Six of the Best: One-off winners
4 August 2014
From Deep Blue Something to Michael Ricketts, and from M. Night Shamalan to Nick Griffin, all walks of life are full of one-hit wonders, those who've made a one-off only burst for glory and never again scaled the same heights of notoriety or success.
Formula One is no different; and of the 105 drivers to have won a Grand Prix race, 33 of those have taken the chequered flag just once – including seven one-time winners of the Indianapolis 500 from the years when the race formed a part of the F1 World Championship.
From dogs who had their day to up-and-comers cruelly cut down en route to their prime, there are many reasons why lightning may strike only once for some drivers – as Crash.net's exploration of one-off winners demonstrates…
PASTOR MALDONADO – 2012 SPANISH GP
Of the current crop of Grand Prix drivers, there were only two members of the one-time winners club prior to the Hungarian Grand Prix. With Daniel Ricciardo having quickly added to his Canadian GP win, that left Pastor Maldonado once again standing alone reflecting on his sole day in the sun.
Maldonado's win at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix seems more and more remarkable as history and hindsight begin to cast it in a sepia-tinted light; less a fluke, more a unique alignment of circumstances for an undoubtedly fast, but inimitably erratic driver.
The 2012 Williams-Renault FW34 had shown decent pace in the early rounds of the season, but Maldonado had barely delivered on the car's promise - most notably crashing out on the final lap of the Australian Grand Prix whilst dicing for fifth with Fernando Alonso.
There was no precedent for what was to happen in Barcelona, where Maldonado suddenly developed into a world-beater. Having qualified 8th, 11th, 13th and 17th in the first four races of the season, and having never lined up higher than seventh on the grid, the Venezuelan found unexpectedly stunning pace to take second behind Lewis Hamilton – a position that became a sensational maiden pole when the Briton was penalised for fuel irregularities.
If Maldonado's pole position was bewildering, then it was nothing compared to his race performance. Beaten to the first corner by Fernando Alonso, Maldonado calmly bided his time before leapfrogging the Ferrari during the second round of pitstops. Driving with the wily maturity of a veteran champion, Maldonado gave a masterful demonstration of defensive driving and tyre management to keep the Ferrari at bay and take Williams' first victory since 2004.
If there was no clue to suggest that Maldonado could win so convincingly in Spain, his subsequent career has given little indication that a return to the top table beckons. Maldonado has only one other front row start, and no further podium finishes to his name - and his 15th place in 2012 remains the lowest championship standing for a driver who won a race during a Grand Prix season. Nor has Maldonado ever demonstrated particular acumen for the Circuit de Catalunya, finishing 15th, 14th and 15th on his three other races in Barcelona.
All evidence would point to Maldonado's win being a one-off one-off, a known unknown, and a performance of inexplicable renown from a driver destined to never find again the unique blend of performance and mature consistency that resulted in one of the most sensational Grand Prix victories of modern times.
ALESSANDRO NANNINI – 1989 JAPANESE GP
He may have only raced Formula One cars for five years, but Alessandro Nannini's short career was on a singularly upward curve before being truncated in a helicopter accident towards the end of the 1990 season.
Unfortunately for Nannini, his one Grand Prix victory was achieved as a footnote, a question of pub quiz trivia and an appendix to the undercard of one of Formula One's most tumultuously iconic duels.
The 1989 Japanese Grand Prix is remembered chiefly for Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna's championship showdown, but Nannini was enough of an established front-runner to be no coincidental victor despite the inherited nature of his win.
1989 was a season in which the Formula One field fed off the scraps of Prost and Senna's titanic battle for supremacy, and the qualifying result in Japan bore evidence to this dominance. Nannini, starting sixth, was over three seconds shy of Senna's pole time, and knew he would likely have to benefit from favours from McLaren in order to take victory – as Nigel Mansell, Gerhard Berger and Thierry Boutsen had done before him in 1989.
Ferrari initially took the challenge to the McLarens during the race before suffering their typical mechanical gremlins, leaving Nannini as best of the rest a long way behind Prost and Senna. After the two McLarens collided on lap 46, Nannini suddenly found himself out front just seven laps from home – albeit with a recovering Senna breathing down his neck.
Some indication of McLaren's dominance is shown by the fact that – despite the collision, the subsequent period spent stalled, the slow in-lap, and the pit stop delay while his car was repaired – when Senna rejoined the race he was only five seconds behind the Benetton. The Brazilian duly re-passed Nannini with ease - into the chicane where he had collided with Prost just moments before - to take the cheqeuered flag.
However, Senna's controversial disqualification for illegally rejoining the circuit meant that a different victor emerged onto the podium: Nannini, upgrading what would have been a career-best result of second to a maiden, and ultimately sole, victory.
GIANCARLO BAGHETTI – 1961 FRENCH GP
Giancarlo Baghetti is one of Formula One's most renowned statistical quirks, a man remembered solely for the distinction of winning his first Grand Prix on his World Championship debut at the 1961 French GP.
It's an honour shared with Nino Farina, who won the first ever World Championship Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, and Johnnie Parsons, who won the 1950 Indianapolis 500 in the first running of the event as a World Championship race – but Baghetti is the sole man to win against a field that did not consist entirely of other debutant drivers.
The outstanding start to Baghetti's Grand Prix career was actually even more pronounced, with the 26 year-old Italian being picked by Ferrari to run as one of their promising junior drivers in non-championship races. Remarkably, Baghetti won on his first two outings in the V6 Ferrari, taking victories in the Syracuse and Napoli Grands Prix.
Given his stunning performances, Baghetti was entered as a fourth 'sharknose' works Ferrari 156 for the French Grand Prix. Qualifying only 12th, with his team-mates Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther lining up first, second and third respectively, the prospects of Baghetti continuing his winning streak on his World Championship debut looked slim.
However, in a highly attritional race at Reims, Baghetti was able to climb through the field and into contention – abetted in no small measure by his three team-mates retiring with mechanical gremlins. The 52-lap race boiled down to a last corner showdown between the Ferrari and Dan Gurney's Porsche, with Baghetti coming out on top to claim a sensational debut victory by just 0.1 seconds.
It would prove to be by far and away the pinnacle of Baghetti's career, with the Italian scoring only five further points over an ultimately underwhelming six-year stint in Formula One.
There have been many sensational Grand Prix debuts down the years, including first-time out podium finishes for drivers including Jacques Villeneuve, Lewis Hamilton, and this year, Kevin Magnussen - but none have yet lived up to the inimitable precedent set by Giancarlo Baghetti.
ROBERT KUBICA – 2008 CANADIAN GP
Robert Kubica was Poland's first and thus far only Formula One driver, and from the immediate impact he made upon graduating to F1 in 2006 it was evident that he was a racer of extraordinary potential – as illustrated by a podium finish in only his third race at the 2006 Italian Grand Prix.
In 2007 Kubica established himself as a regular and consistent points-scorer, but his campaign was somewhat defined by a spectacularly terrifying rollover accident at the Canadian Grand Prix in which Kubica suffered a peak G-force of 75G – not to mention a sprained ankle and a concussion.
Given the trauma of 2007, it was somewhat apt that Kubica would claim his maiden and sole victory on his return to the circuit a year later. Kubica headed into the race as a genuine championship contender, having taken three podiums from the opening six rounds at the wheel of a highly competitive BMW Sauber.
Starting alongside Lewis Hamilton from second on the grid, Kubica was a challenger for the win from the outset. His charge to victory was aided significantly by a bizarre pit lane collision that eliminated both Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen during a safety car period.
Despite seven different drivers taking turns out front, the race was Kubica's to lose on pace alone. After the field shook itself out, the Pole was able to lead home a BMW Sauber 1-2 from team-mate Nick Heidfeld – giving Kubica a sensational lead in the Drivers' championship.
Unfortunately for Kubica, BMW took the victory as 'mission accomplished' for the season, and immediately switched development to their 2009 car. The Pole's title challenge faded, and through his remaining two seasons he never again had the tools with which to fully compete at the sharp end of the field.
Kubica would surely have been destined for more victories were it not for the rallying accident that truncated his F1 career ahead of the 2011 season, and with each passing year it sadly becomes ever more likely that the 2008 Canadian GP will remain Kubica's only Formula One victory.
JEAN ALESI – 1995 CANADIAN GP
Another hard-luck hero to break his duck at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was Jean Alesi. A French-Sicilian of decidedly Latin temperament, Alesi was a heartstrong driver with one default setting: all-out attack. Combining his aggression with natural car control, Alesi bore a racecar with such distinction that his driving was a visible form of personal expression – capturing the imaginations of legions of fans worldwide, and leading to one of the most popular victories in Formula One history at the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix.
By 1995, six years into his Formula One career, Alesi was threatening to become a permanent bridesmaid. Through a combination of gutsy nearly drives in inferior machinery (Phoenix '90), mechanical gremlins in sight of certain victory (Monza '94), or hustling the eventual winner all the way to the flag only to fall short at the last (Argentina '95) it was as if Alesi was destined to experience every way possible to not win a race.
Six second places and nine further thirds, not to mention countless mechanically-aided retirements from podium contention, are a testament to how consistently close Alesi had come to claiming a maiden win. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory was becoming an Alesi trait, with his trademark Ferrari no. 27 seemingly always running over a black cat en route to the racetrack – a pattern illustrated by the fact that of his 79 races for Ferrari, 29, or 37%, ended in mechanical failure.
At the 1995 Canadian GP, on his 31st birthday, the fates finally conspired for Alesi to catch a lucky break. A race of high attrition for once played to Alesi's advantage, with the French-Sicilian inheriting the lead when Michael Schumacher hit gearbox trouble just ten laps from home. Alesi drove the last few laps with tears streaming down his face, splashing his visor every time he hit the brakes, and as he crossed the line the entire paddock lined the pit wall to cheer him home for his sole grand prix victory.
Six further seasons in F1 would provide countless further near-misses and fluffed opportunities, but Alesi was spared going down in history as the best driver to never win a Grand Prix. If ever a career could be described as a triumph of the heart over the head, it would be Jean Alesi's – but as his tear-stained epiphany at Montreal demonstrated; sometimes the heart can conquer all.
FRANÇOIS CEVERT – 1971 US GP
Of all of the racers that Formula One has loved and lost through the years, perhaps none tragically taken in the fledgling flourishes of their career has cut a more dashingly charismatic, nor longingly lamented, figure than François Cevert.
That Cevert ascended to the winners' circle only once, at the 1971 United States Grand Prix, was certainly not due to any lack of talent, ability or opportunity. Indeed, his 13 podiums from 47 races indicate that Cevert was a man for whom the sharp end was a natural home.
Personally recommended to Ken Tyrrell by Jackie Stewart after a hard-fought F2 race in 1969, Cevert found himself parachuted into the Tyrrell race team midway through the 1970 season. His doting career-long apprenticeship with Stewart and Tyrrell coincided with a period of sustained success: two Drivers' Championships for Stewart in 1971 and 1973, and Tyrrell's sole Constructors' title in 1971.
Cevert's victory at Watkins Glen in the 1971 US GP brought the curtain down in style on Tyrrell's finest season, and was achieved through beating an elite field fair and square in a thrilling race defined by tyre management in searing heat. Starting fifth, Cevert made a lightning start to jump up to third place before passing Denny Hulme, then Stewart, to take the lead on lap 14. Despite a fierce challenge from Jacky Ickx's Ferrari and severe handling problems as his tyres fell away, Cevert was able to master the conditions to take a famous victory by over 40 seconds.
Cevert became only the second Frenchman, after Maurice Trintignant, to win a World Championship Grand Prix, and the victory propelled him to a career-high third in the Drivers' Championship in his first full season of racing.
With bitter irony, Watkins Glen would subsequently play host to the tragic final act of both Cevert and Stewart's F1 careers. In 1973, with his third title sewn up and retirement due after the weekend of his 100th Grand Prix, Stewart was ready to pass the baton of team leader to Cevert by letting the Frenchman take victory at the US GP in return for his 'obedient' support during the season. Neither Tyrrell would take the start though; with Cevert killed during a violent high-speed crash during Saturday qualifying, and Stewart withdrawing from what would have been his swansong. Cut down on the cusp of his prime, Cevert's single Grand Prix victory stands less as a fulfillment of a lifetime's work than an open-ended question mark. For Cevert, once should never have been enough.