The Museum of Mistakes

Formula 1 drivers are remembered not only for their successes, but also for their failures, Mistakes can be made anywhere - as Sebastian Vettel proved at his home German Grand Prix earlier this year. Which is still a race that he has never won… He's in good company though. Even the very best have made cataclysmic mistakes, many of which have gone on to form part of the history of Formula 1. And all of them, in the end, are forgivable mistakes because drivers practise their art under the most intense pressure. Of course, the more exalted the driver, the longer the mistake remains etched in the memory: whether or not it had an effect on the title race that year. Here are a few examples of some moments that drivers would rather forget, from the last three decades of grand prix racing.

1988. Senna interfaces with le portier

In 1988 Ayrton Senna joined McLaren-Honda and immediately there was a huge fight with his team mate Alain Prost for the world title. The Anglo-Japanese combination proved to be practically unbeatable: by the end of the year they had won every race apart from Monza. Prost was the established champion, having clinched the title in 1985 and the following year too. But Senna was the King of Monaco, claiming victory on the streets of the Principality in 1986 and 1987 with Lotus. When it came to the Monaco Grand Prix, the Brazilian was uncatchable. His advantage over Prost, in equal cars, soon assumed embarrassing proportions. Senna reigned supreme over the street circuit, kissing the barriers – an essential art to pushing the limits of the track – and barrelling into the blind corners like a man possessed. In qualifying he had beaten his team mate by nearly a second and a half; an eternity that was nearly an insult. It was a similar story in the race, where he was untouchable. From the McLaren pit wall, first they asked and then they begged him to slow down. But nothing was going to come between Senna and another Monaco win. He only backed off right towards the end of the race – perhaps by a bit too much. It happened at Portier, shortly before the cars head into the tunnel. With his McLaren carrying less speed, it slid a bit less towards the outside. And so the front-right wheel hit the wall on the inside of the corner, breaking the suspension and bringing the dream to an abrupt halt. The rest has entered grand prix legend.
Without even taking off his helmet, he jumped over the barriers and headed to his home at the California apartments, which happened to be located just metres from the accident. He remained holed up there until the following morning, oblivious to the phone calls and rings on the bell from the McLaren team. It was a massive disappointment for the young Senna, who nonetheless would become world champion at the end of the season. Not to mention the other five wins he would claim on the streets of the Principality in an uninterrupted sequence between 1989 and 1993.  

1998. Schumacher blinded by the spray

The 1998 season was Michael Schumacher’s third season in Ferrari and the second one in a row that saw him in the midst of the title fight. Just as Senna ruled Monte Carlo, Schumacher was the King of Spa-Francorchamps. The start of the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix was one of those that goes down in the memory: there was a massive accident just after the first corner, with a pile of destroyed cars and the inevitable red flag. Only a few cars were able to take the re-start. But it was one of those days in which Schumacher cemented his legend. It rained hard, in the sort of way that only Spa can produce. The entire track was drenched, making the fast parts of the circuit particularly dangerous and the forest sections practically blind.
Before long, the McLaren of Mika Hakkinen – Schumacher’s key rival – was ruled out too, leaving the way clear for the Ferrari man. He was in a class of his own, setting lap times that nobody else could manage and establishing a lead that was untouchable. Then, in the spray, he came across the McLaren of David Coulthard: another car to overtake. But the speed difference was just too great, and Schumacher misjudged it, ploughing into the back of the McLaren. And that was it. Until they both got back to the pits, when – in a moment of excess adrenaline – Schumacher went to seek out Coulthard to make his views felt. He had to be physically restrained. The championship was still a long way off, but Schumacher wouldn’t win it (by 14 points: a bigger gap than the 10 he lost that day in Belgium). But without doubt, Spa was a golden opportunity missed.

2007. Hamilton: caught out by the pit lane

Hamilton and Fernando Alonso for McLaren against Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari: this formed a fairly neat summary of the 2007 season. But there’s a subtext: the real fight came within McLaren itself, where the team’s young protege Lewis Hamilton enjoyed a huge amount of internal affection, which Fernando Alonso – a reigning two-time world champion – didn’t exactly benefit from. And that’s what the year was really about. The two team mates had an uneasy relationship, as the tension ratcheted up between them to a point where the British team was driven to its knees. The final twist in the saga was the spy story that involved a Ferrari engineer passing on technical secrets to McLaren, which was then judged to be guilty at an international hearing, fined 100 million dollars and deprived of all their constructors’ points (with the title going to Ferrari that year). As for the drivers’ title, that remained intense, with Hamilton becoming less of a debutant and more of a champion in waiting. By the end of the year he had emerged as a true contender. Until China. At that point, with badly worn tyres, he came into the pits for a much-needed stop – but slid off at the pit lane entry and became stuck in the gravel trap practically within sight of his box. Race over. It was a crucial mistake that would have enormous ramifications for the championship, as Hamilton would be beaten by Raikkonen to the title by just one point. To date, this is still Ferrari’s last world drivers’ title in F1.

2018. Vettel’s small mistake

And so to this year. Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari seemed to be unbeatable in Germany, just as it had been at Silverstone, close to the home of Mercedes, at the previous race. Vettel set an immaculate rhythm around his home circuit, which seemed destined to result in another win. But then it started to rain. And while Vettel of course handled the rain extremely well, it was all happening behind him. In particular, Lewis Hamilton – who had started 14th after a problem in qualifying – was right up there: the last thing that Vettel wanted to see. The tipping point came as suddenly as a thunderstorm on a sunny day. In the technical Motordrom sector, made up of a series of corners, Vettel was slightly late on the brakes – which sent him straight on, and ultimately into the gravel trap. Again, his race was over. Was it down to a lack of concentration? No, as Vettel is always hyper-concentrated. Was he scared of Hamilton’s mesmeric progress, who seemed to be reeling him inexorably? Some people think so (although nobody has yet said it). And in the end, it was Hamilton who won, leading home a Mercedes one-two with Valtteri Bottas second – Raikkonen was ‘only’ third.  And now Mercedes and Hamilton lead the driver and constructors' championship at the halfway point of the season. So how would you define Vettel’s Hockenheim mistake? Serious, certainly. But critical? We’ll only find that out at the end of the year…

Read more