The 6 best F1 drivers never to win a championship

Our pick of the most talented and deserving Formula One drivers who didn’t win the drivers’ title.
By Binoy Parikh

In 67 years, only 32 drivers have had the privilege of being crowned a Formula One Champion, the latest one being the 2016 champion Nico Rosberg.

This means, more than 800 drivers never experienced the joy of winning the grand prize. However, there have been a few drivers that were every bit as talented as these 32 champions, but because lady luck didn’t shine on them when it mattered the most they missed out on the crown.

We've compiled a list of the most talented Formula One drivers who should’ve won the Formula One Drivers’ Championship (but never did). 

Jacky Ickx in his Ferrari, Germany, Hockenheim, 2 August 1970
Jacky Ickx in his Ferrari © Rainer W. Schlegelmilch/Getty Images

Criteria

Let’s establish how this list was generated.

First, we took stock of at all the second and third placed drivers (who never went on to win the title at any point) in the final standings for all Formula One seasons. This filtered the list down to 30-odd drivers.

As a next step, we further shortlisted those drivers who lost the championship by the narrowest of margins.

Finally, we took into account their records in non-Formula One races, such as 24 Hours of Le Mans, 12 Hours of Sebring, Indianapolis 500, Targa Florio, Mille Miglia, etc.

Findings

Here are the six names, we believe, are the best of the rest who failed to win Formula One’s biggest prize:

Didier Pironi
Lost 1982 Formula One World Championship by five points

Reason: Near-fatal, career-ending crash

Formel 1, Testfahrten, Hockenheimring, Juli 1982 Boxengasse Didier Pironi Niki Lauda
Didier Pironi and Niki Lauda © Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images

Pironi's impressive performances in the less-than-ideal Ligier in the 1980 season caught the attention of Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari who offered him a seat with his team for the 1981 Formula One season.

But it was the 1982 season which was supposed to be the breakthrough year for Pironi. The Ferrari driver was leading the drivers’ championship by nine points after 11 races (including the Belgian Grand Prix, which he didn’t start owing to teammate Gilles Villeneuve’s death during qualifying) with five more races remaining.

Pironi had qualified on pole at the 1982 German Grand Prix. During the Sunday practice session ahead the race, Pironi hit Alain Prost’s slow-moving Renault at 170mph in a heavy downpour; his Ferrari flew almost 200 feet before crashing down nose-first crushing both his legs.

Pironi underwent months of painful surgeries before he could walk again, however, his legs weren’t strong enough to resume racing.

When he was in the hospital, Enzo Ferrari placed a specially designed cup next to his bed which read 'Didier Pironi – the true 1982 World Champion.'

For the statisticians though, the 1982 world championship was won by Keke Rosberg, who scored five points more than Pironi’s tally in the remaining five races.

Jacky Ickx
Lost 1970 Formula One World Championship by five points

Reason: He prefers races that run for 24 hours

Ferrari race driver Jacky Ickx, Spanish Grand Prix, Jarama, 1970, Jarama, Spain, 19 April 1970
Ferrari race driver Jacky Ickx © Rainer W. Schlegelmilch/Getty Images

In his two decade-long racing career, Ickx won Bathurst 1000, Can-Am Championship (1979), Dakar Rally (1983), eight Formula One Grands Prix and a horde of other races. His favourite hunting ground was the 24 Hours of Le Mans which he won half a dozen times.

Despite his impressive resume, Formula One World Championship remained the forbidden fruit for Ickx. He was part of Formula One for more than a decade and despite scoring 25 podiums through his career, he never managed to win the big prize.

The closest he came to winning it was in 1970 when he missed the title by five points. Championship leader Jochen Rindt had a fatal crash at the Italian Grand Prix. With three more races to go, Ickx needed 26 points from a possible 29 to eclipse the late Rindt’s tally of 45 points.

The Ferrari driver could manage only 21 points making Rindt the only posthumous Formula One world champion in the history of the sport. 

Tony Brooks
Lost 1959 Formula One World Championship by four points

Reason: Workers strike. Also, his opponent used manpower instead of horsepower.

Tony Brooks of Great Britain drives the #50 Ferrari Dino 246 during the Grand Prix of Monaco on 10th May 1959 on the streets of the Principality of Monaco in Mo
Tony Brooks of Great Britain drives the 50 Ferrari © Keystone/Getty Images

Brooks was an accomplished track racer having won gruelling races such as 1000km Nurburgring (1957) and RAC Tourist Trophy (1958). He almost rounded it off with a Formula One world championship in the following year.

The Brit showed promising start to the season by securing a win and a podium for Ferrari in the first four races. For the fifth race of the season, Brooks had to run the slow and unreliable Vanwall since Ferrari’s factory workers were on strike during that time.

Not surprisingly, Brooks faced an early retirement from the race in front of his home crowd at the British Grand Prix. He made up for this loss in the later races.

Going into the final race of the ’59 season at the inaugural United States Grand Prix, three drivers – Jack Brabham, Tony Brooks and Sterling Moss – had the chance of winning the big prize.

Moss retired early into the race leaving Brabham and Brooks to battle it out for the title. Brabham was leading the race but he ran out of fuel just 400 yards from the chequered flag. Tony Brooks took third place in his Ferrari; however, Brabham pushed his Cooper across the finish line in fourth place securing enough points to win the title.

Clay Regazzoni
Lost 1974 Formula One World Championship by three points
Reason: A snappy steering column

Swiss Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni celebrates his Nürburgring Grand Prix victory. Left to him finishing second is Jody Scheckter. On the right you can see the
Clay Regazzoni celebrates his Nürburgring GP © Rainer W. Schlegelmilch/Getty Images

It was the 1974 Formula One season that saw Regazzoni stamp his authority as one of the top dogs on the grid.

Going into the final race of the season, he was at the top of the leaderboard tied on points with Emerson Fittipaldi. The Ferrari driver needed to finish third and ahead of Fittipaldi. However, owing to issues with his steering column, Regazzoni finished out of the points in 11th place while his Brazilian rival finished in fourth place scoring three crucial points to take the world title.

But there’s a lot more to Regazzoni than this. Following a brutal accident at the 1980 United States Grand Prix, the former-Ferrari driver was left paralysed from his waist down.

Still, he didn’t quit racing. He competed in the Paris-Dakar Rally as well as Sebring 12 Hour, using a specially modified car with a hand controller.

Owing to his high profile participation at these races, disabled and differently-abled racers started gaining widespread acceptance in motorsports.

Wolfgang von Trips
Lost 1961 Formula One World Championship by one point
Reason: Fatal crash

Wolfgang von Trips of Germany, driver of the #4 Scuderia Ferrari Ferrari 156 Ferrari V6 awaits the start of the Italian Grand Prix on 10 September 1961 at the A
Wolfgang von Trips of Germany © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Going into the penultimate race of the 1961 Formula One season von Trips was leading the championship by four points from team-mate Phil Hill.

On the second lap, he collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus. While Clark’s car spun and came to a standstill, von Trips’ Ferrari rolled over the barrier and plunged into the crowd before spinning back out on the track.

The German, affectionately called Count Von Crash for his ability of escaping the worst of the crashes, lost his life in this horrific incident.

Shockingly, despite the carnage, the organisers didn't stop the race. Unaware of the fatality, team-mate and championship contender Hill went on to take the chequered flag as well as the drivers’ championship.

He was informed about Von Trip's death only after the race. Rules stipulated that a driver’s top five results (out of eight races) will be taken into consideration.

Hill’s victory (nine points) at the Italian Grand Prix substituted his third place finish (four points) in Germany, giving the American his maiden world title by one point. The 1982 Italian Grand Prix remains one of the worst tragedies in Formula One to date.

 

Sir Stirling Moss
Lost 1958 Formula One World Championship by 1 point

Reason: Perhaps Formula One wasn’t good enough for Sir Stirling

Stirling Moss, now serving as director of racing for Johnson Wax, sponsor of the Canadian American Challenge Cup Series, held during Lab
Stirling Moss, British racing car ace © Getty Images

Sir Stirling Moss has lost the world championships more times than most drivers have won it. He finished second in title fight no less than four times and thrice finished third.

The closest he came to winning the title was in 1958 when he lost to Mike Hawthorn by just one point. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to blame the car’s unreliability as the reason for it.

As per that year's rules, a driver’s six best results out of the 11 races (including the Indy500, which was skipped by most F1 drivers), were taken into consideration.

Guess what? Moss scored points in only five races with five retirements and a DNS (Did Not Start) at Indy500 and yet he lost the championship by just one point.

Compare that to Mike Hawthorn’s two retirements and one DNS.

Additionally, Hawthorn, who had finished second at the Portuguese Grand Prix, was initially disqualified from the results. However, it was Moss who argued his case in front of the race stewards and got the decision reversed saving his opponent’s seven points!

And it wasn’t just F1 where the Brit showed his pace; give him any four-wheeled motorized object and he would race its wheels off.

He won 212 of the 529 races he participated in. He drove 84 different makes of cars and the only trophy that did not grace Stirling Moss’s trophy cabinet was the Formula One World Championship.

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