Here’s our selection of the top 10 championship years in the history of Formula 1®. But this isn’t just a list of the sport’s greatest champions: instead it’s about the most emotional, unpredictable and electrifying seasons of all time.
1957: NUMBER FIVE FOR FANGIO
When the 1957 championship got underway, Juan Manuel Fangio was nearly 46 years old. He was already the undisputed king, with four championships won from the seven years that the series had been running – driving for Alfa Romeo, then Mercedes and Ferrari. His legend was complete. But in 1957 he took on the challenge laid down by Maserati, for which he had already driven a few grands prix in 1954. The Italian cars faced fierce rivalry from the British Vanwall squad, which counted the future genius that was Colin Chapman among its technical staff as well as the ultra-rapid Stirling Moss behind the wheel. Yet Fangio was on the attack straight away. He strung together a series of brilliant wins in Argentina, Monaco and France. Moss won at home in Great Britain, then Fangio did it again in Germany. Moss cleaned up during the final part of the season, with victories in Pescara and Monza. But Fangio was second on both occasions, sealing his fifth title: a record that remained unbeaten until 2003 thanks to Michael Schumacher.
1964: SURTEES TAKES WING
Jim Clark and Lotus against Graham Hill and BRM: that was the hallmark of the 1964 championship. Hill won immediately in Monaco but then came a hat trick from Clark, who claimed victories in Holland, Belgium and Great Britain: the sequence interrupted only by Dan Gurney’s Brabham that won in France. But as summer went on the Lotus was hit by three consecutive retirements, while Ferrari suddenly lit up and won three races: Germany with John Surtees, Austria with Lorenzo Bandini, and Monza with Surtees again. Hill returned to his winning ways in the United States and then there was the grand finale in Mexico. The BRM was knocked out of contention early on after colliding with Bandini’s Ferrari. Clark developed an oil leak on the last lap and the Ferrari pit wall reacted brilliantly by ordering Bandini to let Surtees past. This meant that Surtees finished second behind Gurney, which was enough to claim the title by one point ahead of Hill.
1965: CLARK IN CHARGE
Clark and Lotus began the following year’s championship with just one objective: making up for the near miss the year before when a simple mechanical breakdown on the last lap of the championship cost them the title. And this turned out to be the season that perhaps best reflected what could be achieved when a driver and a car are working in perfect symbiosis. Colin Chapman, a technical genius, had come up with a machine that was literally made to measure for Clark. And their dominance was phenomenal. From the first encounter of the year in South Africa all the way to the German Grand Prix in August, they won all the races bar one: Monaco, where Clark wasn’t present as he was winning the Indy 500 in the United States instead. Such a crushing performance enabled Clark to claim his second title, matching the one he took in 1963. A 10th place in Monza and two retirements in the United States and Mexico did nothing to take the shine off his achievement.
1970: THE ONLY POSTHUMOUS WORLD TITLE
Once again it was Lotus against Ferrari. The English team placed their hopes on German driver Jochen Rindt (who nonetheless had an Austrian licence): a super quick and instinctive racer. After some early wins from Jack Brabham and Jackie Stewart, five victories for Rindt between the third and eighth rounds of the season put him well on course to win the championship. In Austria Ferrari fought back, with Jacky Ickx. But then in Monza came the moment that defined the season: Rindt went off the track at the Parabolica and died in a terrible accident. Ferrari went on to win the race, but this time with the young Clay Regazzoni. Ickx finished second and won the next race in Canada, as well as the final race in Mexico. Even that haul of points was not enough him to catch Rindt in the overall standings, who went on to become Formula 1®’s only posthumous world champion.
1976: FIRE AND RAIN
The 1976 season started as the previous one had finished, with a master class from Niki Lauda, the reigning world champion. After the first six races Lauda seemed uncatchable thanks to wins in Brazil, South Africa, Belgium and Monaco. James Hunt, who had just claimed one win, in Spain (only confirmed in summer after a governing body hearing) was quick everywhere in his McLaren but seemed to have no hopes left of winning the title. Yet as the season went on, McLaren grew stronger and stronger. In Great Britain in mid-July Hunt won an incident packed race that featured two starts and a myriad of protests. In September yet another governing body hearing would deprive Hunt of the win and give it to Lauda, who had originally finished second at Brands Hatch. Yet the tide turned in Germany. On Sunday 1 August, Lauda’s Ferrari crashed and bounced back onto the circuit to be hit by another car and catch fire. The Austrian was seriously injured with severe burns and lung damage that kept him in hospital for nearly 20 days and forced him to miss the next two races. He was back from Monza at the beginning of September. In the meantime, Hunt was maximising his chances. He won in Germany and Holland as well as in the United States and Canada, to arrive at the final race of the season in Japan with the world title within his grasp. What nobody could have predicted was Sunday in Japan turning into an epic washout. There were long discussions about whether the race should start or not: eventually it did and Lauda decided to stop after just a couple of laps. Hunt, who finished fourth, won the world title by just one point. And 1976 passed into history as the most emotional and dramatic year in Formula 1®.
1984: LAUDA BECOMES A THREE-TIME CHAMPION AT THE LAST GASP
Another year that went to Niki Lauda. But this time the Austrian was not with Ferrari: instead with McLaren. He re-entered Formula 1® with the British squad in 1982, having first retired at the end of 1979 after two titles with Ferrari followed by two reasonably anonymous seasons with Brabham. By the time 1984 came along, Lauda’s McLaren teammate was Alain Prost and the car dominated, with the two drivers more or less sharing all the victories between them. At the last race of the season (which was the first Portuguese Grand Prix) Lauda was able to allow Prost to win, as long as he still finished in second – which would be enough to mathematically guarantee him the title. And that’s exactly how it ended: Prost won the Estoril race while Lauda was second, taking his third world title with an advantage of just half a point over his teammate.
1987: MANSELL ERUPTS, PIQUET WINS
The 1987 season was all about Williams Honda. It was quite simply the car to beat and the year soon turned out to be an in-house duel between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Mansell had emerged from the huge disappointment of the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, the final race of that season, where a burst tyre whipped the title from under his nose and handed it to McLaren’s Alain Prost on a silver plate. In 1987, the rivalry between the two Williams drivers reached its peak, with personal insults traded as well as on-track assaults. Mansell’s win at Silverstone remains unforgettable: after an incredible fightback against Nelson Piquet, he took the lead with an overtaking manoeuvre that has passed into legend. When the grand prix circus got to Japan, the penultimate race of the year, Mansell was behind in the points standings and needed to win. But an accident in Friday’s free practice session broke a vertebra. The inevitable result was hospital and early return home to Europe. So the title went to his teammate and rival Piquet, who became champion for the third time after two previous titles with Brabham.
1989: TWO RIVALS IN MCLAREN
Another season with a very consistent theme: leaving aside some efforts from Ferrari, McLaren was the team to beat. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna divided the spoils between themselves almost equally, during a championship that contained personal as well as professional vitriol. In Japan, Prost was leading – but Senna staged an amazing fightback. When he caught up with Prost, Senna tried a desperate overtaking manoeuvre at the esses before the pit straight. Inevitably the two McLarens came together. Prost got out of the car straight away and retired. Senna got going again and fought his way through the pack to win. But he would be disqualified for receiving outside assistance to restart, and so Prost claimed his third world drivers’ championship. It opened up a grudge that Senna would avenge exactly one year later in Japan, deliberately driving into Prost’s Ferrari with whom he had been fighting another intense title battle. This time it was Senna who claimed the second of his three titles at the end of it.
2008: THE RAIN IN BRAZIL HINDERS MASSA
Ferrari was reigning world champion thanks to Kimi Raikkonen’s 2007 title but in 2008 the lead driver was Felipe Massa. He fought an intense battle for the drivers’ championship against McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton. At the final race in Brazil, Massa was inspired: flying towards victory. As he crossed the line in first place the celebrations got underway in the Ferrari garage. But in the last few corners, as the rain fell even harder, a number of cars struggled to stay on track. Among them was the Toyota of Timo Glock, which in the final uphill corner of the last lap had to give best to Hamilton’s McLaren. The Englishman scraped through into fifth place by just a few hundred metres, allowing him the necessary points to overhaul Massa in the drivers’ championship. By just one point.
2012: A CHAMPIONSHIP FACING THE WRONG WAY
The main rivals for the 2012 title were Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull and Fernando Alonso, driving for Ferrari. The German started off fresh from his two world titles won in 2010 and 2011. The Spaniard by contrast was in his third year with Ferrari, having lost the title battle two years earlier because of a mistake from the pit wall in the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. The first part of the 2012 season went well for Alonso with three wins and lots of other valuable points finishes. Then, in Belgium at the end of August, he was forced to retire after being hit from behind by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Throughout the autumn, Vettel strung together four victories on the trot: Singapore, Japan, Korea and India. So, it all came down to the season finale in Brazil. Soon after the start there was drama: the Red Bull spun and left Vettel stranded in the middle of the track, facing the wrong way. Luckily, he had the nerve to sit there without doing anything, so everyone in the end managed to avoid him. From there, the German commenced a fightback that would eventually earn him sixth place and enough points to win another championship, beating Alonso.
2016: ROSBERG THE ZEN CHAMPION
The 2016 championship was coloured silver: the third championship on the trot for the Mercedes team. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg wrapped up the pole positions and victories between them, with everything coming down to the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Rosberg knew that he had to fight against a rival who was probably faster than him, so aimed for a strategy based on consistency and self-control. But there were still some memorable on track battles with Hamilton. In Spain, for example, Rosberg got past Hamilton at the start and resisted his team mate’s attempts to overtake through the first few corners. The result was the infamous collision that put both Mercedes out of the race. In Malaysia, Hamilton’s engine gave up when he was driving towards a victory that seemed in the bag. With four races to go Rosberg was in a position to clinch the title just by taking three second places and third place, even if Hamilton won every race. And that’s exactly what happened. At Abu Dhabi, the final race of the season, Rosberg aimed for second and duly won the title. Barely 24 hours later, he decided to retire from the sport. But that’s another story…