So near yet so far......


Exulted Lord High Moderator of the Apex
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Very few drivers in Formula one have the opportunity to win a world championship. Lets face it, since the inception of the series in 1950 there have only been 32 people to have been good enough to win the ultimate prize. There have been a few who have come oh so close on a number of occasions such as Sir Stirling Moss for example, who most people would say was the greatest driver to have never won the championship.

Then there are a small band of drivers who have finished second just once in their entire careers. They had, what on paper, looked like just one chance of taking the highest award that F1 can give but in most cases, it was snatched away only for them to have never got another chance.

The thread is to look at those few and speculate on some of the reasons why:

Jose Froilan Gonzalez - 1954

I doubt most people will recognise this Argentinian racer but he will forever be held in the hearts of Ferrari for being the first driver to take a Formula 1 world championship win in one of their cars and thus beginning the legacy. Being runner up to Juan Manuel Fangio is no shame, just ask Sir Stirling, but for the driver known to his close friends as "Fat Head", he stood no chance of catching his fellow Argentinian after Fangio's 3 wins from the first 3 races. A win from lights to flag at Silverstone marked the high point for his season at a weekend where Fangio became the first man to lap the track at an average speed of over 100mph. In a remarkable year for Gonzalez, while he missed out on the F1 world title he did manage to win the Le Mans 24hr for Ferrari. His racing career petered out there after with only occasional races at his home GP until 1960 when he retired. Gonzalez was honoured by Ferrari at the 2011 British GP to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his and the Scuderia's first win. Fernando Alonso drove Gonzalez car for 4 laps of the track before going on to win the race for Ferrari that weekend. Sadly Jose Froilan Gonzalez passed away on Saturday (15th June 2013) at his home in Buenos Aires, aged 90.

Tony Brooks - 1959

Tony Brooks arrived at Ferrari in a car that had just clinched the 1958 title for Mike Hawthorn, having raced the previous two seasons alongside Sir Stirling at Vanwall, and finishing with 3 wins to his name and third in the championship behind Moss and Hawthorn. His confidence was obviously high for 1959. The car to beat would be the mid-engined Cooper in the hands of Jack Brabham. Brooks' season got off to a strong start with 2nd place at Monaco before an oil leak caused him to crash out in Holland. A win in France lead to high hopes for the following race at Silverstone however industrial action in Italy meant that the team got stuck at home and couldn't get to the race. Brooks was given permission by Ferrari to race an old Vanwall but the car was old and outdated, qualifying well down the order he was the first retirement of the race with a miss-firing engine. Confidence was restored however by another win back in a Ferrari at the German GP. A distant finish in 9th at Portugal and another retirement in Italy lead to it all coming down to the final race of the season in the USA. Again, fate didn't go Brooks' way after he was shunted on the start by his own team mate. Mindful of the crash as a result of the oil leak in Holland, Brooks opted to pit to have the car checked. It was unnecessary as the car was ok but by the time he got back out, a dramatic climb back up to 3rd place was not enough and Brabham finished 4th with enough points to take the title. For the following season Brooks found himself in Yeoman Credit Racings Cooper but he was nowhere near the front anymore. One last season in a works BRM for 1961 saw him end his time in F1 with a 3rd place at the US grand prix. One final twist in the tail to this story is that originally Brooks had qualified in third for the race however this was the GP in which the American driver Harry Schell took his infamous short cut and managed to shave 6 seconds off his best lap and landed himself in third on the grid demoting Brooks to forth. It only came out after the race what Schell had done. Who know's if he had not cheated if Brooks would have not been rammed at the start of the race.... IF as Murry Walker once said......

Bruce Mclaren - 1960

With a name so inextricably linked to Formula one these days it's hard to imagine that the closest the famous Kiwi would come to winning the title was runner up for Cooper in the 1960 season. McLaren won the first and finished second race to get off to a flyer at the start of the season but from there on in, it was ll Brabham who went on to win the next 5 races leaving McLaren with no chance. He did find the podium 4 more times that season but there was no way he could catch his team mate. For McLaren it would be 5 more, long and increasingly less successful years at Cooper, highlighted only by finishing 3rd with 1 win in the 1962 championship before he took the plunge in starting his own team. For the first two season the car was nowhere but by 1968 things started to improve with fellow New Zealander Denny Hulme onboard and taking the car to third place in the championship. Things improved for McLaren when he drove the car to third place in the championship the following year with the team finishing a solid 4th in the constructors championship to add to the previous seasons second place. Tragically Bruce was killed just 3 races into the 1970 season while testing a Can Am car. It's unlikely that the hugely talented driver would have ever taken the title but I wonder what ever happened to his team ??

Wolfgang Von Tripps - 1961

Before Michael Schumacher rewrote the record books, Germany's most successful driver was Wolfgan Von Tripps. The son of a Rhineland noble family, he had raced on and off for Ferrari since 1956 with his best results being a brace of 3rd places. 1961 would be his second full season with the team alongside American team mate Phil Hill. I'm sure everyone who reads this will be aware that Von Tripps season ended in tragedy when he collided with Jim Clark's Lotus and was thrown out of the car in a tragic accident that also took the lives of 15 spectators. A third place finish for Von Tripps at that race would have been enough to see him take the title. His team mate went on to finish first and after the points were adjusted due to the scoring system would take the world title by one point. Ferrari took their first constructors title but the team missed the final race of the season out of respect for the loss of life at Italy. Would Von Tripps have had another crack at winning the title? it's possible as the car were still competitive and won the title again in 1964 with John Surtees but sadly we'll never know.

Clay Regazzoni - 1974

Having left Ferrari to join BRM for 1973 and then spending a year watching his career go backwards Regazzoni returned to Ferrari for the 1974 season and on his recommendation, pursauded the new team manager Luca Di Montezemolo to hire a young Austrian named Niki Lauda who had been Clay's team mate at BRM. The season started well for Regazzoni and he finished on the podium in the first two races. Two things were clear about the season ahead, firstly McLaren would be Ferrari's main rival and secondly Lauda was seriously quick. As the season wore on, Regazzoni continued to pile on the points while Lauda who was obviously faster over a single lap failed to bring the car home on several occasions. Going into the last race of the season all Clay had to do was finish ahead of Fittipaldi to take the title however a defective shock absorber fitted before the race left the car poorly handling and Regazzoni dragged the car home in 11th an missed the title by just 3 points. Interestingly Lauda only finished in 6 of the 15 races that season but in 5 of those he finished one place ahead of Regazzoni. If Ferrari had employed team orders at just a couple of races they would have taken the title. How times change. For Regazzoni, his career never recovered. By 1975 he was clearly number 2 to Lauda and despite taken a win in each of his last two seasons with the team he was never a serious challenger. A brief ressurgance after a spell with Shadow and Ensign came when he was signed to partner Alan Jones at Williams for 1979 where the rapidly improving FW07 would see Regazzoni take the first ever win for Sir Franks team before he lost his place to Carlos Reutemann for the following year. Clay's career came to an abrupt halt when he was left in a wheel chair for the rest of his life after a crash at the 1980 US (West) Grand Prix.

Gilles Villeneuve 1979

It's often been said that 1979 was going to be Jody Scheckter's year and that Villeneuve was content to play the loyal number 2. I've often wondered if this was actually the case at Ferrari that year given that come mid season you couldn't have got a sheet of paper between the two drivers. It was Villeneuve who struck first taking two wins in the first 4 races and on both occasions seeing his team mate come in in second place. These are hardly the actions of someone who was supposed to be playing second fiddle. Again, every time he brought the car home in the points he finished ahead of Scheckter which happened a total of 8 times that season. In the end I think it was the mid-season spell where Villeneuve only score twice in 8 races that allowed Scheckter enough space to build up the gap that would see him take the title by just 4 points. Much like Von Tripps decades before, we can only speculate if Gilles would have won a world title. Many think he would but I can't say. In the end I guess it would have depended where he ended up for the 1983 season. Most people agree he would have replaced John Watson at McLaren. Would he have managed to out score Niki Lauda? Who knows. In the end, it didn't matter after that tragic day at Zolder in 1982.

Carlos Reutemann - 1981

It seems a shame that a driver who had already finished 3rd in the standings should be on this list however the manor of Reutemann's 2nd place in 1981 makes him a worthy member of the so near yet so far club. Having moved from Ferrari in 1978 to join the reigning world champions at Lotus for 1979, the dream move turned sour when the replacement for the Lotus Type 79 turned out to be an absolute camel. Disillusioned and not believing Chapman's promise to keep him on for 1980 as the number one driver and let Andretti go, Reutemann moved to Williams to partner Alan Jones. Jones was the clear number 1 in team and took the title that year but now in 1981, it was gloves off and anyones game. Jones and Reutemann didn't get on but that didn't matter as, with just two races to go, Reutemann lead Piquet by 3 points and Alan was long out of the running for the title. The Canadian GP proved a disaster as Jones retired and the best Reutemann could do was drag the car home in 10th but no matter as it was onto Las Vegas and Ceasers Palace car park where Reutemann promptly put the car on pole for race day. All Reutemann had to do was finish ahead of Piquet and Laffite and the title would be his. As it was, he went backwards throughout the race to finish a distant 8th. The official story is that he had gear box problems with the loss of 4th gear on lap two however there has been much speculation that he just didn't have a good race in him that day. Just two races into the 1982 season after finishing the first race in second he called it quits and went home to Argentina eventually taking up a career in politics. As a twist in the tail, had the 1981 South African GP not been excluded as a world championship race, Reutemann would have won the title by 2 points.

Didier Pironi - 1982

1982 should have been Didier's year. Despite the ongoing debate about the events that took place at the San Marino GP, where he re-took Gilles Villeneuve on several occasions before holding on to take the win despite an apparent agreement between the drivers an team, then the subsequent death of Gilles at the following race at Zolder, Pironi had the tough job of holding the team together and keeping on. By the end of round 11 at the French GP, he was 9 points clear of John Watson and looking set for his first title but at the next race, in Germany, that bizarre 1982 season took another cruel turn. Pironi slammed into the back of Alain Prost's Renault during qualifying in an accident strangely similar to Villeneuve's months earlier. The crash was so severe that Pironi would never race in F1 again. Despite not racing, Pironi held on to his championship lead for another 2 races until his points score was overtaken by Keke Rosberg winning his only race of the season at the Swiss GP. It would be enough for him to go on and take the title from Pironi and John Watson who tied for second. Would Pironi have won a title had he not had the career ending crash? It's an interesting speculation. The Ferrari remained a competitive car for another couple of years as witnessed by their performance in the constructors championship so it's an interesting thought.

John Watson - 1982

By virtue of countback in having one less third place than Pironi at the end of the crazy 1982 season, Watson will go down in the record books as having finished the season in third however in my book he was joint second and worth a mention here. Best known for his "burns from the stern" Watson was one of only a handful of drivers to have won two races in 1982. Having stuck with McLaren through some of their most barren years he was now rewarded with the fast improving MP4/1 and by the end of the Canadian GP in June he had a healthy 10 point lead in the championship. From there it all went south. Remarkably, even though he failed to score points in the next 6 races, a forth place in the penultimate race of the season meant that Watson went into the last race of the season with an outside chance of taking the title. A strong race and second place finish was not to be enough. Despite a competitive season in 1983, Watson found himself without a job when Alain Prost was suddenly sacked by Renault. There was a lot of bitterness from his supporters at the time because by the time it was announced that Lauda and Prost would be McLaren's drivers for 1984, Waston was without a driver. 1982 was as close as he would ever get to the title.

Michele Albereto - 1985

Still with me? Good. After his strong performances for Tyrell in the early 80's including the last win for the venerable Cosworth DFV against the might of the turbo cars in 1983, Albereto was snapped up by Ferrari for the 1984 season. In a year where the car rarely made it to the flag, Albereto rewarded the team with a win in Belgium on his way to 4th in the standings. 1985 would be a much better year. And so it proved. With Prost having lost out to Lauda by just half a point the year before he was in no mood to let the title out of his grasp again. After round 11 of the championship at the Dutch GP there were only 3 points separating Prost and Albereto with just 5 races to go. And that, as they say was that. Ferrari scored just 7 points (all of which came from Albereto's team mate Stefan Johanson) while Michele failed to bring the car home on 4 occasions and in 13th on the other. It was a disaster for the team who were looking for their first drivers title in 6 years and the closest they would come for several more years. For Albereto, he was just happy to drive in F1. Leaving Ferrari in after the 88 season, 6 more years in F1 saw just 13 more points after spells with Tyrell, Larousse, Minardi, Footwork and Dallara. Another crack at the championship was never on the cards.

Riccardo Patrese - 1992

For this member of the so near so far club, it is a strange entry on the list. The veteran driver who started way back in 1977 with Shadow had already had a taste of success when he partnered Nelson Piquet at Brabham. While Piquet took the title in 83, Patrese managed to bring the car home in the points twice all season, all be it in 3rd and 1st place for his second win in F1. After a spell at Alfa Romeo and another back at a, by now, massively noncompetitive Brabham he found himself replacing the Nelson Piquet at Williams. Building and developing the car all the while he was with the team, it was clear that the FW14 and FW14B were going to be good. The only problem between Patrese and success was the fact that the prodigal son had been resigned to Williams in 1991 in the form of Red 5 himself, Nigel Mansall. Of all the so near so far club, Patrese is the only one who perhaps never stood a chance even though he finished runner up. At the time, Mansall won an unprecedented 5 of the first 6 races while Patrese finished runner up to Mansell in 4 of them. The title was wrapped up and in Mansell's back pocket by Hungary. What surely must have hurt Patrese's pride the most though was Mansall's magnanimous pulling over to allow Patrase to win the Japanese grand prix. One last season at Benetton followed and then he called it a day.

Heinz Harald Frentzen - 1997

Here's a member of the club that shouldn't actually be on the list at all. Yet there he is in the record books as the runner up to his team mate Jacques Villeneuve in the 1997 world championship. Why? Because of Michael Schumachers antics at the final race of the season. Going into the European Grand Prix, Villeneuve was the clear favourite to take the title unless he failed to finish and Schumacher won. Schumacher duly tried to park his Ferrari on top of the Williams while trying to overtake in a bid to repeat the "It was a mistake guv'" antics of 1994. This time though, it didn't work, Schumacher failed to finish, Villeneuve did and the title was his. Frentzen meanwhile, was public enemy number one for being seen as the man who ousted British hero Damon Hill from the team. Never close to winning the title despite a win at the San Marino GP, he finsihed some 40 points behind his team mate. The 1998 season proved a disaster for Williams and at the end, Frentzen moved to Jordan where he briefly flourished in the Jordan 1999. At one point he had an outside chance of winning the title but slipped back towards the end of the season to finish 3rd. A mid season sacking by Jordan for a poor attitude saw him swap with Jean Alesi at Prost before a spell bankrupting arrows and a final season for Sauber ended in retirement.

Eddie Irvine - 1999

Proof that someone up there does have a wicked sense of humour, the history books almost stated that the first winner of a world drivers title for Ferrari since 1979 was Eddie Irvine. Said to have only got the job at Ferrari because he was cheeky enough to ask them for spare parts for his own Ferrari sports car, the team needed a driver who wouldn't mind being number two to Schumacher and for some reason the maverick Irvine fitted the bill. Best known in his early years for being punched by Ayrton Senna for un-lapping himself on his way to 6th at his Japanese grand prix debut for Jordan, Irivine was known as a bit of a wild driver. Ordinarily he would never have been in a place to win a title, that is, until Michael Schumacher broke his lag in a crash at Silverstone. Now Irvine was leading the team and maybe it was the motivation he needed because he won the next two races. Mika Salo, employed to stand in for Schumacher dutifully played the roll of back up to Irvine and even moved over from the lead to allow Irvine to take the flag. Then came the madness of the European GP, Irvine pitted late for dry tyres and for some reason the Ferrari mechanics could only find 3. In what seemed like an age before the full set were on the car Irvine fell down the order. Charging hard in the race, he still found himself back in 7th and stuck behind Mark Gene's Minardi. Rumours persist to this day that Ferrari didn't want Irvine to win the title and that the little cock up in Europe was not an accident. Schumacher returned for the final two races of the season and amazingly finished runner up to Irvine in Malaysia. Going into the last race of the season at Japan, Irvine still had a 4 point lead. It was not enough, with Hakkinen in first place, Schumacher holding second, Irvine brought the car home in third. Even if Schumacher had let Irvine through, he would still have not won the title on count back. That said, had Irvine made it by Gene in Europe he would have had the one point he needed. I wonder then, if Schumacher would have moved over? As it was it was to be Irvine's last year at Ferrari. Perhaps he was getting too quick for someone's liking? Three years at Jaguar brought little reward and retirement beckoned.

David Coulthard - 2001

Much like Carlos Reutemann who had taken several third places in the championship, Coulthard always seemed to be there or there abouts but it was only in one season did he finish in the runner up spot. Sadly his best year at McLaren coincided with the beginning of the Schumacher period of out and out dominance at Ferrari. Hakkinen was beginning to realise that he didn't want to be in F1 anymore and so Coulthard took up the charge against the Ferrari's and began the season quite strongly. Taking a couple of wins, two seconds and a third in the first 6 races, he was only 4 points behind Schumacher after the Austrian GP. It was to be a high water mark though because he never reached the top step of the podium again that season and 5 retirements cost the team dearly. Coulthard finished the season with just over half the points that Schumacher scored. The title had long since fallen out of his grasp. A couple more years at McLaren brought just two more wins before the nadir of the MP19 debacle. A move to an emerging Red Bull did little for his career until a BBC microphone was passed his way.

Felipe Massa - 2008

How fitting that we should end our look at all the one time runners up in F1 with the man who will forever be known as the world champion for about 40 seconds. Crossing the line in Brazil to the cheers of his home fans and the tears of joy from his father soon turned to despair at the news that Hamilton had overtaken Timo Glock to score the points he needed for the world title. A lot of people cheered for Hamilton but it was a cruel way to miss out on a championship. From the early part of the season Massa had been firing on all cylinders and was the main challenger to Hamilton's McLaren. Going into the Singapore Grand Prix, just one point separated the drivers. As we all know now, it was THAT Singapore grand prix where Piquet jnr really did "take one for the team". In the chaos surrounding Piquet Jnrs crash, who can forget the sight of Massa's car being released from the pit box with the fuel hose attached. It was here, if anywhere, and not that last lap in Brazil where the championship was lost. Much like the balls up that cost Irvine his shot at the title in 1999, Massa, who started the race from pole and was leading at the time, could have been a world champion but for the efforts of his own team. As we all know, 2009 started badly for Ferrari and just as there were signs of improvement Massa had the accident involving the parts from a damaged Brawn car. Lucky to survive the impact from the spring, He returned to F1 the following season. Despite a better showing this year, it's unlikely he has another season left at Ferrari and its even more doubtful that another shot at the title is on the cards. It stands as proof that all forms of sport can be very cruel at times.

Well there you go, there are all the drivers who only made it as close to the title as finishing second on one occasion. Coming so near yet so far.

I wonder who'll be next??
Excellent work cider_and_toast!
A couple of points I'd add:

Frentzen really flourished at Jordan in '99- 2 wins and several podium finishes had him just 10pts behind Irvine & Mika at the Nurburgring, where Heinz-Harald took pole and was leading comfortably until his electrics failed leaving the pits. I always believed that had he won that race (as seemed likely, given the farces going on behind him), he'd have had the momentum to overturn the others for the title that year. I even forgave him for replacing Damon at Williams after that year, and his ignominious sacking mid-2001 was a black mark against EJ for me- after all, his "poor attitude" was merely him pointing out the bleeding obvious: that the "Shark" Jordan-Honda was rubbish.

I always wondered about the Irvine/Ferrari thing at the Nurburgring too- but somehow I just couldn't square them getting Salo to move over at Hockenheim, or Schumi at Malaysia, to equate to them not wanting him to win the title. If they didn't want him to be in with a shout, then why gift him those 2 wins at all?
Road of Bones cider_and_toast:

I simply don't think he was good enough to win the title. The drop off in form after - well - Austria, frankly was too alarming. He shouldn't have needed to be gifted a win by Salo - of all people - at Hockenheim. But really, to my mind, leaving aside Ferrari's mess at Nurburgring, he was just plain slow at Monza and thus only took one point when Salo took four. Thus Irvine completely failed to capitalise on one of the biggest Championship leader brain-farts in F1 history.
I agree with you teabagyokel, much like Mansall's real woes in 86 not starting and ending with his very famous blow out but his awful start in Mexico the race before when he could have had the title in the bag.

Irvines season hinged on not being able to get by Marc Gene of all drivers. Enough said really.

I was just reflecting the views of the "some" who think to this day that there may have been something more underhanded going on.
I always find the 1999/2008 parallels quite interesting, actually. They were both years where no-one really was in that zone of best car/best driver. Irvine and Massa both got thrown into contention. Massa, regardless of Silverstone, took to it with more talent and ability than Irvine did.

Imagine a dry day in Northamptonshire, or that Piquet wasn't going to crash deliberately, or no double-pitstop in Montreal, or no breakdown in Budapest. World Champion. Tend to think Irvine's "what if"s were more his issues.
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