Formula 1 drivers don’t care for second place but, all too often, the ‘first loser’ has to endure the heartbreak of defeat after a championship-level season.
The F1 title has been decided by a single point, or less, on nine occasions – making a ‘loser’ out of icons like Lewis Hamilton or Alain Prost each time.
Adding an extra dose of pain, factors outside of drivers’ control like bad luck and reliability have been known to derail a driver who possessed more pace than the eventual champion.
But who put together the greatest Formula 1 season that didn’t bring home the title? Let’s take a look…
10: Felipe Massa, 2008
Felipe Massa sped onto the home straight at Interlagos celebrating his first World Championship, finishing the final Grand Prix of 2008 without knowing there was one more cruel twist in store.
“Is that Glock, it is, that’s Glock!” Martin Brundle yelled as McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton swept up the inside of a slow-moving Toyota at the final corner of the Brazilian GP, stealing fifth place and the Championship from Massa by a single point.
Victim of one of Formula 1’s great nail-biters at his home Grand Prix, Massa strode up onto the podium, thumped his chest, and pointed to his supporters with pride. He’d put together a wonderful season.
When both men completed the full distance, the Brazilian’s 2008 record against Hamilton was 9-5. He triumphed at six races, one more than the McLaren talent. It was three retirements, including two heartbreaking engine failures, that cost Massa in the end.
While Hamilton has since gone on to win six more titles, Massa never challenged again.
9: Jim Clark, 1967
The season before Jim Clark’s tragic death at the Nurburgring might have earned him a third Formula 1 title, but for a plague of mechanical issues.
Clark is held as one of the all-time greats by those who saw him at work, and his 1967 pace was ferocious. The British driver was dominant by almost every metric across the 11-round World Championship. Most pole positions (6), fastest laps (5), and the most victories (4).
The Lotus’ five retirements with mechanical failures cost Clark, as Denny Hulme’s superior reliability decided the Championship. Hulme couldn’t beat the British driver in a single race they both finished in 1967.
8: Ayrton Senna, 1989
Two Marlborou-sponsored McLarens with motorsport titans at the wheel, both at the other’s throat. The tension couldn’t have been thicker in 1989.
Defending his first World Championship – where he beat new French team-mate, two-time title winner Alain Prost – Ayrton Senna was on fire. An incredible 13 pole positions from 16 races were turned into six victories, but reliability and Prost’s consistency meant he needed a seventh coming into the final round. Otherwise, the title would be Prost’s.
Relations between the McLaren teammates were worn away by allegations of preferential treatment and broken promises, culminating in the explosive Japanese Grand Prix. Senna took pole but Prost snatched the lead, only for the Brazilian to get into overtaking range with eight laps remaining.
Senna lunged down the inside into the chicane, Prost turned in sharply and they collided – with both McLarens coming to a halt as the two drivers looked across in belligerence at each other. While Senna would get his car moving again and ‘win’ the race, he was disqualified for cutting the chicane, handing the title to Prost.
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7: Nigel Mansell, 1987
Sometimes the podium is the route to the Championship in Formula 1, and that was again the case in 1987. Nelson Piquet’s three victories and further eight podiums sealed the Drivers’ title ahead of team-mate Nigel Mansell, who favoured a win-or-bust approach.
The British driver, nicknamed “the Lion”, won six races from eight pole positions that season, including the British GP via a brilliant move on the other Honda-powered Williams driven by Piquet.
Mansell was still chasing his first Championship in 1987 and, with two races remaining, he was in the hunt, 12 points behind his Brazilian team-mate. However, a massive accident in practice at Suzuka ended his tilt, handing Piquet the title.
6: Michael Schumacher, 2006
Ferrari’s last era of dominance had already been broken the previous year, but Michael Schumacher was back in a contending car for 2006 and ready to throw everything at defending champion Fernando Alonso.
The Renault superstar cleaned up in the first half of 2006, finishing first or runner-up at all of the first nine races. Then seven-time champion Schumacher launched a comeback charge, but six victories still left him 13 points behind Alonso in the end.
The battles between Schumacher and Alonso, like the one-on-one showdown at Imola, were unforgettable; showcasing the Spaniard’s wily defensive drives and his German rivals’ aggression on the attack.
5: Kimi Raikkonen, 2005
With Ferrari slipping down the order and slow Bridgestone tyres keeping Michael Schumacher out of the title fight, a new Formula 1 Champion would finally be crowned in 2005.
Kimi Raikkonen had narrowly missed out on the title two years earlier, but McLaren were prepared to mount another challenge. Fernando Alonso quickly emerged as their biggest rival, and the pair won all but five of the 19 rounds.
Both Alonso and Raikkonen crossed the line first seven times in 2005 but, while the Spaniard was only missing from the podium at four rounds, the McLaren driver lost out on regular occasions due to regular Mercedes engine issues, as well as a cataclysmic last-lap tyre failure at the Nurburgring.
4: Alain Prost, 1988
It was Alain Prost himself that convinced McLaren to sign Ayrton Senna but, come the end of 1988, he may have regretted it.
The Brazilian hot-shot had massively out-performed his Lotus machine in the past three seasons and immediately dominated at the wheel of the superior McLaren.
A driver needs world-beating pace as well as ruthless consistency to win the Formula 1 title, and Prost had both in 1988. Across 16 rounds, Prost won seven races, finished second seven times, and retired from the remaining two rounds. And yet, still, Senna was three Championship points better.
3: Alain Prost, 1984
Alain Prost ended his racing career with four Formula 1 titles, but it could so easily have been six. At least two of his four second-places in the Championship deserved more.
In 1984, Prost went head-to-head with the great Niki Lauda in the same dominant McLaren – beating his Austrian team-mate in qualifying at every round but one.
And yet, come the final round, Prost was still 3.5 points behind Lauda. The Frenchman was on top at the penultimate round and made it seven wins for the season in Portugal but Lauda’s second place was enough… taking the Formula 1 title by half a point in the sport’s closest-ever Championship.
2: Lewis Hamilton, 2021
A full 13 years after he stole Felipe Massa’s Formula 1 title on the final lap, Lewis Hamilton himself endured heartbreak on the final lap of a championship.
The 21st Century’s greatest Formula 1 season saw Hamilton pitted against Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who had finally been blessed with a car worthy of his talent and capable of breaking Mercedes’ seven-year stranglehold.
The advantage swung back and forth, each crash or perceived injustice ramping up the tension between Mercedes and Red Bull, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, Hamilton and Verstappen.
Hamilton pitched up for the Abu Dhabi finale with eight victories, having stormed back into contention with three consecutive victories as his Mercedes team found an edge on pace. He and Verstappen were set for a one-race showdown, neck-and-neck on 369.5 points.
Hamilton pulled out a healthy advantage over the Dutchman, but a bizarre sequence of decisions by race control under a late safety car handed Verstappen the chance to pass Hamilton with fresher tyres on the final lap, winning his first title.
1: Lewis Hamilton, 2016
The greatest Formula 1 season by a Championship runner-up is undoubtedly Lewis Hamilton’s in 2016. The British driver’s challenge was so ferocious that Nico Rosberg opted to walk away from the sport days after clinching the title, rather than put in the sheer effort required to race against Hamilton once again.
In the middle of Mercedes’ most dominant days, 19 of the 21 rounds on the 2016 calendar were taken by the Silver Arrows. Hamilton’s total of 10 victories would be impressive for any World Champion, yet Rosberg’s relentlessness meant his team-mate’s early-season problems with reliability proved costly.
The fight turned nasty, with neither Rosberg nor Hamilton yielding space. They crashed each other out in Spain and collided on the final lap in Austria, while there was drama on the radio in Abu Dhabi.
Hamilton piled the pressure on Rosberg, clawing back ground with four straight victories to close out the season. The German somehow coped, finishing second in each race to deny his former friend the title.