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Six of the Best: Attritional Races

18 September 2013

Like many of Formula One's street circuits past and present, Singapore's Marina Bay Circuit has a significantly above average rate of attrition. The combination of a narrow track, omnipresent concrete walls, the length of the race and the intense humidity of Singapore renders the grand prix a race invariably low on finishers.

Across the first five seasons of the Singapore GP, only Monaco (70.9%) and Melbourne's Albert Park (63.5%) have seen lower finishing percentages than the Marina Bay Circuit (75.7%). Bearing testament to this, the safety car has made an appearance in each of the five editions of the Singapore Grand Prix to date - a record unmatched over the equivalent time period.

Singapore still has some way to go to produce a classic attritional race though, with improvements in reliability and a reduction in accidents over time meaning that the days of single digit finishers being commonplace have long passed. With 2013 on course to break last year's record and become the most 'finished' season of all time (with 84.7% of race starts seeing the chequered flag to date), races like the six classic wars of attrition below are unlikely to come around again – even at circuits such as Singapore.


1956 GERMAN GP

(6 running at flag, 5 out of 19 starters classified finishers)

The 1956 German GP at the old Nurburgring saw the 45-year old Juan Manuel Fangio break a 17-year old lap record around the 'Ring en route to victory and the championship lead for Ferrari.

The race is as notable for the litany of retirements that ensued behind Fangio's serene stroll to victory though, as surprisingly only two could be attributed to accidents. With a race time of 3 hours 38 minutes around 22 laps of the 'Green Hell', the 1956 German Grand Prix saw the Nurburgring live up to its lesser-remembered reputation – as a fearsome car breaker.

The race boasted an entry list populated by Italian powerhouses Ferrari and Maserati, alongside French constructor, Gordini. Fangio started the race from his customary pole position, joined on the four-strong front row by team-mates Peter Collins and Eugenio Castelloti, and Stirling Moss, who had qualified a game fourth as the leading Maserati.

Although Collins took the lead off the line, Fangio came through in the lead at the end of the first lap, and there he would stay for the duration, sailing to victory by 46 seconds from Moss' Maserati, and an astonishing 7 minutes from third-placed man Jean Behra.

The rest of the field slipped by the wayside one-by-one, most notably Collins, who, having been forced into retirement when his fuel line split, took over Alfonso de Portago's car before making a rare mistake and spinning off into a ditch. Bruce Halford also made a notable exit from the results, disqualified en route to hospital for treatment for fuel inhalation having received an illegal push-start from spectators during the race.


1966 MONACO GP

(4 running at flag, 4 out of 16 starters classified finishers)

Monaco's unique challenge has provided attritional races across F1 generations, seeing six finishers five times, five finishers in the wet in 1968, and famously a record four classified finishers in 1966.

The opening round of the 1966 season, Monaco was also the first race for the more powerful 3.0-litre engine capacity regulations. Few teams were prepared for the new rules though, so most started the season with 1965 engines or rapidly adapted - and heavy - sportscar-spec motors.

The 1966 Monaco Grand Prix was also the first race to run with a 'classified finishers' rule – meaning that all entrants had to compete 90% of the race distance in order to be classified. Allied to these unique variables was the then traditional 100-lap race distance around Monaco's exacting streets and ever-present barriers - extending the race time to over two-and-a-half hours.

Little wonder then, with so much upheaval, that the race saw so few finishers. Despite starting from pole position, Jim Clark headed a luminary list of drivers who fell foul of mechanical gremlins, including John Surtees, Denny Hulme, Jack Brabham and Jochen Rindt.

Unperturbed through all of this was BRM's Jackie Stewart, who took a second Grand Prix win by 40 seconds from Lorenzo Bandini. 'Mr. Monaco', Graham Hill, finished a lapped third after a spin, and was followed home by only one further runner, Bob Bondurant, who finished five laps down for his first and only career points. Guy Ligier and Jo Bonnier were still running as Stewart crossed the line, but, at more than 25 laps behind the Scot, ended the race with the ignoble distinction of being F1's first non-classified finishers.


1979 US GP

(6 running at flag, 7 out of 24 starters classified finishers)

The final race of the 1979 season saw Gilles Villeneuve cruise to victory at a dismally damp Watkins Glen in the crab-like championship-winning Ferrari 312T4.

The grey autumnal fug permeating the Glen that weekend was well at odds with its traditional splendour of sun-kissed New England fall foliage, but the wet weather did give license to one of Formula One's most legendary performances. In a torrentially sodden Friday practice session, Villeneuve lapped eleven seconds quicker than the rest of the field, headed by his team-mate, newly crowned world champion Jody Scheckter.

Alan Jones took pole position on a dry Saturday, but a downpour before the start of the race turned conditions back in Villeneuve's favour. The initial start was clean, with Villeneuve leading Jones, but the retirements came thick and fast during the early stages, with Keke Rosberg, Bruno Giacomelli, Jacky Ickx, Jacques Laffite, Carlos Reutemann and Mario Andretti among those to fall foul of the slippery circuit.

The Michelin tyres on Villeneuve's Ferrari were the stronger wet weather rubber but, as the track began to dry, the Goodyear-shod Williams of Jones closed the gap, and passed easily on lap 31. Villeneuve quickly pitted to change to slick tyres in a then handy time of 20 seconds, forcing Jones to retaliate. Unfortunately for the Aussie, a bungled stop led to the right rear tyre parting company with the Williams soon after leaving the pits – forcing Jones into retirement.

After Scheckter dropped out from second with a puncture, Villeneuve coasted home unchallenged, winning by 48 seconds from Rene Arnoux and Didier Pironi. Elio de Angelis took the Shadow team's first points of the season ahead of Hans Stuck and John Watson in sixth, the final runner of the 24 who started.


1984 USA GP

(6 running at flag, 5 out of 26 starters classified finishers)

Perhaps the least remembered of the 'glasscrete' urban jungle circuits that adorned the US in the 1980s, Detroit was a notoriously tricky car-breaker set in the heart of Motor City.

A 2.5-mile, 17-corner 'point and squirt' style circuit, renowned for being exceptionally bumpy, slower than Monaco and containing the only level crossing in F1 history, Detroit was a fixture of the calendar from 1982 to 1988, displaying remarkable staying power compared to Dallas, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

The first attempt to start the 1984 race was an ominous portent – ending with polesitter Nelson Piquet's Brabham and Marc Surer intertwined and blocking the track, forcing a red flag.

The second start was clean, and the field peeled away in formation. With the dual challenges of the oppressive heat and abrasive circuit, the race quickly became an attritional battle. First Alain Prost, and then Nigel Mansell, dropped back from Piquet's tail and, by half distance, only 13 cars were left.

One man on the up as his rivals fell by the wayside was Martin Brundle, whose Tyrrell, like a slasher movie killer, stalked through the points positions, inheriting 5th from Derek Warwick, 4th from Keke Rosberg, third from Michele Alboreto, and second place from Elio de Angelis when the Lotus' gearbox expired.

Ultimately though, Brundle's charge would be in vain, with Tyrrell's points subsequently erased and their results rescinded on a fuel infringement. When the Detroit results were adjusted, there weren't enough finishers to make up the points, and Jacques Laffite in 5th took the final points – the last time until the 2005 US GP that points would go unawarded. Factoring in the Tyrrell disqualifications, Detroit saw 21 retirements, 13 of which were mechanical – setting a record for attrition that will likely stand for years to come.


1994 GERMAN GP

(8 running at flag, 8 out of 26 starters classified finishers)

A race best remembered for Jos Verstappen's pit-lane fire, the 1994 German Grand Prix was also notable for a remarkable double start-line accident which saw a record 11 retirements on the opening lap.

Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi had qualified their V12 Ferraris first and second, giving the Maranello outfit a welcome fillip. The season had thus far been dominated by Michael Schumacher, but Hockenheim was not well suited to the Benetton's V8 Ford engine, despite the hopes of the thousands of German fans who turned out to cheer on their hero.

Within seconds of the race start, Alex Zanardi and Andrea de Cesaris tangled, taking out the Minardis of Michele Alboreto and Pierluigi Martini well before the first corner. Up ahead, Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard touched, sending the Finn's McLaren spearing across the field, collecting Mark Blundell, Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello, Johnny Herbert and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Häkkinen was subsequently given a one-race ban, the last such punishment until Romain Grosjean's 2012 indiscretions at Spa led to him being benched for the Italian GP.

Amazingly, given the carnage, neither the red flags nor the safety car were deployed, and the race continued unabated. Not for Alesi though, as the #27 Ferrari broke down on the first lap. For a brief moment, Ukyo Katayama ran second, before Schumacher took the fight to Berger. Despite hounding the Austrian for almost 20 laps, the Benetton couldn't muster the necessary grunt to get alongside the Ferrari on the straights, and Schumacher's race ended in a disappointing engine failure.

The German was followed in retirement by his team-mate's harrowing inferno, leaving Berger to coast to victory from Olivier Panis and Eric Bérnard in the Ligiers – Panis taking his first points and marking the last time that two drivers scored their maiden podiums on the same weekend.


1996 MONACO GP

(3 running at flag, 7 out of 21 starters classified finishers)

Formula One's most attritional race saw one of its most surprising results, Ligier's Olivier Panis charging to victory around the soggy Monaco streets as all about him fell victim to mechanical gremlins, accidents and collisions.

Starting 14th, Panis was nobody's idea of a likely victor but, from the moment pole-sitter Michael Schumacher slithered into the barriers at Portier as one of five retirements on the opening lap, the race was destined to be a wild ride - even by Monaco standards.

As the track dried through the first half of the race, Damon Hill's Williams streaked away at the head of the field, with the Briton looking set to become the then first second generation Monaco victor.

However, his Renault engine unusually gave up the ghost midway through the race, handing the advantage to Jean Alesi - only for the Benetton to suffer a suspension failure 15 laps from home. With Alesi's retirement, Panis, who had climbed through the field due to a combination of blistering speed on a drying track, an aggressive bumping pass on Eddie Irvine into Loews and accidents and mishaps suffered by Jacques Villeneuve, Gerhard Berger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, took a shock lead.

The Frenchman comfortably held off David Coulthard - racing in Michael Schumacher's helmet to add to the bizarre ambience - and Johnny Herbert to take the chequered flag, a maiden and only win for the Frenchman and a ninth and final victory for Ligier.

Remarkably, though, the podium trio were the only cars still running by race's end. Fourth place classified finisher Frentzen pitted for good on the penultmate tour, and fifth, sixth and seventh placed classified finishers, Irvine, Mika Salo and Mika Häkkinen, saw their races ended by a bizarre concertina traffic-jam accident five laps from the finish

Will Saunders
@formulawill


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