Life isn’t fair. Sometimes, you can be absolutely great at something and come close to being the best in your preferred field, but someone else always beats you by a hair. That’s just a life thing, and it happens a lot in Formula One. F1 has produced some legendary drivers, and some of the best go on to win one or multiple championships. Some of the best that is. I asked some of the GridTalk team to come up with a few suggestions of these drivers, so a big thanks to Mile, Charley, and Aimee for providing some of the suggestions. . For one reason or another, bad cars, poor decisions off the grid, or just bad luck, there are F1 drivers, past and present, who were champions that never were. Join us as we look at some of these racers.
There are two people who I did consider but who ultimately didn’t cut it for this list. The criteria for this list is retired F1 drivers who, despite doing their best, never won a title. The people who I am not considering are drivers like Daniel Riccardo. He’s still an active racer, even though he’s sniffed gold before, despite never tasting it. Then there are one time champions, who could, and arguably should, have won more. People like Kimi Raikkonen, and Jaques Vielleneuve. Both men did win but could have gotten more. That latter category probably deserves its own list, so comment below if you want to see that.
1) BMW Williams Racing (2003)
Starting with a constructor. Did you think I was only going to talk about drivers? The Williams FW25 was a monster of a car, with its 10v BMW engine and the skilled drivers, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher. The team did have a lot of success in 2003. 4 wins, 4 poles, and 4 fastest laps. And, when the drivers weren’t winning, they were consistently on the podium or in the Top 10. The Williams FW25 came second in the constructor’s championship, its best result since 1997.
But what went wrong? A spin during the Australian Grand Prix by Montoya didn’t help or retire during the last race of the season. What really killed BMW Williams’ momentum was a complaint by Bridgestone and Ferrari about its tires. The Michelin tyres, used by BMW Williams, were technically wider than the oppositions. The narrower tyres helped knock the competitive edge off the cars. Incidentally, Montoya came third in the championship and Schumacher fifth.
2) Didier Pironi (1982)
The French driver raced in Formula One for four years. Initially racing with the underfunded Tyrrell Racing, who snatched him up, based on his performances in Formula Three, and his association with Elf. Following two seasons with Tyrrell, Pironi moved to Ligier Racing, where he got his first victory in 1980, and from 1981, Ferrari. It was 1982, In what was already a pretty sad season, after the death of Giles Villeneuve, when Pironi became a serious championship competitor. During the 1982 Formula One season, Pironi was leading the championship. By the German Grand Prix, he had 39 points, ahead of both McLaren’s John Watson and Keke Rosberg, racing for Williams.
The German Grand Prix was wet, so the ground force produced by the cars on such a wet track meant that cars right in front of you were pretty much invisible. During qualifying, Pironi crashed into the rear of Alain Prost’s Renault, sustaining injuries that would end his career in Formula One for good. That championship was eventually won by Keke Rosberg, relegating Pironi to second. However, his efforts did help Ferrari clinch the 1982 Constructor’s Championship.
3) Mark Webber (2010)
Mark Webber was always the bridesmaid but never the blushing bride he should have been. The Australian driver drove for Minardi, Jaguar, Williams, and finally, Red Bull. It was there he became the serious competitor we knew and loved in Formula One. The driver came so close to winning the Drivers’ Championship in 2010. However, a botched tyre strategy ruined his chances at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Ultimately, he came second in 2010, behind the ascending Sebastian Vettel. The favouritism towards Vettel caused tension in the paddock, though Webber never blamed Seb for this. One hopes, in a parallel Earth, Webber was treated respectfully by his team and did win in 2010. Ultimately, he just missed out, and we missed out on a well-deserving champion.
4) Jacky Ickx (1969 and 1970)
Not just a one time almost champion, but a two time almost champion. Ickx was a great racer. The 6 time Le Manns 24 Hour champion certainly was a great racer and proved that winning the Formula One World Champion isn’t the be-all and end-all of what makes a racer great. As it goes, Ickx very nearly was the World Champion twice. His first near-win was in 1969, with Brabham. A shaky start at the beginning of the season meant that he started poorly. However, once Jack Brabham had to retire from the season due to a broken foot, his team came behind him. He scored some decent podium finishes and the odd win that brought him behind Jacky Stewart. However, his 2nd place in Mexico made him runner up for the F1 World Championship.
1970, however, was a different kettle of fish. Now racing for Ferrari, he battled with Jochen Rindt for the championship. After an accident at the Spanish Grand Prix gave him severe burns to his legs, he returned to action in Monaco, where he came fifth. However, things changed when Rindt died in Monza during qualifying for the 1970 San Marino Grand Prix. By this point, Ickx won 5 out of 9 races that season, with 4 to go. He was the only man who could have surpassed Rindt’s point count. In the end, he didn’t. A win at Mexico didn’t help him surpass Rindt’s total point score, making Rindt the first and only posthumous World Champion of F1.
In 2011, Ickx admitted he was happy not to win that season against a man who couldn’t defend himself. While he lost the championship, he certainly won for Sportsmanship.
5) Felipe Massa (2008)
Massa was Ferrari’s next big thing. After the dominance with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello between 2000-2005, Ferrari looked to the future with its two drivers. Kimi Raikkonen’s win of the 2007 World Championship showed a bright future for the Tifosi to look forward to. And, maybe, that future could have been shared with Massa.
Massa’s performance during the 2008 season was neck and neck with Lewis Hamilton, the then young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed McLaren hopeful who was runner up in 2007. Massa’s six race wins that season to Hamilton’s five wins certainly made this championship fight tight. There really wasn’t a lot in it, and when it came down to the last race of the season, in Brazil. Massa needed not only to win that race, but he needed Hamilton to come Sixth or lower to win the Championship. Half of that actually happened. I remember watching this race with my Dad, and I can remember the drama of this one. Massa crossed the finish line first before cutting to the paddock, with Massa’s family cheering, the engineers hugging and high fiving. Then, like a great white shark, we cut to Hamilton’s overtaking of Timo Glock. Hamilton came fifth and won the title by a single point.
The podium after that was awkward, to say the least. It was a bittersweet victory for the Tifosi, Massa, his family, and Brazil. His 2008 near-win was followed by further bad luck in 2009, when Massa was hit with a piece of debris, causing a crash, and head injury, which wrote him off for that season.
6) Clay Regazzoni (1974)
Clay Regazzoni came second in the 1974 Formula One World Championship, behind Emerson Fittipaldi. Losing the title by only 4 points, Regazzoni’s runner up position was achieved because of one race: The 1974 Belgian Grand Prix. During that race, the Ferrari driver’s pole position put him in the lead to start with, with Fittipaldi in Fourth place. The race was tight. The top six were each hot on the heels of each other, with Regazzoni in the lead. His lead would end due to one error: ‘The pair scythed through the traffic which ultimately destroyed hopes of a fight for the lead. The victim would be Regazzoni, who misjudged a move on the recovering Pace and ran onto the grass, allowing Fittipaldi to charge through into the lead’.
Regazzoni would come fourth, and Fittipaldi coming first. Ultimately, that mistake cost him the points that would have given Regazzoni the lead, and ultimately, the championship.
7) David Coulthard (2001)
How could we not discuss Coulthard? That man was Mark Webber before Mark Webber. Heck, he even raced with Mark Webber in Red Bull! DC was the number two for too much of his career. Starting in Williams, after the death of Aryton Senna in 1994, he moved to McLaren in 1996 and stayed with the team up until 2004. And, as I said, he was number two for a good chunk of his career. Firstly, to Damon Hill, who became the number one driver in the aftermath of Senna’s death. Then, to Mika Hakkinen in McLaren.
However, by 2001, Hakkinen was burnt out and wanted to leave F1. His performance, compared to Coulthard’s, was not good. Crashes, retirements, and poor placement on the grid meant Hakkinen’s title challenge to Michael Schumacher was doomed. Conversely, Coulthard did well. Winning in Brazil and Austria. However, retirements in four races meant that the momentum he had gained had begun to slow down. Schumacher won the title, with Coulthard being 58 points behind.
Ultimately, throughout his career, Coulthard won 13 races and was almost always the number two driver, or stuck in a bad car, a la Red Bull in 2005-2007.
8) Sir Stirling Moss (1955-1961)
How could we not end this list on the most obvious man? Sir Stirling Moss. There frankly is nothing new I could add to the mountains of articles, interviews, TV documentaries, and films about this man—the Four Time Runner Up and Three-Time 3rd Placer in the F1 World Championship between 1955 to 1961. Look him up yourself because the man is a British hero. His stiff upper lip attitude and perseverance are why we hail him as a hero over here. We knighted him despite his lack of championships.
Formula One is a funny old sport. Lots of great athletes, fantastic racers, and excellent cars that all could have been champions but were beaten out by other teams. It just goes to show that life is unfair, sometimes. However, you either relish your misery or take it on the chin and stand up again. These racers all are champions in our minds and hearts. And if there is any we missed out on, let us know who we should consider because we may always revisit the champions that never were.