The finale of the ninth season of the FIA Formula E World Championship is now a couple of weeks in the past. Jake Dennis and Envision Racing secured their world titles in the capital of the United Kingdom. Regrettably, the season finale (the first race of the double header, to be precise) was marred by poor driving and unacceptable stewarding decisions. At first, the author felt the desire to complain about the decisions by race control which a) rewarded Sébastien Buemi for dangerous driving and therefore b) actively helped decide the championships. However, he decided against doing so because if he is tired of writing about how standards of motorsport safety in the driving standards and the reaction by stewards to those keep falling, even the most passionate fan of the Gravel Trap would become bored reading it. Furthermore, given that the author is convinced that drivers will die if this type of stewarding persists if/when Formula E catches up in speed to series on the level of Formula 2 or IndyCar, it would be a very depressing read.
Instead, the author pondered about it a bit and looked at the season as a whole. The year 2023 certainly was a positive one for the series. While the Gen3 car had some issues at the start, it has proven to be a good step forward. The racing was both exciting and also featured the enjoyable kind of silliness that switches things up and commits races to memory. Seven winners from six teams point towards a healthy parity without being complete nonsense like e.g. the 2021 season.
A good season of motorsport soured by a finish the author considered unpleasant. Seems to make no sense, right? Indeed it does not, but that is one of those things about professional sports that make it like many other forms of storytelling: the climax decides a lot about how we perceive the entire thing. Mass media has produced a number of examples: from the negative reception to the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones and the infamous plot twists of screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan to the famous game-changing reveal at the end of cult classic video game Spec Ops: The Line. Sports of course also have more examples of this than one can count. Oliver Kahn’s one-of-a-kind legendary run in the 2002 FIFA World Cup will never be separated from that failed save against Brazil in the final. History cares little for Patrick Mahomes having had a rather poor (for his tremendous standards) game in Super Bowl LIV until the fourth quarter since he led his team on a tremendous run to end a long title drought for Kansas City.
With that in mind, this edition of the Gravel Trap will look at a number of seasons where its final race(s) have affected the perception of the entire year for better or for worse. This is by no means meant to be even close to a full list; instead it will show examples of the ways a season finale can alter the perception of the season – or even the perception of the series itself.
Formula 1, 1986: False Greatness
To begin, one example where a legendary last race made a dull season disappear. Of course, the author is already of the belief that the racing of Formula 1 in the mid-to-late 80s is one of the most overrated things by fans of the sport, but 1986 is – even by that standard – truly horrible. While it did feature the ridiculously close Spanish Grand Prix, the rest of the year was offensively dull. Races that were boring and mostly relied on the hope/promise of poor reliability (which never really manifested for the top teams and was mostly born from the forced use of turbo engines for the entire grid) to create any excitement. A championship that really only came down the final race because the two Williams stars took away points from each other while Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost drove the bolts off inferior cars to keep up in a testament to the greatness of both men.
Yet, the famous three-way title clash at Adelaide removed all the previous boredom from collective memory. 150,000 fans saw the title decider that is rated among experts and fans as one of the most entertaining ever. Autosport placed it second in a listicle about the most thrilling championship deciders ahead of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Keke Rosberg dropping out of the lead on his final Grand Prix, Nigel Mansell losing a certain title with a horrifying puncture and Nelson Piquet launching a final charge, failing to prevent Alain Prost – despite the Frenchman dealing with severe fuel trouble – from winning the first back-to-back world championships since 1960 (a statistical fun fact to chew on as Max Verstappen is set to win his third consecutive title after Lewis Hamilton winning four in a row).
NASCAR Cup, 1992: Crown Jewel
The 1992 season is spoken of in reverence among NASCAR fans. It is one of the most impactful seasons in the history of the sport: a farewell to seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty, the debut of the Generation 4 car, Dale Earnhardt struggling after having won back-to-back titles, the championship contention of owner-driver Alan Kulwicki that would influence NASCAR throughout the entirety of the 90s and many other worthwhile tales. It also featured what turned out to be one of the closest championship fights in the long history of America’s premier racing series with various drivers looking set to dominate only to be brought down to competitive levels on account of various issues. This included Davey Allison’s early run of dominance slowly falling apart because of injuries sustained in multiple incidents; Bill Elliott’s run of glory in summer going awry late in the season, as he was only classified higher than 25th once in the five outings before the last race of the season. Eventually, six drivers would end up with a shot at the crown in the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which also included perennial nearly-man Mark Martin, 52 year old Harry Gant in an unfancied Oldsmobile, and Kyle Petty, who had spent the entire season hustling and proving he deserved his spot with NASCAR’s elite. Notably, Dale Earnhardt was not among the six drivers, the Intimidator being reduced to a sideshow attraction in 1992.
However, this great season would be perceived quite differently if that showdown did not prove one of the finest ends a year of NASCAR has ever seen. The 328 laps are so packed with dramatic stories that the author could not hope to do it complete justice in this small section of a column. Still, even a shortlist of the dramatic developments will convey to the reader unfamiliar to NASCAR why this race was an absolute blockbuster: Davey Allison experiencing damage early in the race avoiding an accident, Kulwicki’s transmission problem, rookie Jeff Gordon (wonder what became of him? – Ed) dropping a roll of duct tape that crippled Allison’s chances, “Swervin” Ernie Irvan crashing and collecting the luckless Allison to finally end the Alabamian’s hopes, and the deciding pitstop misjudgement by Tim Brewer that would deny Bill Elliott his second NASCAR title. All that to determine Alan Kulwicki as champion by a margin of 10 points – the equivalent of being classified 49th in the then-active points system.
Formula 1, 2006: Missed Glory
The 2006 Formula 1 season was arguably all you could want out of a year. It featured a legendary championship battle where the old legend fought his way back from a bad start to the year to bring himself back into contention against the future of the sport. A seven-time world champion trying to get his eighth at the expense of the young world champion who looks like a serious threat to his records. They also duelled in close races, such as their strategic fights in Bahrain and Imola as well as their legendary race to the flag at the Turkish Grand Prix. It had dramatic retirements, such as Schumacher’s crash in Melbourne and Alonso’s engine failure at Monza. It had chaos in events like the Hungarian Grand Prix. It even featured fascinating rejects like Midland and Yuji Ide.
Yet, while a popular season, it is not ranked among the all-time great seasons of the sport. Of course, a lot of it has to do with the series being in a transitory stage as old legendary names like Sauber, Jordan and Minardi were wiped out to make room for franchises that would take their time to become established names themselves. Still, it stands to reason that the season suffered from its thrilling climax literally going up in smoke as Michael Schumacher experienced an engine failure at the worst possible time. While Schumacher’s ride back from a technical issue in qualifying and an early-race puncture at the Brazilian Grand Prix are already the stuff of legend, it would have been even more so if the difference at the top of the driver’s standings going into the race had not been ten points, but two. With those narratives, the 2006 season could very well have been pushed over the line in terms of all-time great Formula 1 seasons.
Formula E, 2015-16: Erased History
The second season of the very series that inspired this column was a historically significant one. After a successful first outing, regulations were altered so that manufacturers were now permitted to design their own motor, gearbox and cooling system. This led to an arms race as almost every team used that chance. A Renault one-make series became a clash of companies; manufacturers like Venturi, Mahindra and Citroën (through their DS brand) took the challenge to Renault, who – unlike their Formula 1 engine outfit at the time – responded well to the challenge with Renault e.dams five wins on the season. This season also saw the debut of the Mexico City ePrix, a mainstay of the current Formula E calendar. Eventually, the championship became an outright punch-counterpunch duel of the two drivers who came very close to winning the inaugural Formula E world title: Sebastién Buemi and Lucas di Grassi, names very familiar to the GP Rejects reader.
Yet, very little (if anything) of this is remembered because the series experienced one of the more farcical finishes a motorsport season has ever had. Pole position for the final ePrix of the year left Sébastien Buemi only a point behind championship leader Lucas di Grassi. The Brazilian responded by intentionally crashing into the former Toro Rosso driver with the usual respect for the rules that can be expected from an Audi works driver. Despite that, both drivers somehow managed to haul their damaged cars back to the garage. What would follow would be a qualifying session in the middle of an actual race: Buemi and di Grassi both got their cars repaired as well as possible and went back out on the track, hoping to get the fastest lap and the three points for the crown (the now-standard rule of requiring a driver to get a top 10 finish as well as the fastest lap to earn the points not having been added yet). It was certainly one of the sillier things in motorsport the author has seen and it has more or less taken away the rest of the second Formula E season in his and the average fan’s mind. It certainly did not help the image of a young, but exciting racing series (though at least, unlike many other examples, these wounds were not really self-inflicted).
With all those examples in mind – and many more others existing – it is pretty clear that the human brain, short-cut addicted as it is, will never automatically give any motorsport fan a true picture of how a season truly was. This can be seen in so many end-of-season ratings having either a subtle or extreme bias towards the final part of a season. The old F1 Rejects site was no stranger to that and the author himself has fallen victim to it before and, regrettably, will probably do so in the future. For the most part, it does not matter much except to (self-proclaimed) historians. However, given as media executives and series management are beholden to the same biases as the average fan, it is worth to be aware of them while ranting about the latest disappointing last race(s) of a season on X and other social media – it would be a shame to do damage to the sport we love so much just because of short-term thinking.
When trying to complete a puzzle and appreciate its beauty, do not focus just on the final part.
Sources: DHL InMotion, nascar.com, StatsF1