Trailing clouds of glory

Rain. For most drivers it’s a nightmare: bad visibility, reduced grip, longer braking distances. The risks increase, and they’re unpredictable. Every cloud of spray could conceal a slow car or a lost wheel. The problem is the same for all, but for certain drivers it is an opportunity, even a liberation. In the wet tiny differences in skill become magnified. A good driver may briefly become great, or the great driver reach a new level of performance altogether. And sometimes even genius isn’t enough… Here we illustrate some of those occasions when the rain made the race

Phil Hill

Le Mans 24 Hours, la sarthe – June 21/22, 1958

Hill won in a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa with Olivier Gendebien – but only after spending hours peering over the screen into the rain. His performance led to a Ferrari F1 drive

“Le Mans in 1958 was my first really important race and unquestionably the best of my three wins there. The rain was torrential, my trick was to get the tool bag from under the passenger seat and sit on it so I could see over the windshield. The other guys had towels and sponges but they were floundering while I’d duck down then look up again over the screen. I had the worst neck ache for a month but the need to see was so much greater than the pain. I picked up a whole lap that night, just because I could see. It was something special, that feeling when you know you can win, when the sun shines after the rain and there’s no more tension. We were a good team, Gendebien and I, we were always open with each other.”

Phil Hill, Ferrari works driver

Michael Schumacher

Spanish GP, Barcelona – June 2, 1996

The German took his first win for Ferrari with a peerless display, taking the flag 45sec ahead of Alesi’s Benetton and circulating up to 2.2sec per lap faster than anyone else

“This race was an absolutely textbook example of how a truly great driver can completely compensate for a below-par car. This was an unsettled season for the Scuderia; Jean Todt was still assembling his crew, and Ross Brawn still had a year to do at Benetton. The best car was undoubtedly the Williams FW18, while Ferrari’s F310 was very much an interim design. The conditions were truly appalling – Heinz-Harald Frentzen had shunted on the warm-up lap – but it was a perfect opportunity for Schumacher to stamp his mark on the team. I reckon that was the day Todt smiled and said ‘I told you that’s what we were getting with this guy’. A defining moment in modern Formula 1.”

Alan Henry, grand prix correspondent

Sir Jackie Stewart

German GP, Nurburgring – August 4, 1968

The most dominant F1 victory ever, despite Stewart racing with an injured wrist. And it wasn’t just raining – the ’Ring was also shrouded in fog. His Matra MS10 finished over four minutes clear of Graham Hill in a Lotus 49

“I probably wouldn’t have finished if it had been dry, but a wet race is physically less tiring – less g-force, lighter steering, so I could get away with mostly using my left hand. It’s tougher mentally, though. You have to coax the car, not bully it; you’re on tip-toe the whole time. It’s about finesse, using the slip of the track, not using the power to slide. You’re trying to give the car some Valium. You’re forced to drive off-line, because the oil and rubber make the normal line like ice, so you pick up muck which can affect the throttle action, just when you really need a sensitive throttle. It was amazing how little you could see that day. I was on the third row, but I just made a good start, and I knew the circuit well. Luckily I remember details, like a sign which marked a lift off point though I couldn’t see the corner, and once I’d passed the others [Ickx, Amon, Rindt, Hill, Elford] it was easier. I was lucky enough to win plenty of wet races, but I never enjoyed them.”

Jackie Stewart, works Matra driver

Ayrton Senna

Monaco GP, Monte Carlo – June 3, 1984

The Brazilian in an unfancied Toleman was rapidly closing on leader Alain Prost’s McLaren when the race was stopped. Should it have been his first F1 victory?

“Everyone says it’s a shame the race was stopped because we would have won it. Well, maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t. Earlier in the race Senna had had quite a big off at the chicane and really bounced across the kerbs. When we rebuilt the car we found that one of the front suspension rockers had cracked and I’m not sure it would have finished the race. There are several interesting aspects to that race, some well known and some not. We’d had a traumatic year during which we’d switched to Michelin tyres, which hadn’t been easy. Ron Dennis had put a proviso on us getting them that we would never have the same spec of tyre as McLaren – we’d always be a development stage behind. That was the case with the dry tyres right up until the last race at Estoril, where we qualified and finished third. At Monaco there wasn’t an old-spec wet tyre, so that was the first time we were on the same rubber as the other Michelin runners and we finished second.”

Pat Symonds, Senna’s engineer at Toleman

James Hunt

Japanese GP, Fuji Speedway – October 24, 1976

His title rival Niki Lauda withdrew early due to the conditions but Hunt still had to overcome a tyre stop which dropped him back. A late charge to third secured the title

“It was horrendous. James and Niki [Lauda] were trying to cancel the race, I wanted it run – it was our only title chance – so I started our engines to excite the crowd. But the Japs are passive, so I got one guy to stand on the pitwall and stir them up. The TV people were frantic too, so it went ahead. James had it easy on pole, the only one driving in the open. I could see cars sideways on the straight. Then the rain stopped, so we held out the ‘cool tyres’ board. But the stupid bastard wouldn’t drive in the wet bits. Everyone else caught on, until the only one on the dry was the idiot in the lead. Now we weren’t showing any pit signs except ‘cool tyres’. We were frantic – we’d lose the title if we brought him in for slicks. Then Mass [Hunt’s team-mate] got bored following in second and tripped over the water. Finally James’s tyres fell apart and he came in, but they were so worn we couldn’t get the jack under. When he got out he was eighth, but others were coming in or falling off, so he shot back to third which was enough. 

He was certainly skillful in the wet, and not scared, but that day he drove like a fool.”

Alastair Caldwell, McLaren Team Manager

Graham Hill

Daily Mirror Trophy, Snetterton – March 14, 1964

One of the wettest ever UK races. Graham Hill in the new BRM P261 sped off into the lead before he aquaplaned off. Innes Ireland (14) went by to win in the BRP-BRM 

“The weather was terrible, but Graham didn’t mind particularly about the rain. Of course we were using our wet Dunlops, but in those days they were only narrow, and when Graham hit some standing water they just aquaplaned and he lost all control. I went out to fetch the car afterwards and it was a mess – a write-off. And it was the first of the new P61 [later known as the P261] monocoques, too. Graham was annoyed, like any driver would be. Maybe he was pushing a bit hard but he was a real racer and just wanted to win every time he got in a car. And just to finish off a rotten day our Zephyr broke down on the way home and we had to be towed by the transporter.”

Pat Tarvath, Graham Hill’s mechanic

Pedro Rodriguez

BOAC 1000kms, Brands Hatch – April 12, 1970

A mesmerising display of car control from the Mexican, sharing the winning Gulf Porsche 917 with Leo Kinnunen. Second was Vic Elford’s works 917 – five laps down

“I remember waking up that day and thinking ‘Oh boy, it’s raining’. I really loved rain, and I loved Brands. Paddock Hill Bend was always one of the most challenging and satisfying corners anywhere. It looks pretty alarming because you can’t see over the crest before you dive downhill, but it was wonderful. I was driving with Denny [Hulme] and he hated rain. He did the minimum three qualifying laps, and said ‘You drive the first three hours, get out, have a pee, then you can do the next three hours too’. Which is pretty well what I did! We didn’t consider the 917 tricky, not once it was sorted. It had to be mastered, but it did everything you wanted. Those of us who were good in the wet – Pedro, Jacky Ickx, Jackie Stewart, Hans Stuck – rarely had spins even in the dry. Maybe it’s something to do with sensitivity. Pedro and I were certainly driving at our limits in this race, but we wouldn’t have said we were taking undue risks, just doing our best in the conditions. But Pedro simply blew us all away that day.”

Vic Elford, works Porsche driver

Dick Seaman

Belgian GP, Spa-Francorchamps – June 25, 1939

Seaman excelled in dreadful conditions until he crashed, with fatal consequences. His team-mate Manfred von Brauchitsch plumes his works Mercedes-Benz W154 along the public road, fighting for grip and confidence

“The combination of well over 400-horsepower, hard, narrow tyres and a cambered public road lined by trees, ditches and farm buildings confronted the intrepid drivers. Ahead, von Brauchitsch’s British team-mate Seaman was building an ever-increasing lead in his sister supercharged V12. Team manager Neubauer and engineer Uhlenhaut were perplexed by his shattering pace. ‘Why is he continuing to push so hard?’ mused Uhlenhaut, ‘he has this race in his pocket. There is no need.’ But Seaman drove faster still, perhaps revelling in his own superiority. His senior team-mate Caracciola, the renowned ‘Rainmaster’, had already slid off. But Dick raced on until the rain eased and the treacherous road began to dry. Then a sudden shower flooded the blind Clubhouse Corner, Dick pitched his W154 into the turn unknowing – he lost control, smashed into the trackside trees and was trapped in the burning cockpit.”

Doug Nye, motor racing historian

Fernando Alonso

Hungarian GP, Hungaroring – August 6, 2006

The Spaniard scythed through the pack after starting 15th – only driveshaft failure robbed spectators of a head-to-head between him and eventual winner Jenson Button 

“It was amazing, Fernando just went for it, from the chaotic opening lap. It’s that uncanny ability some drivers have to feel what the car is going to do and the ability be on the right bit of the track at the right time, finding grip that other drivers aren’t. However, I don’t claim any engineering credit for it. We had a good car, yes, but that performance in Hungary was all down to the driver. I only review videos after the race if there’s something I want to see or learn, as part of the process of analysing what happened. So I probably fast-forwarded through the opening laps to the first pit-stops. It was a long while afterwards that someone suggested that I should watch it on YouTube.”

Pat Symonds, executive director of engineering, Renault f1

Jacky Ickx

Race of Champions, Brands Hatch – March 17, 1974

Ickx in a Lotus-Ford 72E overtook Niki Lauda’s Ferrari 312B3 in a breathtaking move on the outside of Paddock Hill Bend to take the lead – one of many fine drives in the wet

“Jacky was magnificent in the rain and he hunted down Niki very quickly. Don’t forget, Niki was racing for Ferrari, and making the 312B3 go as it never had in Jacky’s hands in 1973, so maybe that spurred Jacky on. Add to this the fact that Jacky hadn’t shown great form for Lotus in the season’s opening two races. Yet he was flying at Brands Hatch, using his famed wet weather skills and his passing move was simply amazing. He went around the outside of Niki at Paddock Hill Bend. Few people ever got away with that, although that’s not to say that they hadn’t tried… However, to be fair to Niki, although he didn’t make it easy for Jacky, he didn’t make it difficult either, which wouldn’t necessarily be the case today.”

Neville Hay, race commentator