Heartbreak: Eight times an F1 race leader has crashed out
Charles Leclerc is in the unenviable position of becoming the latest F1 driver to crash out of a Grand Prix while in the lead, but is far from the first…
Potentially the most devastating of mistakes a Formula 1 driver can make, an unforced driving error while leading is a rare occurrence in the top flight of motorsport.
Leclerc became the latest to add his name to what is quite a small list of high-profile mistakes, with the Monegasque owning up to simply losing control of his Ferrari while leading on Lap 19 of the 2022 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard.
Let’s revisit some of the other incidents in which the race leader has crashed out while driving by themselves on track.
For the purposes of this list, car failures don’t count, so the likes of Max Verstappen’s tyre failure at the 2021 Azerbaijan GP, or Kimi Raikkonen’s last-lap suspension explosion at the Nurburgring in 2005 won’t be included.
Nor will collisions with a rival, meaning Verstappen’s 2021 collision with Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone, for example, or any of the intra-Mercedes clashes between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg won’t feature on this list.
Lewis Hamilton, Germany 2019
Hamilton was leading a Mercedes 1-2 when he slid off the track in wet conditions at the 2019 German Grand Prix.
With the team celebrating 125 years of participation in motorsport, the Mercedes squad were resplendent in a throwback livery and team uniform for the weekend at Hockenheim, but it proved to be a weekend of misfortune as Hamilton’s error resulted in a comedic pitstop.
Having crashed at the corner marking the entry to the pits, Hamilton managed to just keep the car moving forward enough to extricate himself and dive in for repairs. The team weren’t ready for him, and this meant the reigning Champion was held in the pits for almost a minute as his team scrambled for tyres and a front wing.
With Valtteri Bottas going on to crash out on Lap 56, Hamilton would go on to finish in ninth and scored just two points. However, given Mercedes’ superiority that season, it made scant difference to Hamilton’s dominant World Championship victory.
Sebastian Vettel, Germany 2018
While Hamilton’s error at Hockenheim proved reasonably inconsequential, the same can’t be said of Vettel’s agonising error the previous year.
Coming into his home race, Vettel had an eight-point lead over Hamilton after a tremendous victory at Silverstone, and looked set to extend that gap further as a problem during qualifying meant the Mercedes driver could only line up 14th on the grid.
Vettel was leading a Ferrari 1-2 ahead of Kimi Raikkonen on Lap 51, but feeling the pressure from a recovering Hamilton as the conditions became increasingly slippery due to an approaching rainstorm. Negotiating the stadium section, Vettel made a critical error into Turn 12 and slid off into the gravel, hitting the barriers and coming to a halt.
Tearfully climbing from his Ferrari, Vettel was evidently distressed as he recognised the enormity of his error, as Hamilton came through to take victory and take a 17-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship.
While Vettel would win convincingly at Spa just two races later, the four-time World Champion never quite refound his form and, by the end of the season, had begun to pick up a reputation for making unforced errors or spinning while in battle. Vettel’s relationship with Ferrari ended at the conclusion of 2020, with his error at Hockenheim seemingly marking the point at which the Scuderia began to lose faith in their illustrious driver.
Mika Hakkinen, Imola 1999
The popular Finn was leading in the early stages of the 1999 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola when he made the tiniest of errors – with disastrous consequences.
Riding up onto the exit kerb as he powered out of the final chicane onto the start/finish straight on Lap 18, Hakkinen lit up the rear tyres as he tried to accelerate out of the bumpy corner.
However, the wheelspin resulted in him suddenly spearing off to the left, and straight into the wall lining the circuit – much to the delight of the Italian crowd, who were there to cheer on Hakkinen’s chief title rival Michael Schumacher.
Given his growing lead over McLaren team-mate David Coulthard, who would lose out in the resulting battle with Ferrari’s Schumacher, it appeared Hakkinen had thrown away a likely victory in what proved to be a very close 1999 title fight.
Astonishingly, both Schumacher and Hakkinen would both go on to crash out from the lead from races later in the 1999 season (more on those in a moment), perhaps showcasing best the nervousness of the late 90s, narrow profile F1 cars on the grooved tyres.
Mika Hakkinen, Monza 1999
Later that season, with Schumacher sidelined due to a leg-breaking accident at Silverstone, Hakkinen rocked up to Monza and took a comfortable pole position by half a second over Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen, while chief title rival Eddie Irvine could only manage eighth on the grid.
Hakkinen proceeded to dominate the first 29 laps of the race, opening up an eight-second lead over Frentzen, and looked set to establish a commanding lead over Irvine with just three races remaining in the season.
However, Hakkinen would give the Italian fans another reason to go wild, as he selected first gear instead of second while braking for the Rettifilio chicane. Spinning off and beaching his car in the gravel, Hakkinen’s emotional response saw him retreat behind some bushes to cry while a helicopter voyeuristically hovered ahead – the moment becoming one of the most iconic images of the season’s twists and turns.
The error meant Hakkinen failed to open up a lead in the standings, although Irvine was unable to capitalise much as he only scored a solitary point in sixth place to draw level with the Finn.
Instead, it was Frentzen and Jordan who cashed in on Hakkinen’s error, with the German closing to just 10 points behind the leading duo to become a dark horse for the title.
Michael Schumacher, Canada 1999
Just three races after Hakkinen’s catastrophic Imola error, Schumacher repaid the favour in Canada.
On the weekend where the ‘Wall of Champions’ picked up its nickname, Schumacher was leading the race comfortably over Hakkinen when he made an error going through the final chicane and slid sideways into the concrete wall.
An incensed Schumacher was very wound up by his error, but held his hands up as he said “It was very clearly a mistake by myself. I seem to make one a year, and I hope that’s my last this year.”
The mistake handed the win to Hakkinen and negated the Finn’s error from Imola.
David Coulthard and Giancarlo Fisichella, Nurburgring 1999
In an astonishing turn of events at the Nurburgring just a few weeks after Hakkinen’s Monza error, it was a race that no one wanted to win.
After a dramatic start with a big crash for Sauber’s Pedro Diniz who ended up upside down, the race itself saw McLaren make a tactical error with Hakkinen being brought in for wet tyres just as the track began to dry out.
Frentzen, set to close up in the championship as he led convincingly, forgot to disengage his anti-stall after a pitstop, and ground to a halt just after exiting the pits. This handed the lead to Coulthard, who still had a chance of closing up in the title fight.
However, on Lap 38, Coulthard slid off the road in the worsening conditions and was powerless to stop himself from hitting the barriers. Giancarlo Fisichella thus inherited the lead for Benetton, only to spin off himself just nine laps later.
Johnny Herbert then took over the lead, weathering the closing laps to cross the line and give Stewart Grand Prix (then Jaguar, now Red Bull Racing) their sole Grand Prix victory.
Michael Schumacher, Imola 1995
In what was a dominant 1995 season for Schumacher, Imola was one of the few races that went wrong for him. Leading in the early stages of the race at Imola, the reigning World Champion slid off approaching Piratella and had a surprisingly big crash that resulted in his car briefly being pitched into the air.
Having just made the change to slick tyres in the wet-to-dry conditions, one might be forgiven for thinking Schumacher had simply made an error of judgement, although Schumacher maintained there had been a problem with the car.
Ayrton Senna, Monaco 1988
Probably the epitome of a driver throwing away a certain victory, Senna had dominated the entirety of the Monaco weekend and was leading by almost a minute with just 11 laps remaining of the race.
What exactly happened has never been fully explained, with Senna’s error not captured by TV cameras, but the Brazilian would later explain that he had clipped the inside barrier at the Portier corner.
This resulted in his car being damaged and thrown to the opposite side of the track, where he came to rest against the barrier on the outside on the approach to the tunnel.
A distraught Senna would famously vanish back to his apartment nearby for several hours before resurfacing and returning to speak to his team in the pits.
Senna would go on to win the World Championship despite the error, beating McLaren team-mate Alain Prost in the first of their controversial title fights.
- Fernando Alonso was leading the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix for Renault when he tagged the wall coming out of Turn 4. This caused rear suspension damage that resulted in him being forced to pit and retire – his failure resulted in McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen inheriting the win.
- Coulthard crashed out of the 1995 Australian Grand Prix while leading his final race for Williams in unusual circumstances – he crashed while entering the pits! Hitting the brakes for the tight right-hander of the pit lane entry in Adelaide, Coulthard appeared to still have some forward drive from his engine but admitted to feeling “like an idiot” after being caught out by the issue.
- Back in 1982, Prost was leading the Monaco Grand Prix with three laps to go when he crashed exiting the chicane as rain began to fall – his retirement triggered an unbelievable three laps of action where the lead changed hands between Riccardo Patrese, Derek Daly and Andrea de Cesaris – all of whom encountered mechanical trouble. Following a stall, Patrese came through to take the win.
- In 1984, Nigel Mansell retired from the lead of the Monaco Grand Prix as he crashed going up the hill from Satine Devote. The British driver missed out on a maiden Grand Prix win as a result, having been sprinting away from eventual winner Prost at the time of his mistake.
- Jack Brabham missed out on victory at Monaco in 1970, when the Australian locked up going into the final corner on the last lap of the race. Feeling the pressure from a faster Jochen Rindt behind, Brabham misjudged a move to lap Piers Courage and ended up taking the less-ideal inside line and lost control. Reversing out of the barriers, he crossed the line 23 seconds behind Rindt, who would go on to win the title posthumously as the Austrian was killed in a crash at Monza later that year.