Lapse of the Gods

We remember our F1 heroes for their stunning wins and formidable skill…but things don’t always go according to plan, Shaun Campbell takes a dive up the inside of cock-up corner

Jochen Rindt’s last lap at the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix was an obvious candidate for our Lap of the Gods series. The way Rindt stood the ageing Lotus 49 on its car to snatch victory at the final corner was as inspirational a piece of driving as is ever likely to be crammed into one lap. But it would all have come to nought or at least, second place – had it not been for Jack Brabham’s astonishing mistake in the final few yards.

The 43-year old Brabham, veteran of 13 seasons of Grand Prix racing with three world championships and 14 wins behind him, had led the race for 60 laps. With five laps to go he had 10 seconds in hand over the flying Rindt, which looked like more than enough. But Brabham was delayed several times in the closing stages, and as he started the 80th and final lap, Rindt was almost on his tail.

It still didn’t seem possible that Rindt could find a way past, but as Brabham drove through the harbour section and into the final corner, the Gasworks hairpin, he found Piers Courage’s De Tomaso coasting in the middle of the road with a dead engine. Brabham’s rhythm was upset by the number of ailing cars he had almost tripped over in the last few laps; his mirrors were full of red and gold Lotus. A fractional hesitation as he decided whether to go for the inside or outside, and he’d missed his braking point by a couple of yards. Sand deposited on the corner to soak up spilt oil compounded the mistake. The Brabham slid, wheels locked, straight into the straw bales and right under the lens of a TV camera. To viewers at home it was as though the turquoise and yellow car had rather abruptly been parked in the corner of their living rooms.

Regrettably, the TV cameras missed what even Brabham would later describe as “the best bit”. A marshal jumped over the bales to push the car out of the way, but Brabham, fuming and anxious to salvage second place, knew that he could be disqualified for outside assistance if the marshal reached him. “When I saw the bloke coming, I fumbled with everything and got the engine all fired up and shoved it into reverse,” he wrote in his autobiography, When The Flag Drops, “I went backwards as he leant over the car to push. He lost his balance and fell flat on the car, absolutely sprawled right across it. Then I had to shove it into low gear and went to move off with this marshal still struggling on top of the car, I jammed on the brake and he slid down into a heap on the ground. I had to sit there and wait for this bloke to pick himself up and move off the track before I could go on down the road, and I damn near lost second place over it.”

It’s doubtful whether there has ever been a more dramatic and vivid example of the last-minute lapse; certainly none has ever been funnier, though perhaps Brabham could be excused for not seeing it that way (Eighteen years after the incident I asked Sir Jack, OBE, about it and his only reply was to pass his hand wearily over his face and say, “Don’t remind me.”)

But nearly all the great ones have had a day, a lap or a corner that they would like permanently to erase from their memory banks. For Ayrton Senna, like Brabham, it came at Monaco, always the circuit most likely to punish the momentary lapse of concentration, the tiniest mistake in judgement The 1988 Monaco GP had been Senna’s race from the first moments of unofficial practice. He qualified on pole, nearly 1.5sec faster than his McLaren-Honda team-mate, Alain Prost, leapt into the lead at the start and opened up an advantage of nearly a minute. Then, with only 12 laps to go, he clipped the inside barrier at Portier and lost control. On another circuit he might have got away with it. At Monaco he didn’t.

It didn’t seem possible that driver error was the cause, not the way Senna had been performing all weekend. That’s the way it seemed to the man himself, who walked straight to his nearby apartment and shut himself away, rather than making his way back to the pits.

Prost won that day, but even the man they called the Professor had his days of ignominy. One I remember with particular clarity was the 1991 San Marino GP, when he managed to lose control of his Ferrari on the parade lap. Admittedly, it was streaming with rain and he wasn’t the only driver to skate off on the grass; Gerhard Berger’s McLaren did much the same thing. But Prost was the only one to stall, his race over before it had started. And remember, this was Italy…

I was watching the race with the teeming hordes of Ferrari fans on the hill at Tosa, and when Jean Alesi in the second Ferrari slid off at the hairpin on the third lap, I suddenly found myself with a great deal more elbow room. They left in droves and their disgust with their drivers, especially Prost, was unmistakable. A few months before, he had almost given the team the World Championship, but I don’t think the Italian fans or press ever forgave this mistake.

Another cause of gaffes by the greats is what might be called ‘finger trouble’ — hitting the wrong switch, or indeed, forgetting to hit it at all. Jim Clark watched the rest of the German GP field and his 1962 world title hopes roar into the distance as he sat stationary on the grid wondering what was wrong with his Lotus 25. He had forgotten to switch on the fuel pumps. It was a race he could have won and not even a heroic drive to fourth place could disguise that.

And was it finger trouble that prevented Nigel Mansell from winning the 1991 Canadian GP? The official explanation from the Williams-Renault team was that during the last lap, with Mansell cruising around and waving to the crowd after having dominated the race, he let the revs drop too far and the engine’s electronic brain, assuming that it was all over, switched itself off. Whether the problem lay in Mansell’s fingertips, the weight of this right foot, or the way the engine’s systems were programmed, it was an almighty stupid way to throw a GP win down the drain. But like all the best blunders it had its funny side, like a spectacular own goal in football, or a cricketer who is given out for falling on his stumps.

Perhaps nobody did it better than Chris Amon, a true specialist in the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. To be fair to Amon, he never enjoyed a great deal of what you might call mechanical luck, but even when his car did hold up there was something inevitable about him not making it to the chequered flag first. At Monza in 1971 he finally appeared to have kicked the habit, breaking clear of the slipstreaming group in the closing stages. Then he tried to remove his outer visor (no tear-off strips in those days), and pulled the inner one away with it. He finished sixth, his exposed eyes streaming.

Few self-inflicted wounds have been as painful as that experienced by Bill Holland in the 1947 Indianapolis 500. At the 400-mile mark he led by almost a lap from his team-mate, Marui Rose, but Holland, making his first appearance at the Speedway, was misreading the driver’s scoreboard on the pit-straight Under the impression that he had more than a lap in hand he cut his speed and with only seven laps to go, waved Rose through, he thought, to unlap himself. In fact, Rose had moved into the lead, something that only dawned on Holland when he found Victory Lane occupied at the end of the race. Holland would win the 500 two years later, but even that didn’t assuage the memory of how he lost in his rookie year.

Riccardo Patrese laid a significant ghost to rest when he won the 1990 San Marino GP for Williams-Renault. Seven years before, he had taken the lead from Patrick Tambay’s Ferrari with only four laps remaining, and promptly tossed the Brabham-BMW into the tyre wall in a crystal-clear case of celebration before the event. After his win in 1990 he admitted that he’d spent the last few laps of the race thinking of nothing else but that moment when he had climbed from the crumpled Brabham to the jeers and catcalls of the tifosi enjoying an unexpected Ferrari victory.

Graham Hill was spared the crowd’s derision, but he would surely have understood how Patrese felt. Second on the grid for the 1960 British GP, Hill stalled the engine of this BRM P48 at the start and finally got underway in 22nd position. By lap 30 he was third, and on the 55th lap he took Brabham’s Cooper for the lead. Six laps from home, admittedly under pressure from Brabham and with the BRM’s brakes fading, he tripped over a tailender, spun off at Copse and parked the BRM into a ditch. It was the closest both Hill and BRM would ever get to winning the British GP.

But, for the connoisseur of the great lapses, though, it is always towards Monaco that one turns. It was at Monte Carlo that Alberto Ascari, closing in on Moss’s ailing Mercedes, made a fractional mistake at the chicane and launched his Lancia 1)50 into the harbour waters. The following year, Juan Fangio wore out one car on the kerbs and walls, and finished with the scars of contact on another, requisitioned from Peter Collins. In 1957 we find Stirling Moss getting the drop on Fangio and Collins at the start, only to out-brake himself at the chicane on the fourth lap. The Vanwall wasn’t the easiest car to drive at Monaco by any means, but it was still an uncharacteristic error.

But then it was also at Monaco that Michael Schumacher’s Riviera reputation took a knock, when he lost the Ferrari on the opening lap in 1996. To be sure he made up for it with his drive in 1997, although was he a fraction lucky to have his one off-track excursion in just about the only place there’s an escape road? But there are exceptions to the rule that Monaco doesn’t forgive, as Riccardo Patrese can tell.

Three laps from the end of the 1982 race, he moved into the lead when Patrese’s Renault crashed out. It had started to rain and the slick-shod cars were slithering around nervously as Patrese started his penultimate lap, only to spin the Brabham BT49 at the Station hairpin. He was lucky that the push to move his car out the way launched him downhill and he was able to bump-start the DFV, but both Didier Pironi and Andrea de Cesaris had passed him. Incredibly, both the Ferrari and the Alfa Romeo ran out of petrol on the last lap, a very surprised Patrese won the race, and Murray Walker achieved a decibel rating well above the pain threshold level.

Unpunished lapses don’t have the tragicomic quality of the grand gaffes, but you do wonder how some of the events of motor racing history could so easily have been written to a different script. The 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours was the last of the Sarthe classics where the drivers lined up on the opposite side of the road and raced to their cars. Jacky Ida, reasoning that the start was the most dangerous moment in the whole event, sauntered over to his Ford GT40, carefully strapped himself in, and took off way, way behind the front runners. Now if he’d lost that race by 200 yards instead of winning it by the same margin…