Revealed: The unusual and secret tests involving F1 World Champions

Thomas Maher
Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher carrying out F1 testing after retirement.

Several F1 World Champions have been unable to resist the allure of the cockpit after retirement...

Despite having retired from Formula 1, some F1 World Champions couldn’t resist the allure of a possible comeback and took on some testing.

Having experienced the ultimate high of winning a World Championship (or several!), some F1 World Champions were powerless to resist the call of the racetrack and, after a while, got itchy feet.

Some used their tests as a means to gauge whether or not a comeback should happen, while others realised their day had already passed. Here are the most famous examples of F1 World Champions going testing after ‘retiring’ from F1.

Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)

Michael Schumacher testing a Ferrari might not seem that unusual, but it is when you’ve apparently already retired from the sport…

Schumacher’s decision to part ways with Ferrari at the end of 2006 was allegedly not one he made completely by himself, with then-Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemelo having opted to start looking to the future by signing Kimi Raikkonen.

Schumacher remained a constant presence with Ferrari in 2007, showing up as a team advisor on the pit wall and lending a hand where he could.

Throughout the first two years of his F1 retirement, Schumacher carried out extensive testing of the F2007 and F2008 as he kept his skills honed.

In 2009, Schumacher’s testing took on greater urgency as Ferrari scrambled for a replacement for the injured Felipe Massa following his serious accident at the Hungaroring.

Taking to Mugello, Schumacher knocked out 67 laps at the wheel of the F2007, using GP2 tyres, prepared by the Corse Clienti.

However, any chance of a comeback was dashed by Schumacher’s niggling neck injury from a motorcycle crash earlier in the year. However, while a dream return to Ferrari didn’t happen, Schumacher’s appetite was reignited.

He returned to F1 full-time the following year, driving for Mercedes for the next three seasons.

Mika Hakkinen (McLaren)

Hakkinen, whose 22-year sabbatical we all patiently wait to end, stepped away from Formula 1 at the end of 2001 – an idea put to him by Ron Dennis as a temporary measure after the Finn indicated he wanted to retire from the sport.

After a few years on the sidelines, the open door for Hakkinen saw the Finn take up Dennis’ offer of a Barcelona test at the tail end of 2006.

Of the 18 runners, Hakkinen finished as the slowest – but there was more to the story than just having lost his speed.

“It was close,” Hakkinen told Unibet in 2017 when asked whether he might have returned to F1

“I retired in 2001, the next one was a sabbatical. But, a few years after that, I started to have a certain feeling. I felt mentally and physically ready to return to F1.

“I trained an awful lot. I flew to England to use McLaren’s simulator. I spent days in the simulator. It was probably 2004 or 2005. I was completely ready to return to F1. And as a double world champion, I knew quite well how to be fit for action, I’d be better than ever.”

The Barcelona test resulted in constant frustration in the garage, which was enough to convince Hakkinen he didn’t want to return.

“I’ll never forget that testing session,” he said. “I knew the track inside out, lots of mechanics I knew.”

“The day before I went to see Lewis [Hamilton] test and how things had changed. At the end of the day, one of his computer systems broke down. It controlled the MCU system in the engine.

“If I remember correctly, it controlled the gearbox, engine and carburetor flap, meaning that when you shift down the computer tells the engine to give throttle so that the rear wheels won’t lock up when the gear is smaller.

“After the system broke I had to use an old one. It didn’t work with the new engine. The package wasn’t synchronised. Every time I braked, the wheels were locking up. It was impossible. I said ‘Come on guys, fix everything for tomorrow, let’s start the test session as agreed’. It didn’t work out. I couldn’t give the perfect performance because the wheels kept locking up.

“I tested and drove all day long, lots of laps after all those years, everything went well. We analysed everything. I was aware of the problem. We couldn’t help it. We couldn’t fix it because we didn’t have a new part.

“This is Formula One. It’s constant problem-solving, it’s nothing but suffering. Do I want to return to that?”

“There was a reason for me leaving. If I go back, the same problems are there waiting. Luckily the test didn’t work out.”

Hakkinen instead raced in DTM for a few years, before announcing his retirement from racing entirely.

Nigel Mansell (Jordan)

Mansell had walked away from F1 in slightly embarrassing circumstances in early 1995, having been too large to fit into McLaren’s cockpit. While McLaren made adjustments to fit him in, Mansell had had enough and his F1 career appeared to be over.

But close friend Eddie Jordan offered him a test of a Jordan-Peugeot in late 1996, with an eye to fielding him in ’97 – Mansell’s salary demands set to be met by title sponsor Benson & Hedges.

The test proved a success overall, with Mansell’s best time reported as being just three-tenths off what Ralf Schumacher managed.

But the deal never materialised, with Eddie Jordan revealing Mansell’s words following a week of deliberation after the test.

“He came to me after Barcelona and he said, ‘Listen, EJ, I think time has run out. I’m in my 40s. I don’t want to do that anymore. But this car is a proper car.’” Jordan told the Formula for Success podcast.

In declaring himself out of the running for 1997, a seat that went to Giancarlo Fisichella instead, Mansell said: “The idea of the test was originally to have some fun, but my natural competitive instinct took over very quickly, and a return to Formula 1 with Jordan Grand Prix became a serious possibility.

“However, after consultations with my family and business advisers, I quickly came to realise that my schedule would not permit me to give sufficient time to the Jordan team and their sponsors.”

Mnsell would drive a Jordan again during a demo run in London in 2004, but he would never again drive an F1 car in anger. recommends

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Alain Prost (McLaren)

Winning his fourth title in 1993, Prost retired from F1 as Ayrton Senna had been signed to join Williams.

Having won his first three titles with McLaren, Prost carried out a test with the MP4/9 at Estoril in Portugal. This was enough to convince him against returning to F1 and breaking the terms of his contract with Williams to sit out the season with full pay.

Prost carried out further tests with McLaren in 1995 as they switched to Mercedes power, and the possibility of a return remained.

“In order to race next year I will have to be in a 100% situation,” Prost said in late 1995.

“I need a good car, a good engine, lots of motivation and support from the team and sponsors. If there are any of these things missing, you cannot do it.”

He never did sign up to race with McLaren again, although did carry out some more testing with the 1996 car to help his former squad identify weaknesses and improve the machine.

In 1997, Prost turned away from driving and instead set up his own eponymous team, which raced for the next five years.

Alan Jones (Arrows)

Having won the title in 1980, Jones suddenly retired at the end of 1981 and returned to a more sedate life in Australia.

But when former boss Jackie Oliver (the contributory ‘O’ in the Arrows name) gave him a call to drive for his new team in 1983, Jones headed to the United States to test the Arrows A6.

It was enough to tempt him to race in the United States Grand Prix at Long Beach, but he was forced to retire from outside the points due to pain in his leg – he’d had pins fitted due to a leg break a few months prior.

A few days later, he finished third in the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, but his Arrows foray came to an end as the team switched back to their regular drivers.

Jones revealed in 2012 that there had been contact about driving for Ferrari following the death of Gilles Villeneuve and the career-ending injuries suffered by Didier Pironi during the 1982 season.

But Jones dawdled over responding fast enough, and lost out – a situation he regretted as the 1983 Ferrari proved competitive. He would go on to race again with Team Haas (no, not the same Haas) in 1985 and ’86 where, after two years toiling around achieving little, he retired for good.

Niki Lauda (McLaren)

Never one to fear taking decisions into his own hands, Lauda walked away from F1 in the middle of 1979 and took up a more leisurely life as a TV commentator in Austria.

But the Austrian was eager to find a way back into the sport within two years and made the most of his existing relationship with Ron Dennis – who had taken over the running of McLaren – to carry out a test at Donington Park in the UK.

Having had to engage the services of Willy Dungl to help him get back into shape, Lauda recounted the experience of the test in his 1986 book To Hell and Back.

“Above all, what I wanted to find out was whether I could be capable of coming back,” Lauda said.

“If I could click back a little switch in my brain enabling me to change to a different level of consciousness. I knew that, if I could reach that frame of mind, there was no reason to be intimidated by the new drivers who had made their mark in the interim – Pironi, Prost, Villeneuve, Rosberg, Piquet, the ‘young lions,’ as they were known by the media. They would not have the edge over me.”

The test was carried out in complete secrecy, with security posted to ensure no-one could gain access to the track and spot him at the wheel.

“The first thing I noticed is that I don’t have the strength to drive three consecutive laps. I come into the pits after two and ask for something to be looked at,” he admitted.

“I was inwardly embarrassed at my shocking lack of condition, but not really worried about it because I know that Willy Dungl will have me as fit as any racing driver can be within a couple of months. Right now it’s a question of lasting out the day and gradually building up speed to the point where I can make a meaningful assessment.”

Having decided after the test he was up to the challenge, McLaren cautiously signed him for 1982 – Dennis having also been engaged in discussions with Villeneuve – but Lauda quickly proved he still had his mettle by winning in Long Beach before pipping Prost to the title in ’84.

James Hunt (Williams)

Winning his title with McLaren in 1976 and retiring from F1 in abrupt fashion three years later, Hunt’s possible comeback came 10 years later in pretty unusual circumstances.

Invited by Williams to test the FW12C at Paul Ricard, Hunt was off the pace – but that didn’t stop him claiming he was still up to the challenge of racing. Perhaps he was additionally motivated by the allegations that he was flat broke at that point in his life…

Having been rebuffed by Marlboro about a possible sponsorship deal, Hunt’s comeback fell off the rails before it ever really became a serious proposition – was the test serious, or just a bit of PR?

Sadly, that never quite became clear, as Hunt died less than four years later after suffering a heart attack following his commentary of the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix.

Special mention – Jackie Stewart (Pretty much everyone!)

Stewart retired from F1 at the conclusion of 1973 but, like Martin Brundle years later, has carried out multiple F1 car demonstrations and tests over the years since – mostly for magazines and broadcasters.

Included in the list is his own 1997 Stewart F1 car, a 1989 Williams FW12, and a Leyton House at Silverstone in ’89.

Carrying out regular track tests during the late 1980s, he also drove Benetton’s B187 at Oulton Park in 1988 and a Lotus 100T in 1989, he also took back over a Tyrrell for a test at Brands Hatch in 1980.

Were any of the tests he carried out ever with the aim of eyeing up an F1 return? Perhaps the mass testing he did in the late 1970s was the closest he came to a possible return.

Testing at Paul Ricard for magazine reports, he drove the Tyrrell P34, McLaren M26, Ligier’s JS07, Lotus’ 78, the Renault RS01, the Tyrrell 008 and the Brabham BT45C.

But Stewart never did make that F1 comeback…

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