You see this situation at children’s pantomimes and school plays all the time. The stars occupy the limelight at the front: they’re generally the best-looking, they are the centre of the plot and they get the most lines.
But what of the ones hiding on the fringes and in the chorus? They never have their moment in the sun. They don’t get to utter a line, but merely form part of the backdrop to the rest of the story.
You can parallel this to Formula 1 drivers who raced on the F1 stage, yet were very much in the chorus as well. These men had the lengthy career, hopefully gained fame and fortune, but will perhaps never be regarded in the pantheon of others around them.
I refer of course to the Grand Prix drivers who – never mind winning a race (and just 102 drivers are among that lucky group) – never said a line on stage.
Or in this case, have never led a lap of a Grand Prix…
I present to you the top-ten drivers in this category…
10. Piercarlo Ghinzani, 76 GP starts (1981-9)
Piercarlo once very aptly said: “It is better to be at the back in Formula 1 than not be in Formula 1 at all.” We certainly couldn’t have put it better!
And that’s pretty much where the Bergamo-born driver stayed during his nine-season F1 career, at the back of the grid with tail-end teams.
It was perhaps more by the clinching of sponsorship deals than outright pace that Piercarlo was able to extend his F1 career for so long, and it took him an awfully long time to get there too. Starting in motor racing in 1970, it took him until 1973 before he broke into Formula 3, and a further four years before he won the European title and graduated to Formula 2.
Called in as a last-minute replacement at Osella in 1981, he started what would be a long, although not very fulfilling, association with the little Italian team. The only points finish of his career came at the attrition-hit 1984 Dallas Grand Prix, where he survived on the crumbling track to finish fifth.
He briefly switched to Toleman in 1985, but returned to Osella again in 1986, switched to Ligier for 1987, Zakspeed for 1988, and finally again to Osella for his last season in 1989.
On the basis of his equipment, Piercarlo was never going to feature at the pointy end of the field – the highest he ever qualified was 13th – and he certainly was never destined to lead a race.
Two points from 112 entries – including a mammoth 36 times where he failed to make the grid – cast Piercarlo as one of F1’s all-time tail-end heroes.
9. Marc Surer, 81 GP starts (1979-86)
Something of a late starter in motorsport and very much a bridesmaid in Formula 1, Marc made his F1 debut in 1979 with Ensign after winning that year’s European Formula 2 title.
However, at the time of his debut, serious doubts were being cast about his ability to lead from the front, and it was perceived that he made heavy weather of clinching the F2 title in what was clearly the most superior car in the field.
Signed by ATS for 1980, his season had barely started when he had his first crash at Kyalami, breaking both ankles. He would mirror the feat and suffer further leg injuries with another crash there in 1982.
In between, Surer raced for Ensign and Theodore, before moving to Arrows in 1983. His big opportunity came in 1985, when he was signed to the Brabham team alongside Nelson Piquet, nearly peaking with a podium at Brands Hatch and Adelaide.
It was back to Arrows for 1986, but his season was curtailed with a heavy crash in a German rally that killed his co-driver, gave Marc serious burns and put paid to any future competition.
A tally of 81 Grand Prix starts without a lap in the limelight is a poor summary of a career that deserved plenty more than that.
8. Jonathan Palmer, 83 GP starts (1983-9)
A quite brilliant junior motorsport career never translated into F1 success for Jonathan Palmer, largely by dint of never having the proper equipment at his disposal to showcase his talent.
Palmer’s motorsport ambitions were put on hold while he gained qualifications as a doctor, but he kicked things off with Formula Ford in 1979 and by 1981 was competing on the front line in Formula 3. A tally of eight wins, seven pole positions and ten fastest laps showed that he was no slouch behind the wheel en route to the title. His second season of Formula 2 in 1983 proved again how quick he was, as he and team-mate Mike Thackwell dominated proceedings.
A one-off drive with Williams in 1983 saw Palmer join the execrable RAM outfit in 1984, where he qualified the car and was usually able to haul it to the finish, albeit several lap down. The 1985-6 seasons were spent with the very under-resourced Zakspeed team, in which he again could do no more than make up the numbers.
By 1987, Palmer had been noticed and signed by Tyrrell, and duly went on to pick up his first points and win the Jim Clark Cup for non-turbo runners. More points followed in 1988 and 1989, but in the latter season he was being overshadowed by the team’s new-hire, Jean Alesi, and decided to call it quits.
Palmer’s lack of a lap in the lead seemed to stem from either having a good but underpowered non-turbo car, or a very powerful but hopeless turbo car. Additionally, qualifying proved a sticky point: just twice in 88 attempts to qualify for a race did Jonathan qualify in the top ten.
7. Pedro de la Rosa, 83 GP starts (1999-present)
The man from Barcelona has led many a timing sheet in a private test session, but never led a lap of a Grand Prix in a career that started 12 years ago with the lowly Arrows team. Pedro de la Rosa had an impressive junior motorsport career, winning every championship in which he competed.
He picked up a point on debut in 1999 and impressed enough in the orange cars over the next two seasons to be drafted into Jaguar mid-season as Luciano Burti’s replacement, where he remained until the end of 2002.
Points finishes proved few and far between, and his contract with the leaping cat wasn’t renewed beyond that point, so he ventured to McLaren as its test driver, where he carved out a lengthy career pounding around the test tracks for the Woking squad.
Drafted in as a one-off in 2005 for the Bahrain Grand Prix – replacing the injured Juan Pablo Montoya – where his race rustiness showed with some botched passing attempts, but he did set the fastest lap on the way to the finish.
Further outings came by in 2006 – by which point McLaren had dispensed with Montoya’s services entirely – and he peaked with a podium in the rain-hit Hungarian Grand Prix before returning again to the test driver role.
What really hurts Pedro’s chances of leading a race is his qualifying pace, which could generously be described as “not very good”. He has qualified inside the top-ten on the grid just fifteen times in 84 Grands Prix to-date, with a best starting position of fourth.
Pedro is the only current driver in this top-ten list, and one would argue that on the basis of Sauber’s current form, the end of 2010 will see him sitting a clear seventh on this tally overall.
6. Ukyo Katayama, 95 GP starts (1992-7)
Ukyo Katayama’s F1 career might have been considerably shorter were it not for his serious backing from the Japanese Mild Seven tobacco consortium. Added to his tiny frame came serious concerns that his perceived frailty would hamper his ability to achieve competitive results in the world of F1.
Indeed, Katayama’s debut season with Venturi Larrousse in 1992 proved as much, with a few retirements and accidents along the way. He switched to Tyrrell in 1993, but the car was woefully slow and he was lucky to pick up a few race finishes. But not points.
It was 1994 that finally gave the F1 world a glimpse at Ukyo’s considerable talent. A fine drive to fifth at the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix was a portent of things to come, and Ukyo ran regularly in the points thereafter, cruelly losing a potential podium finish at the German Grand Prix. Such was his form that Murray Walker was moved to describe him as “the best F1 driver Japan has ever produced”.
Yet his four championship points in 1994 would prove the last time he would achieve a championship points’ finish. Another lean two years with Tyrrell in 1995 and 1996 saw a deflated Ukyo move his Mild Seven sponsorship to Minardi for 1997.
5. Pedro Diniz, 98 GP starts (1995-2000)
Poor Pedro will never be allowed to forget that he bought his way into Formula 1, being born into one of the richest family dynasties in Brazil. Without ever having a particularly crash-hot pedigree in the junior categories, Pedro was able to prove the doubters wrong over the course of a Formula 1 career that spanned from 1995 to 2000.
Graduating from F3000 with the Forti concern, Pedro struggled at the back of the grid in the hopelessly overweight Forti-Corse alongside Roberto Moreno, but occasionally proved quicker than the veteran Brazilian.
Perhaps it was his improving form (or finances) that appealed to Ligier boss Tom Walkinsaw, and he duly signed young Pedro, who rewarded him with a pair of sixth places at Spain and Italy.
Walkinsaw went on to take over Arrows in 1997, and predictably took Pedro with him to partner the newly crowned World Champion, Damon Hill. Incredibly, Pedro ran Damon very close – and sometimes running quicker! – and scored a career-best fifth at the Nurburgring. He achieved more points finishes in subsequent seasons with Arrows and Sauber, but his second season with the Swiss team proved his last in F1.
4. Jos Verstappen, 107 GP starts (1994-2003)
One of the most exciting drivers to watch in Formula 1, Jos ‘The Boss’ Verstappen was an F1 stalwart in Formula 1, whose career never quite hit the heights after his debut season with Benetton as a fresh-faced youngster alongside Michael Schumacher.
Initially young and accident-prone, Verstappen’s principle skills have been in wet-weather driving and overtaking. Few of his contemporaries were held in such regard during his career, and he should have had a long and successful race-winning career.
Then why didn’t he ever lead a lap, let along win a race?
Verstappen had to be aggressive behind the wheel: he was, like several of the drivers whom we have profiled in this article, a rather poor qualifying driver. In fairness, Verstappen’s sole season in a race-winning car was his first one, and this was reflected with just one top-six qualifying result in over 100 Grand Prix starts.
Much of Jos’ career has been spent at tail-of-the-grid outfits. His second season lasted just a handful of races when his Simtek team collapsed. He resurfaced in 1996 with Arrows, and switched to Tyrrell for 1997. He made another mid-season comeback to F1 in 1998 with Stewart Grand Prix, but sat out the 1999 season as he tested the abortive Honda F1 prototype. Two seasons with Arrows in 2000-1 showed the odd flash of form – and plenty of demon starting moves – before he was cast aside in 2002 and returned for one last crack with Minardi in 2003.
3. Philippe Alliot, 109 GP starts (1984-94)
A well-to-do French drivers whose entire stint in F1 was almost exclusively spent with mid-grid French-run or supported outfits, Philippe is a not surprising addition to this Top-Ten list.
He started competitive motor racing only once he had finished his national service, and it took him several seasons apiece to graduate through the ranks of karting, Formula Renault and Formula 3.
Philippe’s F1 debut came in 1984 with the hopeless Skoal Bandit RAM outfit, with whom he spent two hopeless seasons.
It was Jacques Laffite’s career-ending accident in mid-1986 that saw Philippe join Ligier, picking up a point before signing full-time with the new Larrousse concern in 1987. He stayed there for three seasons, proving decidedly erratic, discourteous when being lapped, and capable of some enormous accidents. Things didn’t improve with another stint at Ligier in 1990.
A period spent sports car racing saw Philippe return to F1 in 1993, again with Larrousse, before he became Peugeot’s test driver with McLaren in 1994, subbing for the banned Mika Hakkinen at the Hungarian Grand Prix. He completed a couple more races with Larrousse at the end of the season and looked likely to continue with the outfit into 1995 until it collapsed.
Now realising that his best days were well behind him, Philippe quit dying his grey hairs and left F1 for good.
2. Eddie Cheever, 132 GP starts (1978-89)
This incredibly popular – and highly strung, we will add – Grand Prix driver made his Grand Prix debut in a one-off outing for Hesketh in 1978, and cracked the big league full-time in 1980 with Osella.
His biggest opportunity came the following year when he partnered Alain Prost at the race-winning Renault operation, with a third place in France and another second place – this time at Canada – his best results.
But his joy was short-lived, as he found himself joining another team the following year. This time it was Alfa Romeo, and he stuck it out for two disastrous seasons and wasn’t in the game in 1986.
Aside from a one-off outing with the Beatrice Haas Lola concern at Detroit that year, he then joined Arrows for 1987, staying on for three seasons.
Cheever’s story was certainly one about never being in the right team at the right time, or indeed, for long enough.
1. Martin Brundle, 158 GP starts (1984-96)
How the man who pushed Ayrton Senna so hard for the British F3 title in 1983 and won the World Sports Car Championship in 1988 could neither win nor lead a single Grand Prix in a career spanning 158 races just beggars belief.
Such is one of the tragic statistics that form part of Martin Brundle’s F1 career.
His prospects had looked so bright when he started with Tyrrell in 1984. Points on debut, he finished runner-up to (and was catching) Nelson Piquet at the Detroit Grand Prix, only to break his ankles at the very next round in Dallas.
After a lengthy recuperation, he stayed with Tyrrell for another two seasons, but his momentum seemed to have stalled. It nearly fell to pieces the following year with a season spent struggling in the execrable Zakspeed, but he took a break from F1 for 1988 and stormed to the World Sports Car Championship in 1988.
A couple of seasons on the return with Brabham brought little, but he was drafted into the Benetton outfit for 1992 – his first break with a top-line F1 team. Teamed with the emerging Michael Schumacher, he performed excellently, but his task was made harder by consistently qualifying slower than Schumacher, leaving with him having it all to do on the race day.
Robbed of a possible victory in Canada with a transmission failure, he could have taken the top step on the dais at Belgium, only for Schumacher to make the better decision on the switch from wet to dry tyres.
Stunned to be dropped at season’s end, he joined Ligier for 1993, and acquitted himsell well enough to be called up to McLaren at the last minute for 1994. But the team was very much in the post-Senna rebuilding phase, and it was a lean year saddled with unreliable Peugeot engines.
It was back to Ligier for 1995 – sharing the drive with Aguri Suzuki – before he joined Jordan in 1996, surviving a massive opening-lap smash in Melbourne. He bounced back from that, and after getting his head together over the next few rounds, he finally started to put in some decent qualifying performances (an attribute he confessed never being able to master) and out-paced his team-mate Rubens Barrichello. But his F1 career had ended and no further drives were forthcoming.
Latest posts by Richard Bailey (see all)
- 2020 F1 Season Review (Blu Ray) - 27 February, 2021
- WTCR: Guerrieri outwits Muller at the Nordschleife - 26 September, 2020
- WTCR: Girolami breaks Nordschleife lap record to claim pole - 25 September, 2020
- WTCR: Hyundai withdraws from Germany round - 24 September, 2020
- WTCR: Ehrlacher leads Lynk & Co podium sweep at Zolder - 13 September, 2020