With Nico Rosberg announcing that he will retire from Formula 1 as World Champion, some (notaby his old team mate Lewis Hamilton) have commented that he should have defended his title. Six drivers before Rosberg have left the series as champion and not defended their title the following year. It would appear that Rosberg is in some good company.
Juan Manuel Fangio won his first title in 1951 driving for Alfa Romeo. In 1952, the World Drivers Championship was held to Formula 2 regulations, and as Alfa didn’t have a suitable car this left Fangio unable to defend his title. The situation was made worse when he competed in some non-championship F1 races. He drove a BRM V16 at Albi and at Dundrod, and agreed to drive for Maserati at Monza (they day after Dundrod). Having missed his connecting flight in Paris, he drove through the night, arriving only half an hour before the start. Understandably fatigued he crashed on the second lap of the race. Fangio was taken to hospital with multiple injuries, including a broken neck. He spent the rest of 1952 recovering at home in Argentina, Fangio returned in 1953, although it was 1954 before he returned to winning the championship.
The 1958 champion was Mike Hawthorn, another driver to win the title without taking the most wins that season. Racing was much more dangerous at that time, and Hawthorn was greatly affected by the death of his team mate and close friend Peter Collins at the German Grand Prix that year. Like Rosberg, he announced his retirement from Formula 1 immediately after winning the title, unfortunately he was killed in a road accident on the Guilford bypass in January of 1959. On a notoriously dangerous section of the road, Hawthorn’s heavily modified Jaguar 3.4 litre Mk1 lost control just after having overtaken Rob Walker’s Mercedes gull wing. One witness estimated that he was travelling at 80mph. The suspicion was that Hawthorn and Walker had been racing each other when the accident occurred.
Jochen Rindt was the next champion not to defend his title and as the sports only posthumous world champion (in 1970) it should be obvious why that was the case. Rindt died during practice at Monza, having discovered that his Lotus was faster when running without wings; he fitted taller gear ratios to go even faster. He then lost control under braking for the Parabolica. As the car went under the crash barrier, he submarined under the belts as he wasn’t wearing any crutch straps, and suffered fatal injuries to his throat.
Three years later, Jacki Stewart retired as world champion. He had planned to race in his 100th race before retiring, but the death of his young protégé and team mate François Cevert in practice for the final race of the season caused him to withdraw from the race. Although much like Fangio, Stewart did defend his other titles on the track he did retire as the reigning world champion.
During the 1992 season, Nigel Mansell found out that Frank Williams had signed his previous Ferrari team mate (Alain Prost) to the team for 1993. Mansell was unhappy about this and driver and team failed to agree terms to carry on for the following year. With the Williams team still looking to be dominant, Mansell went off to America to try his hand at Indycars (with some success – winning that series in 1993). Although he did return for occasional guest appearances for Williams in 1994 (following Ayrton Senna’s death) and attempted a late negotiated McLaren seat in 1995, Mansell did not defend his title in 1993.
The following year, Alain Prost was left in much the same predicament as his predecessor. The team wanted Ayrton Senna in the car for 1994, and he was even willing to drive it for nothing if some press reports at the time are to be believed. After their relationship deteriorated at McLaren, Prost had no interest in being Senna’s team mate again, and so he retired as champion at the end of 1993.
So of the six drivers who left the sport as champions, two were already multiple champions (Prost and Stewart), two subsequently returned with varying degrees of success (Mansell and Fangio), one died before he became champion (Rindt) and one died within months of retiring (Hawthorn). Hopefully Rosberg will have a long and happy retirement.