Whether or not Jenson Button has another World Drivers Championship in him is bandied about often around these parts. And more often than not, a scoff is usually included in such talk. But with two wins and 5th place in the final standings, the Brit showed reasonably well in his first season after taking the title. Not all World Drivers Champions win more than one title, but many at least continue with successful careers for years afterwards.
Some carry on winning intermittent races, such as Jack Brabham, Keke Rosberg and Nelson Piquet, who were all still finding the winner’s circle several seasons after taking titles. Sometimes a champion knows that the time to drive off into the sunset should come sooner than later. After his fourth and final title in 1957, Juan Manuel Fangio competed in only two more Grands Prix during the next season, scored in both and then hung up his driving polo for good. At the end of that same 1958 season, Mike Hawthorn retired as champion, as did Jackie Stewart in 1973 and Alain Prost twenty years later.
This continued success or good sense to know when to call it a career is not always the case, however. Some drivers peak and then slowly fade away, picking up the odd podium here and there, but no further wins. A few have even won it all, only to make the worst possible decision team-wise the following season. Some have just had rotten luck.
Along with Lotus teammate Ronnie Peterson, American Mario Andretti had dominated the 1978 season on his way to the WDC. The team began the 1979 defense with the all new Lotus 80, which turned out to be a total failure. But in returning to its predecessor, the ultra successful 79 chassis, Lotus found that the other teams had caught up with and even eclipsed their once dominant and revolutionary ground effects design. Mario would follow his championship with a 12th place finish in the standings. Two more full seasons without a single podium would be followed by three ‘guest’ appearances in 1982 before full retirement from Grand Prix racing.
While Andretti was struggling with the Lotus, Jody Scheckter was taking three victories and finishing 12 of 15 races in the points en route to the 1979 title. This was in the Ferrari 312T3 and T4. But the new 312T5 for 1980 would yield a single 5th place finish, good for 2 points and 19th in the standings. A DNQ in the penultimate round may have been the straw that broke the South African’s back, forcing Scheckter to decide on an early retirement in lieu of further humiliation.
Phil Hill, the first titlist from the United States, had a similar follow up season to that of Button. The Californian began his defense strong, with three straight podiums and 2nd place in the standings going into the 4th round. But he would not score again that season, to eventually come 6th in the 1962 driver’s standings. Upon leaving Ferrari at the end of that season, Hill admitted “I no longer have as much need to race, to win. I don’t have as much hunger anymore. I am no longer willing to risk killing myself.” He drove in F1 for two more full seasons with other teams but, as his heart was obviously not in it, he only scored one lone point.
Graham Hill (no relation, but you knew that already) scored his last victory in 1969, the season immediately after his second WDC. He would go on to finish 7th at year’s end, but would come no higher than 13th over his final six Grand Prix seasons, including two in which he scored no points at all.
Possibly the first example of a World Champion making a terminal F1 career error after winning the title was Emmerson Fittipaldi. Emmo followed his 1974 glory, his second in three years, with a fine 2nd place in ‘75. But for 1976, he would leave the front running McLaren team for his brother Wilson’s debutant Copersucar/Fittipaldi Automotive squad. It may have seemed an obviously bad move at the time, but at least Fittipaldi had the good sense to state, “I am aware that I will virtually have no chance of winning the world title next season.”
Three points, all from 6th place finishes, will definitely not make for a championship winning year. Emerson’s final five seasons, all with his brother’s team, would net WDC placings of 17th, 12th, 10th, 21st and 15th, . After retiring following the 1980 season, Emmo would find further success in the U.S. CART series, with one championship and two Indianapolis 500 wins.
Arguably the two greatest examples of World Champion/Foolish Career Move can be found as recently as the 1990s. Damon Hill may just be the perfect example for the classic “which is more important, the car or the driver?” argument. Hill would finish 3rd in his first full F1 season, albeit with a Williams FW15C which would take his teammate, Alain Prost, to a dominating 1993 title. The next two seasons would see Hill finish 2nd with historic and infamous season-long battles with Michael Schumacher.
1996 would find the Williams FW18 take twelve of sixteen races, with eight of them and the championship going to Hill. But even before the season ended, the Brit was informed that his services would no longer be required by Sir Frank. With reported offers from both McLaren and Ferrari, Hill chose instead to sign a more lucrative deal with Arrows, a team which had never won a race over its 20 year history. Apparently money really does talk, even if what it says makes no obvious sense.
At Hungary, Hill would very nearly take that first Arrows victory. He started third but took the lead early on, heading the field for most of the race. With a handful of laps remaining, his car began to suffer from a throttle linkage failure. Hill was able to fend off the Williams of former teammate Jacques Villeneuve until the very last lap. Even with this heart wrenching 2nd place finish, he would only be able to follow his ’96 title with 12th place for 1997.
Hill would go on to sign with Jordan for the next two seasons, his last in F1. He would take that team’s 1st victory at a more than soggy Spa, a race which would see only six drivers even make it to the end. Famous for its first lap crash involving thirteen cars, this race would also be known for the team orders which kept Hill’s teammate, a supposedly faster Ralf Schumacher, from taking Jordan’s maiden win.
Following Hill’s move to Arrows, Jacque Villeneuve would stay on with Williams and take his first and only championship that same season. You would have thought he would have been paying attention to the woes of his former teammate, but the Canadian, too, decided to leave Williams after one more, less successful year. But JV didn’t choose to move to a less experienced team for 1999, even be it one that may not have won before. He chose instead to move to a team that didn’t even exist before.
Villeneuve’s manager, Craig Pollock, along with Adrian Reynard, bought the failing Tyrrell team for a reported thirty million pounds and built British American Racing around his client. JV would retire from 12 of 16 rounds that first season and score no points. The next two years would yield a 7th place finish in the standings and even a couple of podiums in 2001. Jacques would spend a couple more seasons with BAR before ending his career with less than stellar stints at Renault and Sauber/BMW. To this day, he is still threatening to return to Formula One in one form or another.
Having soldiered on for another nine years without a single win, Villeneuve is one of four pilots, along with Alberto Ascari (1952/53), Andretti and Scheckter, to never take another Grand Prix victory following their respective championship seasons. But however those four drivers finished off their Formula One careers, they are still and always will be Champions.