Thursday Five: when fate had other plans for the world of racing
I still can’t get over the events at Le Mans this year. I don’t think many are.
It’s not something that needs to be extrapolated in deep detail to be comprehended. The team spent months and millions preparing for a race, did everything perfectly right, and had their shock demise broadcast worldwide to bewildered race fans everywhere.
From my perspective, it probably ranks as the single most gut-wrenching moment in motorsport I’ve seen. But, there have been plenty of others over the years. Such is the nature of the sport that just one mistake — made on the track, in pit lane, or even in the factory — can have diabolical consequences.
So with that in mind, here's five of the most cruel ends in racing history. Grab a tissue, because this is about to get emotional.
Final round of the 1998 World Rally Championship
For a long time, this single rally was the quintessential example of motorsport’s savage, sado-masochistic side.
It’s the final round of the series — the Rally of Great Britain — and Mitsubishi’s Tommi Mäkinen has already gifted fans with part one of the drama, having clipped a hay bayle early in the rally. Having entered the event as the points leader, it looks like he's about to lose the title.
The man he had handed the lead to was Carlos Sainz and his Toyota Corolla. Come the end of the rally, and Sainz is poised to finish fourth in the rally; enough for him to win the overall title by just the one single point.
But, this was no fairy tale. Sainz' car kicked the bucket literally within sight of the end of the final special stage. The balance fell back in favour of Mäkinen, and Sainz would never win another crown.
Final round of the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship
Lewis Hamilton wasn't always the bike-selfie-taking, tiger-photo-opportunity-posing racer he is today. When he debuted in 2007, he was comparatively quiet and shy.
Some of that evaporated when he claimed his maiden Formula 1 title the following year. Though the win very nearly didn't happen.
In a chaotic closing few minutes of the series-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, the title looked to be Ferrari driver Felipe Massa's. He eventually won the race by quite a comfortable margin, prompting ecstasy and celebration from those in his pit.
Premature celebrations. They're a dangerous thing folks.
While the Massa crew cheered and hugged, Hamilton — Massa's title rival — was still on track. Rain had seen a split strategy emerge, with some drivers taking on wet-weather tyres while others persevered on slicks. In order to win the title if Massa won, he had to finish in fifth place or better.
And on the final lap, with his wet tyres, he drove around the floundering Toyota of Timo Glock. And after a sweet minute or so of being the Formula 1 World Champions, Massa and Ferrari had to let it go.
Last lap of the 2011 Indy 500
There can't be many more prospects in the world more daunting to any series rookie than to hold the lead of the Indianapolis 500 with one lap to go.
This was where J.R. Hildebrand found himself on May 29, 2011. The driver was one of three doing everything they could to stretch a meager fuel load in order to make the chequered flag. Having outlasted the other two, Hildebrand had done it — he had saved enough liquid stuff to ensure he'd make the finish. The commentators had began their spiel about the driver's coming of age, while Hildebrand himself more than likely probably started thinking about a win too.
But as he approached the final corner, he went a little higher than usual to round up the lapped car of Charlie Kimball. His high line didn't appear to have the grip of the low line, and moments later Hildebrand plowed straight into the outside wall.
The contact didn't arrest his momentum, but it hand the lead to the late Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand hasn't had a top-five finish since.
2014 Bathurst 1000 — the last 30 minutes
This entire race was a head spinner, and probably the most incredible motorsport spectacle I've ever seen unfold in person.
From the other side, the race annoyed plenty, with its frequent stopping and starting, as well as frequent crashes and caution flags. But from a spectator perspective, the amount of incidents and twists made it feel like we were in the middle of our very own episode of Game of Thrones. Minus the nudity.
It looked for all money that Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen and co-driver Jonathon Webb had their hands wrapped around the Peter Brock trophy. With a 12-second margin up his sleeve, van Gisbergen pitted for his final splash and dash only for his starter motor to give up the ghost as he was released. A few seconds passed, then a few more, as he tried to start his car. Panic turned into frantic screams as the seconds kept ticking by, but once the problem was diagnosed, it was all over.
With 'SVG' out of the picture, four cars still remained as potential winners — the Pepsi Max Crew Falcons of Mark Winterbottom and Chaz Mostert, and the Red Bull Commodores of Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup.
While Winterbottom and Lowndes had arrived after relatively quiet races, Mostert and Whincup had fought from their own share of crashes. Ironically, Lowndes and Winterbottom took each other out with just seven laps left, leaving Mostert and Whincup to tango.
Whincup, like van Gisbergen had before him, held the control and looked dominant. But, as the laps counted down worries began to increase about his fuel consumption. But, instead of buttoning off, Whincup persistently went against the wishes of his engineers to save fuel.
The first call to save fuel came on lap 156 of 161, and with each lap the call became more stressed. But Whincup only reacted to those calls on the second to last lap — whittling away his three-second gap.
But, the damage had been done. Struggling for pace, Mostert yanked the lead from Whincup's grasp on the final lap at Forrest Elbow. Eight hours of racing, resolved in the final 30 seconds.
Last lap of the 2014 Highlands 101
But at least in Whincup's case, he was able to make it to the finish line ...
While it might not quite have the star power of everything else on this list, Cromwell's Highlands 101 event is growing in stature on an annual basis. In 2014, it was all about youngster Richard Muscat (pictured above, during a moment he would probably prefer to forget).
Having claimed the Australian GT Championship crown the day before, Muscat, co-driver Craig Baird, and their Erebus Motorsport Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS GT3 were a threatening combo heading into the 101 lapper.
And so it came to pass. They were quick, and played their cards correctly over the course of the day to hold a handy lead as the last laps rolled in.
But on the second to last lap, Muscat's Merc began to cough. Muscat played every card in the deck to try and limp home — cutting through chicanes, slowing his pace to a relative crawl.
Sadly for Muscat, the second-placed Aston Martin of Garth Tander and Tony Quinn sneaked by on the back straight. Then to add insult to injury, the closing sequence of slow corners killed any momentum the SLS had left, forcing Muscat to concede and park the car just meters away from where the chequered flag flew.
Muscat will compete in this weekend's North Island Endurance Series event at Hampton Downs — the first time he's raced in New Zealand since the fateful race. Be on the look out for our interview with the 23-year-old in this weekend's copy of Driven.