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Top 10: Formula 1's greatest wheel-to-wheel duels

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Top 10: Formula 1's greatest wheel-to-wheel duels
By:
May 8, 2020, 12:25 PM

On the anniversary of Gilles Villeneuve's passing we look back at his stunning battle with Rene Arnoux in the 1979 French Grand Prix and compare it with other great duels in Formula 1 history.

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10. Hamilton vs Rosberg (Bahrain 2014)

10. Hamilton vs Rosberg (Bahrain 2014)
1/10

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

The 2014 season ushered in an era of hybrid dominance for Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton led the team in a 1-2 win in Melbourne, but in Bahrain teammate Nico Rosberg showed Hamilton that he would have a fight on his hands.

Rosberg qualified on pole, but a fast starting Hamilton made the most of his inside line into Turn 1 to take the lead. Rosberg tried to regain the lead in the run up to Turn 4, but found himself on the wrong side of the track to pull off the move.

After a botched attempt on lap 18, Rosberg had more success on the following lap. As both cars locked up into Turn 1, the German managed to squeeze past Hamilton. Hamilton couldn’t find a way past in Turn 4, but managed to get a better exit and cut back past Rosberg coming out of the corner.

With five laps to go Rosberg undertook one last effort to snatch away the lead, briefly taking the position but also overshooting the corner. That attempt settled a nail-biting duel, much to the relief of team boss Toto Wolff. Having said that, in hindsight Wolff surely would have happily settled for more Bahrainesque thrillers compared to the clashes and acrimony that would follow.

9. Leclerc vs Verstappen (Britain 2019)

9. Leclerc vs Verstappen (Britain 2019)
2/10

Photo by: Gareth Harford

The most recent entry on this list fittingly features the two most exciting new superstars in Formula 1. In the 2019 season, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc fought out several wheel-to-wheel battles, including a fierce, race deciding tussle in Austria.

Their battle during the British Grand Prix was another example of their rivalry: on the knife’s edge, but still respectful. Verstappen and Leclerc battled each other through various stages of the race, culminating in a daring outside move by Verstappen around Club corner.

Afterwards Leclerc admitted he raced Verstappen "harder than normal" after their Austria incident. Verstappen’s pass won the FIA Action of the Year award.

8. Massa vs Kubica (Japan 2007)

8. Massa vs Kubica (Japan 2007)
3/10

Photo by: Sutton Images

Next on the list is one of the most memorable rain races in recent times. In 2007 the Japanese Grand Prix moved from Suzuka to Fuji, but while the track might have been different, the treacherous autumn weather was certainly a familiar prospect.

The first 19 laps were run behind the safety car, after which rookie Lewis Hamilton put in a measured drive to secure a pivotal win, ahead of Heikki Kovalainen and title rival Kimi Raikkonen. McLaren teammate and rival Fernando Alonso had crashed out after aquaplaning off the track.

Ferrari’s Felipe Massa had started from fourth, but had to drop back under the initial safety car period to pit for different rain tyres and found himself in seventh going into the final lap.

Massa was chasing the BMW of Robert Kubica, who also had a troublesome race including a drive-through penalty for contact with Hamilton. Aided by a high rate of attrition, Kubica and Massa found themselves back in the points.

Massa and Kubica fought tooth and nail over every rain-soaked inch of the track and even some of the run-off area. Massa thought he’d secured the place after passing the Pole into Turn 3, but Kubica retook the position, which happened again and again in the following corners.

In the technical third sector Massa forced Kubica off the track twice, while Kubica returned the favour coming on to the final straight. Despite having to jump back across the kerb and on to the actual track, Massa still prevailed and took sixth.

7. Mansell vs Berger (Mexico 1990)

7. Mansell vs Berger (Mexico 1990)
4/10

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

The 1990 Mexican Grand Prix was one of the races that had a bit of everything. Ayrton Senna grabbed an early lead for McLaren, while his bitter rival Alain Prost started down in thirteenth.

Prost carved his way through the field, while Senna was starting to suffer from tyre wear in the latter half of the race. With ten laps to go Prost finally passed Senna for the lead. Soon after, the Brazilian retired after his worn right rear tyre exploded.

Prost took a comfortable win after a spectacular comeback, but the real highlight of the race was provided by his teammate Nigel Mansell. Mansell was passed by Senna’s McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger into Turn 1, but returned the favour with a gutsy around the outside move through the fearsome, banked Peraltada corner.

Along with Senna’s big shunt a year later, it would prove to be one of the lasting memories of Mexico’s most feared corner.

6. Hakkinen vs Schumacher (Belgium 2000)

6. Hakkinen vs Schumacher (Belgium 2000)
5/10

Photo by: McLaren

A wheel-to-wheel duel is even more memorable if it involves the two greatest drivers of their generation, battling it out for the win and the world championship.

The 2000 Belgian Grand Prix delivered just that. Mika Hakkinen led the way in a wet-dry race, but Michael Schumacher soon closed the gap. After a stop for dry tyres, Schumacher slipped past Hakkinen after the Finn took to the grass in Stavelot.

Schumacher seemed on his way to a certain win, but in the dying stages of the race his tyres started to fade. On lap 40 Hakkinen found more traction coming out of La Source and got a strong tow on the Kemmel straight. Hakkinen pulled out on the inside, but Schumacher aggressively blocked the Finn, nearly putting him on the grass and damaging the McLaren’s front wing.

Hakkinen angrily gesticulated and was even more determined to snatch the win away from the German. Some lapped traffic gave him the momentum to try again on the very next lap.

On the Kemmel straight Schumacher passed the lapped BAR of Ricardo Zonta on the outside. Hakkinen followed his rival through, but cleverly picked the inside line. That prevented Schumacher from closing the door on him a second time. Hakkinen kept the inside into Les Combes and made the race winning move stick.

Hakkinen’s onboard clip of the move became an instant classic, in particular the sight of Zonta’s car being split by the Ferrari and the McLaren. The Brazilian did well to keep his line through the whole phase.

5. Mansell vs Senna (Spain 1991)

5. Mansell vs Senna (Spain 1991)
6/10

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

The next entry on this list is another iconic scrap between two world champions. On the brand-new Circuit de Catalunya the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix was a race with many unknown factors. Especially when it began to rain on race morning.

On a damp but drying track Gerhard Berger took the lead while Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Nigel Mansell were battling it out behind the Austrian.

Mansell passed Schumacher in the scrap for third and then challenged Senna. On the main straight Mansell pulled out of Senna’s slipstream and the pair produced another iconic image, immortalised by the legendary photographer Rainer Schlegelmilch. Side by side, separated by inches, sparks flying, vapour coming off the rear wings. Their cars encroached each other even further until Senna yielded and Mansell made the move stick.

Mansell would lose the position again after a slower stop for slicks, but a spin by Senna reversed the situation in Mansell’s favour. He set off after the other McLaren, the leading Berger, and the Mansell's red five swept past to cap off one of his best performances in F1 with a win.

4. Alonso vs Schumacher (San Marino 2005)

4. Alonso vs Schumacher (San Marino 2005)
7/10

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

The 2005 San Marino Grand Prix is a prime example of that fact that you don’t need overtaking to have a thrilling spectacle.

Early championship leader Fernando Alonso was handed the lead when Kimi Raikkonen’s driveshaft broke. Michael Schumacher, who had a torrid start to the season with Ferrari’s Bridgestone tyres, started down in 13th, but resolutely moved up the order.

After Alonso’s final pitstop and a pass on BAR’s Jenson Button, Schumacher emerged in the lead for the first time in 2005. Alonso regained the lead when Schumacher made his last stop, but it was evident that Schumacher was much quicker than the Spaniard.

Schumacher had twelve laps to defeat Alonso, surely enough time to make a move. Lap after lap Schumacher got close, even alongside at one point, but Alonso defended valiantly and proved unflappable under pressure.

Alonso weathered the storm to take his third win of the season by just two tenths and showed he didn’t just have the raw speed and the equipment, but also the steel to go all the way. Which he duly did.

3. Senna vs Mansell (Spain 1986)

3. Senna vs Mansell (Spain 1986)
8/10

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The 1986 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez saw one of the closest finishes in F1 history, which we documented elsewhere. Nigel Mansell passed Williams teammate Nelson Piquet early on to start chasing polesitter Ayrton Senna around the new Spanish track. Mansell and Senna fought out a stunning battle, the Briton getting past before Senna aggressively retook the lead.

Mansell lost second to Alain Prost in the McLaren as well, and decided to pit. On fresh tyres Mansell soon passed Prost and charged towards Senna, who desperately tried to block the Briton on his old tyres. In the last corner of the last lap, Mansell picked up a tow and pulled alongside the Brazilian on the straight.

Senna managed to hang on by just 0.014 seconds in one of the most iconic finishes in Formula 1. Afterwards an exhausted Mansell joked both he and Senna should each be given 7.5 points for their efforts.

2. Stewart vs Rindt (Britain 1969)

2. Stewart vs Rindt (Britain 1969)
9/10

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The 1969 British Grand Prix evolved into one of those iconic slipstream battles that characterised the sport’s most daunting era.

With no chicanes to slow the cars down, the old Silverstone was considered one of the fastest tracks in the world, on par with Monza. It also produced some fabulous racing.

In fact, the 1969 race proved you don’t need many cars to have an absorbing motor race. Certainly, there was a fun scrap for third between Jacky Ickx and Bruce McLaren, but from a depleted starting grid only ten cars made the finish, most of them finishing several laps down.

Still, all eyes were zeroing in on the two leaders. For many laps the Lotus of polesitter Jochen Rindt and Matra’s Jackie Stewart were fighting tooth and nail for the lead, swapping positions numerous times. In the second half of the race, Stewart would sometimes lose touch due to lapped traffic, but would then reel the Austrian in again.

The event was decided in anticlimactic fashion when Rindt had to pit for a loose rear wing end plate, which was dragging on the tyre. Stewart won by a lap ahead of Ickx and McLaren. Still, the prolonged battle between Stewart and Rindt was hailed as Formula 1's finest hour.

1. Villeneuve vs Arnoux (France 1979)

1. Villeneuve vs Arnoux (France 1979)
10/10

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

The perennial number one on this list also hails from an era when wheel-to-wheel duels were more likely to have dire consequences. That, and the sheer commitment and car control shown by both Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux, is why their epic scrap during the 1979 French Grand Prix is so fondly remembered.

On the short, but flowing Dijon track, Villeneuve started from third behind the two Renaults of Arnoux and polesitter Jean-Pierre Jabouille.

Villeneuve vaulted up into first and built up a comfortable lead on Jabouille, before the Frenchman started slashing into the deficit. Around the halfway point Jabouille was patiently waiting for an opportunity to pass Villeneuve, which presented itself when the Canadian was held up by lapped traffic.

Jabouille took the lead and disappeared out of sight, while Villeneuve opted to conserve his tyres. He now had to focus his attention on the other Renault of Arnoux, who was closing in rapidly.

After two laps of shadowing Villeneuve, Arnoux finally made his move into Turn 1 with three laps to go, much to the delight of a roaring French crowd. Villeneuve refused to back down and repaid the favour one lap later, spectacularly locking up his tyres as he slid past Arnoux in the same corner.

That set up a mighty scrap on the final lap. Arnoux again took the position on the inside of Turn 1, but was then forced wide and lost momentum. That gave Villeneuve the chance to stick his nose alongside the Frenchman into the Turn 5 left-hander. They rubbed wheels but somehow both managed to keep going. Arnoux stayed out in front, but then Villeneuve settled the issue with a daring divebomb into the sharp Parabolique right-hander.

While Jabouille was celebrated as the first French winner of a French Grand Prix in 31 years - in a French car no less - the race would ultimately be remembered for the epic duel for second place.

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Series Formula 1
Author Filip Cleeren