When Leaders and Backmarkers Collide: F1 Edition (Part 1)

Due to the nature of the vast majority of racing circuits being a circle overall where the start and finish line are the same, if the leader of a race is fast enough they can catch up to the back of the slower cars occupying the rear end of the standings. In this case the backmarker is shown the dreaded “blue-flag”, which demands the driver in front to slow down at the next available opportunity and let the faster car through without a fight. In spite of this rule, mistakes on either the leader or backmarker’s end can occur resulting in a collision or even retirement for one or both participants. This often has a disproportionately larger impact on the season of the leader as supposed to the driver nearing the back of the timing sheet, which as you are about to see has resulted in some pretty fiery confrontations.

Ayrton Senna and Satoru Nakajima: Brazil 1990

Ayrton Senna was yet to savour the sweet taste of victory at his home race in Brazil. After six previous attempts since 1984 at Jacarepaguá, the Brazilian Grand Prix moved to his home town of Sao Paulo, more specifically the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace for the 1990 season.

Senna had consolidated a commanding lead over the race, so much so that by lap 42 he had overtaken numerous other backmarkers and came up behind former teammate Satoru Nakajima’s Tyrrell. The Japanese driver thought he had given Ayrton enough space on the inside of the corner, but on exit the McLaren’s front wing touched the Tyrrell’s rear tyre, ripping the aerodynamically crucial piece of carbon fibre off as well as damaging the nose cone.

Having only recently gone into the pits, Senna was forced to come in once again to replace the front section of his car. He fervently charged his way back through several cars to clinch the final spot on the podium. Meanwhile Nakajima did not suffer any damage but was out of the points in 8th place regardless.

As you will soon come to realise, this was not the Brazilian’s first unintended tussle with a backmarker and so he didn’t seem so upset by the squabble on track. Ayrton would only have to wait one more year before finally achieving a win on home soil, in 1991.

Max Verstappen and Esteban Ocon: Brazil 2018

We are back at the same racetrack 28 years later for a quarrel between Red Bull driver Max Verstappen and Esteban Ocon of Force India which ended in a rather distasteful manner.

Verstappen looked set for an unexpected victory at Interlagos when he came up behind the pink Force India car which was a lap down. The Dutchman momentarily got past Ocon but the French driver remained side-by-side with the Red Bull, believing that he was still the faster car on track. Max didn’t expect the Frenchman to still be on his side and turned into the chicane, squeezing Ocon more and more until there was no room. They spun each other off the track but both were able to continue with no damage to speak of.

While Verstappen was facing the wrong way off the track however, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes sped past to take the lead. The Red Bull driver re-joined in 2nd place and the order stayed the same for the remainder of the race. Ocon received a stop-go penalty for his actions and eventually trundled home in 13th position.

At the conclusion of the race, Verstappen walked over to Esteban and exchanged a few heated words before shoving him. The FIA didn’t take kindly to Verstappen’s behaviour, and decided to give him 2 days of community service as a punishment.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Jos Verstappen: Brazil 2001

When I was ordering this list of crashes, I actually never intended to put three of the same track in a row! But this crash at Interlagos actually follows on very nicely from the previous example. In a way, Max and Esteban’s crash acted as repayment for the sins of Max’s father Jos who put Juan Pablo Montoya in the Williams out of the race in 2001.

Jos Verstappen did not have the raw ability or fortune to drive for the top teams that his son has since, and was wrestling his underpowered Arrows around the circuit in Sao Paulo. Soon enough, Montoya came up behind him and Verstappen allowed the Williams pilot through on the back straight.

The Dutch driver tried to slot back in behind the Colombian, but locked up his brakes and clattered directly into the rear of Montoya’s car. This took both drivers out of contention.

Many suspect that Jos may have misjudged his braking point, having been so preoccupied with getting back behind the gearbox of the Williams so as to return to the optimal racing line. However, Jos himself suggests that Juan Pablo applied his brakes surprisingly early, giving the Dutchman no choice but to apply full braking input to avoid hitting him which was to no avail.

Montoya was on only his third F1 race, and was leading a Grand Prix for the first time. You would expect him to have been very upset, and while we can be sure that he was very disappointed he certainly didn’t show it to the press. He simply told them that he would come back stronger in the coming races. That’s the spirit!

Ayrton Senna and Jean-Louis Schlesser: Italy 1988

McLaren were the undeniably dominant force back in 1988. With 11 rounds completed, the duo of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna had taken all of the race victories, with the other driver in the team achieving second place unless they had retired or been disqualified.

This record looked set to be extended at the Italian Grand Prix, with Ayrton Senna holding an admittedly slim lead over the Ferrari pair of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto (which was getting even slimmer by the minute).

Meanwhile Jean-Louis Schlesser was standing in at Williams for Nigel Mansell, who had chickenpox and therefore couldn’t race. It was the Frenchman’s first and only start in Formula 1. Nevertheless he struggled for pace compared to teammate Riccardo Patrese and languishing near the back of the field.

With 2 laps left to go, Senna’s MP4/4 came up behind Schlesser. Perhaps due to the impending Ferrari pair closing in, Ayrton was impatient in getting past the backmarking Williams and decided to make his move at the chicane. Schlesser purposefully went wide at the first kink to let Senna through on the inside, but locked up his tyres and almost went off the track. His determination to keep all four wheels on the track momentarily blinded Schlesser to the fact that Senna was still to his left, causing him to hit the Brazilian’s rear right tyre. This broke the McLaren’s suspension and ended Senna’s race.

The 2 Ferrari’s managed a poignant 1-2 finish at their home race, 4 weeks on the dot after Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari passed away. This ended up being the only race in the 1988 season that McLaren failed to win, much to the re of team boss Ron Dennis.

Many years later at the 2013 Monaco Grand Prix, Dennis met up with Schlesser for the first time since the accident. While Ron accused the French former driver of “ruining his life”, Schlesser merely responded by saying that the failure to achieve a perfect record that season kept him hungry for greater successes in subsequent years.

Part 2 will come out soon…

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