Tales of wasted potential are more common in F1 than most other sports. With a driver’s personal prospects almost entirely dictated by the quality of their car, stories of success are comfortably outweighed by those of unfulfilled promise.
And with only a select number of cars – no more than two or three at most in the modern era – capable of competing for regular wins, even those who do reach the summit, such as Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, are routinely accused of underachieving.
Here, we present five celebrated stars who might be moved to look back in anger, or at least with a little regret…
At what point does a man stop torturing himself over what he’s lost, and instead begin to appreciate what he has? As the 20th anniversary of his first title triumph with Renault approaches, might Alonso be nearing that point of acceptance?
The famous statistic of his Formula 1 career tells us that just eight more points sprinkled nicely across the 2007, 2010 and 2012 seasons would have made him a five-time World Champion.
Yet, by the same token, to some degree he is fortunate to have two.
If Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren was even half as reliable as it was bone-shakingly quick in 2005, for instance, Alonso and Renault would have been at risk of being overwhelmed by it.
And had Michael Schumacher not suffered a luckless end to his Ferrari career the following year, with an engine failure while leading in Japan followed by a fuel-pressure problem and puncture on consecutive days in Brazil, Alonso could quite feasibly have been left stranded on zero.
That would have made for an even greater travesty, potentially even the biggest in the history of sport. You win some, you lose some after all…
Alonso has made some mistakes along the way, no doubt – including a couple of team moves that didn’t go to plan, even if the logic at the time seemed sound – but a record of just 32 wins is an ill-fitting return for the driver described by legendary reporter Nigel Roebuck as the greatest driver of this century, whose very spirit seems tangible in each flick of the steering wheel.
There is an obsession in F1 with the third World Championship. That’s the moment you enter a place beyond belonging to select group of drivers. That’s when you’re allowed into Senna Class.
Now in his forties and registering podium after podium with Aston Martin, you suspect Alonso wouldn’t still be here if he didn’t think there’s still a chance, however slight, of sneaking in…
That question of how much more he could have won, however, will always hang over him.
It may not sit well with some, but Raikkonen was already past his peak at the point he was crowned World Champion, at the age of 28, in 2007.
Those who weren’t around to see him at his McLaren best in the 2005 MP4-20 – that glorious V10 roar, its curves in all the right places – will never fully know what they missed.
In truth, this sport has never scorched the senses in quite the same way since.
Raikkonen was unlucky to miss out on the title that year as well as in 2003, but fortune fell on his side in the three-way fight with and Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in 2007.
It wasn’t that he was somehow unimpressive in his first year at Ferrari – six victories in total, including at the season opener in Melbourne and the title decider in Brazil, represented a fine and ultimately decisive return – more that he was already noticeably lacking the explosive, unholy speed of his McLaren days.
In hindsight, maybe he should have got out there and then with his life’s ambition achieved, for the remainder of his career – from being paid to go away by Ferrari in 2010 to being brought back again four years later via the WRC and Lotus-Renault – seemed to lack purpose.
Listen to those who worked with him – specifically the celebrated driver coach Rob Wilson – and it soon becomes clear that Raikkonen was up there with the most naturally gifted drivers ever to race in F1, his driving style characterised by a unique feel for the surface of the road and a lightness of touch with his right foot to render traction control redundant.
He could have been anything he wanted to be – but did he want it enough?
Raikkonen, as we know, is wired differently to most and in his enjoyment of the F1 life elected not to make the most of his immense talent.
Genius, as they say, is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.
It says a lot about Kimi that his one per cent was still plenty enough to assure him of a place among the greats.
There has been a degree of revisionism in light of Daniel Ricciardo’s disastrous two-season spell at McLaren.
Even at his race-winning Red Bull best between 2014 and ’18, some would have you believe, he wasn’t that good. World Champion material? Never. And even if he had been, Max Verstappen would have had him covered anyway.
There may be a slither of truth to that last point, but to dismiss Ricciardo now as not all that anyway is to forget the quality of his performances throughout those golden years.
In 2014 and 2016 in particular – two seasons in which the World Championship came down to a straight fight between Mercedes drivers Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – Ricciardo stood above both as the standout performer, all while hounding reigning four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel out of Red Bull in the first year.
And even when Max came along and began to exert his authority, there were still often days when Daniel – with pole position as late as Mexico 2018, three races from the end of his Red Bull career – would outshine the boy wonder.
The best description of Red Bull-era Ricciardo came from journalist Anthony Rowlinson who likened him to a surfer riding a wave, holding the pose.
What, Daniel must wonder now, if he had carried on holding that pose? How far exactly would that wave have carried him?
He had his reasons, of course, but it was a great regret that he decided to leave Red Bull at the very point they embarked on a trajectory with Honda that would return them to the top.
Juan Pablo Montoya
A single moment from his F1 career sums up everything you would ever need to know about Juan Pablo Montoya.
Restart, Brazil 2001. Schumacher, as ever, is leading the field into the Senna S.
And then suddenly he isn’t, as a BMW Williams draws alongside out of nowhere at the apex and proceeds to put him on to the dirt on exit for good measure.
“Hi, my name’s Juan Pablo Montoya – but you can call me JPM,” you can almost hear the Williams driver saying as he completes the pass on the World Champion in just his third grand prix. “And you are..?”
The cheek! The nerve! The disrespect! But how the sport so badly needed it.
There was almost something cultural about Montoya’s confrontational attitude towards Schumacher, as though it had been drilled into him from an early age in Colombia to never even consider that anyone could be better or more successful than him at anything he did.
A figure of authority, as Michael undoubtedly was at the time, was someone to be brought down. Monty was not one for bowing.
He looked as well placed as anyone to take the snake’s head at the end of a debut season in which he claimed his first win at Monza, but Williams remained at least half a step behind Schumacher’s Ferrari team over the following years and, in hindsight, Montoya’s momentum had already slowed when he moved to McLaren in 2005.
Largely blown away by Raikkonen in a disrupted season defined by a mysterious injury – he said tennis, other suspected motocross – Montoya quietly exited through the backdoor halfway through 2006 with just seven wins to his name in total.
His stunning first impression hinted at so much more.
Still need convincing that Robert Kubica was World Champion material? Time to let his peers do the talking.
Back in 2012, Alonso claimed Kubica was “the best driver of the group” regarded as F1’s holy trinity at the time – comprising himself, Hamilton and Vettel – admitting Robert was the opponent he feared the most.
Hamilton, meanwhile, had “privately confided” – according to Roebuck – that Kubica was the one driver against whom he really wouldn’t fancy his chances, having raced against him since karting.
And what of Vettel?
According to respected journalist Mark Hughes on a 2015 Motor Sport Magazine podcast, BMW Sauber decided against attempting to lure Seb from the Red Bull stable after the team’s analysis of his Friday practice outings concluded he was “consistently” four tenths slower than Kubica.
That’s how good he was; that’s what the sport lost in that damned rally crash in 2011.
It has emerged in the years since that Kubica was on a likely unstoppable trajectory, having signed a contract to partner Alonso at Ferrari from 2012. Had things been different, he may have arrived at Maranello already as a World Champion.
As the debate rages over the true destiny of the 2008 World Championship, often the thought has occurred to overlook both Hamilton and Felipe Massa and just give the thing to Robert, widely regarded as the outstanding driver of that season.
Kubica actually led the standings after what proved to be his only F1 win in Canada but was mortified by BMW’s reluctance to seize the day, the team instead preferring to focus on developing the new car ahead of the 2009 rule changes.
He would never come so close again, but continued to awe in BMW and Renault colours.
His performance at Monaco 2010 remains firmly imprinted on the memory of anyone who watched it trackside, while the depths he went to during his final qualifying lap at Suzuka later that season – of which onboard footage finally emerged in 2019 – were said to have left him white as a ghost and, for a short time, speechless.
History will likely remember him as a mere one-hit wonder, but in unguarded moments Fernando, Lewis and Seb will tell you just how good he really was.