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Six of the Best: Inglorious Comebacks

2 June 2014

Jacques Villeneuve's recent return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a first foray into open-wheel single-seater racing in 8 years, and his first return to the Brickyard's famous oval circuit since victory in the 1995 Indy 500.

Unsurprisingly, Canada's prodigal son struggled somewhat, qualifying 27th and meandering to a tame 14th place finish. Villeneuve is far from the only F1 driver to find a return to the cockpit something of a challenging proposition though.

For every Niki Lauda, Alain Prost or Kimi Räikkonen who have successfully resumed race or championship-winning ways after stepping away from F1, there are many examples of drivers who found they just couldn't cut it on their return to the grid. Here, we profile six of Formula One history's most inauspicious returnees.

NIGEL MANSELL


They say time heals all wounds, but nearly twenty years later the legacy-scarring memories of Nigel Mansell's midfield floundering in the dismal 1995 McLaren Mercedes MP4-10 remain uncomfortably vivid.

Few athletes get to conclude their careers on a winning high, yet Mansell somehow squandered picture-perfect career codas in three consecutive years.

The Formula One title win of 1992, the IndyCar championship of 1993 or his victorious substitute swansong with Williams at Adelaide in 1994 would all have provided appropriate final chapters for one of Britain's motorsport greats.

Mansell's career was dogged by a difficult relationship with dignity though, and his prevailing ego, bluster and inability to pass on a hearty payday manifested itself in the ill-fated decision to return to the grid full-time with McLaren in 1995.

Il Leone and Big Ron were two apposite personalities who had never seen eye to eye, with many predicting a swift fallout - but the Mansell/McLaren relationship failed to fulfill even the lowest of expectations.

First, Mansell's posterior was too large to fit into the MP4-10's narrow cockpit, forcing him to sit out the first two races of the season while the chassis was hastily redesigned. Once Mansell was able to get behind the wheel, the fundamental problem of the car's poor performance remained.

Mansell's debut saw him finish 10th at Imola, a lap down on team-mate Mika Häkkinen, and after retiring from the next race in Spain with handling problems after just 19 laps, Mansell called it a day for good. The art of gracefully bowing out at the top has proven problematic for many a great sportsman, but slipping away at a low ebb because of one's bottom is perhaps a uniquely unedifying finale.

NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN


India's relationship with Formula One has hitherto been something of a curious affair. The slow-burn rise to mid-grid acceptability of Force India has given credibility to the Indian assault on the sport, but neither Indian drivers, nor the short-lived Indian Grand Prix, have yet to make a lasting impression.

Heading this charge way back in 2005 was Narain Karthikeyan, the first Indian driver in Formula One when he signed for the ailing Jordan team. Heavy backing from Indian automotive behemoth TATA offered some clue as to Karthikeyan's value to the cash-strapped Jordan outfit, and he duly lived down to expectations – struggling alongside teammate Tiago Monteiro and only troubling the scorers with fourth place in the farcical 2005 United States Grand Prix.

With Midland demanding a huge cash injection from Karthikeyan to keep his seat with the re-branded team for 2006, he took up a test-seat with Williams before drifting away to A1 GP as restrictions rendered the role of a test driver somewhat redundant.

Five years later though, ahead of the 2011 season, Karthikeyan was back, announced as a surprise choice for a seat at Hispania thanks to 'instrumental' backing from TATA. The poor pace of the Hispania coupled with supreme reliability meant that Karthikeyan twice set new records for the lowest race finish in Formula One, 23rd in China and 24th at Valencia respectively, before being dropped in favour of Daniel Ricciardo from Silverstone onwards.

Karthikeyan was reinstalled to a full race seat for the 2012 season, where he was regularly out-paced by 41 year-old teammate Pedro de la Rosa and attracted ever-increasing notoriety for a series of 'blue flag brainfade' spats with Sebastian Vettel.

After nearly having his head taken off by a terrifying collision with Nico Rosberg in Abu Dhabi, Karthikeyan exited the sport along with HRT at the end of the season – bringing down the curtain on a career of pay driver ordinariness.

Although not a disaster in itself, Karthikeyan's return was a lesson in perpetual mediocrity. If at first you don't succeed, sometimes it's probably better to accept that you just never might…

LUCA BADOER


Luca Badoer might not have thought he had much to lose when he answered the call to replace the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari in 2009, but his performances were so risible they reduced the Italian to a laughing stock – at the cost of his reputation, dignity and, eventually, his job.

Badoer had already made one comeback in Formula One, driving for Minardi in 1999 after three years out of the sport – and agonisingly losing a potential fourth place finish after a mechanical failure at the European Grand Prix.

From 2000, Badoer became a full-time Ferrari test driver, pounding out thousands of laps around Fiorano to help develop the cars with which Michael Schumacher would dominate F1 in the early 2000s. As a reward for his dedicated years of service, and after Schumacher himself was ruled out by injury, Badoer was offered the chance to stand in for Massa for the final seven races of the 2009 season.

His debut in Valencia marked the second longest gap between Formula One appearances (after Jan Lammers' 10 years and three months between drives at the 1982 Dutch GP and the 1992 Japanese GP), and the race rustiness certainly showed. After picking up four fines for pitlane speeding in practice, Badoer qualified last – 1.5 seconds behind the next slowest runner.

Badoer fared little better in the race, colliding with Renault debutant Romain Grosjean, spinning twice, collecting a drive-through penalty for crossing the pit lane line and crashing into a stationary car in parc ferme en route to finishing a lap down in last place.

Badoer retained his seat for the next race, in Spa, but a similar story played out as the Italian qualified and finished last, trundling around in a race of his own and finishing over 100 seconds behind the race-winner – team-mate Kimi Räikkonen.

Ferrari acted swiftly after Spa, replacing Badoer with Force India driver Giancarlo Fisichella for the remaining five races of the season. It had been an unedifying spectacle for all concerned, but even the rapid-fire removal of Badoer from the front line wasn't enough to prevent a considerable loss of face.

ALAN JONES


The Beatles. Eric Cantona. Pete Sampras. Alain Prost. It's possible to count on very few hands those who have been able to time their exit from the centre stage gracefully or triumphantly.

Ten years before Nigel Mansell's McLaren aberration, another former world champion could be found limping around the back of the grid sometime after bowing out on a high with victory in his final Grand Prix.

Enter 1980 title-winner Alan Jones, who made two mediocrely unsuccessful comeback attempts after signing off from Formula One with a victorious flourish after the 1981 Caesar's Palace Grand Prix.

The sturdy Australian's first return was a one-off drive for Arrows at the 1983 United States Grand Prix West, where a much heavier (and allegedly lighter in the pocket) Jones qualified respectably before being forced to retire from fatigue during the race.

Undeterred, Jones got himself back in shape and returned to the grid full-time with the new Team Haas-Lola effort from the 1985 Italian Grand Prix. If qualifying 10 seconds down on Ayrton Senna's pole time didn't give Jones an indication that he wouldn't be competitive anytime soon, then perhaps retiring from mechanical failures at each of the three races the team entered in 1985 should have given Jones the impetus needed to step away during the close season.

Jones was renowned for his determination though, and stayed on for 1986 in the hope that the team would be more competitive. The Lola was far from the slowest car on the grid, and there were points finishes in Austria and Italy, but the season was undermined by poor reliability and a lack of demonstrable progress.
After retiring from the season-ending Australian Grand Prix with an engine failure, Jones quit for good, the epitaphs for his second bowing out conducted on a much less celebratory note than those for his original retirement five years previously.

ALEX ZANARDI


Alex Zanardi's life and career will be remembered for many things, but it's unlikely his miserable return to Formula One with Williams in 1999 will be chief among them.

Zanardi had suffered a mediocre first stint in F1, scoring a sole point across four middling seasons of sporadic appearances for Jordan, Minardi and Lotus.

Left without a drive by the collapse of Lotus at the end of the 1994 season, Zanardi headed stateside and built a reputation as an elite CART racer - winning back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998. His title wins caught the attention of multiple F1 teams, and Zanardi signed a three-year contract with Williams in July 1998.

Partnering Ralf Schumacher in an all-new line-up at Williams for 1999, Zanardi was the man expected to lead the charge to restore the team to winning ways off the back of their first winless season for a decade.

The campaign was an unmitigated disaster for Zanardi though. From crashing out in Australia, Imola, Canada and France to race-ending mechanical gremlins in Brazil, Spain and Germany, Zanardi simply couldn't catch a break despite occasional glimpses of raw speed.

Zanardi's problems were cast into doubly sharp focus by Schumacher's strong performance and frequent points finishes. In Monza, with Zanardi finally demonstrating genuine pace and running second, the floor failed on the Williams and Zanardi could only limp home in seventh whilst Schumacher had a trouble-free run to finish second.

Bad luck or bad performance? Schumacher's three podiums, 35 points and sixth place in the championship compared to Zanardi's 0 points and non-classification at season's end was a stark contrast that couldn't be explained away by simple misfortune. Unsurprisingly, Zanardi's Williams contract was hastily terminated at an estimated cost of $4 million after just one season.

After F1, Zanardi returned to racing in the US, where a horrifying accident in 2001 in which he lost both his legs proved to be the catalyst for a much more successful, not to mention remarkable, comeback. Not only did Zanardi win four races in the World Touring Car championship in specially modified cars, but he also forged a successful career on three wheels, clinching a gold medal for time trial cycling at the 2012 London Paralympics.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER



From Bjorn Borg to Muhammad Ali, sporting greats across every field have been tempted back into the arena by the lure of one final shot at glory, a chance to consecrate their legacy by showing a clean pair of heels to a whole new generation of contenders.

However, no vanquished foe can match the constant assault of time, and every athlete has to cope with the inevitable decline of their sporting prowess at some stage. Those whose skills completely dwarfed their rivals may experience this regression at a slower or later stage, but the result is the same: the sad sight of a legend tarnishing their name and reputation through repeat demonstrations of previously unthinkable fallibility.

Michael Schumacher will always be one of Formula One's greatest drivers, but his three-year 'second career' with Mercedes has led to a much more critical school of thought when appraising Schumacher's standing in the sport. Is the true Schumacher the statistical juggernaut who took advantage of a unique set of circumstances to crushingly dominate F1 during his peak years with Ferrari, or the over-aggressive incident-prone dawdler of his underwhelming second coming?

The truth lies somewhere in between, but certainly the prevailing memories of Schumacher 2.0 tend to range from disappointing to downright distressing. The charge sheet against Schumacher includes: scoring barely half of teammate Nico Rosberg's points tally during his 2010 comeback season, colliding with three cars during an incident-packed 2010 Canadian GP, his contretemps with former acolyte Rubens Barrichello at the 2010 Hungarian GP, and race-ending collisions at the 2011 and 2012 Singapore GPs and 2012 Spanish GP for which the blame was squarely and solely laid at Schumacher's door. Fleeting flashes of the 'old' Schumi, such as his 'pole' at Monaco in 2012 or podium at the 2012 European GP were celebrated with a fervour that illustrated just how low expectations fell during Schumacher's return.

His defenders will claim that after three years out of the sport he was naturally hamstrung by new cars and having to adapt his driving style, that he was let down by a succession of uncompetitive Mercedes cars, and that his performance wasn't really that bad considering he was racing men 20 years his junior; but such arguments are mere justification for making up the numbers – something Schumacher would never have countenanced in his first career.

Ultimately, the subject of Schumacher's return elicits a rare unanimous verdict on this most polarising of characters, and gives further weight to an oft-repeated mantra that rings as true in sport as it does in life: never go back.


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