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From backmarker brilliance to stand-in stars – 10 times F1 drivers put themselves in the shop window with stunning performances

Staff Writer

Mike Seymour
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Carlos Sainz advertised his services for 2025 in the most effective way with a spectacular return to action at the Australian Grand Prix, pushing Max Verstappen for pole position and then storming to victory. But which other drivers have put themselves in the shop window with standout performances of their own over the years? We’ve come up with 10 varied examples…

James Hunt – 1975 Dutch Grand Prix

James Hunt started his F1 career with privateers Hesketh Racing, scoring several podium finishes across the 1973 and 1974 campaigns before well and truly announcing himself to the paddock with a breakthrough victory at the wet-dry Dutch Grand Prix of 1975.

READ MORE: 5 reasons James Hunt remains an F1 icon

Hunt started the race third, behind only the Ferraris of Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, but nailed the switch from wet tyres to slicks to move into the lead. As the dry conditions stabilised and Lauda closed back in, Hunt brilliantly defended his position to take the chequered flag.

It was a performance that caught the attention of bosses up and down the pit lane and, when Hesketh ran into financial problems that briefly looked set to leave Hunt without a seat for the following year, the British racer was picked up by McLaren, where he would win the 1976 world title.

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DUTCH GRAND PRIX: Hunt's maiden victory in 1975

Ayrton Senna – 1984 Monaco Grand Prix

It was a similar story for Ayrton Senna, who arrived in F1 off the back of a glittering junior career with the plucky Toleman squad, scoring his first points at the South African and Belgian Grands Prix in 1984 before quite literally making a splash in Monaco.

Amid torrential rain, Senna charged his way from 13th on the grid into the top 10, then the points-paying positions and eventually the podium places – drawing alongside the leading McLaren of Alain Prost as the race was red-flagged, thus confirming the Frenchman as the victor.

UNDERDOG TALES: When Senna took the F1 paddock by storm with Toleman and made Monaco’s streets his own

It nonetheless remained a stunning performance that, in the words of race engineer Pat Symonds, “made a hell of an impression on an awful lot of people”. Senna was a man in demand from that point onwards and, the following year, he found himself winning races with Lotus.

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Classic Overtake: Senna charges past Lauda in the rain

Jean Alesi – 1990 United States Grand Prix

Jean Alesi caused his own driver market storm when he went wheel-to-wheel with the aforementioned Senna for victory at the 1990 United States Grand Prix, despite the former driving an underpowered Tyrrell and the latter driving what would be that year’s championship-winning McLaren.

Having made good use of Pirelli’s soft qualifying tyres to secure fourth on the grid and then charge his way into the lead at the first corner, Alesi later came under pressure from the Goodyear-shod Senna, but rather than give up without a fight, he made the Brazilian work hard for the victory.

ALTERNATIVE HISTORIES: What if Jean Alesi had gone to Williams and not Ferrari?

While Senna came out on top, their thrilling scrap – which lasted for several laps – is an iconic moment in the F1 history books and contributed to Tyrrell, Williams and Ferrari all squabbling over his services for 1991 – the Scuderia eventually winning that battle.

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USA Classic Moments - Alesi vs Senna

Rubens Barrichello – 1999 French Grand Prix

Rubens Barrichello had already impressed with Jordan in the early stages of his F1 career, claiming a podium in Japan in 1994 and finishing runner-up in Canada the following year, but it was with Stewart – and particularly across the 1999 season – that his stock skyrocketed.

At that year’s French Grand Prix, amid wet conditions, Barrichello got the timing of his qualifying laps spot on to take an unexpected pole before shutting down any questions over whether or not it was deserved by bagging a podium on race day – keeping a train of Ralf Schumacher, Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine behind him.

LIGHTS TO FLAG: Rubens Barrichello on Schumacher, Ferrari, the Brawn adventure – and his racing exploits after F1

Added to podiums achieved at Imola and the Nurburgring (where he contributed to a memorable one-three finish behind team mate Johnny Herbert), and a stint in the lead of his home race at Interlagos, the sport’s key players could not ignore Barrichello and he duly signed with Ferrari for 2000.

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F1 TV Archive: Extended race highlights - France 1999

Mark Webber – 2002 Australian Grand Prix

Another driver to – excuse the pun – make their mark on home soil was Mark Webber, with the Australian starring on the streets of Melbourne in 2002 when he dragged his back-of-the-grid Minardi to a shock and very valuable points finish.

While a multi-car Turn 1 incident and several more retirements played a key role in the outcome, the rookie drove like a pro to keep his car on the track and get it to the finish in a remarkable fifth place, having valiantly fended off an attack from the Toyota of Mika Salo in the closing stages.

READ MORE: Webber explains the trick he pulled on Salo to ensure points on his F1 debut with Minardi

Webber’s provisional race-by-race deal with Minardi was swiftly turned into a contract for the rest of the season, but several rival teams were interested in him for 2003 and, after exploring his options, he opted for a works Jaguar drive.

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Top 10: Moments of Mark Webber Brilliance

Giancarlo Fisichella – 2009 Belgian Grand Prix

A slightly left-field choice for this feature, Giancarlo Fisichella was in the closing stages of his F1 career – with plenty of success behind him – during the 2009 season, but the Italian’s performance at that year’s Belgian Grand Prix was so impressive that it triggered a dream Ferrari move.

At the wheel of a heavily-updated and slippery Force India that came alive around the high-speed Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Fisichella delivered one of the qualifying laps of his life to bag pole position and then so nearly claimed the race win, only being overhauled by the KERS-assisted Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen after a Safety Car opened the door.

UNDERDOG TALES: When Fisichella put Force India on top of the world with a Spa weekend to remember

Second was still a remarkable result for Force India, who had not scored a point before then, with Fisichella’s part in that achievement prompting Ferrari – without the injured Felipe Massa and struggling to get Luca Badoer up to speed – to swoop in and give him the seat alongside Raikkonen from the next race onwards.

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Mega Quali Laps: Giancarlo Fisichella's lap at Belgium 2009

Sergio Perez – 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix

Sergio Perez makes this list on two occasions – some eight years apart – and the first was for a superb display with Sauber during a rain-hit race at Sepang in 2012, when he came oh-so-close to passing Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso for an unlikely victory.

Perez started ninth but jumped up the order with an early switch from intermediate to full wet tyres and battled with Alonso when the race got going again following a suspension due to the conditions – piling the pressure on and getting even closer when the pair moved to slicks.

GREATEST HITS: From perfect pole laps to charging comebacks – Perez’s best moments in F1

While Perez could not quite pull off a move, second place – the Mexican’s maiden podium – earned him plenty of plaudits and led to plenty of talk that he could be joining Alonso at Ferrari in the near future. As it transpired, he was poached by McLaren for his first shot at a big team.

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Through The Visor: Sergio Perez recalls his first F1 podium in Malaysia

Sergio Perez – 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix

Perez’s time at McLaren lasted just one season as he struggled to make an impact alongside experienced world champion team mate Jenson Button, meaning a return to the midfield with Force India, who later morphed into Racing Point.

However, despite plenty of runs to the podium with the Silverstone operation, there was no room at the inn for 2021 when another rebranding to Aston Martin saw four-time champion Sebastian Vettel placed alongside Lance Stroll, son of team owner Lawrence.

WATCH: The inside story of Sergio Perez’s amazing last-to-first victory in the Sakhir GP

Perez flipped the narrative on its head at Sakhir in 2020, though, as he charged his way through the field after a first-lap incident and recorded an emotional maiden win, in the process convincing Red Bull to look outside their own talent pool and give him a seat alongside Max Verstappen.

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2020 Sakhir Grand Prix: Sergio Pérez's maiden race win sparks incredible scenes

Nyck de Vries – 2022 Italian Grand Prix

Nyck de Vries had to wait a long time to contest a Grand Prix, initially moving to sportscar racing and embarking on a stint in Formula E when his junior single-seater career concluded, having hit a dead-end in terms of full-time F1 opportunities.

However, by keeping his foot in the door as a Mercedes reserve driver, which also included the brand’s supplied teams, De Vries was in the right place at the right time to step in when Alex Albon got struck down by appendicitis ahead of the 2022 Italian Grand Prix.

READ MORE: Albon stand-in De Vries explains how he went from F1 TV pundit to F1 driver at Monza

Having driven in FP1 with Aston Martin, the Dutchman hit the ground running when he jumped into the Williams cockpit from final practice, going on to out-qualify and out-race team mate Nicholas Latifi for a fine P9 result. It was a showing that tempted AlphaTauri to give him a seat for 2023, albeit one he lost after half a season as he failed to repeat those Monza highs.

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Points on debut: Nyck de Vries' weekend to remember in Monza

Oliver Bearman – 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Still fresh in the memory, Oliver Bearman sent the F1 paddock wild with his sensational stand-in performance at this year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, taking over Carlos Sainz’s seat at Ferrari when he too faced a meeting with appendicitis.

After Sainz battled his way through FP1 and FP2, at that point believing his issues were related to food poisoning, the aforementioned diagnosis saw Bearman pulled out of F2 and placed into the Ferrari cockpit for FP3, where the British youngster immediately impressed.

INSIGHT: How Ferrari super-sub Bearman made his mark on and off the track in Saudi Arabia

Bearman’s confidence grew and grew as he got more laps under his belt, almost beating seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton to a spot in the pole position shootout and then racing his way to a very respectable seventh place. It’s no wonder he’s been linked to a full-time drive for 2025.

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2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: F2 pole to F1 points for Oliver Bearman

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