Five of the worst Formula 1 title defences in the sport’s history.
Sebastian Vettel may be enduring a sub-par world title defence this season, but it’s nothing compared with some of the post-championship howlers suffered over the years. These five should make reassuring reading for Seb as he looks to end 2014 with a flourish.
5. NELSON PIQUET – 1982
In 1981 Nelson Piquet sealed his first world title by a single point over Carlos Reutemann. 12 months on he was 11th after a campaign that included a DNQ in Detroit – the ultimate insult for a reigning champion.
The bare facts are not wholly representative, however. Piquet won round two in Brazil, only to be disqualified for running under weight. He later won in Canada, this time legitimately, and was only 10 points shy of fifth in the standings at the season’s end.
However the campaign still ranks as something of a disaster. That disqualification was contentious – the ballast water tank that caused the issue was soon banned – and he notched up nine DNFs over the course of the season. Detroit was the low point, with engine trouble preventing him from setting a fastest enough time and consigning him to the sidelines for Sunday’s race.
4. JACK BRABHAM – 1961
Even the all-time greats have tough seasons. So it was for Sir Jack Brabham who, after securing back-to-back titles in 1950/60, endured a horrible 1961 campaign. The new Climax engine his Cooper squad were running arrived late and proved uncompetitive, leaving Black Jack unable to fight for wins. He finished only twice, scoring points on both occasions, but ended the year a distant 11th in the standings.
There was the small consolation of pole at the season-closing U.S Grand Prix, but after leading early on Brabham was forced out with a water leak that caused his engine to overheat. It was the story of his season.
1961 would be the Australian’s last with the Cooper squad for whom he’d taken his first two world titles. From 1962 he raced for his own Brabham team, eventually taking a third championship in 1966.
3. DAMON HILL – 1997
Statistically, Damon Hill’s defence of his 1996 world title was very poor. However his stellar drive in Hungary, where he came within one lap of a famous win, forces you to think twice.
Nevertheless, two points finishes and 12th in the standings tells its own story. Hill also failed to start in Australia when his car let him down on the way to the grid, then recorded four straight DNFs between Argentina and Spain.
Perhaps Hill’s worst moment in his title defence came the season before when he chose to sign with the back-of-the-grid Arrows squad. Hill is believed to have had an offer from McLaren for 1997, but turned it down for financial reasons. The Woking-based squad won three races that year, then produced the fastest car on the grid for 1998 and won back-to-back world titles. What might have been?
2. MARIO ANDRETTI – 1979
Mario Andretti has achieved almost everything one could wish for in motor racing, so it’s natural that the Italian-American ace has a few unwanted records too.
Having become champion in 1978 with Lotus, Andretti endured a nightmare title defence with Colin Chapman’s team. They began the year with the previous season’s car, the 79, but a mid-season switch to the new 80 design did not work out and they eventually reverted back to the old machine.
Having begun reasonably well, even netting a podium in Spain, the second half go the campaign was a disaster. Andretti retired from eight of the following ten races, scoring points just once, and ended the season 12th in the standings.
1. JODY SCHECKTER – 1980
Three wins and an impressive rate of consistency allowed Jody Scheckter to win the 1979 world title for Ferrari, beating team-mate Gilles Villeneuve in the process.
But if ’79 had been a dream for the South African the 1980 campaign would quickly become a nightmare. Scheckter opened the season with three successive DNFs, all of them caused by the Ferrari’s Flat-12 engine. He finally scored at round four in Long Beach, but if he thought that was the beginning of a resurgence Scheckter was sadly mistaken.
He finished eight of the remaining 10 rounds, but not once did the reigning champion finish among the points. Worst of all, he failed to qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix, adding insult to injury in a season from hell.
In fact it was so bad that Scheckter called time on his F1 career at the campaign’s end. That decision was not all down to events on-track, but the disastrous title defence certainly helped. Three decades on, it remains the worst in Formula 1 history.
* Only drivers who returned to defend their titles have been considered. Allowances have also been made for those who missed races due to injury.