Kimi Raikkonens unexpected championship victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix was a pleasant surprise for everyone at Ferrari. Even the company President Luca Di Montezemolo said I was not expecting it.
It must have been especially sweet for the team who have lost the world title at the final round on four occasions over the past ten years.
However, it is not the first time that Ferrari have come from behind at the last race to win the championship from nowhere. John Surtees did exactly the same thing in 1964.
In fact, there many parallels between the 2007 Brazilian race at Interlagos and the Mexican Grand Prix forty three years earlier.
The first similarity is that both races included a three-way fight for the title, and the clear favourite was a British driver in a British car. Graham Hill was driving for BRM in 1964 and had a five point advantage over Surtees going into the final round at Mexico City. His advantage over Jim Clark in third place was nine points so the Lotus driver would only be in contention if the others had trouble.
The next similarity between the two races is that the title favourite had problems at the start. Whilst Hamilton dropped a few places and went off the road on lap one last weekend, Graham Hill’s problems were far more unique to the era.
None of the drivers wore full face helmets in the early sixties and the only protection for their eyes was a flimsy pair of goggles. As the cars lined up on the grid in Mexico, Graham Hill discovered just how flimsy his goggles were when the elastic on them broke. He quickly fixed the problem but did so whilst the other cars started the race, demoting him to tenth.
This was great news for Jim Clark who needed to win the race without Hill scoring to become champion. His hopes quickly faded though as Hill fought back through the field into third after only twelve laps.
If things had started poorly for Hill, they were even worse for John Surtees who dropped nine places on the first lap due to an engine misfire. Luckily the Ferrari engine corrected itself but it was too late. He had lost too much ground to both Hill and Clark and the opportunity to beat either of them to the championship seemed over.
Surtees fought back up to fifth, but with Hill in third it looked like the BRM driver would claim his second world title.
How quickly things change in Formula One.
Gearbox gremlins ultimately spelt the end of Lewis Hamilton’s championship campaign, but it was a far more controversial finish for Hill.
Throughout the race Graham could not afford to relax because he was under enormous pressure from Surtees’ Ferrari teammate, Lorenzo Bandini. The young driver was brilliantly quick, if temperamental, and was hounding Hill for third place. He was all over the back of the Englishman and made a few risky attempts at passing. Hill was afraid of a collision and angrily shook his arm to deter the Italian.
Hill’s worst fears were realised. On lap 31, just before half distance, Bandini tried to pass him through the tightest corner on the circuit. Unfortunately Bandini messed up his braking and hit the back of the BRM, spinning the Englishmen into the nearby barriers. Both cars were able to continue but Hill had a broken exhaust and throttle, and ended up trailing two laps behind the leaders.
Graham Hill’s championship was over.
Lorenzo Bandini had not crashed into Hill on purpose but he knew it looked bad. There was no doubt that his vicious driving had put Ferrari back into title contention. Bandini was so upset after the race that he went down to the BRM garage in tears to apologise. He had driven one of their cars the previous season and the team had been very good to him. Lorenzo would have been quite happy to see BRM emerge victorious.
Hill’s retirement made it easier for Surtees who was now in fourth, but he still had to beat Jim Clark’s Lotus.
Raikkonen faced an uphill battle in Brazil because he had to beat both Alonso and Hamilton. Finishing ahead of just one of them would not be good enough, and now Surtees was facing the same hurdle.
Clark was leading the race comfortably after taking pole position by a full second. He was dominant around the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez and was looking good for his fourteenth Grand Prix victory. With Hill out of contention it would be enough for his second World Championship.
Unfortunately for Clark his luck ran out in the cruelest fashion.
A few laps before the end he noticed that someone had dropped oil down at the hairpin. He purposely drove wide avoid the oil, but when he returned on the next lap he found oil on the wide line as well. All of a sudden Clark knew that he was leaking oil and leaking it badly. All he could do was hope the Lotus would hold on until the end.
At the start of the final lap it all went wrong. Clark’s engine lost power and Dan Gurney was able to pass him for the lead. He could still continue but second place was not going to be enough to win the title. It looked as if Graham Hill would emerge as champion after all.
That was until Clark’s engine sized up and the Lotus ground to a halt.
This last lap drama promoted Surtees into third place, but even with Hill and Clark retired he had to gain one more position to win the title.
It was time for Lorenzo Bandini to have another big impact on the championship outcome.
Felipe Massa gifted victory to Raikkonen at Interlagos and in 1964 Surtees got the same help from his teammate. During the mad excitement of the final lap Ferrari management kept a clear head and immediately ordered Bandini to move aside for their number one driver. Lorenzo did as he was asked, giving Surtees second place and the World Championship.
Dan Gurney won the race for Brabham, but it was Ferrari that celebrated long into the night.
BRM were understandably furious with the result. Bandini had taken out Hill and then scarified his position for Surtees at the end. There was talk of a protest but in the end BRM decided to let the matter go. They did not want to win the title in a courtroom and in any case their appeal would likely be unsuccessful.
It is perhaps a shame that McLaren have not made the same decision.
The championship was a big comeback for John Surtees who was seventeen points behind Graham Hill at the halfway point of the season. Just like in 2007 Ferrari had reliability concerns early in the year and suffered six retirements from their first eight starts. However, the team was using a brand new powerful V8 engine and as they ironed out its flaws, the car became much faster. Ferrari didn’t score a victory until August but it was enough to lead them towards the title.
Up until this year Surtees’ triumph was the only time that Ferrari had come from behind at the final race to win the World Championship.
Hopefully for Raikkonen that is where the similarities end. Ferrari struggled the following season and Surtees left the team in 1966 after falling out with management. The Scuderia didn’t win another championship for over a decade.
John Surtees is the only man to win both the Motorcycle and Formula One World Championships. It is an awesome achievement and is something that will never be repeated. Becoming World Champion in one discipline is difficult enough, but to manage it on both two wheels and four is quite extraordinary.
Ferrari’s new World Champion can’t boast a record like that, but just before the 2007 season kicked off in Melbourne, Kimi was racing snowmobiles in Finland. Raikkonen wasn’t doing it for fun however. He was competing against the very best snowmobile riders in the world in a 500 mile race that lasted two days.
Now that’s incredible!
Both Raikkonen and Surtees have the taste for speed, and ultimately that is what will make you a world champion, whether it’s 1964 or 2007.