The Dark Horse


Leave me alone I'm on Smoko
As we sit on the eve of the season my thoughts have turned to who will fill the role of The Dark Horse this year. The driver who is outside of the top drives that takes his machinary places it should go. The driver that thousands of fans believe in thier heart would be quicker than the title contenders if only they had the equiptment. There can be more than one Dark Horse on a grid at a time but he can always be defined by 4 things:

1 - They are in a car which is not as quick as the front runners

2 - They mix it up with the favourites and get results their car shouldn't get

3 - They have a huge fanbase who are convinced if they were in a front running car they'd be a championship contender

4 - Every great race they have almost always always ends in heartbreak as their pipped by one of the big boys.

Its open to debate who will fill that role this year but I thought I'd list the more obvious of the Dark Horses in the last 20 years.

Jean Alesi - Tyrell - 1989 - 90

Good old Jean was probably the classic dark horse in his 2 years at Tyrell. He was driving at least only the 5th best car on the grid yet we often see him dicing with some huge names in massively better cars. His retake of Senna at Phoenix in 1990 will always live in anyone's memory who saw it but the one that sticks out for me is him overtaking both Ferrari's on the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix only for the race to be stopped and restarted for him to do exactly the same thing again! Was deemed as the next big thing by the majority of F1 fans but unfourtunetly it was never to be as while it seemed a wise move at the time the move to Ferrari was a disastor for Alesi's career. I still can't fathom how he only has one Grand Prix victory to his name.

Michael Schumacher - Benneton - 1992 - 94

Yes believe it or not before his first title in 94 Schumacher was well liked and highly rated. He was cheered on and he and Martin Brundle attempted to drag their lack luster Benneton Ford's up the field and attempt to battle with the super dominant Williams of the time. After winning his first Grand Prix in Spa in 92 a F1 magazine known as Chequered Flag ran a front cover that read "Schumaher better than Mansell?" as Nige had just been crowned champ and was pretty much adored in the UK it just shows how high is popularity was in Britain at the time. I think Schumacher coming from around 15 seconds back with 10 laps to go to finish just half a second behing first placed Berger in the 1992 Australian Grand Prix can be seen as classic dark horse. Of course we all know what happened with Schumie's career.

Mika Hakkinen - Mclaren - 1994 -1997

Some of those younger F1 fans might scratch their heads at a Mclaren driver being on here but when young Mika took the seat properly in 1994 the team were on a shocking down curve since their glory days of 91. How Mika managed to drive the terrible Mclaren Peugeot to six podiums in 94 I have no idea but he did and his fanbase grew - although not among the drivers as his aggressive start in Germany that year coursed a near 11 car pile up and saw him recieve a one race ban. In 95 Merc teamed up with Mclaren and after the ill-fated Nigel Mansell stage Mika took the lead of the team again but it wasn't until the near end of the season he was to show any form with 2 podium finishes. Then came Australia 95 and an accident that nearly claimed Mika's life. I think most people thought then his career was over but Mika made a miraclous recovery and was back in time for 96 and an improved Mclaren. Mika once again took the fight to the front runners and would have won in Spa 96 if not for a safety car. His era as Dark Horse ended with his first victory in the very last race of 1997. However it was also this race that lost him many fans as rather than it being a heroic first victory it was a pit lane arranged and the most fixed race in GP history. Gifting him his first victory(and second come to think of it) did the trick as in 98 Mika became the almight Mika and powered his way to a double championship.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen - Jordan - 1999

The beardless man from Monchengladbach certainly filled the Dark Horse role in 1999 to the point where he was actually in contention for the title as all of the top teams did their best to throw it all away. Frentzen differs from all the other Dark Horses so far in that he'd already had his shot at F1 big time when he signed for Williams in 1996 and had promptly blown it. The man who had come into F1 with the rep as being quicker than Schumacher had just registered 2 pretty average seasons at F1's biggest team (at the time) and had been soundly beaten by Jaquces Villenurve. When taking the seat at Jordon no one expected too much of him but 2 podiums in 2 races had people wondering and by the time we got to his victory at the French Grand Prix he was widely beeing cheered on as the alternative to the Ferrari/Mclaren battle at the front. With Schumacher's injury removing him from the race Frentzen was suddenly viewed as having an outside chance and when we reached Monza and the Might Mika cracked and threw it off the road whlst Eddie 'the mouth' Irvine could only manage 6th Frentzen took his second victory of the year and was suddenly 3rd in the title race just ten points behind the 2 in front with 3 races to go. As both Irvine and Mika were looking in shocking form there was a real buzz that the Dark Horse was finally going to do it. Alas for Frentzen it wasn't to be and whilst his result were ok in the last 3 races he never looked like mixing it up with the Mclarens and Ferrari's. Bar a couple of podiums that was to be it for Heinz-Haralds career at the top too but he will be always remembered as the driver that nearly took a Jordon to the title.

Giancarlo Fisichella - Benneton/Jordon/Sauber - 1997 - 2004

Poor old Giancarlo spent the majority of his career as the Dark Horse. A great year in 97 for Jordon with a brilliant 2nd place at Spa saw him land the Benneton drive just as they were starting to slip down the grid but in his 4 years there he still managed some great drives and still was cheered on by most as the next big thing and the alternative to the big teams but never quite getting the results he deserved. He left Benneton (ironically as they started to imporve again as Renault) to rejoin a now decling Jordon team but still managed to push the bucket of bolts that was the Jordon Honda to some point finishes. Fisichella's bad luck seem to have improved when a mixed up race he managed to claim his first every victory in a mixed up race in Brazil in 2003. Even that was slightly sour for him though as the stewards declared the wrong driver the winner and he had to wait a fortnight until the next Grand Prix to actually be presented with the trophy. Fisi moved to Sauber in 2004 and consistantly finished in the top 6 which once again led to cries to put him in a front running car. The fans got their wish in 05 when he was given the Renault driver and all seemed well as he took a win on his debut but he had a certain Fernando Alonso to contend with and was soundly beaten over the next 2 years. His career never improved and whilst at Force India he had one last flourish in his Dark Horse slot to be so near to taking a win at Spa in 2009 he never really acheived any heights again. Fisi is remembered fondly but overall as someone who didn't take his chance.

Jarno Trulli - Renault - 2002 - 2004

The phrase Trulli train is bandered around now as a negative thing but we have to remember in the early days it wasn't seen as such. Jarno had a rep for getting his car in front of others faster than him and then, rather than being slow, being hard to pass. As the Schumacher age raged and the F1 results became pretty dull often the eyes that stayed open during the Grand Prixs would be focused on the 2 young drivers at Renault and how close they could get themselves to the front. Trulli already came with a good history having pushed his Prost car to places it shouldn't have been in and with an ever improving car and a team-mate who seemed to oush him along it looked like he was on his way up. Alonso beat him to the victory by winning in 2003 but Trulli looked much sharper going into 2004 and famously took his one and only victory in 2004 to the delight of nearly every F1 fan. What happened after that is a mystery and much debated. Was he sabotaged by Flavio so he wouldn't beat Fernando or did he simply switch off after getting his first win. We'll never know but what is clear is that the second half of Truli's 2004 season was pretty awful. Famously letting Barrichello past him on the last lap in France and a 10th place finish in Italy despite putting in the fastest lap of the race on his last lap which inspired the Brundle comment of "What on Earth has he come as?". Trulli's rep never recovered and despite a few useful years in a Toyota he was always seen as someone who failed to take his chance and should get out of F1. Eventually he did - although not by choice as Petrov took his seat for the up coming season.

Jenson Button - BAR/Honda - 2003 - 2006

It seems lifetimes ago now when Jenson was dropped by Renault and Flav for being a playboy. His move to BAR which was seen as Villenurves teams was widely seen as a bad move too but Jenson made it work thrashing Villenurve in is first season and raising his stock. In 2004 Button was the only driver to cheer on as the Ferrari's streaked ahead and the rest of the field conspired to be blooming awful Jenson scored 10 podiums and claimed a 3rd in the championship that really shouldn't have been his putting the likes of Mclaren, Williams, Renault, Kimi, Montoya and Alonso to shame. Whilst the begining of 04 was a disastor in the second half he scored more points than anyone else with 10 points finishes in a row. In 06 he hung on to the Ferrari's Renaults and Mclarens too and of course there was that much celebrated first victory in Hungary. Jenson was the next big hope just waiting for Honda to give him a car to challenge properly for the title. The hope of blighty. Then along came Lewis Hamilton and the Honda Earth car in 07 and people very quickly forgot how good Jenson was as he languished at the back for 2 years and look like he might be out F1 all together. Thanks to Ross Brawn Jenson got the last laugh in 2009 and continues to chuckle since he landed the Mclaren drive in 2010. Somehow everyone seemed surprised about it all - if you look at the stats I'm not sure why!

Robert Kubica - BMW/Renault - 2007 - 2010

Kubica hadn't been in F1 very long at all before he was being touted as a future world champion as he made an instant impact in 2006 with the few GPs he got but the fact he could be considered to be in the title race by 2008 was a real quick progression up the ladder. A couple of good results at the start of 2007 were followed by an absolutely horrendous crash in Canada that year that most people didn't think he was getting out of, the fact that he did and only missed one race into the bargain seemed amazing to everyone - the fact he had a run of 6 point finishes in a row on his return really got everyone talking. By 2008 the BMW looked competitive and Robert setting the fastest lap in Quali in Malaysian inspired thousands of Pole on Pole headlines around the world. with 3 podiums already when he took his debut win in Canada after a pit lane farce Kubica somehow found himself leading the championship table. The BMW had been massively competitve that season already and with the inconsistancy of the front runners it looks like for once the Dark Horse driver was a genuine title challenger. Things kind of went wrong from there for some reason BMW chose to develop next years car and concentrate on helping Roberts team mate and the chance fizzled away. What was worse was that come 2009 the BMW was pretty tragic - although how different things might have been if Kubica had got past Vettel in Australia 2009 and had the chance to chase Button down we don't know. Even in a BMW so awful that the whole company would pull out of F1 Kubica managed to score results he shouldn't. His second place in Brazil was overshadowed by Button's title win. In 2010 his move to Renault was welcomed by all and he showed he was going to be the thorn in the side of the front guys very early on with a second place finish in his second GP. The Renault was not a good car and once again it was up to Robert to push it to places it shouldn't have gone often ending in heartache when he got it there (wheel coming off in Japan anyone) but it was clear that here was a driver that given the chance would be dicing with the big guys and a Ferrari drive seemed to be calling him. It looks like we might never find out if he'd have made a success of that after his rally accident just before the 2011 season. mixed reports are still coming out and their seems no sign of him getting back in an F1 car soon. I hope I'm wrong but I don't think we'll ever get to see what this guy could have done.

Nico Rosberg - Mercedes - 2009 - 2011

I'm not a fan of Nico but he fits all the criteria so it would be unfair to miss him off the list. Always rated highly ever since he arrived in F1 he's had his highs (2nd place in singapore) and lows (should have won but came 10th in Malaysia) but it wasn't until he landed the Merc drive he became a proper Dark Horse in my eyes. Other than Kubica he's been the only guy to mix it up with the big 3 and whilst he doesn;t have the results to show for it he has pushed the other teams harder than they though they would be pushed by a Merc driver. Always has a mass of fans behind him saying he's the next big thing but he has to be careful to not turn into Fisichella and forget to actually become the next big thing. Teamed up with Ross Brawn and Merc if he stays there he should eventually get his shot but he has to be careful that the Gandelf like rebirth of the Silver Baron doesn;t mean he ends up playing second fiddle.

You could argue for Alonso and Vettel to be on that list and I know some of you will say Nick Heidfeld should certainly be on there but I think my list is the one that defines the real Dark Horses in F1. If I've missed any of your favourites let me know but what I really want to know is who you think is going to fill the role this year? I can see most of you opting for Kimi as the guy who might shake things up. Maybe Schumie even. Or have you got your eyes on one of the youngsters such as Perez, Kobi or Vergne? and how well do you think they'll actually do?
You forgot Buemi in 2010, he lead the Canadian GP for a lap in a the 4th slowest car :wink

Well I would say Rosberg again, but do Mercedes have a better car compared to before? Don't know yet.

There's also Raikkonen but we saw how Schumachers comeback went in 2010.

I don't think you can discount the old man Schumacher, his race results were better than Rosbergs last season from China onwards, just his qualifying was poor.

I don't know whether I should include the Force India drivers, I think they will have a solid car, but I think they will have 5 teams ahead of them, making it difficult for the drivers to do something.

EDIT: maybe you could add in a poll? :)
I've found the dark horse:

Will any of them do anything akin to what Alesi did? I very much doubt it, and I'm a little sad that it doesn't seem to happen any more. Monza 2008 was probably the only time in the last decade; maybe Fisi at Spa in 2009. Is it to do with the cars or mediocre drivers? In terms of laptime the cars have seldom been closer (Marussia and HRT excepted).
I'm going for Schumacher this year, Can't see him getting a win but chance of nicking the odd podium I think.
Can I also go for Force India as a dark horse team? could be an interesting battle for 5th this year
Will any of them do anything akin to what Alesi did? I very much doubt it, and I'm a little sad that it doesn't seem to happen any more. Monza 2008 was probably the only time in the last decade; maybe Fisi at Spa in 2009. Is it to do with the cars or mediocre drivers? In terms of laptime the cars have seldom been closer (Marussia and HRT excepted).

One of my all time fav drivers, loved the way he made the car dance in that area between grip and no grip if that makes sense :)
If only he had took the Williams drive instead of the Ferrari one
Seriously, if you want to look for someone who might spring a few surprises, I think Romain Grosjean is a contender for that mantle. And, of course, Nico Hulkenburg has a pole to his name...
4 - Every great race they have almost always always ends in heartbreak as their pipped by one of the big boys.

Probably why Nando and Seb don't apply as they won their first race without any previous heartbreak and their careers have progressed exponentially since.

Can't really tell who the dark horse is going to be because I don't have a clue where everyone is placed at the moment, apart from Red Bull and Mclaren - perhaps even Mercedes - who seem to be streets (Melbourne PUN!) ahead of the rest.
Before Melbourne Quali I'd have picked the Hulk, and despite Grosjean's outrageous quali I still do.
I just hope he keeps his seat for more than a year this time, because if he loses it this time it won't be because of Sir Frank Williams' caprice.
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My dark horses for this year

Grosjean - I think his 2009 experience has toughened him up and he will give Kimi a real run for his money

Hulkenburg - a real wake up call for Di Resta in quali 0.7 seconds faster and with a point to prove to everyone especially Williams

Riccardo - he's been raved about a lot so look out for some surprises

Maldonado - if he can just keep it on the road for once then Senna is in for a shock
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