• Top ten ... dominant starts to a season

Running away with it

Chris Medland
May 16, 2011

A good start is crucial to any title challenge, and with Sebastian Vettel enjoying an almost perfect opening to the season, we look at ten of the most dominant in Formula One history

Jim Clark celebrates after another comfortable victory at Zandvoort © Sutton Images
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Jim Clark, 1963
While Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio had both had their dominant seasons in the previous decade, Jim Clark took the meaning to a whole new level in 1963. At the opening race in Monaco he was well clear with 22 laps left when his gearbox seized and he retired. That was to be his only blank of a remarkable year, however. Clark went on to win the next race in torrential conditions in Spa, followed by the next three grands prix in Holland, France and Britain. His run didn't stop there either, although a misfiring cylinder did force him to have to settle for second at the Nurburgring, he returned to the top step at Monza and in turn took the title with three races still remaining. His dominance was summed up when ignition problems left him stranded on the grid at Watkins Glen, but even though he was immediately a lap down he still stormed back to finish third, before concluding an outstanding season with wins in Mexico and South Africa.

Jim Clark, 1965
Jim Clark almost matched his dominance of two years previously as his partnership with Lotus went from strength to strength. Having dominated the season-opening South African Grand Prix despite being shown the chequered flag a lap early, Clark didn't take part in the second race in Monaco as he and Lotus were busy winning the Indianapolis 500. He returned to Formula One to win at a thundery Spa, before triumphing in France in the car that had brought him his 1963 crown after his original 32 broke down in practice. He then nursed home a misfiring engine at Silverstone, and eased to the front at Zandvoort as team owner Colin Chapman endured a more difficult afternoon; being arrested for assaulting a police officer who had tried to remove him from the grid believing he had the wrong accreditation. When Clark dominated at the Nurburgring it ensured he had won every race he had started, and with only six scores counting towards the final championship standings, he had reached maximum points. It meant that once again the title was his with three races remaining.

Jackie Stewart, 1969
The turn of another Scot to grab the headlines, as Jackie Stewart took his first drivers title when no-one else could mount any sort of sustained challenge. Driving for Matra, Stewart comfortably won the season-opener in South Africa from Graham Hill in a Lotus. Hill was unable to challenge Stewart at the next race in Spain either as his rear wing failed and caused him to crash at high speed, but he bounced back to win at Monaco when Stewart retired from a comfortable lead midway through the race. From that point on though, it was the unreliability of other cars - namely the Lotus of Jochen Rindt - that would see Stewart run away with the championship. At the following round in Zandvoort Rindt took pole and led the first 16 laps before retiring to hand Stewart his third win in four races, and then after Stewart cruised home a minute clear in France, Rindt again threatened at Silverstone until a loose wing forced him to pit and drop to fourth. Stewart's driving class came to the fore in Italy though, where an epic slipstreaming battle saw the first four cross the line less than 0.2s apart, with Stewart pipping Rindt by half a car length to take his sixth win in eight and the title.

Niki Lauda leads James Hunt, the man who would beat him to the 1976 title © Sutton Images
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Niki Lauda, 1976
Despite a strong start to the season, fate would prevent Niki Lauda from winning the world championship when it seemed only a matter of time. His Ferrari was competitive but hardly streets ahead of the rest of the field - he was pipped to pole by James Hunt in Brazil and once he led he was closed down by Jean-Pierre Jarier until the Frenchman retired. A similar story occurred in South Africa where Lauda beat pole-sitter Hunt off the line and built up a lead before gradually being reeled back in, finishing just over a second ahead as a slow puncture almost cost him the race. At Long Beach Lauda was beaten, finishing second to his team-mate Clay Regazzoni having only been able to qualify fourth. In Spain, again Hunt took pole and again Lauda beat him in to the first corner, but the McLaren was comfortably quicker and Hunt eased through to win, although was subsequently disqualified for his car being too wide and Lauda awarded the victory. Hunt was eventually reinstated as winner later in the year on appeal. A dominant win in Zolder, followed by another in Monaco, gave Lauda five out of six victories at the time, and one second. Even after Hunt's successful appeal, Lauda appeared to have the title in his grasp, but his horrific crash at the Nurburgring almost cost him his life, and Hunt would win the title in Japan when Lauda withdrew on grounds of safety.

Alain Prost, 1988
In a year when McLaren destroyed the rest of the field, Alain Prost enjoyed a marginally better start to the season than his new team-mate Ayrton Senna. Despite only starting third at the season-opener in Brazil, Prost took a comfortable victory as pole-sitter Senna had gearbox trouble on the grid and switched to the spare car before being disqualified. Senna again pipped Prost to pole next time out at Imola when the two McLaren's were over three seconds quicker than the rest of the field, and a slow start from Prost dropped him well down the field, though he recovered to finish just over 2 seconds back in second place. In Monaco, Prost was over a minute behind his team-mate after being stuck behind Gerhard Berger for much of the race when Senna got too close to the barriers and retired, and the Frenchman inherited the win. He then got the jump on Senna to make it three wins from four in Mexico and held a comfortable lead in the drivers standings. Prost was so confident in his speed that after finishing second to Senna in Detroit and Montreal he responded with a comprehensive victory at his home race in France. The dominance was such that he even said "We cannot drive slower just to make the races more exciting." Despite four wins and three second places from the opening seven rounds, Prost wouldn't take the title as Senna would later win four in a row and finish with eight victories to his team-mate's seven.

Ayrton Senna, 1991
Having sealed the 1990 title in controversial fashion by taking out Alain Prost in Japan, Ayrton Senna flew out of the blocks in 1991. Continuing his affiliation with McLaren, the double world champion led every lap of the first race in Phoenix despite having not tested the car prior to the weekend. Then in Brazil gearbox trouble when leading meant he completed the final seven laps in sixth gear, which was made even more difficult by late rain, but still held off Riccardo Patrese to make it two out of two. Returning to Europe for the third round of the season at Imola, Senna again secured pole but after Prost span off on the parade lap Senna lost out to Patrese in the wet off the line, and looked like he would have to settle for second until a misfire on the Williams midway through the race dropped Patrese out of the running. Though closely followed home by Berger, Senna made it three out of three in a race of attrition that saw JJ Lehto take third in a Dallara. In Monaco it was pole again for the Brazilian, and thanks to Stefano Modena qualifying a surprise second in his Tyrrell, Senna was able to comfortably lead away for another lights-to-flag victory. Four wins out of four gave him a remarkable 29 point lead over second placed man Prost, with 10 points being awarded for a win. Nigel Mansell closed the gap during the rest of the season until he crashed out in the penultimate race in Japan to hand Senna his third and final world title.

Nigel Mansell is congratulated by Ayrton Senna after succeeding him as World Champion © Sutton Images
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Nigel Mansell, 1992
Having been Ayrton Senna's nearest challenger the previous season, Nigel Mansell was finally given the car to beat the Brazilian, and in doing so he also bettered his run of four consecutive victories at the start of 1991. Having looked the class of the field in pre-season testing, the new Williams FW14B lived up to the hype and Mansell took a dominant pole position almost a second ahead of Senna before leading every lap to win ahead of team-mate Riccardo Patrese. It was the same story in Monaco for round two, where Mansell again took pole, and similarly led home his team-mate for another Williams one-two. The team's dominance was even more apparent in Brazil, where Mansell's third pole was a full 2 seconds quicker than third-placed man Senna. It was a hat-trick of Williams one-two's, but that run ended at the fourth race in Spain when Patrese spun off in the rain from second position. Mansell had no such problems though to take his fourth lights-to-flag win in as many races by nearly half a minute from Michael Schumacher. With the rest of the field's championship hopes fading, Mansell duly went out and took pole position in Imola before streaking away to comfortably beat his team-mate by ten seconds. Five wins out of five, five pole positions and more than double the amount of points than any other driver had virtually sealed the championship already. After two winless races, Mansell would later win three in a row and seal the title after 11 of the 16 rounds.

Michael Schumacher, 2002
Having secured back-to-back titles in the previous two years, Michael Schumacher's rule of the championship was considered boring in 2002, but his run of victories were thanks to the perfect blend of his driving prowess, Ferrari's ruthless attention to detail and chief designer Rory Byrne's F2002. After his team-mate Rubens Barrichello took pole in Australia, Schumacher's brother Ralf did him a favour and took the pair out in to turn one. Schumacher would go on to win when he got the better of a battle with Juan Pablo Montoya after David Coulthard ran wide following a safety car period. Although he had to settle for third behind the Williams pair in Malaysia, Ferrari had been using the F2001 so far and Schumacher dominated once he had his hands on the new car. He won in Brazil, comfortably beat his team-mate at Imola and made it three in a row when he cruised home by over half a minute in Spain. His fourth win out of five at the start of the season came in acrimonious circumstances in Austria. For once outpaced - and easily outqualified - by Barrichello, Ferrari ordered the Brazilian to let Schumacher through to take the win on the final lap, which resulted in widespread booing and was a catalyst in the FIA bringing in a rule against team orders. Still, Schumacher had double the points of his nearest challenger with 54 from a possible 60, and three victories and two second's from the next five races would see him match Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five world championships with six races still to run.

Michael Schumacher, 2004
Michael Schumacher's seventh world title - and fifth in a row - was his most dominant of all, and the most comprehensive victory in world championship history; his impressive 'start' to the season never really ended. Schumacher led home a Ferrari one-two in Melbourne, before winning again in Sepang and Bahrain. He had secured pole position at all three races, and although Jenson Button then ended that run in his BAR at Imola, Schumacher drove a controlled race to leapfrog the Briton during the pitstops and take his fourth consecutive victory. He equalled Mansell's record of five in a row with another easy lights-to-flag win in Spain. Although he uncharacteristically crashed out in Monaco as Jarno Trulli ensured he didn't have things all his own way, Schumacher bounced back to go on a streak of seven race wins in a row. He headed Ferrari one-twos at the Nurbugring, Montreal and Indianapolis, before holding off the improving Fernando Alonso in France, Kimi Raikkonen in Britain and Button again in Germany. When he took pole, led every lap and set the fastest lap in Hungary, Schumacher had won 12 of the first 13 races. He admittedly had to settle for second in Spa next time out, but it was enough to secure him his final championship, this time with four races to go.

A familiar sight as Jenson Button leads the field away in Monaco © Sutton Images
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Jenson Button, 2009
Jenson Button's start to the 2009 season was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had been without a drive at the end of 2008 when his Honda team withdrew from Formula One. Fortunately, team principal Ross Brawn and other senior team members bought out the team and ran the 2009 cars under the Brawn name, and what cars they were. The double-diffusers they had designed made the most of new regulations, and having looked quick in testing Button delivered, heading a comfortable one-two in Melbourne even if it took a late safety car to hand Rubens Barrichello second. In Malaysia, despite running third early on, Button pumped in some quick laps to take the lead after the first round of pit stops, but was only rewarded with half points as monsoon-like conditions caused the race to be stopped prematurely. Though he had to settle for third in China as a Red Bull one-two threatened to upset the apple cart, Button returned to winning ways at round four in Bahrain, saying "You have to be aggressive at this point in the season - you cannot settle for second or third place right now. You can't afford to play it safe." He then showed his class by making a two-stop strategy work in Spain to beat his three-stopping team-mate, and took a dominant win in Monaco - again ahead of Barrichello. In Turkey, Sebastian Vettel grabbed pole but ran wide on the first lap to allow Button through, converting his sixth win from seven races. He would not win another race as Brawn struggled to match the development pace of Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren, but the dominant start coupled with a brilliant drive up to fifth in Brazil would be enough to give him the title.

Chris Medland is an assistant editor on ESPNF1.

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