You’d be hard pushed to find a sports fan who hasn’t supported an underdog team, player or animal (especially badgers) at some stage.
Badger unlocks the F1 vault to unearth some underdog gems from the last twenty years, kicking off with a winner in very familiar colours to Leicester City fans…
Oliver Panis, Monaco 1996
There is only one word to describe the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix; bonkers. The race began with twenty one cars, Andrea Montermini couldn’t start because he crashed his only car in morning practice, yet it ended with just three running as the checkered flag fell.
Pre-race favourite Michael Schumacher binned his Ferrari on the opening lap, while championship leader Damon Hill retired on lap 40. Jean Alesi inherited the race lead from Hill, but he too fell by the wayside thanks to suspension failure. Alesi’s retirement left the Ligier Mugen-Honda of Oliver Panis in a unlikely lead.
The Frenchman had started the race from fourteenth place, but a slew of accidents in the opening laps and some clever driving saw him come out of the mess in fifth place. A brilliant move on Eddie Irvine at Lowes hairpin, alongside a well timed pit-stop, put Panis in prime position to take Ligier’s first win in fifteen years and his maiden grand prix victory. David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert rounded off the podium finishers. A Frenchman hasn’t won a grand prix since.
Damon Hill, Belgium 1998
It took Jordan until the ninth round of the 1998 season to score their first point of the year. By round thirteen in Belgium they had a one-two finish and were in the hunt for fourth in the constructors table. The turnaround was remarkable. In Monaco Damon Hill was battling Minardis for last; in Spa he was fighting Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari for first.
A poor getaway from third on the grid meant Hill was very lucky that the first start in Belgium was abandoned due to an enormous pile-up involving thirteen cars. His second start was much better – he jumped into the lead, before Schumacher got back past on lap eight.
Hill kept an incredibly cool head as chaos rained down around him and grabbed back the lead after Schumacher slammed into the back of David Coulthard’s McLaren on lap 25.
Hill remained relatively unchallenged for the rest of the race – as team-mate Ralf Schumacher was warned over the radio to stay in second place – and ensured the team a historic one-two. No team had won their first race as a one-two before, and only Brawn GP and Red Bull have done it since. It would also prove to be Hill’s last win and last appearance on the podium.
Johnny Herbert, Europe 1999
In all honesty, Stewart Grand Prix looked like they may just break into the winners circle with a bit of luck on a couple of occasions in 1999. Few predicted it would be with Johnny Herbert though, after the popular Brit had been soundly beaten by Rubens Barrichello all season and suffered a rough year with Sauber in 1998.
The European Grand Prix proved that anything really can happen in Formula One as it saw Herbert cross the line for the third and final win of his career and the only win of Stewart Grand Prix’s short history.
Starting from 14th on the grid, few gave Herbert much hope of points on Sunday afternoon. Changeable weather threw the race into absolute pandemonium. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, David Coulthard, Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher all came to grief while leading the race. Schumacher recovered to finish fourth.
Title rivals Mika Hakkinen and Eddie Irvine were well down the order. McLaren brought Hakkinen in for wet tyres far too early in the race, while Ferrari put Irvine through one of the most embarrassing pit-stops seen in modern Formula One. Out of the bedlam rose Herbert, like a phoenix, into first place, with team-mate Barrichello adding to Jackie Stewart’s joy by grabbing a double podium for the team with third place. Splitting them was the Prost of Jarno Trulli, who bagged the first podium finish of his career, to make it easily the least expected podium trio since Monaco three years earlier.
Giancarlo Fisichella, Brazil 2003
After the glory years of the late nineties and early noughties, Jordan were beginning to show severe signs of financial difficulty. Sponsors were fleeing the team and they were forced to take customer Cosworth engines after losing their works deal with Mugen-Honda.
The 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix marked the team’s 200th race and they were determined to get a decent result to celebrate, but what transpired went way beyond their wildest dreams.
Terrible conditions left the FIA with no choice but to delay the start, and even when the race finally did get underway it was clear this would be a race of survival as much as speed. Giancarlo Fisichella was in the form of his life, and cleverly threaded his yellow machine through numerous incidents to chase down the leading McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen. He sped by the Finn at the end of lap 53 following a mistake from Raikkonen. Crucially he crossed the line to start lap 54 just before a red flag was thrown for a monumental crash involving Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.
The race was declared finished as they had completed more than seventy-five percent of the race distance. Originally the FIA chose to count back to lap fifty three, for they had missed the fact Fisichella had started his fifty fourth lap prior to the red flag. Raikkonen was declared the winner, and a previously elected Fisichella was demoted to a deflated second.
A quick-eyed Eddie Jordan noticed the FIA’s mistake however, and after an appeal Fisichella was finally granted the race win and handed the trophy in San Marino two weeks later. It would be Jordan’s last win, and also the last win to date for a Cosworth powered car.
Sebastian Vettel, Italy 2008
Sebastian Vettel winning with an Italian based team, using a Ferrari engine, sounds familiar these days. Back in 2008 however, he was nothing more than a spotty faced twenty-one-year-old who had never stepped on a Formula One podium.
Driving for Toro Rosso – the team formerly known as Minardi – meant podiums were not exactly forthcoming. It teemed with rain on both Saturday and Sunday of the Italian Grand Prix. Championship front runners Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa fell by the wayside during qualifying on Saturday as Vettel swept to a stunning pole position; the same Vettel who had crashed out of four of the first nine races of the season.
Most expected the young German to be swamped by the usual suspects on race day. Instead Vettel sped away after the safety car start, and led all but four laps to take his and Toro Rosso’s maiden win. The story was incredibly heartwarming because many of the mechanics on Vettel’s car had been with the team since the early days of Minardi. They had been through thick and thin together, while always hoping that one day their efforts would be rewarded. As Minardi, the team had never been on the podium, they only had one front row start and a total of just thirty eight points in nearly four hundred races.
In an era of the manufacturer running the show it was refreshing to see a small team prove that money wasn’t the be all and end all of success. Certainly, if used correctly, it helps, but the biggest advantage of them all will always be pure talent.
As for Vettel? The rest, as they say, is history.