Nobody’s too old for an advent calendar, although years of cheap chocolate behind little cardboard doors ad nauseam have led us to come up with something a bit different for this year. A discussion on “the worst drivers at the best teams” in Formula 1 snowballed into something that we thought would be a great list-themed article, which we thought we’d turn into our very own countdown to Christmas!
Firstly, based on the not-at-all-vague metric of “general F1 success”, we drew up a list of 25 teams before swapping a couple out (sorry, Matra) if nobody stood out as particularly rubbish.
To rein us in with our driver choices, we came up with a few restrictions and guidelines. We opted to neglect one-off entries, unless the driver did something truly shocking. Works teams – mainly in the case of entries from the 1950s-70s – were prioritised, as were reject drivers. Per se, this isn’t a definitive list of the least talented drivers, but rather the drivers who produced the worst stints at each team.
We hope you enjoy this little run-down until Christmas, and keep checking back each day for updates!
December 1st – 5th
Dec 1: Alfa Romeo – Paul Pietsch
Alfa Romeo was Formula 1’s original tour de force, winning every single F1 race of the original World Championship season in 1950 and continuing on top form into 1951.
Alfa’s star line-up of Fangio and Farina was nearly unstoppable, but the supporting cast was not quite up to the same standard. By Germany the decision had been made to let go of the team’s regular third driver Consalvo Sanesi and to get a hold of some local expertise for F1’s first visit to the Nordschleife.
Alfa’s first choice was pre-war Mercedes Grand Prix legend Hermann Lang, who refused. Stuck for a replacement (and no, that is not a Hans Stuck pun), they approached Enrico Platé’s second driver Paul Pietsch, another man with plenty of ‘Ring experience. He was much more enthusiastic, which, as it would turn out, was a feeling he couldn’t keep in check when it mattered.
With a limited amount of time to practice, Pietsch did rather well to put the powerful 159 seventh on the starting grid. His experience initially came to be a useful asset as he ended the first lap in fifth place, but his seeming over-eagerness to show Grand Prix racing’s top team what he could do saw him immediately drop to the back after some off-roading on the second lap.
This only seemed to make things worse, for as Pietsch was dispatching the backmarker Talbots he went off-piste a second time, sending him backwards and over a hedge, luckily without injury. So much for twenty years’ experience.
Honourable mentions: We’d originally gone for Mario Andretti’s incredibly average stint in 1981, but Pietsch’s outing was deemed more embarrassing than Andretti’s time with Alfa’s second F1 attempt. Mauro Baldi and Eddie Cheever were considered, as was Toulo de Graffenried’s stint with Alfa’s original F1 foray.
Dec 2: Arrows / Footwork – Taki Inoue
Throughout the combined fortunes of Arrows and Footwork, one name is so intrinsically linked with ineptitude that we’d be crazy not to include him in this list. Arrows had some rubbish drivers over the years, but none who were run over by a medical car. Step forward, Inoue-san.
Taki Inoue made his F1 debut at Suzuka with Simtek in 1994, thanks to a bulging wallet. Having proved to be little more than slow, Inoue still managed to find about $4m from a company from Unimat to purchase a seat at Footwork for ‘95 alongside Gianni Morbidelli. Feeling the pinch following reduced backing from Footwork chairman Wataru Ohashi, Inoue’s cash was a huge boost.
On average, Inoue was two seconds adrift of Morbidelli in qualifying, but the Japanese driver’s lack of pace wasn’t ever in question; instead, Inoue is best remembered for his pair of skirmishes with official track vehicles.
In Saturday morning practice at Monaco, Inoue had procured a tow from the marshals following a car failure, but hadn’t banked on the safety car – piloted by former rally driver Jean Ragnotti, no less – making contact and sending the Footwork into a flip, leaving Inoue upside down with a chunk missing from his helmet. Then, while fetching a fire extinguisher to save his smoky car at Hungary, Inoue was hit by the medical car and was sent sprawling onto the floor.
“They were just accidents, weren’t they?” Taki told Autosport in 2012. “No one did it on purpose…”
With Footwork struggling for cash in 1996, Inoue was asked to remain with the team, but he instead elected to join Pedro Lamy at Minardi. However, with sponsors Unimat and Clearly Canadian failing to come up with the cash, Inoue’s chances of remaining in F1 evaporated.
He’s since become something of a Twitter icon and helps young Japanese drivers fulfil their career ambitions in Europe, but no longer races himself.
“I was bad for the racing, so I shouldn’t do the driving…”
Honourable mentions: Ricardo Rosset took Inoue’s place at Arrows, and was arguably as useless. Inoue’s former team-mate Max Papis also got a nomination, as did Alex Caffi, while Enrique Bernoldi and Toranosuke Takagi were selections from the Tom Walkinshaw era.
Dec 3: BAR – Ricardo Zonta
When Zonta was announced as Jacques Villeneuve’s team-mate at the new British American Racing team, he arrived in Brackley with an impressive track record. Winning the 1997 edition of the International F3000 championship, Zonta joined BAR having just clinched the FIA GT championship with Mercedes the following year.
The Brazilian’s time in F1 began inauspiciously, retiring from the opening race of 1999 at Albert Park with a gearbox problem before injuring his foot in practice for the Brazilian Grand Prix, which kept him on the sidelines for three races – replaced by journeyman Mika Salo.
After returning to the wheel of his zip-liveried BAR 01, Zonta struggled with the chronic lack of reliability apparent in the Adrian Reynard-penned car. A monstrous shunt at Spa-Francorchamps in qualifying mirrored that of Villeneuve’s in the same session, and summed up an ultimately pointless and difficult first season with BAR.
Zonta scored three points for BAR the following year, one of them courtesy of Salo’s disqualification in Australia, also benefitting from the ill-fated first lap crash at Monza. Although his best performance of the year came at Indianapolis, over the year he was ultimately miles behind the pace of Villeneuve and was subsequently ditched, with Craig Pollock electing to bring in then-McLaren tester Olivier Panis after the season’s end.
Zonta’s only lasting legacy in F1 was at Spa, appearing in the oft-replayed video of Mika Hakkinen’s overtake on Michael Schumacher in 2000 – essentially using Zonta’s BAR as a distraction!
Ending up as an occasional substitute at Jordan and Toyota, Zonta never again graced the grid on a full-time basis, instead testing for a few teams before buying into seemingly every Brazilian racer’s retirement plan: Stock Car Brasil.
Honourable mentions: Takuma Sato’s 2005 was briefly considered, but a mega 2004 more than makes up for it. Zonta was the only real candidate here after failing to match F1’s Worst World Champion™.
Dec 4: Benetton – Emanuele Pirro
Although he’s better known these days for his five Le Mans wins and propensity to dish out time penalties aplenty as a steward, Emanuele Pirro once had a stable job in Formula One, plying his trade around Suzuka Circuit day and night as McLaren’s primary test driver for their Honda engine.
Highly regarded as a dependable driver, several teams in 1989 had eyed the Italian up for a drive. He was previously close to getting a seat at Brabham, and Larrousse had tried to get him on board to cover for Yannick Dalmas. On Ron Dennis’ advice, he waited out for a bigger offer. Then, Johnny Herbert had just been removed from his Benetton seat, so Pirro took that drive instead.
Saddled with the old B188 for his first two races for the team, exemplified by qualifying last at the British Grand Prix, Pirro received the new B189 chassis in time for Hockenheim. Everything seemed to be on the up as Pirro ran as high as third at one point, but a good result was thrown away as he went way wide into the stadium section, deflecting a styrofoam panel right to his head, requiring medical attention.
As Nannini seldom qualified below tenth place, Pirro seldom did the reverse. In ten attempts, Pirro only outqualified Nannini once, in Spain, and while he spent a good chunk of the race in fourth place, he crashed out of the race with 14 laps remaining. In total, Nannini scored 24 points over those 10 races, including a win in Japan. Pirro crashed out three times, including in that fateful Japanese Grand Prix, and could only boast a single fifth place in Australia, where Nannini was second.
Pirro wasn’t even notified he was fired from Benetton at season’s end, finding out the news through a magazine article. Post Benetton, he found refuge at Scuderia Italia where the rest of Pirro’s F1 career was characterised by numerous accidents and one single point scored in 1991. He then moved to sportscars, and the rest is history.
Honourable mentions: Benetton had a raft of strong drivers pass through its doors. Apart from Pirro, JJ Lehto was also considered, but his injuries largely explain his lack of pace with the team.
Luke Levy & Thomas De Bock
Dec 5: Brabham – Giovanna Amati
Giovanna Amati. Kidnapping victim. Friend of Elio de Angelis. Also, the last female driver to attempt to qualify for a Formula One Grand Prix. By every right, she shouldn’t have even been in the car in the first place.
Initially, Brabham wanted Japanese driver Akihiko Nakaya to partner Eric van de Poele but, despite finishing ahead of Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine in the standings, the FIA didn’t deem Japanese F3000 as a viable stepping stone to a superlicense, and so Nakaya was denied.
Amati, likewise, probably had no right to earn a superlicense as well. In her four futile years at attempting International Formula 3000, she failed to qualify for over half of her races. In a feeder series. She didn’t even score a point, something that even Jean-Denis Deletraz could laugh at. Yet, with the Italian Prime Minister being close friends with her late father, she managed to earn his funding to get a test at Brabham late into 1991.
In the wake of the Nakaya deal, with Brabham starving for funds, they gave into Amati dangling Italian lire in front of their faces, hiring her to partner Eric van de Poele. Somehow, Giovanna Amati was a Brabham driver.
No surprises as to what happened next.
In her first practice session at Kyalami, Amati spun a total of six times. She failed to qualify for all three races that she entered. Granted, the Brabham BT60B was nothing more than an under-funded tube on wheels, but still, Amati was consistently three or more seconds behind Eric van de Poele.
Even on the verge of collapse, Brabham had had enough of the Italian glamour girl, replacing her after just three races. Some might be familiar with the name of her replacement: Damon Hill.
Honourable mentions: There’s a fair few here! Richard Robarts and Rikky von Opel struggled to perform in 1974 – resulting in Bernie Ecclestone losing patience with both – while Ricardo Zunino was barely even a “Number Two” when partnering Nelson Piquet in 1979-80. Larry Perkins and Gregor Foitek were also considered.