Top 10 F1 title deciders ranked: 1986 Australian GP, 2008 Brazilian GP and more

The 2021 Formula 1 season has been a classic, and will boil down to a winner-takes-all finale in Abu Dhabi this weekend between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. Autosport looked back over the previous 29 occasions when the title was decided at the final race and picked out the 10 best in the world championship's history

Top 10 F1 title deciders ranked: 1986 Australian GP, 2008 Brazilian GP and more

The FIA does not officially declare the champion until the end of the season, but in recent years we have known the Formula 1 world champion weeks before the last race. The earliest in a season that the drivers’ championship has been clinched was in 2002, when Michael Schumacher secured the crown in July, with six races remaining!

But there have been many title fights that went right down to the wire. The F1 drivers’ contest has been decided in the finale 29 times in 71 seasons and will be again this weekend in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

How will the showdown between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton compare to the previous contests? Here are Autosport’s top 10 F1 title deciders so far.

10. 1958 Moroccan GP – Hawthorn vs Moss

Assistance from team-mate Hill helped Hawthorn to overcome Moss for the 1958 world title, becoming the first British champion

Assistance from team-mate Hill helped Hawthorn to overcome Moss for the 1958 world title, becoming the first British champion

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Ain Diab
Who: Mike Hawthorn (40 points) versus Stirling Moss (32 points)
Points for a win: 8 (+1 for fastest lap)
Champion: Mike Hawthorn (42 points)

Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn entered the Moroccan GP with just one world championship race win to his name that season, scored at the French Grand Prix, but his four second places up to that point put him in a fantastic position to win the 1958 world championship.

Rival Stirling Moss had to win and set fastest lap, with Hawthorn lower than second, to snatch the crown despite having already won three rounds.

PLUS: Stirling Moss’s greatest races

The Vanwall star did his bit and dominated the race, but Hawthorn’s team-mate Phil Hill was ordered to allow Hawthorn to pass to take second in the closing stages. With the second Vanwall of Tony Brooks already out, the Ferraris were free to swap places and Hawthorn pipped Moss by a single point to become Britain’s first world champion.

Moss’s view on the world championship changed that day, but the race was marred by a fiery accident for his Vanwall team-mate Stuart Lewis-Evans, who died six days later.

9. 1951 Spanish GP – Fangio vs Ascari

Victory in Spain gave Fangio his first of five world titles after Ferrari suffered tyre problems

Victory in Spain gave Fangio his first of five world titles after Ferrari suffered tyre problems

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Pedralbes
Who: Juan Manuel Fangio (27 points) versus Alberto Ascari (25 points)
Points for a win: 8 (+1 for fastest lap)
Champion: Juan Manuel Fangio (31 points)

The 1951 World Championship spanned just seven races (excluding the points-counting but irrelevant Indianapolis 500) and the Spanish GP finale was a battle between new force Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, grand prix racing’s dominant force since the end of the Second World War.

Ferrari’s Jose Froilan Gonzalez had broken Alfa Romeo’s five-year run of invincibility at July’s British GP. Lead driver Alberto Ascari then added wins in Germany and Italy, setting up the Spanish showdown.

Archive: The rise and fall of Ferrari’s first champion

Alfa’s Juan Manuel Fangio, winner of the Swiss and French GPs, went into the final race with 28 points to Ascari’s 25 points (with eight then awarded for victory), but should have faced a tough battle given the thirst of his 1.5-litre supercharged 159 compared to the 4.5-litre unblown Ferrari 375.

But Ferrari chose to run wheels and tyres that were smaller than usual and struck horrendous tread problems from early in the race. They needed numerous pitstops, handing the advantage to Fangio, who soon led after Ascari’s initial advantage from a dominant pole.

Gonzalez brought his Ferrari to second, but Fangio won the race by nearly a minute, securing his first world title.

Archive: Remembering F1’s first great racing machine

8. 1956 Italian GP – Fangio vs Collins vs Behra

Fangio famously took the 1956 title at Monza in a car started by team-mate and rival Collins, who graciously handed over his machine

Fangio famously took the 1956 title at Monza in a car started by team-mate and rival Collins, who graciously handed over his machine

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Monza
Who: Juan Manuel Fangio (30 points), Peter Collins (22 points), Jean Behra (22 points)
Points for a win: 8 (+1 for fastest lap)
Champion: Juan Manuel Fangio (30 points)

By 1956 Fangio had three F1 crowns under his belt and had made the move to Ferrari following the withdrawal of Mercedes from all motorsport activities.

He had some issues with the D50, which Ferrari had inherited from Lancia, but three wins put him atop the table for the final round at Monza. And it would be the scene of some remarkable generosity from Fangio’s team-mate Peter Collins.

The finale began with Fangio on 30 points, while Collins and Maserati’s Jean Behra had 22.

Despite being in contention for the title, especially when Fangio’s car broke down, Collins, running third, brought the car in and handed it over to the team’s number one driver.

PLUS: How Britain’s lost Ferrari star epitomised a bygone F1 era 

Moss won the race for Maserati and Behra retired, while Fangio finished second in the D50 started by Collins, allowing the Argentinian to claim his fourth title.

7. 1984 Portuguese GP – Lauda vs Prost

Lauda's recovery drive enabled him to pip Prost to the title by half a point at Estoril in 1984

Lauda's recovery drive enabled him to pip Prost to the title by half a point at Estoril in 1984

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Estoril
Who: Niki Lauda (66 points) versus Alain Prost (62.5 points)
Points for a win: 9
Champion: Niki Lauda (72 points)

This remains the closest F1 drivers’ championship, just half a point ultimately separating wily Niki Lauda from fast Frenchman Alain Prost. Prost was generally the quicker during the campaign but a combination of bad luck and Lauda’s experience kept things close and the Austrian went into the season finale 3.5 points ahead.

Prost did all he could, overcoming fast starter Keke Rosberg’s Williams on lap nine of 70, while Lauda was mired in the pack. Issues and error had left the second McLaren 11th on the grid and a mysterious turbo hampered Lauda’s early progress.

Gradually he made his way through the pack and, on lap 33, made his way into third by passing Ayrton Senna’s Toleman. But Lauda needed second, to score six points to Prost’s nine, for the title and Nigel Mansell’s Lotus was 37.5s ahead.

Race of my life: Niki Lauda on Estoril 1984 

The gap came down but it was not clear that Lauda was doing enough. Then Mansell hit brake trouble and Lauda got the second place he required to pip the victorious Prost to take his third world title.

6. 1959 US GP – Brabham vs Moss vs Brooks

Brabham ran out of fuel while leading the 1959 finale and had to push his car over the line

Brabham ran out of fuel while leading the 1959 finale and had to push his car over the line

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Sebring
Who: Jack Brabham (31 points) versus Stirling Moss (25.5 points) versus Tony Brooks (23 points)
Points for a win: 8 (+1 for fastest lap)
Champion: Jack Brabham (31 points)

The final race of the 1959 season was a new addition to the calendar, the US GP at Sebring, and the drivers had to wait three long months between the previous round in Italy and the showdown.

Works Cooper driver Jack Brabham, Rob Walker Racing Cooper ace Moss and Ferrari’s Brooks had each scored two wins during the campaign, with Brabham’s better finishing record putting him ahead.

Moss led from the start and rapidly built a 10s lead over Brabham, only for the Cooper’s gearbox to fail after five laps.

Brooks had already visited the pits following a clash with team-mate Wolfgang von Trips on the first lap and was never in contention. Brabham stayed ahead and looked set to seal the title with victory but ran out of fuel on the final lap.

Team-mate Bruce McLaren hesitated but kept going to beat Maurice Trintignant by 0.6s, with Brooks a distant third. Brabham famously pushed his car over the line for fourth place but the title was his anyway.

PLUS: Ranking Jack Brabham’s 10 greatest races

5. 2012 Brazilian GP – Vettel vs Alonso

Despite extensive damage from his lap one crash with Senna, Vettel surged back to defeat Alonso to the 2012 title

Despite extensive damage from his lap one crash with Senna, Vettel surged back to defeat Alonso to the 2012 title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Interlagos
Who: Sebastian Vettel (273 points) versus Fernando Alonso (260 points)
Points for a win: 25
Champion: Sebastian Vettel (281 points)

Red Bull had Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari had Fernando Alonso, who put in one of the finest seasons in F1 history to battle the reigning double champion.

By just the fourth corner of lap one, Vettel was facing backwards. He hit Bruno Senna’s Williams on the opening lap, which spun him round and left a visible hole in the side of the bodywork of his RB8. You’d have been forgiven for thinking there was no way Vettel’s car would survive the rest of the 71 laps, but remarkably it did.

This was not the only adversity Vettel faced during this season finale, as unconventionally his team-mate Mark Webber did not act as a sister car. Felipe Massa assisted Alonso, but Webber left no room for Vettel on the first corner, which contributed to the subsequent scuffle with Senna.

In mixed conditions a fantastic fight unfolded for the lead, while Vettel recovered from the back of the field.

Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button (McLaren) moved brilliantly to the head of the field and built a huge lead by staying on slick tyres when others peeled in for intermediates only to have to return as the track dried.

A safety car eradicated their advantage, bringing Lewis Hamilton back into contention. By then, Vettel was up to fifth, easily enough to defeat Alonso, then running fourth.

But at the start of lap 55 Hulkenberg slid into Hamilton as they negotiated backmarkers. That put Button into the lead and Alonso third. With Vettel having fallen to 10th after pitting on both laps 52 and 54 as Red Bull chased the conditions and battled radio issues, Alonso was now in a championship-winning position.

Insight: The race that could have changed an F1 nearly-man's career 

Hulkenberg had to serve a drivethrough penalty and Alonso went on to finish second. But the wounded Vettel managed to rise to sixth in the slippery conditions, giving him the championship by three points.

It was also a race marked by endings. It was Michael Schumacher’s last F1 race, the last victory for Button and Hamilton’s last race with McLaren.

Retrospective: When Vettel triumphed in a great F1 decider

4. 1976 Japanese GP – Lauda vs Hunt

Hunt survived atrocious weather and a puncture to finish third and defeat Lauda at Fuji in 1976

Hunt survived atrocious weather and a puncture to finish third and defeat Lauda at Fuji in 1976

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Fuji
Who: Niki Lauda (68 points) versus James Hunt (65 points)
Points for a win: 9
Champion: James Hunt (69 points)

While many of these season finales possess a storyline fit for Hollywood, this one has been lived out in the 2013 film Rush. It was a championship studded with contest, protest, exclusion, tragedy, courage and an intense rivalry.

Reigning world champion Lauda built an early points lead, with new McLaren driver James Hunt his sternest challenger.

Lauda’s horrific crash at the Nurburgring during the German GP, in which he suffered scorched lungs and third degree burns, changed the course of the campaign. While Lauda fought for his life in hospital, with such little hope of survival a priest was arranged to administer last rites, Hunt took fourth in Austria and won the Dutch GP.

Lauda made one of sport’s most incredible comebacks for the Italian GP, finishing a heroic fourth while Hunt retired. But Hunt won the next two races to set up a title showdown.

Top 10: Niki Lauda’s greatest races ranked 

Lauda arrived at the first world championship Japanese GP three points ahead of Hunt. The start was delayed due to mist and rain, and when the race did finally get underway, Lauda did two laps and then retired, considering the conditions too dangerous.

Nonetheless, the race continued. Hunt led for much of the distance but destroyed his wet-weather tyres and had to make a late pitstop. Amid much confusion, the McLaren charged to third behind the victorious Mario Andretti and Patrick Depailler. It was enough to give Hunt the title by a single point.

The epic season, Hunt’s personality and the dramatic finale, which was aired live on TV, contributed to F1’s rising popularity.

PLUS: How good was James Hunt? 

3. 1964 Mexican GP – Hill vs Surtees vs Clark

Late misfortune for Clark, allied to Hill's delay at the hands of the sister Ferrari, enabled Surtees to win against the odds in 1964

Late misfortune for Clark, allied to Hill's delay at the hands of the sister Ferrari, enabled Surtees to win against the odds in 1964

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Mexico City
Who: Graham Hill (39 points) versus John Surtees (34) versus Jim Clark (30)
Points for a win: 9
Champion: John Surtees (40)

Three drivers were in contention for the 1964 title heading into the Mexico City finale, BRM’s Graham Hill with 39 points, Ferrari’s John Surtees on 34 and Lotus’s Jim Clark with 30.

Injection problems hampered Surtees in practice and early in the race, while Clark streaked into the lead from pole. Once up to temperature, Surtees’s V8 cleared and he began a charge.

PLUS: Ranking the greatest F1 drives by John Surtees

He soon caught the fight for third between his team-mate Lorenzo Bandini and Hill. The battle was fierce and, controversially, they made contact, Hill being knocked out of contention.

Clark was still well out in front, chased by Dan Gurney, with Bandini and Surtees next. That would be enough to allow the Lotus man to retain his title, but an oil line broke.

Gurney swept into the lead on the penultimate lap, then Bandini moved aside for his team leader, allowing Surtees to finish second – and make racing history as the first competitor to win a world championship on both two wheels and four.

PLUS: How Surtees became an unappreciated Ferrari great 

2. 1986 Australian GP – Mansell vs Prost vs Piquet

Mansell's tyre failure gave Prost an unlikely second world title in 1986, a year Williams had dominated

Mansell's tyre failure gave Prost an unlikely second world title in 1986, a year Williams had dominated

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Adelaide
Who: Nigel Mansell (70 points) versus Alain Prost (64 points) versus Nelson Piquet (63 points)
Points for a win: 9
Champion: Alain Prost (72 points)

Benefiting from Honda’s huge investment in its V6 turbo engine, the Williams FW11 was the car to have in 1986, with team-mates Mansell and Nelson Piquet having taken nine wins in the 15 races before the finale.

Top 10: Ranking the greatest Williams F1 cars 

“The FW11 looked good from the word go and it seemed to me that either Nelson or I could win the championship,” said Mansell in his autobiography. But the intra-team fight helped McLaren’s Prost stay in contention with a brilliant campaign.

Mansell nevertheless entered the Australian GP knowing that third would make him a champion no matter what the others achieved. Reigning champion Prost and Piquet both had 63 points, while Mansell had 70.

Mansell was perfectly placed to win the title until, with 19 laps to go, he suffered a 200mph tyre failure while sitting third. He kept the car out of the wall but his race was run.

In response to that blowout, Williams made Piquet pit for a precautionary tyre change, handing the lead to Prost, who had already stopped.

Despite a charging Piquet setting a series of fastest laps, Prost held on to win by 4.2s and become the first driver since Brabham in 1959-60 to successfully retain his crown.

The season ended with Prost on 72 points, Mansell on 70 and Piquet 69. Williams had to be satisfied with constructors’ championship success.

PLUS: The 1986 Australian GP from inside McLaren

1. 2008 Brazilian GP – Hamilton vs Massa

Hamilton was in danger of losing the 2008 world championship after falling behind Vettel, but his last-gasp pass on Glock rescued the title

Hamilton was in danger of losing the 2008 world championship after falling behind Vettel, but his last-gasp pass on Glock rescued the title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where: Interlagos
Who: Lewis Hamilton (94 points) versus Felipe Massa (87 points)
Points for a win: 10
Champion: Lewis Hamilton (98 points)

The events of the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix can be broken down into minute-by-minute moments. That’s how close the world championship fight was. The outcome was decided on the final corner of the final lap of the final race of the season.

Hamilton entered the Brazilian GP having won five races in 2008, including the penultimate round in China, and led the drivers’ championship by seven points. There was just one man that could stop the McLaren star taking the crown – local hero Massa, the Ferrari ace also having taken five victories.

Massa qualified on pole, with Hamilton fourth on the grid. The race started in the wet, not normally Massa’s best environment but he confidently led the race, with Hamilton holding fourth.

The McLaren lost ground at the first round of stops, the switch to slicks being a tad late, but he started overtaking cars as Massa led.

With 10 laps to go Hamilton was in fourth, enough to take the crown by two points. But light rain arrived on lap 63 of 71, causing teams to react in a variety of ways in terms of tyres.

Many cars pitted for more suitable rubber, Hamilton doing so at the end of lap 66. On lap 69, it was driver error that caused Hamilton to lose the position he needed; after moving aside to allow Robert Kubica to unlap himself, Hamilton made a mistake and went wide, leaving a gap for Vettel’s Toro Rosso to shoot through and leave Hamilton sixth.

That meant Massa and Hamilton would have the same number of championship points, but Massa’s six wins to Hamilton’s five would leave the Brazilian as world champion. Hamilton did not seem able to find a way back by Vettel, but a long way ahead was Timo Glock’s Toyota, sliding around still on slicks…

At 1643 local time, during the final lap, the celebrations began in the Ferrari garage. It seemed the second year in a row that Hamilton has lost the opportunity to be F1’s youngest champion at Interlagos. At 1644, Hamilton became world champion.

Glock’s dry tyres had offered so little grip in the wet that Vettel and Hamilton shot past him into the final corner. In what could be described as the most intense 30 seconds in the history of F1, Hamilton finished fifth and became the youngest world champion (at the time).

Hamilton claimed his first of seven world championships so far in dramatic style. Will he make it eight this weekend?

Hamilton claimed his first of seven world championships so far in dramatic style. Will he make it eight this weekend?

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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