In this special series, LWOS hypothesizes with a comprehensive list of moments in Formula 1 history that did not happen…but almost did.
The legendary commentator Murray Walker once said: ‘If is a very long word in F1. In fact, “if” is “F1” spelled backward.’ Amidst all the goings-on in the background of Formula 1, things often move just as fast off the track as they do on it. A plethora of situations have occurred in which circumstances saw them move from reality to nothing more than a hypothesis.
1 – Michael Schumacher joins Sauber, 1993
In 1990 and 1991, a young and promising driver by the name of Michael Schumacher was making a name for himself in the lower series. He won the German Formula 3 Championship, the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, and partook in the World Sportscar Championship, driving for the Sauber-Mercedes team alongside contemporaries and other future F1 drivers Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger. It was around this time that the call from the nascent Jordan Grand Prix outfit came. They offered him a drive in the Belgian Grand Prix in replacement of the imprisoned Bertrand Gachot.
Everything after, of course, became history. But what is less known is that Schumacher’s contract with Sauber stipulated a drive with their F1 team should they ever enter the sport. A move they would make two years later. By this time, Schumacher had won a Grand Prix and was firmly part of the furniture at Benetton. Peter Sauber charitably chose to allow Schumacher’s path to continue the way it was. But what might have happened if he hadn’t?
Sauber had a good showing in its debut season, scoring twelve points – two of those in its first race – and finishing mid-table in the Constructors’ Championship. And bar its reincarnation as the works team for BMW between 2006 and 2009, Sauber has continued as the perennial ‘best-of-the-rest’ outfit. Could Schumacher’s ability have helped the team to retain its deal with Mercedes beyond 1994? That could have led them to switch from McLaren, which became one of the longest and most successful team-engine partnerships of all time.
2 – Damon Hill joins McLaren, 1998
After being unceremoniously dumped in favor of Heinz-Harald Frentzen by Williams, Damon Hill was in need of a new team for 1997, despite being the reigning World Champion. A disappointing season with Arrows followed, and Hill looked elsewhere for 1998. After offers including to stay with Arrows, and a lucrative £ 1 million-per-race deal with Sauber, Hill ultimately chose Jordan. He would give them their first-ever Grand Prix win in Belgium and would see out his career with the team in 1999. But Hill was incredibly close to signing with McLaren.
A conference call with Ron Dennis and the wider hierarchy of McLaren was made with Hill. Dennis’ reported offer of a results-based payment structure incensed Hill, who rejected the offer there and then. “…he offered me a million dollars a race win,” wrote Hill in his memoir, Watching the Wheels. ‘That was it. No basic retainer.”
Despite struggling with the introduction of grooved slick tires in 1998, Hill enjoyed a strong second half of 1998 with Jordan. McLaren’s Mercedes-powered car was the undisputed class of the field that season, with nine wins from 16. Could Hill’s experience have enabled him to compete with Mika Hakkinen for the 1998 crown, with Michael Schumacher constantly snapping at all heels too? There’s little doubt that if Hill had chosen to make the move, he would have been in the best position to win a second title.
3 – Jenson Button continues with Brawn’s transition to Mercedes
2009 was a whirlwind year for Jenson Button. With his future in Formula 1 uncertain after Honda’s withdrawal from the sport amidst the global economic crisis, Honda’s Team Principal and former Ferrari supremo, Ross Brawn, came to the rescue by purchasing the team, utilizing the team’s already-designed 2009 car and adding a Mercedes engine. The results were staggering. Brawn GP became statistically one of the most successful F1 teams ever by winning the only Championship it ever entered.
Brawn would sell the team to Mercedes, who signed Nico Rosberg from Williams. Button was considered to be staying for the transition, but would decide to move to McLaren, partnering with Lewis Hamilton. Mercedes opted to bring Michael Schumacher out of retirement to help oversee the Silver Arrows’ return to Formula 1. Button would come close to retaining his title in a closely-fought 2010 championship that was ultimately claimed by Sebastian Vettel. But if Button had remained with Mercedes, what might have become of the Somerset man’s career?
A Multiple-time F1 Champion?
It has been since said that the 2010 Mercedes had already been designed to suit Button’s driving style, meaning that Button may well have picked up some decent results. But in reality, the McLaren was quicker. 2011 and 2012 were also hard years for Mercedes, but things were looking up. Both Schumacher and Rosberg scored poles, with the latter picking up his first victory in China. Hamilton would of course join the team in 2013 – having been matched by Button, who is only one of three drivers to ever out-score Hamilton in a Formula 1 season – with Schumacher retiring once again.
In the years since, Mercedes have gone on to become one of F1’s most dominant forces. They have amassed seven Drivers’ titles (six for Hamilton, one for Rosberg) and eight Constructors’ crowns. Could Button have won multiple Championships rather than Hamilton had he opted to stay put? His talent was undeniable and would have certainly been competitive enough to have challenged Rosberg. Perhaps two, three, four, or more titles may have been added to his name.
Come back soon for the second part of Formula 1’s Biggest What-Ifs. A Williams special, looking at some of the drivers Sir Frank Williams almost signed and ones he chose not to retain