In 2021, Fernando Alonso will become the eleventh Formula 1 World Champion to make a comeback after a year or longer away from the sport. We take a look back at the stories of the champions who have previously returned to F1.
Phil Hill was the first World Champion to make a return to Formula 1 after a season away from the sport. Hill won the title with Ferrari in 1961, but the political situation at the team led to him leaving at the end of 1962 and he would instead join Automobili Turismo e Sport, which was essentially a breakaway team from Ferrari, for 1963. He finished just one race that year, with a lowly eleventh place at the Italian Grand Prix. He moved to Cooper for 1964, but had another difficult season, and was dropped after wrecking his car twice at the Austrian Grand Prix. He returned for the last two races of the year, with his ninth place at the Mexican Grand Prix being his final F1 finish.
Hill’s initial return to Grand Prix racing came under strange circumstances. At both the 1966 Monaco and Belgian Grands Prix, the movie “Grand Prix” was being filmed and Hill would drive a McLaren car with a camera mounted on it, with shots taken from his car being used for the film. Not everyone was impressed by this, and the GPDA made a formal approach to the FIA at the Spa race to have Hill’s car banned from making an outing in the Saturday session. Their bid was unsuccessful, and Hill qualified in sixteenth position for the race. The American was permitted to complete one lap of the Belgian Grand Prix to pick up imagery for the film, in which he successfully avoided the first lap carnage. This would be the last time that America’s first World Champion raced in a Formula 1 Grand Prix. He made one final appearance at the 1966 Italian Grand Prix with Dan Gurney’s Eagle team but failed to qualify for the race. A hospital admission prevented him from making a final appearance at his home Grand Prix one month later.
Niki Lauda made perhaps one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time in 1976. After a fiery crash in his Ferrari at the 1976 German Grand Prix, Lauda fought back to return to the cockpit just months later and complete the 1976 season – where he finished as runner up to James Hunt by just a single point. Lauda won his second title in the following season with Ferrari, and then moved to Brabham. During practice for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix, Lauda announced his retirement from the sport with immediate effect.
Three years later, the Austrian signed a $3 million salary to return to Formula 1 with McLaren. Lauda is the only driver in Formula 1 history to have won the title with both Ferrari and McLaren. Lauda took the first win in his comeback stint on only his third outing with the British team, at the 1982 United States Grand Prix West. A win-less 1983 season would follow, but in 1984 Lauda won the title by finishing half a point ahead of team-mate Alain Prost. He took one more win in the following season at the 1985 Dutch Grand Prix before retiring from Formula 1 for a second time.
Mario Andretti made sporadic appearances in Formula 1 at the start of his career between 1968 and 1974 and first raced full-time in the series in 1975. He won the title with Lotus in 1978 and moved to Alfa Romeo for his last full season in 1981. But Andretti was back in the cockpit in 1982, this time at Williams. Carlos Reutemann quit the team ahead of the third race of the season, so Andretti stepped in at the 1982 United States Grand Prix West (the same race which was the first win of Lauda’s comeback stint). It was Andretti’s only appearance with Williams, and he retired after a crash on the twentieth lap. Andretti was again drafted in at the end of the 1982 season, this time at Ferrari to replace the injured Didier Pironi for the final two races of the year. The American scored his final podium finish at the Italian Grand Prix and retired from the Caesars Palace Grand Prix; which would ultimately be his final F1 appearance.
The 1982 Caesars Palace Grand Prix was not the last time that Andretti appeared on a Formula 1 entry list. Almost two years later, at the 1984 Detroit Grand Prix, Andretti was on the entry list as Renault’s reserve driver. Their regular driver Patrick Tambay had been unable to race at the previous round and Andretti was called in as a substitute in case Tambay was unable to race again. In the end, Tambay was cleared to race and Andretti sat on the sidelines. Another two years later, at the same event, Andretti was offered a comeback again in place of Tambay, this time with the Haas Lola team. Mario declined the offer and instead recommended his son Michael for the seat; but the younger Andretti was unable to obtain a superlicense.
Alan Jones won the Drivers’ Championship in 1980 with Williams and remained at the team in 1981. After winning the final race of the season – the Caesars Palace Grand Prix – Jones announced his retirement from Formula 1. Jones declined an offer from Ferrari to join the team in the 1982 season – the drive for the final two races of the years instead being awarded to Andretti. However, he returned in 1983 for a one-off appearance with Arrows at the United States Grand Prix West. Jones retired from this race as a result of fatigue. The Australian was back again in 1985, this time as the Haas team’s first driver. The team made their debut at the 1985 Italian Grand Prix and Jones retired on all three of his appearances that year. He stayed with the team for 1986, but the car was largely uncompetitive. Jones scored two points finishes, with fourth place at the Austrian Grand Prix and sixth at the Italian Grand Prix. By the end of 1986, the team was struggling financially, and Jones left the team – this time retiring for good.
Alain Prost’s comeback in 1993 with Williams marks the most recent time that a World Champion’s comeback stint has resulted in World Championship success. Prost had been unceremoniously dumped from Ferrari near the end of the 1991 season after publicly criticising the team. The Italian team paid Prost to not drive for any other team in the following year – so the Frenchman took a sabbatical. In 1993, Prost returned to the sport with the dominant Williams team. He faced little challenge aside from his team-mate and arch rival Ayrton Senna and won his fourth Drivers’ Championship. Prost announced that he would not defend his title in 1994 and retired from the sport.
After a year away racing in America, Nigel Mansell returned to Formula 1 in 1994 with Williams. Mansell was loaned to Williams from his IndyCar team for the French Grand Prix, from which he retired. After the end of the IndyCar season, Mansell raced at Williams for the final three races of the year. He was reportedly paid £900,000 per race appearance, while team-mate Damon Hill was paid £300,000 for the entire season. Mansell won the season-closing 1994 Australian Grand Prix – a race in which title rivals Hill and Michael Schumacher famously collided. This would prove to be Mansell’s final victory. Williams declined to keep Mansell for the 1995 season, and instead he moved to McLaren to partner Mika Hakkinen. But the Brit’s time at the team was short-lived. He was unable to fit into the car and missed the first two races as a result. Mansell finished tenth at the San Marino Grand Prix and retired from the Spanish Grand Prix. He quit the McLaren team soon after and did not return to F1.
For the last race of the 2003 season, the Japanese Grand Prix, Jacques Villeneuve was replaced at BAR by Takuma Sato. Villeneuve had scored only six points over the course of the year, compared to team-mate Jenson Button’s seventeen. The Canadian had no contract for the following year, so took a sabbatical. That was until the 2004 Chinese Grand Prix, when Villeneuve returned with the Renault team, replacing Jarno Trulli. Renault were embroiled in a battle for second place in the Constructors’ Championship at the end of the season, but with Villeneuve failing to pick up any points in his three races with the team, BAR sailed to second place. Prior to agreeing a comeback with Renault, Villeneuve had signed a contract with Sauber for the 2005 season. He drove there for the next season and a half, until an apparent injury at the 2006 German Grand Prix forced him to miss the next race. He was replaced by Robert Kubica, who impressed with a seventh place finish in Hungary (although his car was later disqualified). Soon after, the team and Villeneuve announced that they had parted ways. Villeneuve never raced in Formula 1 again – although there were plans for him to make a comeback with the failed Stefan GP team in 2010, and again with his own “Villeneuve Racing” team in 2011.
Michael Schumacher is no stranger to Formula 1 comebacks. He missed six races of the 1999 season after crashing and breaking a leg at the British Grand Prix. He returned for the final two races of the year, finishing as runner-up in both. After winning five titles with Ferrari, Schumacher retired from Formula 1 at the end of the 2006 season. He attempted to make a Ferrari comeback in 2009 to replace the injured Felipe Massa, but a neck injury meant that he was unable to return.
Nevertheless, Schumacher did return in the following season with Mercedes. The team were the reigning champions, having won the 2009 season in their Brawn GP guise. With the most successful F1 driver of all time joining the team, the expectations were understandably high – but more title success for the seven-time World Champion did not come. In his three years at Mercedes, Schumacher finished on the podium only once, at the 2012 European Grand Prix. He also set the fastest time in qualifying for the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix, but did not take pole position due to a grid penalty picked up at the previous race.
Kimi Raikkonen is the most recent driver to make a comeback to Formula 1 and score wins during that comeback stint. The Finn was forced out of Ferrari at the end of the 2009 season, with the Italian team having signed Fernando Alonso for 2010. Over the next two years, Raikkonen made rallying outings and also made a handful of appearances in NASCAR. He returned to F1 in 2012 with the Lotus team and won in his comeback year at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix towards the end of the season. Raikkonen then won the season-opening 2013 Australian Grand Prix with Lotus and finished fifth in that year’s championship before moving back to Ferrari in 2014. During his second stint at the Scuderia, Raikkonen took a single victory at the 2018 United States Grand Prix. He moved to Alfa Romeo for 2019.
Jenson Button retired from Formula 1 at the end of the 2016 season, but with Fernando Alonso making a one-off appearance, McLaren had a seat spare for the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix. That seat was filled by the 2009 World Champion. Impressively, Button reached Q3 and qualified in eighth place on his return; but with Alonso having reached the quota of power unit components, the Brit was forced to start from the pit lane. The race didn’t go as smoothly, and Button retired on the 58th lap after colliding with Pascal Wehrlein, and causing the Sauber to flip over. Button never returned to Formula 1.
After months – if not years – of speculation, Fernando Alonso will finally return to Formula 1 in 2021 with Alpine. His last Grand Prix appearance came at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with McLaren. Alonso will return with the team with which he won the 2005 and 2006 Drivers’ Championships, and this will be his third stint at the Enstone-based outfit, albeit under a different guise.
How will Alonso fare in his comeback season? Leave a comment with your thoughts below!
After graduating in 2015 with a First Class honours degree in English Language and Literature, Nicky Haldenby, a lifelong fan of Formula 1, founded the Lights Out F1 Blog in 2016. The blog has become a firm fan-favourite, delving deep into the sport’s history books and lifting the cover on unusual F1 statistics.
Nicky also writes at F1Destinations and Motorsport Guides and can be heard as the resident stats man on the 2 Soft Compounds Podcast. His work has appeared on WTF1, BadgerGP, motorsport.com, Sky Sports F1 and BBC Radio 5 Live. Nicky is also the host of the F1 Rewind Podcast.