Nico Rosberg shocked us all by deciding to retire after winning the 2016 Drivers Championship. In doing so he joined an exclusive club.
The following table shows the full list of drivers throughout F1 history who did not defend their championship title the following year.
|1951||Juan Manuel Fangio|
|1973||Sir Jackie Stewart|
We can add two additional names to the list if we look at champions who did not compete in the first race of the season following their championship victory.
|1951||Juan Manuel Fangio|
|1973||Sir Jackie Stewart|
It is an incredible thing to leave a sport at the very height of your powers. There’s a fascinating story behind each and every one…
Juan Manuel Fangio
Having been narrowly beaten by Nino Farina in F1 racing’s inaugural world championship in 1950, Fangio came good a year later as three wins and two other podiums proved enough to propel him to a first championship crown in 1951. Unfortunately Alfa Romeo, with whom the Argentinian had competed in both seasons, withdrew ahead of the ’52 campaign leaving Fangio without a drive.
Fangio appeared to have a seat at BRM but he was badly injured in a crash at a non-championship race at Monza. He received multiple injuries, including a broken neck, and missed the entire eight-race calendar while recuperating. Fangio would return in 1953, and though he failed to secure the championship that year he went on to claim four more titles.
In 1952 Ascari drove his Ferrari 500 to victory in six of the seven championship races to take the Title. In 1953 he again overpowered the opposition, winning five times and cruising to a second successive driving title.
Following a dispute over his salary, Ascari left Ferrari at the end of the ’53 season and switched to Lancia for the 1954 campaign. Unfortunately Lancia didn’t have a car ready for the start of the season so Ascari failed to start in the first race of his title defense. When the Lancia D50 was ready to race, Ascari took pole position on its debut but was ultimately beaten to the title by Fangio.
If Fangio’s lack of title defence was fleeting, Mike Hawthorn became the first man to actively decide to retire following a championship triumph. Bow-tie-wearing and pipe-smoking Hawthorn was king of cool in the mid to late 1950s. After securing the Le Mans win with Jaguar in 1955 Hawthorn went on to become Britain’s first world champion in 1958, beating compatriot Stirling Moss to the title by a solitary point. It was reported that Hawthorn had been deeply affected by the loss of team mate and friend Peter Collins during that year’s German Grand Prix and whether because of that and/or a possible health issue he stepped away from the sport after claiming the title.
Tragically Hawthorn would lose his life in a road accident in 1959. The World Champion was not yet 30 years old.
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Renowned as a brilliantly talented driver who was spectacular to watch, the flamboyant Rindt had become the man to beat in F1 in 1970. Rindt had already won five of the nine races thrusting the Austrian into a clear 20 point championship lead.
During practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza Rindt was testing his Lotus with no wings in an attempt to reduce drag. He lost control coming into the Parabolica and tragically crashed to his death. His lead was such that no one was able to deprive Rindt of the 1970 title – and the Austrian remains (thankfully) the first and only posthumous champion in F1 history.
Sir Jackie Stewart
Sir Jackie Stewart was already firmly established as the F1 benchmark by the start of 1973, having won two world championships and racked up 14 poles, 22 victories and 35 podiums since a startling debut season in 1965.
The Scot had already confided in team boss and friend Ken Tyrrell that ’73 would be his last season. With an insurmountable lead in the Championship and only two races left – in Canada and the USA – it was supposed to be a farewell tour.
In Stewart’s penultimate race weekend, his Tyrrell team mate and protege Francois Cevert was killed in a violent crash aged just 29. The Scot retired immediately, one race earlier than planned in what would have been his 100th Grand Prix. He would never race in F1 again.
The moustachioed Briton also left the sport at the height of his powers – but unlike Jackie Stewart, Mansell’s exit was not entirely of his own choosing. Having agonisingly missed out on a first title several times, Mansell finally made good in 1992 with Williams. Unfortunately he managed to fall out with the team over pay demands and a misunderstanding about the nature and timing of Alain Prost’s deal with the squad for the following 1993 season.
Though he left the F1 arena as Champion Mansell’s talent was further cemented with his switch to IndyCars yielding an immediate Championship. “Our Nige” as the Brits would say became the only man to hold the F1 and IndyCar crowns at the same time.
A sabbatical in 1992 after his very public falling-out with Ferrari half-way through 1991 had recharged the batteries of the three-time world champion Alain Prost. He replaced the America-bound Mansell at Williams for the 1993 season. At the time, Prost had a one-year clause that precluded Ayrton Senna from becoming his team mate. That honour instead went to Damon Hill, who ended up pushing Prost hard – as did Senna, who was still at McLaren. Prost and Williams were too strong to be denied and he romped to a fourth crown, taking 13 pole positions and seven victories. The triumph came just days after Prost announced his retirement. With the clause in his contract preventing Senna from being his team-mate having expired Prost made way for the Brazilian. For the second year running, F1 did not have a defending champion.
After finishing second to Michael Schumacher in 1994 and 1995, Damon Hill finally saw his chance to build a strong title challenge in 1996, with Schumacher moving to Ferrari and rookie Jacques Villeneuve joining him at Williams. While leading the Championship by 13 points Williams told Hill he was not the future of the team and would not have a contract the following year. In what must have been a huge blow to a racing driver’s confidence Hill could only try to complete the WDC. He did so in style, winning the last race of the year in Japan and finally matching the Championship feat achieved by his father Graham.
Not ready to hang up the helmet Hill had a couple of teams to choose from for 1997. He ended up signing for relative minnow Arrows. Although he was close to victory in an inspiring race in Hungary, he spent most of 1997 at the back of the field. In his first race Of the season he only qualified 20th and during the warm-up lap, his throttle jammed and he was forced to retire before the lights even went green. The result – the reigning F1 Champion did not start the first race of his title defence.
Unlike many on this list, there was precious little forewarning of Rosberg’s decision to retire following his draining first title in 2016. After yet another season long battle with Lewis Hamilton in the dominant Mercedes Rosberg announced his retirement just five days after securing the crown – and just a few hours before his official coronation. “Since 25 years in racing, it has been my dream, my ‘one thing’ to become Formula One World Champion,” Rosberg said. “I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right.”
Nico Rosberg has joined an exclusive club. Each of these drivers is a hero of the sport who for very different reasons failed to line up on the grid to defend their F1 Championship title. 2016 may not have been the best season in formula 1 history but it was certainly a bitter fight to the final nail-biting finish. It’s still early days for the 2017 season but one thing’s for certain: we will have a new Champion.