Ironic, isn’t it? The man blamed for crippling Formula One with his devastating dominance just 18 months ago is now credited with breathing new life to the formula, using the very same arsenal that damn near brought the sport to its knees; unanswerable speed, supreme skill and sublime victory.
Sebastian Vettel’s victory at Sepang was not only good for the German and great for Ferrari but a blessing for the sport as a whole; faced with yet another season in which it seemed Mercedes would be untouchable – the dawn of a new period of dominance seemingly just around the bend – somebody, anybody, needed to take the fight to the Silver Arrows, and the sooner the better. Ferrari provided the car, the strategy played perfectly and Vettel delivered his 40th race victory, far less predictably than most of the 39 before it.
Mercedes may be heavy favourites for victory whatever the conditions, but the scarlet Ferraris have a history of picking up the most unlikely victories, the 2015 Malaysian GP was just the latest.
As the 1988 season dawned McLaren entered the fray with the peerless MP4/4; at the hands of eventual world champion Ayrton Senna and runner-up Alain Prost, McLaren swept to all but one race victory throughout the year…
…the one that got away? Monza. It would be Monza, wouldn’t it? Ferrari’s backyard, where they are most vulnerable to the pain of defeat and where victory for McLaren would be sweeter as a result.
For the first and only time throughout the year a Honda engine powering a McLaren failed; Prost’s unit developing a misfire early on and forcing the Frenchman to retire on lap 34. That left Senna, cruising it seemed, to yet another victory.
Enter stage right one Jean-Louis Schlesser, the wrong place at the wrong time and on a one-way ticket the right rear wheel of Senna’s McLaren as the Brazilian attempted to lap him. With the remaining McLaren left beached on one of Monza’s high kerbs the lead was inherited, to the delight of the home-town tifosi, by Gerhard Berger in his Ferrari, closely followed by his team-mate Michele Alboreto.
Against the odds it would remain a Ferrari one-two until the chequered flag fell, and if scoring an unlikely victory on home soil wasn’t sweet enough, the success came just three weeks since the death of the Scuderia’s founder, Enzo Ferrari.
But if Ferrari relied on other’s misfortune to claim victory in ’88, the squad’s victory at the Nurburgring 53 years earlier was far more ‘Vettel-esque’.
If the Mercedes squad of 2015 is a formidable force, then the Silver Arrows of 1935 were on a whole other level. The Merc’ W25s of Hermann Lang, Hanns Geier, Luigi Fagioli, Manfred von Brauchitsch and star driver Rudolph Caracciola lined up for the 1935 German Grand Prix – held at the 14 mile ‘Green Hell’ – expecting nothing less than victory; as did the 250,000 strong crowd.
The Scuderia, with Enzo at the helm, were flying the flag for Italy and for Alfa Romeo – Ferrari as a constructor was a thing of the future.
The Alfa Tipo B was substandard in comparison to its German rivals; a power deficit of some 100bhp, outdated suspension technology and an ageing gearbox could only be counteracted so much by superstar racer, Tazio Nuvolari. The pursuit of victory, it seemed, would be a fruitless task.
Nuvolari began his charge from second on the grid, a result born from a lottery rather than one lap qualifying pace. Nonetheless, come the completion of lap 1, Nuvolari lay 12 seconds in arrears to Caracciola’s leading Mercedes.
A lap later, while trying in vain to catch Caracciola and fend off the prevailing attack from those behind, Nuvolari made a rare mistake; a spin at Bergwerk left him and his Alfa fifth, 40 seconds from the lead. By lap 4, that deficit was over a minute!
Hope for Ferrari faded further when the two other Ferrari-run Alfas of Louis Chiron and Antonio Brivio retired, both victims of mechanical misfortune. Nuvolari therefore, was Scuderia Ferrari’s last, slim, hope.
The seemingly impossible challenge lit a fire under Nuvolari; by lap 7 he was third, and despite below-par machinery at his disposal, was lapping quicker than anyone.
Lap 9 came and went; for Nuvolari it passed by some 28 seconds quicker than that of Caracciola. The Italian was now second, but the German crowd remained faithful, knowing that their cars were simply ‘unbeatable’. To underestimate Nuvolari however, was to be foolish.
A bungled pitstop made Nuvolari’s task all the more difficult; forget today’s sub-3-second stops, under a minute would suffice. For Nuvolari and a frantic Ferrari crew, 2minutes 14seconds was their result, a minute-and-a-half slower than Mercedes. Nuvolari was marred in sixth with half race distance remaining.
Nuvolari dug deeper, stunning onlookers who believed they had already witnessed his deepest that afternoon. Rosemeyer excused himself from battle with a pitstop but Stuck and Caracciola succumbed to Nuvolari’s on-track attack. Still, von Brauchitsch resided some 90 seconds in the lead come lap 15, he too performing at the highest calibre. Two laps later, Nuvolari, punishing the outdated Alfa, had cut the gap to 73 seconds; a lap more and the gap was 47.
Von Brauchitsch upped his game, utilising the Mercedes superior abilities to hold his advantage; with just one lap to go, the German’s lead was a seemingly unassailable 35 seconds.
Von Brauchitsch pushed; Nuvolari pushed harder. Incredibly, Nuvolari caught the Mercedes with a third of a lap to go! All that was left was to pick the corner, crest or straight to punish von Brauchitsch, strike and pass for the win.
But Nuvolari would be denied the sweet taste of a last lap overtake for victory; von Brauchitsch had punished his equipment beyond breaking point, his left rear tyre shredding itself before Nuvolari could strike. Instead, the red Alfa cruised by as von Brauchitsch wrestled the Mercedes back in line.
Such was the unlikelihood of Nuvolari’s victory, it was his own recording of the Italian national anthem that played to a disgruntled German audience – the organisers hadn’t bothered to supply anything other than ‘Das Deutschlandlied’.
From Nuvolari to Vettel via Berger, Ferrari has a history of snatching victory against the odds, and who can begrudge them such successes?