Formula 1 as a sport is about the best drivers in the best cars going head-to-head for glory. So normally, it’s not too hard to work out who is going to win a race, given the best car with best driver combination will normally come out on top. But from time to time something happens that turns everything on its head, and those are the kind of races that we at GRR just love. So here’s a few of the very best.
The seven biggest shock wins in F1
2008 Italian Grand Prix, Monza – Sebastian Vettel
Nowadays the idea of Sebastian Vettel winning a race isn’t really that hard to understand. Sure he hasn’t stood on the top step since Singapore in 2019, but he has won 53 Grands Prix so far in a glittering career and stands third in the all-time win stats. But in 2008, while racing in what was still basically a Minardi, the thought that the then-21-year-old would be winning a race any time soon would have been a bit of a wild suggestion. But then it started raining at Monza. The Toro Rosso SRT3 was, to all intents and purposes, a Red Bull RB3 in a different paint job, with a few aero tweaks and a Ferrari engine in the back. But Vettel had been dragging results out of it since it was introduced in the sixth race at Monaco. Even so, no one really saw the Monza performance coming.
With some title contenders making a complete hash of qualifying Vettel became the youngest driver ever to qualify on pole, edging out McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen. Then, with rain falling, on race day he just walked away from the field. By the end of the race he was 12 seconds clear and had not been troubled all race. It was a masterful performance that showcased just what was to come over the next five years...
1961 French Grand Prix, Reims – Giancarlo Baghetti
Who? I can hear you thinking. Well, exactly. Giancarlo Baghetti is the only driver (other than Guiseppi Farina who won the very first F1 race) to win on their Formula 1 debut. The son to a wealthy father in Milan, Baghetti was picked by the Federazione Italiana Scuderie Automobilistiche (FISA) to race its borrowed Ferrari 156. With the Sharknose Ferrari the absolute class of the field in 1961 Baghetti won two non-championship races in Syracuse and Napoli – coincidentally as the only Ferrari entrant and with the latter race being held at the same time as the Monaco Grand Prix. But he wouldn’t get another race until July. When FISA, made of a group of independent Italian teams, scratched together an entry for the French Grand Prix.
The 1961 season was a tight battle between the Ferrari team-mates Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. They, with a third 156 of Richie Ginther, locked out the front row of the grid. Baghetti on the other hand qualified 11th. But then on race day, the factory Ferraris all hit trouble. Ginther’s Sharknose succumbed to oil issues, von Trips’s engine failed and Hill suffered some brain fade while leading. With Reims made up mostly of straights, the Ferrari’s engine power was a major advantage, and out of pretty much nowhere, Dan Gurney found his Porsche being outdragged to the line by Baghetti. Baghetti won one more non-championship race in 1961, signed up to be a factory Ferrari driver in 1962, raced for six more seasons and never once bothered the podium again.
2020 Italian Grand Prix, Monza – Pierre Gasly
Monza again, but this time the skies are perfectly clear. Lewis Hamilton is strolling to another victory in a stellar 2020 season. Behind him, Pierre Gasly, rebuilding his career at AlphaTauri, is having a solid race. Having started 10th he’s in the midfield when the safety car comes out thanks to an exploding rear brake on the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton dives for the pits, as do some others. Gasly stays out. But Hamilton had missed the fact that the pits were closed.
When the safety car period was over Hamilton led still, but had been handed a ten-second stop-and-go penalty. Lance Stroll and Gasly, in second and third, were the only two drivers who hadn’t stopped. Pretty much as soon as the safety car was withdrawn, the second Ferrari of Charles Leclerc met the barrier at Parabolica and out came the red flag. As you are allowed to change tyres under a red flag Stroll and Gasly did. So when the race restarted and Hamilton served his penalty they would be in prime position. But then Stroll slid wide on the first lap back racing and his advantage was gone. Gasly then held off first Kimi Räikkonen and then a very fast charging Carlos Sainz to clinch his maiden F1 victory – the first for a French driver since...
1996 Monaco Grand Prix – Olivier Panis
Yes, there was a 24-year gap between wins for drivers from the country that arguably invented motorsport. The 1996 Monaco Grand Prix was arguably one of the best races of all time, and certainly one of the best Monaco Grands Prix ever, as we’ve argued before. It should have been Damon Hill’s to win. Hill had been the dominant force in F1 so far through 1996, and he was hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps – a man who won the Monaco race five times.
It was definitely Hill’s to lose when Michael Schumacher, the pole sitter, crashed out of the race pretty much before it got going. Hill sauntered off into a massive lead, before his Renault V10 engine gave up the ghost in spectacular fashion exiting the tunnel. A procession of other drivers led the race and then for various reasons chucked the win away, until Olivier Panis, a Frenchman driving a very French Ligier sponsored by an incredibly French cigarette brand found himself in the lead. So crazy was the race that it went to the two-hour time limit, with Panis crossing the line for his only ever victory.
2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos – Giancarlo Fisichella
Not every shock winner has to be a one-off winner. Sometimes they are just a slightly down on their luck driver who finally gets the rub of the green and reignites their career. That man at Interlagos in 2003 was Giancarlo Fisichella.
The 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix might be the best F1 race in history (although the next in this list will run it close). With eight classified finishers (one of whom actually crashed out) and a gap of two weeks before the actual winner was decided. Again it was a wet race and again most of the championship contenders sent their cars to the wall. Even Michael Schumacher was a victim of the river that formed on the very apex of turn three. Eventually, with Kimi Räikkönen apparently set to be the only leading contender to keep it together and win, all hell broke loose again as Mark Webber crashed on the main straight, before Fernando Alonso went one better and ploughed into the debris at pretty much full speed, basically blocking the whole track. Räikkönen had pitted just before the incident, so had dropped to second when the red flags came out. Suddenly Fisichella, driving a Jordan that signalled the true decline of the team from Silverstone, was the winner. As if to top the madness off Fisichella’s car caught fire in parc ferme, and then for some reason the powers that be handed the race to Räikkönen, who was then forced to awkwardly hand the winning trophy over to Fisi at the next round.
1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza – Peter Gethin
Peter Gethin was a brilliant F5000 driver, a two time champion and two-time runner-up. He was also a passable F1 driver, but never really one who would be expected to challenge for wins. In fact he only stepped on the podium once in his F1 career, and that one time, he was at the top.
Monza (where else?) in 1971 was a different place to today. It was not split by the various chicanes it is now. Instead it was a pretty much flat blast through a Milanese park, with just five real corners to break up the incessant speed. That meant it was a slipstream battle. Cars would spend pretty much the whole race in a tight bunch, swapping positions constantly. With cars much more vulnerable to breakages in those days it came down to a tightly packed battle of five cars as the race reached its climax. Ronnie Peterson, François Cevert and Howden Ganley could all legitimately have been expected to challenge for wins, having all qualified within the top 10. Mike Hailwood and Peter Gethin were there more due to survival and attrition, having started 17th and 11th respectively. But as the pack rounded the Parabolica for the final time Gethin found himself just ever so slightly ahead, and won by the smallest margin in F1 history – 0.01 seconds. The top five were separated by just 0.61 seconds at the line. Gethin, despite his stellar F5000 career, would never finish higher than 6th again.
2012 Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona – Pastor Maldonado
Finally we get to one of the most famous racing drivers of the last decade, for mostly the wrong reasons. But Pastor Maldonado, for all of his many faults, is the last driver to win a race for Williams. While we hope that doesn’t remain the case forever, it is worth noting that while Maldonado’s win was a shock, it was absolutely not undeserved.
Maldonado surprised the F1 world on the Saturday by sticking his Williams FW34 second on the grid – for context he had a accrued a total of 3 points in the four preceding races. Then Lewis Hamilton, who had qualified on pole, was demoted to the back of the grid after running out of fuel. So Maldonado would start on pole, but he still had Fernando Alonso next to him and Kimi Räikkonen behind. Duly Alonso leapt to the front and it seemed like a nice home win for the Spaniard was incoming with Maldonado taking a plucky second place.
But then Williams pulled a masterstroke, pitting Maldonado for his stop before Alonso. The resulting undercut left Maldonado ahead of a charging and angry Alonso. Something then clicked within Maldonado, and suddenly a man who was rightly accused of being erratic and a bit accident prone was transformed into a calm and commanding driver. He held off Alonso for over 40 laps and took his first (and only) F1 win. Not only that but it was just his third ever points finish. The fact that the Williams garage then proceeded to catastrophically catch fire just added to what was a mind-boggling day.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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