Top 10 Most Iconic Images of F1’s TV Age
While it’s not necessarily good writing to do a Top 10 of X, I fancied doing something a bit different. Specifically, what this article is is a compilation of some of the most iconic moments in F1 history, good or bad, that live long in the memory. I’ve looked at what I call the “TV age” – while F1 has had TV coverage for many decades, every race wasn’t broadcast live until the mid-late 70s. When the BBC did a summary of their years of coverage for the 1996 Japanese GP, their last before ITV took over, they began with the final race of the 1976 season, even though the Grand Prix programme, with Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain as its theme, didn’t begin until the 1978 Canadian GP. So I’ll make my lower limit as 1976.
Of course there can be different interpretations of what is meant by “image”. By this, I don’t mean a picture – I’m referring to the images you see on the TV (or computer) screen. Perhaps “iconic moments” would be better, but I think “iconic images” is more accurate in this case, because these are meant to be very brief snapshots, the moments that F1 fans have their own picture of in their head.
I’ve tried to get a good cross-section of F1 history here. It would be pointless to concentrate on the various “golden eras” we’ve had, so I’ll balance it out. You’ll also notice I’ve not ranked them – to do such a thing would be a bit futile in this case, because it doesn’t really matter. These are just my selected moments, the ones that stick out the best in my mind. You may feel a bias towards the last 20 years, but I can justify that – for one, it’s because that’s when I’ve been watching or have the most videos of, and is also when we’ve had the best TV coverage and, most importantly, when most people will have been watching the sport. While it is my personal choice, I’d like to think that I’m picking what the majority of fans will remember best, in part by thinking of what moments are most frequently replayed on TV or pictured in books. Basically, I’m looking for what people think of when they think “Formula 1”
1979 French GP – Villeneuve dives up the inside of Arnoux
It is still the one that all F1 armchair experts look to, and it’s still the one that provides the evidence for rose-tinted spectacle wearers that F1 was much better back in the “golden era” of the late 1970s and early ’80s. The Villeneuve-Arnoux battle is probably the greatest F1 duel of all time, because it has all the elements that makes a good F1 legend – it was dramatic, it took place over the last couple of laps, the drivers were desperate, and it wasn’t even for the win and so “wasn’t even necessary”. In particular, the moment I’ve gone for is when Villeneuve lunges up the inside of the yellow Renault, smoke pouring off the front wheel, and looking like he’ll never make the corner – that just sums up his bravery and desperation at that moment in time. In fact, you could say it sums him up as a driver in general, really.
While it is a bit over-egged these days, and the most watched versions of the video are speeded up and have cheesy dance music added over the top, it’s still a great watch. It’s still the perfect way of introducing an F1 fan to F1 history – just show them the video of Dijon ’79 and hope they are amazed. But the rose-tinters are a bit silly to use it as an example, because of one reason – this is a special moment. This didn’t happen week in week out, because if it did, we wouldn’t still be talking about it today. It’s a one-off, because Gilles was a one-off, and so is Rene. A generation-defining moment, but because it was unique.
Honourable Mention: 1979 Dutch GP – Gilles driving around Zandvoort on 3 wheels and trashing his car
1985 Portuguese GP – Senna’s first win in the rain
In 1985, Ayrton Senna was still a rising star in F1. He had achieved some remarkable results in his first year in the series with Toleman, including his famous charge to 2nd at Monaco in torrential rain, but it was still early days. For the following season, he joined Lotus. Surely it would be a matter of when rather than if he could win a race. In fact, it took just 2 races.
Again it came in torrential rain, and again it was a remarkable achievement – Ayrton finished the race a full minute ahead of 2nd-placed Michele Alboreto. Total and utter annihilation of the field, in only his 16th start. It was no doubt that F1 had a phenomenal talent on his hands. But the exact iconic image? It has to be the in-lap, after he crossed the line. It is simply a perfect image – that classic black-and-gold JPS-liveried Lotus; that day-glo helmet; tonnes of spray; an overjoyed Senna punching the air like no other driver had ever punched it; red seat belts flailing out of the side of the cockpit. For me, the classic Senna image.
Honourable Mention: 2000 German GP – Compatriot Barrichello cries on the podium after his incredible first win
1986 Australian GP – Mansell’s tyre explodes
As he will tell you every time you mention it, Nigel Mansell worked bloody hard to get into F1. Blood, sweat and tears doesn’t come into it. He came up the hard way. But by 1986, it was all coming good. A year before, he’d joined Williams and finally taken his first wins, much to former team boss Peter Warr’s surprise. The Didcot team were quickly making progress too, and in 1986 both Mansell and Nelson Piquet racked up several wins and mounted a title challenge. The only man that stood between them and the championship was Alain Prost, in the distinctly inferior McLaren but still just about in the title race thanks to the Williams boys taking points off each other.
Mansell was in the box seat, and it was all looking good as he cruised around in the second race at Adelaide, when our iconic moment occurred – his tyre inexplicably exploded on the long back straight at top speed. It was a sudden failure. The massive amount of sparks created, and the remains of the tyre flapping around wildly, only added to the violence of the explosion. Mansell somehow kept it under control but had to park it at the end of the straight. It was game over, both for him and team mate Piquet, who had to pit for the team to change his tyres as a precaution. It meant that the wily tortoise Prost, who had already changed tyres, cruised home to take the victory in the race and his second of four titles. But even today, love him or hate him, you can’t help but feel for Nigel…
Honourable Mention: 1987 British GP – ‘Our Nige’ fools Piquet and slides up the inside of him at Stowe
1989 Japanese GP – Senna and Prost collide
I was torn between this and the incident at the same event the following year, because both are equally significant moments – proves the fallacy of picking just 10, I guess. But I’ve gone for 1989, primarily because it was the first of the two, and because it was less predictable – Senna threatened to take Prost out in 1990, so you could see it coming.
The 1989 collision came out of nothing and was a lot more dramatic. This is the point where the Great Feud went global, and everyone could see it. Not to mention the fact that it was a title-deciding moment. Two white-and-red McLarens, in an iconic livery, coming together while Senna tried to overtake Prost. The image of the two cars sat stationary, quite literally locked together in combat, will be replayed forever. Like France 1979, a generation-defining moment – the summit of another of those “golden eras”
Honourable Mention: 1990 Japanese GP – Ayrton drives into Alain for revenge and for the title
1991 Spanish GP – Mansell and Senna go wheel-to-wheel
At risk of this becoming a Senna/Mansell lovefest, I could not miss this one out – this is another one of those iconic images that will appear again and again, in books, on TV, on the internet. There are two reasons for this. One is that, like several of the events I’ve listed so far, it has everything. It has, on one side, a white-and-red Marlboro McLaren, red number 1 proudly sitting on the front, day-glo helmet sticking out of a hole in the middle. On the other is red 5, a classic-liveried Williams. Sparks are flying, wheels are almost touching, and this is all taking place at near top speed, just coming over a crest. Whoever is bravest will take the place, but it could so easily end in a horrible accident…
In hindsight, perhaps it seems a bit less dramatic than some of the other events here. You could say that they easily had it under control and that they were on a straight so it wasn’t so much a test of outright balls as some of the other great overtakes in F1 history – Hakkinen on Schumacher at Spa in 2000, Alonso on Schumacher at Suzuka in 2005, or Raikkonen on Fisichella in the same race. But what makes this special isn’t necessarily the skill involved – it’s the fact that these two giants of the sport are inches apart, at 200 mph, in iconic cars. The reason this is looking like a Senna/Mansell love-in is because these two were at the top of the sport for so long, and 99 times out of 100, the iconic moments in F1 history involve its biggest names…
Honourable Mention: 1992 Monaco GP – The two legends slide their car around Monaco on the last lap
1994 San Marino GP – The Senna crash
Things take a turn for the bleaker in my post…but there is a good reason why the death of one of the sport’s greatest names should be included here, simply because it is just that. Not only that, but it unfolded live on TV, in front of millions of people worldwide. The thing is, although this isn’t the sort of moment that’s going to be replayed endlessly on TV these days, that’s not to say many thousands of people will not have gone searching for this on the internet. It may well be the most-watched moment out of all of these.
I don’t feel the need to comment specifically on what happened, because I’m sure you all know, but it was a highly significant moment in F1 history not only because of what happened and who saw it, but also because of the implications. It led to massive changes to the safety regulations, yes, but it was also the end of an era – the era of the fighters, the Mansells, Prosts and Piquets. It was the passing of the baton on to a new generation, led by the man who would go on to break all the records…
Honourable Mention: 2007 Canadian GP – Another bad crash, but this time Robert Kubica escapes unharmed
1994 Australian GP – Schumacher and Hill collide
There’s not a single F1 encyclopaedia out there that I have seen that doesn’t have one of the famous images of Michael Schumacher’s blue and green Benetton flying through the air after colliding with Damon Hill’s Williams. It is another dramatic, iconic moment, and especially has significance in the careers of both men. While Hill would spend the next two seasons trying (too hard) to avenge his misfortune, this would be the moment that would tarnish the Schumacher name.
While on this occasion he would officially get away with it, unlike at Jerez 3 years later, the judgement of most observers is that he did it intentionally – and while Senna did the same thing 4 years previously, the German’s reaction was unprovoked, an instant reaction to slapping the wall seconds earlier and (seemingly terminally) damaging his car. It was a last desperate lunge to try and salvage a championship that he had dominated until a harsh 3 race ban mid-season. Fortunately, in the short-term, it worked. Unfortunately, in the long-term, it was very damaging. From now on, the mud would stick.
Honourable Mention: 1997 European GP – Michael does it again, this time to Jacques Villeneuve
2000 Japanese GP – Schumacher wins the race and title
While Adelaide ’94 shows the bad side of Schumacher, Japan 2000 showed the good side. And what a side. The race itself was an incredible battle, beginning much like that race 6 years previously where he and race leader Mika Hakkinen left the field behind, lapping at an astonishing pace, even when it began to spit with rain. In the end, it came down to strategy, and at the last round of stops, Michael was able to use his extra fuel to leapfrog the Finn. From there on, he just had to keep going…
There are two things that make the moment he crossed the line special. One is the sheer outpouring of emotion from a man generally considered to be a bit of a robot. The way he slapped the steering wheel shows a man absolutely beside himself in unadulterated joy (as Murray Walker would say). And the reason for this joy? He had cleared his debt with his team. Ferrari had not won the drivers’ title since 1979, and Schumacher was signed with the specific goal of ending that long drought. Now he had achieved this aim – it was a release of 4 years of tension and frustration. And from here on, there was just no stopping him – the beginning of an incredible era of domination of the sport.
Honourable Mention: 2002 French GP – Michael equals Fangio’s record of 5 world titles
2002 Austrian GP – Rubens lets Michael through on the run to the line
Even when bad moments are obviously going to happen in F1, it often doesn’t take the sting out of them. Austria 2002 fits this perfectly. Rubens Barrichello had dominated the event for Ferrari, and was comfortably ahead of team mate Schumacher, who was by this point well clear in the title race and on course to clinch it ridiculously early in the season. But even so, common sense seemed to drift away from the Ferrari pit wall, as Jean Todt asked Rubens to let Michael through for a win he wasn’t desperate for.
The stubborn Brazilian initially refused, but eventually yielded…only he made it obvious that he was doing so. On the final lap. After the final corner. It was a bit petty of Rubens to do this, but he was rightfully angry. And so were the fans. Even ITV commentators James Allen and Mark Blundell exclaimed in horror as Rubens slowed to a crawl. Ferrari would later renege on this policy somewhat, allowing Rubens to lead Michael home at the Nurburgring soon after, but the damage was done. Team orders would never be the same again.
Honourable Mention: 2005 United States GP – Another epic farce that could only have happened in F1
2008 Brazilian GP – Hamilton passes Glock
It’s often hard to work out what will be considered an iconic moment in F1 history when it’s only happened relatively recently, but there’s no doubting that the final lap at Interlagos in 2008 will be right up there among the classics. A tense race generally, Lewis Hamilton was doing just about enough to win the world title until a late rain shower forced him and others into the pits. But both Toyota drivers, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock, decided not to pit, and stayed out on slicks. Glock jumped Lewis, putting him 5th, right on the cusp of losing the title, and with the rain easing to a trickle, he struggled and was caught by Sebastian Vettel. The German passed him soon after, putting Lewis down to 6th, seemingly handing the title to race winner Felipe Massa, until that final corner…
An incredibly tense finale, it looked like the title had gone to Ferrari, which, in the eyes of many, would have been a travesty due to Hamilton’s harsh penalty at Spa for cutting the last chicane. But equally, there are many Massa and Ferrari fans, not least at the circuit itself, who will have been absolutely devastated by the late change, a change that some observers, including BBC 5 Live commentator David Croft, failed to even spot at the time due to the casual nature of Hamilton’s overtake of the struggling Glock. Though the rose-tinters may not agree, I’d have it down as the most dramatic moment in F1 history…
Honourable Mention: 2009 Brazilian GP – Jenson Button punches the air and sings (badly) as he wins the title
Let me know what you think – if you agree or disagree with my choices, if you have your own list, or if you just think it’s a stupid idea altogether…