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Top 15 Intense Formula 1 Rivalries

In 2014 Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg produced one of the most intriguing and dramatic rivalries for years. It had many of the essential ingredients - racing excellence, a good narrative (in this case the disintegration of a boyhood friendship), intensity, dirty tactics, two different driving styles, fine margins of victory and defeat, and bad blood between teammates.

Rivalries between teammates are gripping because they loosely follow this predictable but always entertaining format:

First, the team higher ups select two drivers: Driver 1 and Driver 2. This is traditionally the simplest phase. Driver 1 believes: “I am god’s gift to racing and I will conquer all six continents with my brilliance”. Driver 2 thinks: “That Driver 1 needs to be taken down a peg or two. I’ll show him!” Team management must then fulfill their role in pre-season by vehemently denying that there is a favorite. (*if the team genuinely doesn’t show favoritism, then both drivers take on the role of Driver 1, fireworks ensue instantly and the team drop points as a result. End). Once the season begins, Driver 1 starts thinking to himself “my hired help is p**sing me off! Since when was he this quick?” He becomes paranoid and tearfully wonders if he is still the favorite. Both then have an on-track battle. Irrespective of the battle’s outcome, both drivers deny there is a rift by saying “that’s racing.” We, the fans, suspect it’s a lie. Team management then judiciously intervene to expand on what the drivers have already said, telling journalists: “that’s motor racing.” Now we know it's a lie. The media soon starts writing about “team politics”, “divided garages”, “escalating tensions”, “breaking points”, and a litany of other clichés that you will find scattered throughout this article. And before you know it, we’re half way down the path to a great rivalry.

Of course, though, great rivalries are not exclusively created by warring teammates: non-teammates have given us many of F1’s best duals too. Non-teammate rivalries differ though in the fact that they are, generally speaking, a far less juvenile endeavor. They allow the people involved to be more transparent in their intentions, meaning ill will does not linger. Consequently, it’s easier for drivers to realize that their rival is merely someone with the same ambition as them.

So here we go. Fifteen of the very best.

15  15. James Hunt (McLaren) vs Jochen Mass (McLaren)

via t-online.de

Because of the nature of the sport, tempers often flare in Formula 1. But some tempers are created with a far greater flare-risk than others. James Hunt possessed one of these tempers. Going into the ’77 season, Hunt was the world champion and many expected him to challenge for the title again. However, he endured a tempestuous season with teammate Jochen Mass. As Hunt tried to pass Mass at the Canadian grand prix they collided and Hunt ended up out of the race while Mass continued.

Once Hunt was out of his car, a marshal attempted to calm him down and got punched for his troubles ($2,000 fine). Hunt then stomped his way back to the pits but did so in an apparently “unsafe manner” ($750 fine). Now seated on the pit wall, he yelled and waved his fist at Mass every time the German drove past. His final indiscretion of the season came after he won the Fuji grand prix and neglected to show up for the podium ceremony ($20,000). An expensive few weeks indeed for the playboy from the UK.

14 14. Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) vs Jacques Villeneuve (Williams)

via mirror.co.uk

In 1997 Schumacher and Villeneuve waged a back and forth battle for the gold, which led them to a final race showdown in Jerez. Villeneuve (who had a superior car for the majority of the season) was behind but catching Schumacher quickly and his opportunity to pass came 22 laps from the end. When Villeneuve tried to pass down the inside, Schumacher turned into him sharply and their cars collided. The Ferrari ended up in the gravel, while Villeneuve was able to nurse his Williams to finish third and claim the title. Upon reviewing the incident – and because Schumacher had been in an eerily similar situation three seasons before – stewards adjudged the Ferrari man to have deliberately crashed into Villeneuve. He was disqualified from the year’s championship and his second place was erased from the drivers’ points table.

Ten years after their rivalry, Villeneuve had still not forgotten though, as this rather scathing interview demonstrates.

13 13. Luigi Fagioli (Mercedes) vs Rudolf Caracciola (Mercedes)

via myautoworld.com

While this rivalry pre-dates the ‘official’ start of F1, it is included because today’s drivers could learn some invaluable lessons from Luigu Fagioli:

Faced with team orders during his very first race for Mercedes, the Italian simply parked his car (lesson 1: even if you’re new, never be afraid to hide your feelings). The Mercedes bosses considered him third in the pecking order (he had two teammates), and gave him further team orders which he regularly defied, opting to try and pass his fellow Mercedes drivers (lesson 2: if you’re the faster car, go for it!). Fagioli didn’t make a lot of friends, but he and teammate Rudolf Caracciola shared a particularly keen dislike for one another (healthy competition never hurt anyone). Fagioli left Mercedes in 1937, though he retained a certain disdain for his former partner, attacking him with a wheel hammer at the Tripoli Grand Prix (lesson 3: professionalism is paramount: never ever attack your teammate with a wheel hammer. Wait until he is no longer your teammate).

12 12. Fernando Alonso (Renault) vs Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)

via wikipedia.org

This rivalry was significant not so much for the bad blood between the two men but more because it represented a changing of the guard. Schumacher had emerged as champion in the previous five seasons, but in 2005 Alonso’s Renault broke the Ferrari man’s stranglehold on F1. In 2006, the German was expected to regroup and mount a stronger challenge, which he did. Ultimately, though, the Spaniard was too strong again and Schumacher announced his retirement.

This rivalry did provide one instance of startlingly poor sportsmanship, however. During qualifying for Monaco 2006, Schumacher was completing his final flying lap ahead of Alonso. Realizing that he was unlikely to improve his time, and that the Spaniard was set to take pole away from him, Schumacher ‘accidentally’ lost control and parked his undamaged car in the middle of the circuit. The yellow flags came out and Alonso was unable to finish his lap, meaning Schumacher would start from the front of the grid. The stewards were wise to the German’s antics though and stripped him of his pole position. He was forced to start the race from last place.

11 11. Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) vs Didier Pironi (Ferrari)

globoesporte.globo.com

This is one of the most short-lived yet tragic rivalries in the history of motor racing. The relationship between the pair had been friendly until a race in San Marino where they tussled for the lead. Villeneuve was ahead when the Ferrari team put out the “slow” signs, which he believed meant “hold station”. Pironi, though, continued in his attempts to get past and, after a number of position swaps, he made the deciding pass on the final lap and won the race. Villeneuve believed he had been beaten unfairly, not decisively, and said he would never speak to Pironi again. Villeneuve left San Marino in a negative frame of mind but came to qualifying two weeks later, at Zolder, exceptionally driven to better his teammate. As he approached the slower moving Jochen Mass, his front left wheel touched Mass’s back left, elevating his car and hurling it against the barrier. Villeneuve was thrown from the cockpit where his fall was broken by metal fencing approximately 30 feet away. He was taken to hospital but pronounced dead later that day.

10 10. Nigel Mansell (Williams) vs Nelson Piquet (Williams)

via espnf1.com

Piquet arrived at Williams in 1986 with a reputation as one of the fastest drivers in F1. It was assumed that he would emphatically sweep Mansell aside and be Williams’ sole challenger for the drivers’ championship. The Brit had very different ideas though.

Personally, the two men did not like one another, with Piquet once referring to the mustached Brit as an ‘uneducated blockhead’. Meanwhile, professionally, they appeared to be equally as unimpressed. To make matters worse, Piquet avoided a post-race handshake after Mansell had beaten him and concealed useful technical information from his partner.

Over the course of the season, to the surprise of many, Mansell won five races to Piquet’s four. Mansell took a healthy lead into ’86 decider in Adelaide, but an infamous tire puncture sent him swiveling into retirement, handing the championship to Prost.

9 9. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) vs Felipe Massa (Ferrari)

via mirror.co.uk

You would expect that after racing on 17 different circuits for thousands of miles for over 30 hours that the championship wouldn’t still hang in the balance on the final corner of the final lap of the season… but in 2008 this is exactly what happened. In a title duel whose closeness may be impossible to replicate, the entourages of both Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton celebrated jubilantly at the race’s end, both believing their man had won the championship. Unfortunately for Massa, Hamilton had managed to pass Timo Glock on the final corner to earn the three points he needed to clinch the title by a single point. Though from a professional standpoint this was an amicable rivalry, the fact it was won and lost on the last corner makes this a legendary battle.

8 8. Damon Hill (Williams) vs Michael Schumacher (Benetton)

f1history.deviantart.com

F1 has a weird knack of saving its most controversial twist for the season finale. Adelaide ’94 was no exception. With Damon Hill hot on Michael Schumacher’s heels, and needing to beat the German to clinch the title, it was Schumacher who was the first to blink. He slid off the road, making contact with the barrier before steering his car back on track. Hill looked to capitalize immediately and pounced down the inside at the following corner… Crunch. Schumacher slammed the door emphatically on the Englishman. The crash sent Schumacher into the tire barrier and into immediate retirement. For a brief moment it looked as if Hill would march on to finish the race. Agonizingly, it quickly became apparent that the front left wish bone on Hill’s car was irreparably damaged. The Brit was forced to also retire from the race, surrendering the title to Schumacher.

7 7. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) vs Mark Webber (Red Bull)

via ausmotive.com

The two men spent five years as partners at Red Bull, but it was the second season in which things became fractious. The partnership began to disintegrate spectacularly in 2010 after a wheel-to-wheel collision in Turkey. Though many pundits saw the accident as marginally more Vettel’s fault than Webber’s, the Australian felt the Red Bull higher ups favored his German counterpart. He wasn’t alone in thinking this. Three races later, Webber was left feeling short changed again, as Red Bull chose to give a supposedly faster front wing to Vettel, rather than the Australian. Webber barely concealed his frustration in the post-qualifying interviews after the German driver (then with zero world championships to his name) claimed pole. On race day Webber came out firing, winning the race impressively and telling his team “Not bad for a no.2 driver!” over the radio. In the next three seasons the pair continued to engage in on and off track conflicts. Success came Vettel’s way in the form of four consecutive world titles, while Webber made his grievances with the team hierarchy increasingly public.

During the Malaysian Grand Prix 2013, Vettel disregarded a pre-race understanding and passed Webber after the final pit stops had been made, to win the race. During an interview from the podium, Webber said: “In the end Seb made his own decision today and will have protection [from the team] as per usual and that’s the way it goes.” Ouch! This summed things up pretty well and Webber left F1 at the end of the 2013 season.

6 6. Alain Prost (Ferrari) vs Nigel Mansell (Ferrari)

via f1history.deviantart.com

5 5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) vs Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

via f1fanatic.co.uk

After rising through the ranks together it was almost inevitable that these two ‘friends’ would one day have to duke it out for the right to be called champion. The writing was on the wall in 2013 when a dissatisfied Rosberg adhered to team orders and ‘held station’ behind Hamilton, even though the German was much quicker. “Remember this one,” he told his team over the radio.

This past season was tense at Mercedes. The season opener was won by Rosberg, followed by a string of four Hamilton victories. The bad blood started to truly curdle though when Rosberg ‘slid’ off the track during Monaco qualifying, meaning Hamilton was unable to complete his final flying Q3 lap. Rosberg claimed pole and went on to win a processional race the following day. This was not the first time this type of accident had occurred, and many in the paddock including Hamilton believed Rosberg to have orchestrated the whole incident. The pit-lane consensus was that Rosberg was the superior strategist, while Hamilton was the better wheel-to-wheel racer. Understandably this irked the German driver, and this played a role in the pairs’ next incident in Spa. A clash, caused primarily by Rosberg, put the relationship beyond repair. The fall out from the crash was a puncture for Hamilton, while Rosberg went on to win the race. In the wake of the coming together, Hamilton told reporters that his teammate had admitted to “doing it on purpose” – to prove a point. The 2008 champion later told reporters, perhaps childishly, that neither man was in the other’s “top 5” friends list. Low blow!

The season went down to the wire in the first ever ‘double points’ final race, where Hamilton overtook Rosberg off the start and went on to win the race and the title, as Rosberg struggled with reliability issues. This could certainly blossom into one of the great rivalries though. Watch this space.

4 4. Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) vs Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)

via manfredvonrichtofen.blogspot.com

Perhaps unusual for an F1 feud, this rivalry was high on both racing excitement and mutual respect; driving excellence was always guaranteed when this pair did battle on the track. The rivalry was especially enthralling for the way it stripped both individuals of their usually stoic images.

3 3. James Hunt (McLaren) vs Niki Lauda (Ferrari)

via mirror.co.uk

Back in the mid 70s, motor racing had a frightening safety record. Statistically, about one in 15 drivers lost their lives. By the sixth race of the '76 season, Niki Lauda already held a seemingly unassailable lead over the season’s other protagonist, James Hunt. The Ferrari maestro had, however, expressed discontent over the inclusion of the narrow Nürburgring circuit, which he felt was ill-suited for the wide F1 cars of the mid 70s. In the end he was out-voted by the drivers’ committee in his attempt to remove the circuit from the ’76 calendar. Against Lauda’s wishes, the race went ahead in tricky conditions, on a half wet, half dry track. As the track began to dry, Lauda was among the first to switch to slick tires. Shortly after this his car slid off the track, shunted the barrier and burst into flames. Trapped in his burning car for nearly a minute before being pulled from the wreckage, Lauda sustained severe burns and inhaled toxic fumes. Hunt went on to win the race, while Lauda was fortunate to escape with his life.

The road back to the cockpit was an understandably traumatic one for Lauda, who suffered a panic attack during his first practice session after the accident. Astonishingly, though, he missed only two races and returned to action in Italy to resume his title quest – just six weeks after his crash. He even extended his lead over Hunt, who then battled back to ensure the title would be decided at a rain lashed Fuji Speedway in Japan. Lauda started the race with a points advantage over Hunt but he felt the conditions were too dangerous and parked his car in the Ferrari garage on lap two. Even with Lauda’s voluntary retirement, Hunt still needed to finish third to seal the title. Late in the race, serious tire degradation forced Hunt to pit, leaving him in fifth place. With two laps remaining, Hunt made up the two places he required and finished third. He won the championship by 69 points to Lauda’s 68.

2 2. Fernando Alonso (McLaren) vs Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)

via f1fanatic.co.uk

The combustible elements were in place: a paranoid champion and a young pretender questioning his dominance, racing in the same team. Throw in “Spygate”, perhaps the most high profile racing scandal of the modern era (where McLaren illegally obtained technical information on Ferrari and were later fined $100 million and disqualified from the constructor’s title), and you have a bomb waiting to go off - repeatedly. To top things off, Kimi Raikkonen stole the title away to Ferrari on the final day of the season from a seemingly impossible position.

The friction this caused was almost as unexpected as it was incendiary. Almost. In the first nine races of the season, Hamilton displayed great consistency, whereas Alonso made uncharacteristic errors and rash judgments. Amid accusations that McLaren favored the British driver, things came to a head during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. First, Hamilton angered the champion by ignoring a pre-qualifying agreement to let Alonso lead the pair out at the start of the session. Alonso then retaliated in a more blatant way, blocking Hamilton in the pit lane so that Hamilton could not complete his final qualifying lap. The Spaniard earned a five-place grid demotion for his actions. If things were hanging by a thread at this stage, then what Alonso did on race day cut the aforementioned thread with a rusty hacksaw: a fuming Alonso threatened team boss Ron Dennis, saying he would reveal emails that would incriminate McLaren in the “Spygate” saga if they did not exert more control over Lewis Hamilton. McLaren’s hands were somewhat tied in this.

Things only worsened, and on the final day of the season Hamilton, Alonso and Raikkonen were all still contenders. Hamilton finished 7th and Alonso 3rd, giving them 109 points each, while Raikonnen won the race and the title with 110 points. One season was as much as Alonso could take and he swiftly moved back to Renault the following year.

1  1. Ayrton Senna (McLaren) vs Alain Prost (McLaren/Ferrari)

via bandeiraverde.com.br

At the peak of their respective careers, Senna and Prost engaged in F1’s greatest rivalry. This feud set the standard by which all others are now judged – a standard that has never been matched. In one corner you had the calculated, ultra efficient and composed Frenchmen – in the other, the impulsive Brazilian, willing to win at any cost.

The two major flashpoints between the drivers occurred in the ‘89 title decider and the penultimate race in ’90. The first saw Prost go into the season finale with a 5-point lead. In perhaps F1’s most notorious driving incident, both men locked wheels and ground to a complete standstill. The clash put Prost out of the race, while Senna received an illegal push restart from the marshals, missing a portion of the lap in the process. He was subsequently disqualified from the race and Prost won the drivers’ title. After all this conflict Prost moved to Ferrari, even stipulating in his contract that Senna could under no circumstances be brought in as his teammate.

Heading into the Japanese Grand Prix the following year, the roles were reversed and the title was within Senna’s grasp. The pair lined up one and two on the grid, Senna then Prost. Prior to the race, Senna was unhappy that the pole-sitter was on the dirty side of the track. He stated that if Prost overtook him off the start that he would not play it safe and would try to reclaim the position at the first corner. And that’s exactly how it went. Prost got the better start and led the Brazilian into the first corner, where Senna crashed into the side of the Ferrari, taking both men out of the race. Senna won the title that day, though his tactic to take Prost out of the race was hardly concealed. The two men apparently put the rivalry behind them before Senna’s tragic death in 1994.

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Top 15 Intense Formula 1 Rivalries