P20 and You – A Guide to Formula 1’s Least Desirable Position

With Formula 1 having ten teams since the demise of Manor at the end of 2016, and new entries being considered undesirable by the sport’s commercial rights holder, it stands to reason that 20th place will remain the last place on the grid for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, even Reject fans do not give that position all the attention it deserves. Therefore, this month’s Gravel Trap will look to teach Formula 1 fans about the worst result possible in current Formula 1. 

The history of being classified P20 in Formula 1 begins at its third championship race. “Spider” Travis Webb, a known connoisseur of spirits who brought a portable bar to every race, hauled his Maserati-Offenhauser to 20th place (12 laps down) ahead of future Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Jerry Hoyt and future Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann. Marius Eugène Chaboud would go on to be the first driver to finish in 20th in the World Drivers Championship, taking a single point by sharing a driver with Philippe Étancelin, who became the oldest point scorer in Formula 1 history at the time (a record which still stands today). The 20th place in the World Drivers Championship has since gone to such luminaries as Ludovico Scarfiotti, René Arnoux, Alessandro Zanardi, future Stock Car Pro Series champion Rubens Barrichello and future Indianapolis 500 winners Alexander Rossi and Marcus Ericsson.

The first P20 in a championship Grand Prix took place two years after that, when Eric Brandon took his Bristol-powered Cooper T20 to 20th place at the 1952 British Grand Prix. He finished nine laps behind race winner Alberto Ascari. Of course, that Grand Prix had 31 starters. In a field of 20 cars where P20 would tantamount to a last-place finish, the first driver to receive that “honour” is Narain Karthikeyan. The Indian was the last finisher of the 2005 Italian Grand Prix, being the only driver down three laps at the end of the race.

Since then, seven more races have seen all 20 competitors classified and thus both allowing for a driver to score a P20 and that P20 being truly last place.

Race 20th Place
2015 Japanese Grand Prix Felipe Nasr, Sauber-Ferrari*
2018 Chinese Grand Prix Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso-Honda*
2019 Austrian Grand Prix Robert Kubica, Williams-Mercedes
2021 French Grand Prix Nikita Mazepin, Haas-Ferrari
2021 Belgian Grand Prix Lance Stroll, Aston Martin-Mercedes**
2021 Turkish Grand Prix Nikita Mazepin, Haas-Ferrari
2022 Hungarian Grand Prix Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo-Ferrari*

* classified despite not finishing

** post-”race” time penalty, de facto P20 was Sergio Pérez, Red Bull Racing-Honda

Even without it being the last place, the usual state of reliability for most of Formula 1 history has turned being classified 20th into a rare feat. Even with modern reliability, it is still comparatively rare. Of the 772 drivers who have entered a Formula 1 race, only 36 have been classified 20th. 28 of those have, of course, achieved this feat in the 21st century. Only four of those 28 are still currently on the grid, with one set to depart from Formula 1 at the end of this season. Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Pérez, Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo are in the very exclusive fraternity of the “Current Formula 1 Racers Who Were Classified 20th Once” Club. 

All of those four have started a race in 20th before, which ties neatly into the 20th grid slot. That one, of course, is much, much more common. In fact, races where there were less than 20 entrants are in comparison the historical exception rather than the rule. From Joe Fry being 16.2 seconds slower than pole-sitter Guiseppe Farina at Formula 1’s first championship Grand Prix to Pierre Gasly starting last from the pitlane in Formula 1’s return to Suzuka after two years of Covid cancellations, there were many drivers who have started a Formula 1 Grand Prix from what is currently last place on the grid. Due to the reducing grid sizes and less performance variety in Formula 1, it may not come as a surprise that almost all drivers who started a race 20th the most often have had the majority of their careers after the turn of the millennium. Even though he is not avant-garde in parenting and his relationship with women, Jos Verstappen was certainly just a bit ahead of his time, as he started in 20th eleven times with the majority of his career happening in the late 90s.

Starts in 20th Driver Career Teams
17 Jarno Trulli Minardi, Prost, Jordan, Renault, Toyota, Lotus
15 Timo Glock Jordan, Toyota, Virgin, Marussia
14 Adrian Sutil Spyker, Force India, Sauber
13 Pedro de la Rosa Arrows, Jaguar, McLaren, Sauber, HRT
12 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi, Jordan, Benetton, Sauber, Renault, Force India, Ferrari
11 Jos Verstappen Benetton, Simtek, Footwork, Tyrrell, Stewart, Arrows, Minardi
11 Marcus Ericsson Caterham, Sauber
10 Heikki Kovalainen Renault, McLaren, Lotus
10 Jenson Button Wiliams, Benetton, Renault, BAR, Honda, Brawn, McLaren

The last name on that list will have given fans a bit of pause, given as we are talking about the 2009 Formula 1 World Champion. Despite its lowly image, Button is certainly not the only world champion to have started a race all the way down in 20th. In fact, just missing out on the list above is two-times world champion Graham Hill, who started nine races in 20th, all of which, with the sole exception of the 1958 French Grand Prix, coming in the later stages of his career; four coming in the 1970 season alone.  Standing at having started a Grand Prix from 20th eight times is Fernando Alonso, who has managed the fascinating feat of starting 20th both in his rookie season in 2001 (at the Belgian Grand Prix, where he outqualified Enrique Bernoldi and his teammate Tarso Marques) and his 19th season (at the Spanish Grand Prix, where an engine penalty left him last). If we look at all the multiple-times world champions, less than half of that very elusive club has never started or been classified 20th: Alain Prost, Alberto Ascari, Sir Jack Brabham, Sir Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio and Mika Häkkinen. It should, however, be noted, only Stewart, Clark and Fangio never started a race in a lower position than 20th (and the former two competed in an era of Formula 1 where the abovementioned historical rarity of less than 20 entrants was more common).

With so many superstars of the sport starting in that 20th position, surely someone must have won from 20th? Surprisingly, no. Of course John Watson famously won from 22nd to set a Formula 1 record back in 1983, Bill Vukovich stormed from 19th to victory lane at the 1954 Indianapolis 500 and Rubens Barrichello mastered the conditions at the Hockenheimring in 2000 to win from 18th, but no driver has yet managed to come out on top after being forced to start 20th. There have been some amazing recovery drives from that place: Sir Lewis Hamilton managing to recover from a technical failure in qualifying to take third at the new version of the Hockenheimring in 2014 and limit the damage to his eventually successful title pursuit; Sebastian Vettel surviving the wet conditions at that same venue to take a podium at his home race in 2019; and Valtteri Bottas coming home fourth to secure Mercedes’ sixth consecutive constructor’s world title at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix are just three examples of recovery starting from 20th place. As said position is now for the foreseeable future the standard last place, and engine regulations will remain the way they are, it feels like a victory from 20th on the grid is more a question of “When” rather than “If”.

Of course at GP Rejects, we have our share of rejects for whom P20 was the best starting grid position they ever had – Huub Rothengatter and Fabrizio Barbazza are just two examples. In terms of starting 20th, however, the king of rejects is Nikita Mazepin. Of course, he is not the driver who started a race in that position the most. The table above shows Marcus Ericsson has him beaten by four starts in 20th and there are two more rejects that have started in 20th more than he has (and Nicholas Latifi is currently tied with him with (at least) four chances left to pass him). However, there are two things he has over those drivers. One of those things is frequency. Of all drivers with more than 20 race starts, he is the leader in terms of percentage of races started from 20th. In his career, which seems to be over barring unusual geopolitical developments too large for GP Rejects to address, he started exactly 33% percent of his Grands Prix in 20th position. The only driver who crosses the 30 percent barrier is Ricardo Rosset, who started 30.77 percent of his Grand Prix starts from 20th. This ties into the second point: grid size. Of the eight Grand Prix Rosset started from 20th, only in four of those was that the worst starting slot possible. For only four of the eleven Grands Prix Ericsson started in 20th was it the worst position on the grid.

The attentive reader will have noted that the author mentioned three rejects who have started a race in 20th more often than Mazepin, but will so far have only noticed Marcus Ericsson and Nicolas Latifi being mentioned. This ties into an earlier point. It was mentioned that only 36 drivers have ever experienced being classified in 20th position. Of those 36 drivers, only 14 were ever so “lucky” to have it happen to them more than once. Interestingly, despite the number of world champions that have started a Grand Prix 20th, no race winner ever was ever classified in that position more than once (in fact, Ayrton Senna is the only champion to have been classified 20th when he was included in the standings for the 1990 Mexico Grand Prix despite retiring with a tyre failure six laps before Alain Prost concluded one of the finest races of his career). 

The driver who was classified 20th the most is, fittingly enough, a reject and does noticeably tower above all competition through Formula 1 history in that start. Before the author reveals his identity, a quick look at the other thirteen drivers who were classified 20th more than once.

Classified 20th Driver Career Teams
4 Jérôme d’Ambrosio Virgin, Lotus
4 Sakon Yamamoto Super Aguri, Spyker, HRT
3 Esteban Gutiérrez Sauber, Haas
3 Marcus Ericsson Caterham, Sauber
3 Timo Glock Jordan, Toyota, Virgin, Marussia
3 Vitantonio Liuzzi Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Force India, HRT
2 Felipe Nasr Sauber
2 Jules Bianchi Marussia
2 Karun Chandhok HRT, Lotus
2 Max Chilton Marussia
2 Narain Karthikeyan Jordan, HRT
2 Nikita Mazepin Haas
2 Pedro de la Rosa Arrows, Jaguar, McLaren, Sauber, HRT

Compared to the abovementioned list, this one is much more populated by rejects or at least drivers who have driven for the 2010 teams or the Haas VF-21 for a significant amount of time. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the leader of this particular statistic is indeed a reject who has driven for the 2010 teams. 

Enter Charles Pic.

The Frenchmen has managed to be classified 20th the most out of all drivers in Formula 1 history. He was classified 20th a breathtaking seven times. His first 20th place came at the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix, where he finished ahead of the HRT pair of Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa. His final 20th-place finish came at the 2013 United States Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel famously inspired his team to “[…] remember these days because there is no guarantee that they will last forever. Enjoy them as long as they last.” Wise words indeed. In our ignorance, the GP Rejects community had no idea what kind of legendary run of rejectdom was coming to an end. Perhaps it was impossible to appreciate the significance of what has been seen simply because only one of those classifications actually saw Pic being the last classified runner (his third at the 2012 Canadian Grand Prix, as both HRTs, Michael Schumacher and Pic’s teammate Timo Glock retired from the race). Or perhaps because nobody but the author is dull enough to go through a statistical analysis of Formula 1 drivers finishing 20th. Deciding which of these factors apply is an exercise for the reader.

What can we learn from all these numbers? There are two lessons the author sees in these statistics.

Lesson 1: as can be seen from the difference between the number of Formula 1 stars that started a race versus those that were classified 20th, it proves the idea that follows from the standards of what a reject is – rejects are made on Sunday.

Lesson 2: pay close attention to the back of the grid because sometimes, some interesting things come from the worst position in today’s Formula 1.

Sources: motorsport-total.com, Stats F1

Image Sources: Alpine, CaterhamF1, Guy Spencer, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection