The seven worst F1 title defences

30th August 2022
Simon Ostler

Formula 1 drivers are always under immense scrutiny, their every move, whether that’s in the cockpit, around the paddock, at the factory or even at home, is put under the microscope and analysed by teams, the media and the public. This is especially true for world champions, that class of drivers that have transcended their peers and proven themselves to be the best in the world. But it’s one thing to win the Formula 1 World Championship, it’s quite another to defend it. Indeed, only ten drivers have ever managed to do so. Over the years we’ve seen some absolutely heroic title victories, but we’ve also seen some equally catastrophic falls from grace. These drivers made it to the very top of the motorsport world, but couldn’t stay there for long.


Alberto Ascari (1954)

Our first entry also just so happens to be the first ever back-to-back F1 world champion. Alberto Ascari had been largely unbeatable in his Ferrari 500 throughout 1952 and 1953, winning six of the seven races he entered in ’52 (he retired from the Indy 500 in a Ferrari 375), and following that up with a further five victories in 1953. It was starting to look a touch desperate for those chasing the Prancing Horse.

This supreme Italian partnership would come to an unceremonious end after the 1953 season however, when Ascari left the team after a salary dispute – a decision which coincided with a regulation change for 1954 that severely stunted Ferrari’s superiority. Ascari raced four times, twice for Maserati, before a return to Ferrari for the Italian Grand Prix and a final appearance for Lancia. He retired in every instance and scored just 11/7 points, finishing 25th in the Drivers’ standings. It was a sad and unjust end to a glittering and tragically short career.


Graham Hill (1969)

“Mr Monaco’s” second F1 world championship triumph was a welcome return to the top of the sport after a troubled first season back at Lotus after his prolific stint at BRM. Three wins and a further three second places saw him take a comfortable championship ahead of Jackie Stewart, but that would be Graham Hill’s final success at the pinnacle of motorsport.

His title defence began brightly, with a second place at Kyalami and his fifth and final win at Monaco. But from there performances declined before he broke both legs in a crash at Watkins Glen, effectively spelling the end of his time at the front of F1. He scored 19 points and finished in 7th in the championship as Stewart claimed his first title.


Mario Andretti (1979)

Mario Andretti’s status as F1’s greatest American driver cannot be overstated, and his world championship triumph driving the vastly superior Lotus 79 in 1978 underlined his ability. He took six wins, leading team-mate Ronnie Peterson to four 1-2 finishes in the process, and dominated the championship.

However, that was as good as it got for Andretti. Lotus got it wrong with the 80, and 1979 proved to be a horrible struggle in outdated machinery. He scored a solitary podium finish at the Spanish Grand Prix, but followed that up with seven retirements on the spin in what was a wretched season, finishing up with just 14 points, placing 12th in the drivers’ standings. His remaining years in F1 passed in a similar fashion, aside from a popular podium for Ferrari at the 1982 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.


Jody Scheckter (1980)

By the time Jody Scheckter won the world championship in 1979, he had long established himself as a leading driver in F1, both in his early days at Tyrrell and an extraordinary second place in the drivers’ championship with the Wolf team in 1977. His move to Ferrari alongside Gilles Villeneuve, was the final piece of the jigsaw that saw him finally crest the wave.

But it would be a steep and painful decline for the South African driver. Ferrari built a slow and unreliable car for 1980 and Scheckter struggled to score points, doing so on just once occasion, and even failed to qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix. It was a miserable year, and categorically the worst title defence in F1 history. It wasn’t just bad for Scheckter either, because Ferrari would not win another drivers’ championship until a certain Michael Schumacher brought the crown back in 21 years later.


Nelson Piquet (1982)

Nelson Piquet’s tenure at Brabham was as unpredictable as the cars he was driving. Following on from a promising season in 1980, the Brazilian went all the way to the title in 1981, winning three times and holding off Williams’ Carlos Reutemann by a single point. It looked as though Brabham was about embark on a hugely successful spell.

However, keen to continue pushing the boundaries of innovation, the team led by Bernie Ecclestone and Gordon Murray introduced the turbocharged BMW engine for 1982, which proved to be catastrophically unreliable. Piquet achieved a win and a second place when he did manage to reach the chequered flag, but by that stage the championship was already out of reach. Brabham was also the first team to attempt a mid-race pitstop in F1. The theory behind the idea was sound, being able to drive faster with softer tyres and a lighter fuel load, but the fragile Brabham BT50 failed to run long enough to make a pitstop until its fourth attempt, after which it also retired. Piquet finished the season with 20 points, 11th in the championship.


Niki Lauda (1985)

It’s difficult to find a more popular champion than Niki Lauda in 1984. After his miraculous recovery from his fiery crash at the Nürburgring to reclaim his lost status as champion in 1977, his subsequent retirement at the end of 1979 seemed like the end. For him to not only return with McLaren but also claim a hugely unexpected third drivers’ title in 1984, was sporting poetry at its finest. The stoic and straight-talking Austrian had become the people’s champion.

The celebrations were short-lived, as his title defence was stymied by 11 retirements, and he missed two races after injuring his wrist when his throttle stuck open at Spa. He did pick up one victory at the Dutch Grand Prix, but his season, and career, ended with something of a whimper, scoring 20 points and finishing tenth in the championship.


Damon Hill (1997)

It’s rare that a driver is fired during his championship winning season, but that’s exactly what happened to Damon Hill in 1996. After the heartache of 1994 and an accident filled 1995 season, Frank Williams was keen to bring in some young blood for 1997, and Hill was cast aside to make space for Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Hill, therefore, was left without an avenue to a competitive seat with which to defend his title, and ended up at Arrows for what was expected to be difficult year. That proved to be the case, as Hill scored just seven points on his way to 12th in the drivers’ standings in what was an utterly forgettable year for the British driver. Well, other than another equally heart-breaking moment in F1 history. At the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix, Hill had brilliantly fought his way into the lead, and led by 35 seconds when he suffered a hydraulic failure with three laps to go. He lost the lead to Villeneuve on the final lap. It still hurts now.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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