Top Five: F1 Comebacks

3 08 2009

Today Felipe Massa returned home to Brazil, only nine days after his horrific accident at the Hungarian GP, and I think I can speak for everyone wishing him a speedy recovery and hoping that he returns to the cockpit as soon as he feels up to it. As a small form of inspiration, here are my top five F1 comebacks.

1. Niki Lauda

The 1975 World Champion was cruising to his second consecutive title when the Formula 1 circus reached the Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix. On his second lap of the daunting Nordschleife, Lauda swerved off track (due to a suspected rear-suspension failure) hitting an embankment before rolling back on track into the path of the Surtees of Brett Lunger. Lunger was able to climb out of the wreckage, but Lauda was trapped in his car which burst into flames. Lunger, along with the next three drivers on the scene (Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards, and Harald Ertl) were able to pull him free, but by this point he had suffered extensive burns to the head and face, and the toxic smoke he had inhaled damaged both his lungs and blood. Conscious and standing immediately after the accident, he soon fell into a coma, and received his last rites from a priest. Lauda made an astonishing recovery, returning after only six weeks and only missing two races, and finished the season in second place only one point behind James Hunt. He went on to win the 1977 and 1984 titles.

2. Mika Häkkinen

After winning the 1990 British F3 title, and out-qualifying his illustrious team-mate, Ayrton Senna, at the first attempt at Estoril in 1993, Häkkinen’s promising career almost ended at the 1995 Australian GP in Adelaide. During Friday’s free practice, a tyre failure whilst heading into Brewery Corner ended in a massive crash on the street circuit. Häkkinen suffered massive head injuries, and only survived thanks to an emergency tracheotomy administered by the medical crew on the scene. He returned the following season and went on to win the World Championship in 1998 and 1999.

3. Karl Wendlinger

After the devastating weekend at Imola in 1994, the F1 community returned to racing two weeks later in Monaco. The hopes of a safe weekend were dashed during qualifying. Wendlinger lost control of his Sauber through the tunnel and hit the wall at Nouvelle Chicane sideways. Due to the low cockpit sides, his head struck a water filled barrier lining the armco, the medical crew that arrived on the scene found him unconscious, and he remained in a coma for weeks. Unable to return to the cockpit until 1995, his comeback was disappointing, and he was dropped after three races, only to be recalled by Sauber for the final two races of the year. He was more successful after F1, winning the 1999 FIA GT Championship alongside Olivier Beretta.

4. Rubens Barrichello

The 1994 San Marino GP saw the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, as well as the injury of nine spectators after the startline crash of JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy, but the first major incident involved Barrichello on the Friday. Barrichello’s Jordan hit a kerb at Variante Bassa at 140mph (225km/h) launching him into the air, hitting the top of the barrier knocking him unconscious, he then went on to roll several times. Like Häkkinen, he was saved by the quick thinking of the medics, his airway had been blocked by his tongue, without the simple act of pulling it out, he would have been the first casualty of the weekend. He was walking the next day, and returned to the circuit with a broken nose and precautionary plaster-cast on his arm. Despite the massive crash, and witnessing the death of his mentor, Senna, he returned to become the most experienced driver ever (in terms of starts), and a nine-time race winner.

5. Robert Kubica

Kubica’s comeback following his crash at the 2007 Canadian GP, wasn’t astonishing because he had survived horrific injuries (because he didn’t sustain any major injuries), it was because he survived at all. Hitting the back of the Jarno Trulli’s Toyota, he then hit a hump on the grass lifting the nose of his BMW-Sauber leaving him unable to steer. He went on to hit the inside barrier at just over 186mph (300km/h) at a 75º angle, subjecting him to a peak G-force of 75g and an average decelerating force of 28g as he moved back across the track to hit the outside barrier and then rolling to a halt. He only suffered a minor concussion and a sprained ankle, and he only missed the following week’s US GP as a precaution. His comeback makes the top five, because if he’d had the crash a decade and a half before, he probably wouldn’t have come back at all.

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