In his latest column for Crash.net, Will Saunders picks out half a dozen of the greatest race comeback drives for the latest Six of the Best feature.

JOHN WATSON - 1983 UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX WEST

Defining a great comeback drive includes weighing up many variables. Did the charge result in victory? Did the driver have to overtake his way to the front, or did his rivals fall by the wayside? Was the driver making up lost ground in a faster car, coming back from a terrible qualifying performance, or overcoming some kind of mechanical glitch?

If we take pure numerical factors to be the most important consideration, then it's hard to look past John Watson's incredible victory at the 1983 United States Grand Prix West - where the Ulsterman triumphed by over 30 seconds after qualifying 22nd - as the ultimate comeback drive.

Watson had form with storming through the field at North American street races, having won the 1982 Detroit Grand Prix from 17th on the grid, but his drive at Long Beach set a record for winning from a lowly starting position that stands to this day.

Qualifying four seconds off the pace of pole-sitter Patrick Tambay, Watson was joined near the back of the pack by teammate Niki Lauda, who lined up just behind him in 23rd - with both McLarens outqualified by such luminary marques as the Theodores and the Tolemans.

Like every great comeback winner, Watson's victory was due to maximising the circumstances that contrived in his favour, and harnessing them with no small amount of racing aptitude. The defining strategic element of the race was that every driver would try and run the distance non-stop due to a peculiar pit lane exit that was controlled by a marshal with a red light who was instructed to hold cars until there was a gap in the traffic. This meant that the more durable Michelins, which the McLarens were using, would hold a substantial advantage on raceday.

Even so, the McLarens ran a surprising 1.5 seconds ahead of their qualifying pace in race trim, and after Lauda jumped Watson at the start the Austrian led the pair as they carved their way up the field. With limited attrition in the first half of the race, the pair had to use their considerable overtaking prowess to charge up the order. As Lauda was at the head of the pair he had to clear the way, Watson was able to preserve his tyres while following his teammate through the field.

By lap 28, the McLarens were running 3rd and 4th after two separate collisions in the midst of a four-way battle for the lead eliminated Tambay, Keke Rosberg and Jean-Pierre Jarier - leaving Jacques Laffite out front with Riccardo Patrese in hot pursuit. On lap 33, Watson made his move past Lauda, fighting past on Shoreline Drive, and quickly set about narrowing the 20-second gap to the leaders.

Laffite was struggling with severe wear to his worn Goodyears, and Patrese mounted a challenge for the lead but slid wide - allowing both McLarens to pass. By lap 44, Watson was in a position to pressurize Laffite, but the Williams' deteriorating tyres made it a straightforward fight. In just 70 minutes and 44 laps, Watson, without the benefit of a safety car, had made up 22 places.

Lauda, suffering a cramp in his right leg, saw his challenge fade over the final 30 laps, as Watson cruised to victory. The superb durability of the Goodyears saw Watson extend his advantage to a scarcely believable 30 seconds by the chequered flag, and the Ulsterman lapped everyone up to third-placed finisher Rene Arnoux in the Ferrari en route to a famous victory.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER - 1995 BELGIAN GRAND PRIX

Michael Schumacher's career was pockmarked with stirring recovery drives, with races such as Spain '94, Europe '95, Japan '98, San Marino '05, Brazil '06 and Belgium '11 all displaying the German's trademark skill, control and aggression in the face of adversity - not to mention his peerless overtaking ability.
For ultimate Schumacher bingo though a race has to include wet weather prowess and an element of controversy, so step forward the 1995 Belgian Grand Prix, which the German won from 16th on the grid, as the greatest Schumacher comeback drive.

The 1995 season saw the height of the Schumacher-Damon Hill rivalry, with building acrimony from the conclusion of the 1994 campaign spilling over into an increasingly bitter series of on-track collisions and recriminations throughout a year in which Schumacher's Benetton consistently held the upper hand.

At Spa, Schumacher and Hill both found themselves out of position, 17th and 8th respectively, after a wet-dry qualifying session - setting up the prospect of an enthralling race as the championship contenders fought their way back through the field.

Jean Alesi's Ferrari, Johnny Herbert's Benetton and David Coulthard in the second Williams each took turns leading the race during the dry early running, but Schumacher was charging through the midfield order and was up to 6th place by lap 5 - only 7 seconds off the pace of the leading Coulthard.

After Schumacher passed Irvine for 4th and Coulthard retired with e gearbox problem, incredibly Hill and Schumacher were vying for the lead by lap 15 ahead of the first round of pit stops. As rain began to fall, Hill pitted for wet tyres whilst Schumacher stayed out on slicks. The Benetton led by a mile by virtue of staying out, but Hill rapidly clawed back the advantage at some six seconds per lap and was right with Schumacher heading into Les Combes on lap 23. Schumacher brilliantly held his line the first time around, scrambling around the outside on his slick tyres, but on lap 24 he slid wide at the same point, ceding the advantage after some dubious blocking along the Kemmel Straight.

As the rain almost immediately stopped, Schumacher re-passed Hill and the Williams headed to the pits for slicks. Three laps later the rain returned much more heavily and the whole field pitted for full wets behind the safety car. Schumacher won easily from there, making two pit stops to Hill's four and heading home his rival by 20 seconds for a stunning victory. Schumacher was criticised heavily and was later handed a one race suspended ban for his aggressive defence from Hill, but the condemnation failed to take the gloss off one of the all-time great recovery drives.

AYRTON SENNA - 1988 JAPANESE GRAND PRIX

By their very nature, comeback drives leave limited margin for error, but usually the consequences extend no further than the chequered flag, the end of that particular race's narrative. A comeback drive in the midst of a title-decider requires a unique focus and determination, a steely precision and incision born of absolute necessity.

Formula One history is full of great charges through the field with the title on the line, such as Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher at Interlagos in 2012, 2007 and 2006 respectively, or Schumacher at Suzuka in 1998. Ultimately, only Vettel's drive was rewarded with the title, but in each instance victory was a distant lost cause, and the ambition of the comebacks extended no further than competitive contention. Fittingly for a man who dealt almost exclusively in absolutes, Ayrton Senna's finest comeback drive ended with victory, and with it the clinching of his first world title at the expense of his greatest rival, McLaren teammate Alain Prost.

The inter-team scrap across 1988 was one of Formula One's most brutal, the battle lines drawn for a bitterly intense rivalry between the pragmatic smoothness of Prost and the brooding emotional intensity of Senna. The utterly dominant MP4/4 rendered this bloodthirsty championship battle an exclusively two-horse race, and Suzuka would bear witness to its decisive final act. Senna had already come back from a substantial points deficit to Prost during the season, and headed to Suzuka knowing that a win would seal his first title.

On race day though, Senna sensationally stalled from pole position, dropping to 14th at the first corner with Prost streaking into the lead. Using the superiority of the MP4/4 to its fullest, Senna scythed through the field, gaining six places by the end of lap two and then eviscerating Riccardo Patrese, Thierry Boutsen, Alessandro Nannini and Michele Alboreto - no midfield mugs - to take 4th place on lap four.

Senna was further abetted by periodic drizzle as the race went on, gifting him opportunity to demonstrate his trademark skill in the wet in his singular pursuit of Prost. Prost was a formidable opponent, who at that time had won more Grands Prix than any driver in history, not to mention two of the last three championships, but Senna was charged by a furious determination to fulfill his lifelong ambition.

Senna was third by lap 14, and inherited second when the impressive Ivan Capelli retired his March with electrical problems on lap 19. This left Senna in hot pursuit of Prost, and it was Formula One racing at its purest: a pre-mythology Senna yet to be defined by controversy, a very good racer aspiring to be a great one, head-to-head with and reeling in his teammate, the established best driver in Formula One, with race victory and a world championship on the line.

By lap 27, Senna was right behind Prost, and waltzed past after the Frenchman was baulked while lapping Andrea de Cesaris. Prost squeezed Senna towards the pit wall, but the Brazilian kept his foot flat and powered up the inside into the first corner - completing the comeback from 14th to 1st in just over half-distance.

Senna promptly broke the lap record and cruised home, finally backing off as the rain intensified and Prost's challenge faded with a faulty gearbox. It was a peerless performance under profound pressure, and, in concluding with a fair fight on-track, was also the most satisfactory act of Senna and Prost's era-defining Suzuka trilogy.

JENSON BUTTON - 2011 CANADIAN GRAND PRIX

The 2011 Canadian Grand Prix was one of the most remarkable in Formula One history for many reasons, setting the records for longest race duration (4h 4 min) and most safety cars (5) against a backdrop of monsoon-like conditions. At its heart was a stunning back-to-front recovery drive by Jenson Button, taking six pit stops and turning 21st and last place with a 100 second deficit to race-leader Sebastian Vettel on lap 40 into a last-gasp pass for the win on the 70th and final lap to complete the most sensational of comebacks.

Button and teammate Lewis Hamilton had qualified relatively poorly, 5th and 7th respectively, but the McLarens were set up for the expected race day rain. The first half of Button's race though was an inglorious folly that made a mockery of his status as the master of changeable conditions. A collision with Hamilton, a bungled switch to intermediates as the rain increased and an awkward punt into Fernando Alonso that beached the Ferrari at turn three and left Button needing to pit for puncture repairs saw the Briton plummet down the order - with the catalogue of errors compounded by a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the safety car, leaving Jenson adrift at the back of the pack.

After the safety car came in on lap 40, Button sliced his way through the pack during a 16-lap green flag period. Making up positions on consecutive laps and circulating two seconds a lap faster than the leaders after switching to dry tyres, Button incredibly ascended from 21st on lap 40 to 4th on lap 56, before a final safety car period closed the pack up ahead of his final charge.

Michael Schumacher's Mercedes and the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Vettel stood between Button and victory, and as the safety car departed on lap 60, the four fought out a madcap 10-lap showdown for victory. Button passed Schumacher and Webber in one move as the pair squabbled over second place with five laps to go, and set about closing the three second gap to Vettel and a most unlikely win.

On the last lap the German uncharacteristically cracked, sliding off the circuit into a half-spin at turn six and gifting Button a lead which he held to the flag for a quite unbelievable triumph.

JUAN MANUEL FANGIO - 1957 GERMAN GRAND PRIX

One of Formula One's most iconic drives is also one of its greatest comeback stories. Juan Manuel Fangio sealing his fifth championship at the Nurburgring with his 24th and final win was a sensational event in its own right, but it was the manner of the victory that elevates the 1957 German Grand Prix to such iconic status. As a comeback drive it was unusual though; this was not a tale of recovering a lowly qualifying position (he started from pole) or charging past hoards of rivals to claim victory (he only passed two cars during the race). This was a time trial: one of the first examples of conscious pit strategy in Formula One, and one rendered successful solely by the genius of El Maestro.

Fangio had always enjoyed a special relationship with the 'Ring, and the Argentine had duly taken a comfortable pole position in his Maserati. Fangio went into the race knowing that a victory would secure the title, but he also had a problem; his Pirelli tyres wore much faster than the Engelbert rubber used by the Ferraris of his rivals Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn. To have any chance of winning, Fangio had to opt for a low-fuel, two-stop strategy with a mid-race tyre change - a risky proposition given pitwork standards of the time - and bank on his pure performance advantage to take care of the rest.

After a slow start, Fangio recovered to pass the Ferraris by lap three, and, putting his low fuel load to good use, built up a 30 second lead ahead of his planned stop on lap 13. However, even by 1957 standards the pit stop was a disaster; a lost wheel nut under the car cost 30 seconds alone, and by the time Fangio was back on the road nearly two minutes later his commanding lead had turned into third place and a 45 second deficit.

After taking a lap to warm up his tyres, Fangio trailed the nose-to-tail circulating Ferraris by 52 seconds with nine laps of the 22km Nordschleife remaining. And so began the comeback in earnest. Fangio, his status as an all-time great already long consecrated, produced a demonstration of driving that has become the stuff of racing folklore.

He attacked the circuit with ferocity, breaking and re-breaking the lap record on seven consecutive tours. The Ferraris, who had been cruising to the finish, were ordered to speed up as Fangio tore strips off their lead - but there was nothing they could do to resist. On lap 20, Fangio circulated an incredible 8 seconds faster than his pole time and 11 seconds faster than his prey, pulling himself right on to the tail of Hawthorn and Collins. On lap 21 he passed them both: first Collins at the North Curve and then Hawthorn around Breidscheid, the latter taken for the lead with a daring two wheels on the grass manouevre.

Hawthorn tried to fight back but it was to no avail. El Maestro, nearly twenty years the senior of his Ferrari rivals, led both Englishmen across the finish line for a famous and championship-clinching victory. Fangio's comeback was a demonstration of pure motor racing, and how fitting that El Maestro's finest hour sealed his greatest and final triumph at the world's most revered circuit.

JIM CLARK - 1967 ITALIAN GRAND PRIX

For every great comeback drive that ends in victory, there are many more iconic recoveries that don't get the reward or the accolades they deserve. Jim Clark's spectacular effort at the 1967 Italian Grand Prix is one such example, where the Scot played the defining role in an all-time classic race only for mechanical gremlins at the death to deny Clark the victory his performance warranted.

Clark and Lotus were clearly the class of the field in 1967, but repeat reliability issues allowed the more consistent Brabhams of Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme to usurp Clark and wage their own private battle for the world championship. As at so many race weekends across the season, this 'tortoise and hare' narrative would play out in heart-breaking fashion during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Clark took pole position from Brabham, with Bruce McLaren's eponymous machine and the Ferrari of Chris Amon making up a diverse front quartet. As ever though, qualifying was something of a red herring at pre-chicane Monza, with the inevitable slipstreaming epic tearing up the order during the first few laps as the Lotuses and Brabhams jockeyed for supremacy.

Clark had stretched an advantage by lap 13, but with typical bad luck a delaminating rear tyre caused the Scot to limp back to the pits for repairs, losing an entire lap in the process. Rejoining over 100 seconds down on new race leader Hulme in 15th place, there was surely no way back - even for Clark.

However, Clark was a man possessed, and he began to storm back through the field. One advantage of being so far down was that Clark was able to use the slipstream of teammate Graham Hill to help make up ground, helping Hill build an advantage over Brabham in the process. Clark's charge saw him progressively lower the lap record and eventually match his qualifying time of 1m 28.5s - and as the race entered its closing stages he was remarkably back in the thick of the fight for victory.

Clark, Hill and John Surtees in the Honda were embroiled in a three-way battle for second place on lap 58, but yet another mechanical problem for Lotus, this time an engine failure, saw Hill retire ten laps from home. Once past Surtees, Clark reeled in Brabham, and re-took the lead on 61 having made up his 100 second deficit in just 46 laps.

Clark edged away and towards what would have surely been his greatest victory - but the fates conspired against the Scot on the final lap. Entering the Curva Grande with Surtees and Brabham right on his tail, Clark's engine suddenly cut out, causing his pursuers to swerve dramatically to avoid the ailing Lotus.

Surtees held on to win from Brabham, whilst Clark made it around the lap on vapours. As he limped home to cross the finish line the Scot pounded his steering wheel in uncharacteristic fury. The diagnosis was a fuel pump issue; a mundane flaw to deny what would have been a fitting conclusion to a peerless comeback drive from one of Formula One's true greats.

 

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