a tyre and chased back to regain the lead, but ran out of fuel on the final lap). But two drivers were still in the hunt: Jack Brabham needed to win the final race, with Denny Hulme finishing fifth or lower. Unfortunately for him, neither of those conditions came to pass, with Hulme finishing one place behind Brabham, in 3rd, and Clark winning the race by a minute and a half, despite his car having been without a clutch for almost the entire race.
1968: 12 points (3 drivers)
Seeking his second title, Hulme needed to win, with Jackie Stewart no higher than 3rd, and Graham Hill no higher than 6th; Stewart needed to beat Hill by 2 places and be at least 4th, and to be no more than 3 places behind Hulme, or 2nd if Hulme won; Hill needed to come within 2 places of Stewart, and to come at least 5th if Hulme won. But as it happened, all this mathematics was largely irrelevant, as Stewart finished outside the points, and Hulme finished on fire. Hill won the race, and the title.
1974: 3 points (3 drivers)
For the second year in a row, the season ended with the tradition of a driver (this time Helmuth Koinigg) being gruesomely killed by badly-installed safety apparatus at Watkins Glen. As usual, this was not allowed to distract from the events, however, with only Niki Lauda retiring out of respect for the dead (and only after mechanical problems had made clear he would not be enjoying the day in any case). At the front of the championship, Clay Regazzoni was level on points with Emerson Fittipaldi, with Jody Scheckter needing a win and for neither of his rivals to finish. The contest was over almost from the start, however, as Regazzoni struggled with mechanical problems and finished out of the points, Scheckter retired with mechanical problems, and Fittipaldi safely finished 4th.
1976: 1 point (2 drivers)
With five wins, two seconds and a third from the first nine races, Lauda seemed unstoppable again, as he had been the year before. But his crash at the German GP threw everything into doubt, including Lauda’s life – with disfiguring facial burns and badly damaged lungs, the champion was read the last rites. Energised by the thought of James Hunt stealing his title, however, Lauda rose from his deathbed, missing only two races – although he struggled early on in his return, in part because blood from his open scars filled and congealed in his helmet, welding it to his head. A podium position in the penultimate race, however, put him back in pole position for the title, needing only to finish ahead of Hunt, or close behind him, to take a second title. But the Japanese GP was contested in thick fog and heavy rain, with many drivers calling for the race to be abandoned (which would have handed Lauda the title); although it went ahead, four drivers voluntarily retired from the race in order to avoid the excessive risk of death – and Lauda was one of them. Hunt still needed to finish fourth or higher, and was only fifth on the track – until two laps before the checkered flag, when he accidentally overtook two cars to take a podium and (although he didn’t realise it at the time) the championship.
(1978: 13 points)
As with 1961, this season deserves mention despite having been decided three races early: Mario Andretti’s closest rival, Ronnie Peterson, was not in a position to take the title to the final GP (he would have needed a 1st and a 2nd from the final two races) only because he had been killed in the antepenultimate race.
1981: 1 point (3 drivers)
The season came down to the ultimate driving challenge: a number of laps around a car park out the back of a casino in Las Vegas. If Jacques Lafitte did not finish first or second, either Carlos Reutemann or Nelson Piquet would win by finishing ahead of the other (Piquet also need to be at least 5th); if Lafitte did come first or second, the permutations became more complicated, including the possibility (if Lafitte won, Piquet took third and Reutemann came fourth) of all three drivers finishing exactly level on points (Lafitte taking the title through a higher number second-place finishes). Reutemann seemed to have the advantage, taking pole – but his teammate Alan Jones (who refused to assist Reutemann on the grounds that “I am a member of the British Commonwealth” and thus morally prohibited from teamwork) overtook him into the first corner, and he was soon slipping down the grid with serious mechanical trouble. Lafitte never troubled the leaders, and Piquet survived two perils – erratic breaking from Reutemann (Piquet accused him of trying to crash them both out, scuttling his damaged car to take the title) and the unbearable American heat (he was physically sick in qualifying, and collapsed after the race) to take fifth, and the title.
1982: 5 points (2 or 3 drivers)
How many men were in contention for the title going into this year’s jaunt around the car park depends on exactly when you count. Until the list of competitors was finalised, it was three: Keke Rosberg led Didier Pironi by only three points, with John Watson six more behind. The complication was that Pironi had suffered catastrophic leg injuries earlier in the season (in a crash similar to that in which his teammate Gilles Villeneuve had been killed) and had missed three races in a row. Nobody really expected him to make it to the Las Vegas startline, and when the lights went out the contenders were indeed down to only two, with Watson needing victory and a poor race for Rosberg to make up the deficit (Pironi, meanwhile, would never race again). This was the second season in which three constructors went into the final race with a chance of the team title. In the race, Watson suffered a bad start, but fought his way from twelfth back up to second; yet his heroics were irrelevant, as Rosberg’s fifth place would have been enough to secure the title no matter who won the race. Michele Alboreto became the 11th driver to win a race that season, while Ferrari somehow took the Constructor’s title, despite losing both their starting drivers to career-ending (and in one case fatal) injuries. Rosberg became the second man, after Hawthorn, to win a title despite having won only a single race.
1983: 2 points (3 drivers)
For the third year in a row, three drivers were still mathematically capable of winning the title going into the final race – and unlike the previous year, all three would be on the start grid. Prost was two points ahead of Piquet, with René Arnoux six more behind and needing a win. His hopes were over by lap 9, however, when his complicated turbo engine failed; this left Prost, in third, needing to overtake Piquet, the leader; yet his hopes were also soon over, when his complicated turbo engine failed. Piquet, however, was soon slowing himself, putting his title in jeopardy – from first, he fell back to fourth, knowing that the loss of one more place would cost him the title. Fortunately for him, Lauda’s complicated turbo engine then failed, giving Piquet the podium and the championship.
1984: ½ point (2 drivers)
The streak of nail-biting seasons continued with the closest result in history. In 1976, Lauda had lost the title when he refused to race in terrible conditions in Japan, but in 1984 the weather turned the title in the opposite direction. Lauda had spun out in the wet in Monaco, and Prost, struggling with mechanical failure and with a dwindling lead, successfully demanded from the cockpit that the race be stopped, ensuring him the win – a controversial ruling, given that the race director was Prost’s Porsche teammate, and that he did not consult race stewards. The last laugh at the end of the season, however, belonged to Lauda: the early stoppage at Monaco meant that only half points were awarded for that race, costing Prost 4½ points. That meant that at the final race in Portugal, Lauda’s fate was in his own hands: although Prost took the victory, Lauda was able to take second (albeit only thanks to Mansell’s engine failure) and the title, with a historically narrow margin of victory.
1986: 2 points (3 drivers)
Williams had the fastest car in 1986, but suffered from an abundance of drivers – third-placed Piquet had repeatedly taken points from first-placed Mansell, leaving Prost to sneak up to within six points of the title. The final race started well enough, with Mansell in command – but after 63 laps, the title slipped through his grasp due to his failure to crash. A tyre burst, leaving the car out of control and unable to continue, but Mansell successfully, yet disasterously, piloted it to a stop without colliding with anything. Had he suffered a large accident in the process, the race director was standing by ready to red-flag it, handing the title to Mansell; but instead, Mansell watched, unharmed but disinherited, as Prost cruised home to win the race ahead of Piquet and take the title.
1994: 1 point (2 drivers)
Michael Schumacher and Benetton started the season clearly ahead of their rivals Williams; but by the final round, Williams driver Damon Hill had won four of the last five races and was now only a single point behind Schumacher. Schumacher now had only two ways to win the title: beat Hill fairly and squarely on track, or cheat. As we know, however, he never had to make that choice, as fortunately for him he accidentally unaccountably crashed into the side of Hill’s car halfway through the race, putting both drivers out of the grand prix, but ensuring Schumacher became champion.
1996: 19 points (2 drivers)
It was never likely that Jacques Villeneuve would steal this title in the final race: he not only needed to win, but also needed his teammate, Hill, not to score. He did take pole, but a long shot got longer when a bad start put him in sixth by the end of the opening lap, and all hope was gone once a wheel fell off halfway through the race. Hill won the title; but Villeneuve perhaps had the last laugh, as it was Hill who was then fired by their team.
1997: 39 points (2 drivers)
Williams and Benetton were neck and neck this season in speed, but poor early reliability had allowed Schumacher to build a significant lead. By the final round, however, those problems seemingly behind them, Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve had won three of the last six races and was now only a single point behind Schumacher. This meant that Schumacher now had only two ways to win the title: beat Villeneuve fair and square on the track, or cheat. As we know, however, he never had to make that choice, as fortunately for him a bizarre steering wheel twitch crashed him into the side of Villeneuve’s car halfway through the race, seemingly making Schumacher champion. The story this year, however, was a little more complicated: although Schumacher’s car was wrecked Villeneuve’s was only damaged, and the Canadian was able to limp home holding onto third place, and enough points to finish three ahead of Schumacher and take the title. That margin then blossomed into the largest winning margin of any season that had been decided in the final race, when the authorities disqualified Schumacher from the season entirely.
1998: 14 points (2 drivers)
Schumacher’s run of bad luck in finales continued, but this time affected nobody but himself. Four points behind, he needed a win, and for rival Hakkinen to finish no higher than third – he kept his hopes alive by taking pole, though Hakkinen joined him on the front row. Everything went wrong, however, when Schumacher rolled forward from his starting position on the grid and stalled, earning himself demotion to the back of the grid. Nonetheless, he fought his way back up to third, before more bad luck – a puncture – ended his hopes entirely. Hakkinen won both the race and the title.
1999: 2 points (2 drivers)
In 1999, Schumacher lost the title long before the final race, when he broke a leg at Silverstone; but he returned for the final two races still able to win the title for his teammate, Eddie Irvine. He took pole, while Irvine was fifth – first and fourth would give Irvine the title. Irvine did his part, fighting up to third, but Schumacher was beaten off the line, and never able to regain the lead from Hakkinen, finishing five seconds behind the Finn. Irvine could still have finished level on points with Hakkinen, had Schumacher agreed to let him past, but would have lost on countback in any case.
2003: 2 points (2 drivers)
There were nearly three contenders at Japan in 2003 – but Juan Pablo Montoya’s sixth place at the preceding race now meant that the best he could do was tie Schumacher on points and lose on countback. Kimi Raikkonen, however, was still a live contender: with a 9 point deficit and 10 points for a win, he needed to come 1st and have Schumacher come no higher than 9th. He came close, but failed in both regards: he took 2nd, and Schumacher took 8th. Montoya didn’t finish the race.
2006: 13 points (2 drivers)
A close season was derailed at the end by Schumacher’s continuing bad luck (or karma). Having lead with two races to go, he suffered a retirement in the penultimate race, meaning he suddenly needed a win, with Fernando Alonso scoring nothing. A further mysterious technical failure landed him down in 10th in qualifying; when he tried to force Alonso’s teammate, Fisichella, off the road on lap 6, he made contact and suffered a puncture, leaving him in last place and a lap down. Schumacher put up an impressive fight, making his way back up to 4th, but as Alonso was safely home in 2nd, it was all in vain.
2007: 1 point (3 drivers)
Although 2007 saw the first three-way shootout in over 20 years, it didn’t seem in advance as though it would be a nailbiter: even if Alonso won the race, McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton could take the title simply by coming home immediately behind him; if Alonso did not win (a possibility, with two Ferraris acting as potential spoilers), his chances became even smaller, as he would be behind on countback – 2nd place for Alonso, and Hamilton would only need 5th, and Hamilton had only finished lower than 5th once that season. Raikkonen, meanwhile, was seven points off the lead and only a mathematical consideration. Hamilton’s arithmetic seemed to be wrapped up after qualifying, when he took 2nd (behind Felipe Massa, not a challenger for the title), two places ahead of Alonso. Things came rapidly apart, however: a terrible start left Hamilton in 8th, and a few laps later a gearbox issue left him needing to turn his onboard computer off and on again. By the time it had rebooted, he was down in 18th, and his title hopes were ruined. At the front, Alonso was unable to catch the leading Ferraris, and Raikkonen took the win, catapulting himself from third to first in the rankings. Hamilton, meanwhile, fought back to take 7th, ensuring he would take 2nd in the season rankings from his teammate on countback.
2008: 1 point (2 drivers)
Hamilton again came to Brazil with a strong lead, this time over Massa – fifth place would guarantee him the title, no matter what Massa did. Unfortunately, Hamilton had been having a year of disasterous misjudgments that had turned what should have been a cruise to victory into a nailbiter – multiple collisions and track limits violations had seen him repeatedly penalised, either by the authorities or by physics; most shocking of all was the Canadian GP incident in which he caused a multiple-car collision in the pitlane. As a result, the title seemed only precariously in his grasp: he had finished lower than fifth, or not finished, in almost a third of the season’s races, equal to the number of races he had won. Hamilton chose a cautious approach in the finale, opting for a high-fuel strategy that saw him 4th on the grid; but despite no clear catastrophe occuring, variable weather and complex strategies, and an overtake by Sebastian Vettel with just two laps to go, had forced him down to 6th entering the final lap, and as Massa crossed the in first, he believed he was the champion. Behind, however, the weather was playing one last trick, as Timo Glock attempted to navigate the final lap on dry tyres, when all other cars were on intermediates. Hamilton fought in vain to repass Vettel; but Glock’s car was now undriveable, and both Vettel and then, at the final corner of the final lap, Hamilton sailed past (almost literally), giving Hamilton 5th place, and the title. Glock, meanwhile, didn’t know he’d lost two places until after the race – his visibility was so poor, and his car so far off the racing line, that he hadn’t even seen the cars go past him.
2010: 4 points (4 drivers)
For the first time, after a season in which there had been five championship leaders, and five multiple winners, four drivers still contested the title at the final race – while the constructor’s title was still theoretically in the balance between two teams, neither of which boasted the leading driver. That leading driver was Alonso, six points ahead of closest rival Mark Webber – a margin that a year earlier would have seemed comfortable, but that had been devalued by a major change in points allocations (from 10-8-6(etc) to 25-18-15(etc)). If Webber won, in other words, he would take the title; if Webber came 2nd, a 4th place for Alonso would be enough on countback. Meanwhile, however, Webber’s junior teammate, Vettel, also had a theoretical chance, a further seven points back thanks to a win in the preceding race. If Vettel won, Alonso would need to be at least 4th. Finally, Lewis Hamilton retained a mathematical chance of a second title, but needed Alonso not to score, and the Red Bull drivers to finish low in the points (his own teammate, defending champion Jenson Button, had only been eliminated from contention at the penultimate race). Everything seemed to be going Alonso’s way after qualifying – Vettel took pole, but Alonso was safely in 3rd, with Webber down in 5th – but in the end the strategic challenge of facing two teammates at once was too much to overcome. When Webber pitted early, Alonso responded to prevent an undercut; but in the process of staying ahead of Webber, he gave up the chance to stay close to Vettel; this ought not to have been a problem, as Alonso still needed only 4th – but Renault, and Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, had chosen a clever off-rhythm strategy that put them ahead of the championship leader, and on the angular street circuit of Abu Dhabi Alonso was unable to pass the trio, finishing in 7th. Sebastian Vettel therefore won the title – having been in 4th with two races to go, he became the first champion since Hunt not to have led at any point in the year until the final checkered flag.
2012: 3 points (2 drivers)
After a complicated season in which four drivers alternated at the the championship standings, only two were left in contention in Brazil: Alonso and Vettel. Vettel had a wide lead, and Alonso (in arguably only the fourth-best car) needed a dramatic swing in his favour in Brazil, which seemed out of the question once Vettel qualified four places ahead of him. But Vettel’s hotheadedness, poor luck, and Brazil’s difficult weather conditions resulted in a series of calamities for the German: a bad start; a collision; engine damage and a crack in the car itself that saw the team turn down engine performance and pray for a safety car, just to finish the race without catching fire; a terrible pit stop (caused by the failure of Vettel’s radio). Alonso, conversely, benefited immensely when Hamilton and Nico Hülkenberg crashed out ahead of him, allowing him up to 2nd position. But Alonso could not pass Button for the lead, and Vettel gradually fought back to 7th, the position he needed, before being gifted 6th for safety by countryman Schumacher in his final race. The deployment of a safety car ensured Vettel would survive to the checkered flag, to take the title.
2016: 5 points (2 drivers)
Reigning champion Hamilton found himself 12 points behind his teammate Rosberg heading into the final race: Rosberg knew a podium would guarantee the title, and in a car lightyears ahead of the opposition this would ordinarily have been almost a forgone conclusion. In the last 11 races, each Mercedes driver had finished off the podium only once, and neither of these poor had been due to racing pace (Rosberg having once been relegated to 4th through a penalty, Hamilton having once retired with engine failure). Even a major disaster, like Rosberg suffering a first-lap collision that left him at the back of the grid, had been unable to prevent a podium finish, and the dominance of the Mercedes was only growing: the last three races had been Hamilton-Rosberg 1-2s. Facing long odds, Hamilton tried to skew the game through a cunning strategy: having taken pole on an Abu Dhabi track on which overtaking was exceptionally difficult without a clear speed advantage, Hamilton intentionally drove slowly (defying the repeated commands of his team), bringing the pack together, negating Rosberg’s speed advantage over the cars behind him, and putting him at risk of strategic calls by the other teams, particularly in the event of a poorly-timed safety car. But Rosberg successfully fended off Vettel to the end – resulting in one of the few races of the modern era in which the third driver on the podium finished less than a second behind the winner – and a fourth consecutive 1-2 gave Rosberg his title, at the final last-race showdown in F1 history… so far.