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The Comeback Kings - Part One 13 Oct 2006

(L to R): Niki Lauda (AUT) Ferrari, who bravely chose to withdraw from the wet race on the third lap; James Hunt (GBR) McLaren who took third place in the race to clinch the World Championship, and Barry Sheene (GBR) World 500cc Motorcycle Champion talk together on the pit wall before the race. Japanese Grand Prix, Rd 16, Mount Fuji, Japan, 24 October 1976. World © Phipps/Sutton James Hunt (GBR) McLaren M23 overcame the terrible race conditions and a puncture late in the race to take third position and the four points necessary to take his first and only World Championship title. Japanese Grand Prix, Rd 16, Fuji, Japan, 24 October 1976. World ©  Phipps/Sutton Race winner James Hunt (GBR) McLaren shows off his winner's trophy on the podium. French Grand Prix, Rd 8, Paul Ricard, 4 July 1976. World ©  Phipps/Sutton John Surtees (GBR) Ferrari 158 3rd place. British Grand Prix, Brands Hatch, England, 11 July 1964. Winner John Surtees (GBR) chats with Jim Clark (GBR) 2nd place after the race German GP, Nurburgring, 4th August 1963. World ©  Phipps/Sutton.

After his engine failure at Suzuka, Michael Schumacher declared himself out of the running for this year drivers’ title. Mathematically, however, he could still do it. If he does, it will be arguably the greatest Formula One comeback of all time, the German having overcome a mid-season deficit of 25 points - a feat only rivalled by a few of the sport’s greatest names…

1. James Hunt, 1976 (35 points - Niki Lauda)
Driving for Ferrari for a third year, Niki Lauda dominated the early part of the 1976 season and looked on course to defend his ’75 title. His closest rival on paper was new McLaren signing, James Hunt, who claimed pole positions at three of the first four rounds, but struggled to convert them into results.

Seven rounds in and Hunt’s title challenge looked all but over. He'd won in Spain, but was disqualified when his car was deemed illegal. This, a controversial collision in Long Beach, plus a further three retirements in Brazil, Monaco and Belgium left him a distance fourth in the standings - 35 points behind Lauda.

Hunt's fortunes improved with victory at round eight in France (where Lauda failed to finish) and the return of his Spanish points on appeal. He also won round nine at Brands Hatch, but later lost that result for starting in the spare car. Hunt’s real chance came, however, with Lauda’s horrific crash at the Nurburgring. Whilst the Austrian recovered from his injuries, Hunt gained ground with victories in Germany and the Netherlands, and when Lauda returned in Italy, his advantage had been almost halved.

At Monza, Lauda brought his Ferrari home fourth for some well-deserved points while Hunt spun off. However, the Englishman fought back with wins in Canada and the US, closing the gap to just three points and setting up a championship showdown at the final round in Japan. Torrential rain was falling as the race started and Lauda - in a move he insists he has never regretted - pulled into the pits on the third lap, convinced the conditions were unsafe. Hunt finished third to win the title by a single point.

2. John Surtees, 1964 (20 points - Jim Clark)
Reigning champion Jim Clark went into the 1964 season riding a wave of confidence, inspired by his Lotus’s superiority the previous year. However, it was Graham Hill and BRM who took a surprise win at the Monaco opener, before Clark fought back with victories in Holland, Belgium and Britain. Five rounds down and Clark led Hill by just four points. Ferrari’s John Surtees was the rank outsider, 20 points adrift and seventh in the standings.

But wins in Germany and Italy marked the start of Surtees’ ascendancy - just as the reliability of Clark’s Lotus seemed to fade. The Scot retired from four consecutive races, while Hill crucially failed to finish in Austria and at Monza. With just the Mexican Grand Prix to run, all three men had a shot at the title, with Hill the favourite, Clark the outsider and Surtees in between.

Clark took the initiative, qualifying on pole and retaining his lead at the start, as Hill and Surtees were hampered by (respectively) broken goggles and an engine misfire. However, both challengers fought back and when Hill moved into third, the title looked to be his - until contact with the Ferrari of Lorenzo Bandini put him out of contention. Clark seemed safe - until his engine failed on the very last lap.

That left Surtees needing second place to become champion. He quickly inherited that position as team mate Bandini dutifully moved aside, thus allowing the Englishman, already a multiple world champion on two wheels, to add the world’s most prestigious four-wheeled title to his CV.

In Part Two - how Ayrton Senna outwitted the Professor to become 1988 champion, how Jody Scheckter played the tortoise to Jacques Laffite’s hare back in 1979, plus the best of the rest.