Sauber’s recent news confirming Kimi Raikkonen as one of their drivers for the 2019 season means that the monosyllabic Finn will be returning to the team which gave him his first shot at the big time back in 2001. You don’t have to delve too deeply into the history books, however, to find other drivers who have returned to former teams, and Kevin Ayres has done just that. In this first part, he looks at why a driver would want to go back, and discusses Graham Hill and Alain Prost.
Why Go Back?
It must be difficult for any driver to return to a team they left, even if the original parting was on good terms. It must be equally difficult for a team to accept a driver back who may have spurned them in a previous season, believing their career and future success lay elsewhere. So what drove the drivers featured here, among many others, to return?
A recurring theme seems to appear – redemption. For drivers like Hill, Prost, Mansell and Alonso, an uneasy feeling of unfinished business must have swept over these drivers at some point as they left their respective teams. For Hill leaving Lotus, Prost and Alonso leaving McLaren and Mansell leaving Williams, all of the featured drivers would have had a persistently gnawing feeling in them wondering what could have been – “what could I have achieved if it wasn’t for…?”
And so, by these drivers returning to their former teams, they sought to right the wrongs which had taken place during their first spell with them. Whilst the gamble seemed to pay off for the majority of drivers in this feature, Alonso’s second tenures with Renault and McLaren undid some of the hard work and reputation which was built during his first stints with them.
What this feature also shows is that, despite their stubborn competitive streaks and unrelenting desire to win, F1 drivers who return to former teams have a certain level of humility about them. By accepting the fact that their first tenures may not have finished exactly how they would have liked, drivers like Prost and Mansell were willing to risk their reputations to mend relationships with their former teams and lead them to glory. Rather than being seen as a concerted effort to extend a driver’s career, drivers such as those featured should be commended for returning to former teams to heal old wounds rewrite the history books.
Sometimes, from both a driver and team’s perspective, it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
Graham Hill: Lotus (1958 – 1959, 1967 – 1969)
Making his debut with the team at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, the mustachioed driver from London plied his early racecraft with the fledging privateer after a chance encounter with founder Colin Chapman earnt Hill a drive. However, the team Hill had joined in ’58 was not the dominant force it would later become. Instead, the British driver often struggled to see the chequered flag in his debut season, his first finish of the campaign coming at the penultimate round at Monza (albeit eight laps down!). Hill, who sported the colours of the London Rowing Club on his helmet, fared little better with Lotus in 1959, his car often falling victim to poor reliability. After only mustering a couple of finishes in the lower half of the top ten all season, Graham left for pastures new at BRM.
Fast forward to 1967, and things had improved for both driver and team. Both had become World Champions, Hill with BRM in 1962 and Lotus with Jim Clark in ’63 and ’65. The fact that Lotus had proven themselves as world beaters on more than one occasion seemed to tempt Graham back to the iconic marque for 1967, partnering the quiet Scot in what was seen as a bit of a ‘super-team’ at the time (think Hamilton and Alonso in a Mercedes, in a sense). The picture for the season was made complete by the introduction of the revolutionary Ford Cosworth DFV engine, an engine which formed part of the F1 car’s structure for the first time. This technological breakthrough equipped Graham with the tools to win with Lotus and, after showing promise in ’67, finally brought home his second World Championship in 1968. 1969 saw Hill become the most successful driver around the streets of Monte Carlo, claiming his fifth Monaco Grand Prix win, a record which stood for 24 years. Fittingly, Hill’s ‘69 Monaco triumph was also to be his 14th and final Grand Prix victory.
By winning his second title with Lotus, ten years after his debut with the same team, it seemed to vanquish the demons and misgivings Hill may have had after his first experience with them. Further, it served as a galvanising tonic to the team following the tragic death of the team’s most successful driver and talisman, Jim Clark, at the beginning of the 1968 season at a minor F2 race at Hockenheim. Graham’s first steps with the now iconic marque may not have been the stuff of legend, but as Hill’s second stint with the team proved, it’s not how you start but how you finish that counts.
Alain Prost: McLaren (1980, 1984 – 1989)
It’s hard to believe that Alain Prost actually began his career with McLaren. It’s even harder to believe that the Frenchman from Lorette raced in an uncompetitive McLaren. This was the situation, however, that Alain faced when he first graced the F1 scene back in 1980. Similar to Lotus’ situation back in ’58, McLaren were aspiring for much greater things; the Woking based team in a state of flux merging with Ron Dennis’ Project Four Racing team. Unlike Lotus, however, McLaren had already reached the dizzying heights of World Championship glory with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974 and James Hunt in 1976. In essence, the likes of Dennis (replacing Teddy Mayer by the end of season) and Prost were brought in to stop the slide in performance and results which had begun to take hold. Miracles, however, are not the work of a moment. Of the eleven races Prost started, the Frenchman only scored in four of them (notably finishing sixth on his debut); a modest showing for a driver in their rookie season – a dismal return for former World Champions who craved for so much more.
Whether it was the ignominy of retiring at his home race after just seven laps, or the undesirable prospect of winning for an all French setup, Prost left McLaren for a then more competitive seat at Renault for 1981. Much like Graham Hill before him, it would seem Prost lost patience with the team which gave him his big break in the sport, largely due to noncompetitive and unreliable machinery. Much like Graham however, Alain would return to even greater glories with his former team…
Three years have now passed. Prost, runner up to Nelson Piquet in 1983, was again losing patience. The French honeymoon with Renault was over and the two sides at the end of 1983 filed for divorce. By this time, McLaren’s merger was beginning to show the fruits of its investment. Ron Dennis, a former Brabham mechanic, was now steering the team back to Grand Prix victories thanks to wins from Ulsterman John Watson and veteran World Champion Niki Lauda, coaxed out of retirement by the new Team Principal. Dennis’ powers of persuasion came to the front again for 1984, as Prost once again found himself in the seat of a McLaren, ‘Wattie’ having been dropped by the team at the end of the ’83 season. At Alain’s disposal was the MP4/2, powered by a V6 TAG Porsche Turbo, a car and engine which would give the Frenchman the opportunity to challenge for victory and Championships.
Whilst Prost played bridesmaid again in ’84, losing the title to his team-mate Lauda by half a point, Alain’s time had come in 1985. Whilst not always the fastest driver on the grid, his tactical brilliance, tyre and fuel conservation, playing the ‘long game’ earned him the nickname ‘The Professor’. Titles came in ’85, ’86 and ’89, making Alain one of McLaren’s most successful drivers, second only to Senna in number of wins for the team (Ayrton’s 35 to Alain’s 30).
Leaving Teddy Mayer’s outfit at the end of 1980 to return to Ron Dennis’ slick racing machine four years later was a tactically shrewd move by Prost. Letting head rule his heart, Prost was willing to walk away from a partisan French setup at Renault in search for glory. The record books would seem to justify his thinking – after all, ‘Professors’ like to think…
Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon, with Mansell and Alonso…