Sebastian Vettel at Monza in 2008. Damon Hill in the Arrows at the Hungaroring in 1997. Yes, even Pastor Maldonado at Circuit de Catalunya in 2012. These are examples of the underdog achieving an unexpected result that live long in the memory. However sometimes these underdog-style performances are forgotten – so here at Badger we thought we would come up with 5 forgotten underdog performances.
1990 French Grand Prix – Ivan Capelli, Leyton House
Leyton House were, on occasion, second best to the dominant McLarens in 1988, but by the 1990 Mexico Grand Prix, the team couldn’t even get either car through pre-qualifying. The team was falling apart, a situation not helped by team boss Ian Phillips falling ill with meningitis. With terrible results lead designer Adrian Newey was fired, but not before he completed work on a major aerodynamic upgrade ready for the next round at Paul Ricard, home of the French Grand Prix for 1990.
The transformation was nothing short of a miraculous. Both cars qualified in the top 10 and in the race, where many teams thought Leyton House were showboating for their sponsors and believing they weren’t a threat, Ivan Capelli took the lead and kept it. For 45 laps! The team opted not to pit for fresh tyres to gain track position and still were able to keep Alain Prost in 2nd at bay.
Like Damon in the Arrows, though, cruel fate intervened as Capelli was forced to slow with a sick Judd engine with 3 laps to go, but still crossed the line in 2nd place behind Prost. Thus the team now had enough points to get out of pre-qualifying for the rest of the season, as well as an excuse for one hell of a party that night.
1999 European Grand Prix – Johnny Herbert, Stewart
The European Grand Prix of 1999 would be seen as a battle for the title between Eddie Irvine, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Heinz-Harold Frentzen in the closing stages of the championship, but on a day where the weather couldn’t make up its mind, one man got all the calls absolutely spot on; Johnny Herbert.
It was more than deserved on a season where Herbert had only scored points once, where in the same amount of time his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, had managed to get two podiums and a pole position.
This one is pretty easy to summarise: Herbert’s calls on the what-tyres-to-be-on-at-any-given-moment resulted in a climb from 14th to 1st.
His march was somewhat helped by those in front of him often getting those calls very wrong. After a chaotic first lap where Pedro Diniz barrel-rolled from a collision with Damon Hill, the rain would steadily fall resulting in Hakkinen pitting for wets when the track then decided to dry. Irvine pitted where Ferrari famously didn’t have any tyres ready for him, and his pit crew decided to form a committee meeting over the lost rubber. Coulthard and Giancarlo Fisichella both spun off from being on the wrong tyres and Frentzen’s Jordan’s electronics packed up. Ralf Schumacher then had to pit after getting a puncture, allowing Herbert to finally take the lead, where he would keep it for the rest of the race. This was the Stewart team’s only victory in Formula 1, with the team eventually morphing first into Jaguar, and then finally into Red Bull.
1997 Spanish Grand Prix – Olivier Panis, Prost
Barcelona has always been a gruelling experience for any tyre manufacturer over the years, somewhat highlighted by the four-stop strategies in 2013. Back in 1997, this was no different, a time when Formula 1 was in the midst of a tyre war between Goodyear and Bridgestone.
During the race, which saw very high track temperatures, the Goodyear runners were struggling for balance and pace with tyre blistering becoming a problem. For the Bridgestone runners, their tyres were in much better shape, especially for Olivier Panis in his Prost.
Panis was already catching the top four before half distance, thanks in part to Michael Schumacher struggling with tyre wear and causing a bit of a queue. Once the pitstops were sorted, and following some brave overtaking moves on a track renowned for being very hard to overtake on, Panis was closing on Villeneuve at 1.5 to 2 seconds a lap. An unexpected result looked liked it was on.
Any chance of victory, however, was ruined by Eddie Irvine holding up the Frenchman as he was trying to lap him, for which Irvine received a stop-and-go penalty. Panis, therefore finished 2nd, 6 seconds behind Villeneuve in a what was still a storming drive from 14th on the grid.
2009 Belgium GP – Giancarlo Fisichella, Force India
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time after taking over from Midland/Spyker/Jordan that Force India were still battling away at the back of the field with absolutely no points to its name.
2009 saw massive regulation changes to aerodynamics, resulting in the traditional running order somewhat thrown up in the air. Heading to Spa, Force India had improved, but had still failed to score a point. One ace up their sleeve though was the car was very quick in a straight line. This was confirmed at Spa, a traditional low downforce circuit.
Fast forwarding to the final qualifying session the BMW Saubers were P5 and P3 for their best qualifying performance of the year. The usually-out-in-front Brawns were P4 and P14, but the surprise of the session was pole position – a fantastic lap by Giancarlo Fisichella, finishing a tenth of a second ahead of Jarno Trulli’s Toyota to give Force India their first ever pole position.
During the race, Fisichella led from Kimi Raikkonen after the first lap chaos eliminated Romain Grosjean, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Jaime Alguersuari. On lap 5 Raikkonen took the lead on the way up to Eau Rouge. Thus began a race for the lead as, surprisingly, Fisichella kept up with the Ferrari and was often less than a second behind. Sebastian Vettel performed a late race resurgence to close up on the top 2, and with Fisichella unable to get past Raikkonen, the Force India driver managed to fend off Vettel for 2nd place, and Force India’s first ever points and podium placing. It was this performance that convinced Ferrari to take Fisichella on for the rest of the season to replace the still-injured Felipe Massa.
1989 Monaco Grand Prix – Brabham
1989 saw the return of the Brabham team, having missed the entire 1988 season due to being unable to find an engine deal in time. The team was also under new ownership and it showed, starting poorly with both Stefano Modena and Martin Brundle failing to finish either of the first 2 races. The team also had to go through the extra pain of pre-qualifying.
Round 3 was Monaco, a track where the Pirelli rubber that some teams were using, including Brabham, seemed to be working well. To the astonishment of some Brundle managed to drag his Brabham to 4th on the grid, with Modena was also up there in a fantastic 8th. The race saw the McLarens dominant as usual for 1989, but behind them, Brundle was looking good for a superb podium finish with Modena following closely following. The Ferrari of Nigel Mansell retired with gearbox issues and both Williams had to pit due to rear wing problems.
Brundle then had to pit due to a fault with his Brabham’s battery. This wasn’t an easy fix, as the battery was located under the seat, meaning he had to get out of the car while the team replaced it. But thanks to the hard work prior to the lengthy stop, he still came out in 7th – which became 6th at the end of the race when Ivan Capelli retired on the last lap.
Modena, however, had no such problems and managed to score a completely unexpected podium for the team. A 3rd and 6th was a huge achievement – and something that was probably thought as impossible for a Brabham to ever achieve again after the wilderness of 1988.