Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: 5 Times a Lame-Duck Driver Won in Formula 1

Carlos Sainz’s victory following Max Verstappen’s surprise retirement from the Australian Grand Prix this past weekend might have been a bit awkward.

After all, the Spaniard is on his way out of Ferrari following the season, with the Prancing Horse having signed Lewis Hamilton before the 2024 season officially began for 2025 and beyond.

Sainz thus became the first driver since 2021 to win a race even though it was publicly known they would be leaving at the end of the season. It’s not unusual for this to happen in modern Formula 1, but it is unusual for it to have happened so early in the final season.

Once it becomes known a driver is leaving an F1 team, attitudes change around it. The team is going to naturally start focusing more on developing the car around the other driver, while slowly cutting off information and data to the outgoing driver.

Usually, this is a short process, as the summer break is around the time most of the big silly season moves are resolved. Which is what makes Sainz and Hamilton both fascinating to watch this season, as both have been ahead of their teammates for the last year or so. When will their falloff happen?

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It’s impossible to answer, but for now, let’s look back at five other times a driver won on the way out of a team in the last 20 years.

Michael Schumacher from Ferrari (2006)

Let’s start with maybe the most interesting situation — one where we will likely never get the full story on due to Michael Schumacher’s major ski accident in 2013 retiring him from public life.

In 2006, Schumacher had shown plenty of speed, but Ferrari had an issue on its hands. It had signed Kimi Raikkonen to a seat in 2007 and had Felipe Massa as well.

After Schumacher’s win in the Italian Grand Prix, as the German was walking onto the podium, Ferrari sent a press release out saying that Schumacher would be retiring at the end of the season. If you watch the ITV broadcast on F1TV, pit lane reporter Ted Cravitz actually reads the PR on-air right before the national anthems start.

Schumacher confirmed this after the podium in the press conference, but it’s interesting that the team did not allow Schumacher to make the announcement on his own terms.

Schumacher’s final F1 victory came in the next race, in Shanghai, putting him equal on points with Fernando Alonso entering the last two races of the season. Schumacher then went to Japan and had an engine failure while leading the race, which, combined with Alonso’s win, effectually knocked the German out of the championship. Schumacher could only finish fourth after a heroic final push in Brazil, while Alonso finished second and won the championship.

Was it truly Schumacher’s decision to retire from F1 the first time? After all, he had a contract through 2009 with Ferrari, and he remained on as a test and reserve driver. Unusually, he still had a hand in car development, which normal reserve drivers don’t have any say over. Any chance at getting a conclusive answer likely ended on those ski slopes.

Keep fighting, Michael.

Fernando Alonso from Renault (2006) and McLaren (2007)

Alonso not only won many races in 2006 on the way out of Renault, he even won the championship. Like Hamilton and Sainz, it was known very early in the season Alonso was on his way out, but that really did not seem to slow him down.

It wasn’t public knowledge that Alonso was out at McLaren after winning the 2007 Italian Grand Prix, but the writing was definitely on the wall by that point. 2007 broke Alonso, as documented in a mini-series of articles I wrote a couple of years ago.

Still, Alonso was able to stay competitive, having a chance at the championship all the way down to the final race. He finished third in Brazil 2007 and third in the overall standings. After losing the championship by one point that year, Alonso has since never been closer.

Lewis Hamilton at McLaren (2012)

“Hamilton-to-Mercedes” is still one of the most surprising announcements in silly season history, right up there with “Sebastian-Vettel-to-Ferrari” and “Hamilton-to-Ferrari.”

The then-one-time champion was seen as the face of McLaren after having been developed and on the payroll by the team since his karting days. Mercedes was a midfield team that had only won one race since rebranding from Brawn GP following 2009.

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This was an era where works teams in general seemed like a step down, other than Ferrari. McLaren had outperformed engine supplier Mercedes, but there was also Red Bull dominating the series as Renault puttered around before devesting itself. Customer teams were just in vogue at the time.

After the announcement, Hamilton won at the United States Grand Prix, the first event at the new Circuit of the Americas. The McLaren that year was a very boom-and-bust car in the second half, sending Hamilton to an early retirements four times in the last nine races. But it hung on in Austin for Hamilton to take a memorable win.

Sergio Perez at Racing Point (2020)

Much like Sainz, Sergio Perez was being replaced by a multi-time F1 champion — in this case, Vettel.

Perez still didn’t have a ride by the penultimate round of the season. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the F1 2020 season was a strange mishmash of races, with none stranger than the Sakhir Grand Prix.

Held on the “outer loop” of the Bahrain International Circuit, the layout was 2.2 miles and composed of three big straights and some esses on the “backstretch.” Valtteri Bottas scored the pole with a 53.377-second lap time, only the second time in history in F1 that the pole time was a sub-minute.

Perez spun out in the very first lap, but thanks to attrition and Hamilton not being in the race due to COVID-19, Perez was able to score his very first career win in a dramatic comeback.

The win secured Perez’s slot at Red Bull Racing, a position he has held ever since. He’s a free agent after this season, however. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if Red Bull bids him goodbye and he joins this list again…

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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