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Brilliant Mediocrity: The Bittersweet Success of F1's Unwanted Records

Nico Rosberg now shares Stirling Moss' record for most race wins without a world title. He may eventually shake it, but records like these are indicative of a very specific kind of driver – hugely talented, utterly committed, but lacking the final 1%.
Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

Nico Rosberg equalled one of Formula One's oldest records at the Bahrain Grand Prix – for the time being, at least. The 16th win of Nico's career drew him level with fifties F1 icon Stirling Moss, who tops the table for drivers with the most race victories but no world championship to show for them. It's one of those weird records that demonstrates both high achievement and a degree of relative failure.


Moss' last grand prix win came in 1961, but it would be wrong to say that the Englishman has carried this burdensome record for 55 years. In the decades since, three other drivers have won more races without taking the world title, but subsequently gone on to win the championship and shake off the unwanted accoldae. Nigel Mansell had won 29 grands prix before becoming champion; Damon Hill had 20 and no title, then became champion with victory number 21; and the great Alain Prost, eventually a four-time champion, had 21 race wins before securing his first crown. In other words, Stirling has been teased before.

And so it might be with Nico. The German is almost certain to streak ahead of Moss with a few more wins this season, which might be enough to land him a world title and leave Moss alone at the top once more. Equally, Lewis Hamilton may rediscover his groove and consign his Mercedes teammate to a third successive season as bridesmaid. If he does, Nico will perhaps forever hold the dubious record, one that says, "I was brilliantly fast and committed and successful", but also admits that someone else was marginally better.

But make no mistake, this record suggests a very high level of ability. Nico's win total is partly down to him driving for F1's dominant team for multiple seasons, but he had to earn his place there, then drive well enough to retain it (he's likely to get a contract extension this year, too). He has won fewer races than Lewis during their time together – the Briton leads 22 to 15 – but that's a decent ratio against a guy who'll go down as an all-time great. And Nico's beating him this season, which is all that matters to either man right now.


Rosberg celebrates his 16th career win; it will not be his last // Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

There are a handful of similar records that mark a driver out as really-bloody-good but not truly-bloody-great. While Nico is making the award for most wins without a title his own, the next gong down belongs to the man whose seat he filled as an F1 rookie in 2006 – Nick Heidfeld. Quick Nick holds the record for most podium finishes without a race win; 13 times he stood on the podium, eight of those as runner-up, but never did the little German climb to the top step. Again, always the bridesmaid, though the beard makes that image tough to process.

If I was asked to pick one driver from the past 20 years of F1 to sum up reliability, I'd go with Heidfeld. And with good reason: he also holds the record for the most consecutive race classifications with 41. Between the 2007 French Grand Prix and Italy in 2009, Nick was always among the classified finishers; combine that with the podium/no wins record and you have the definition of consistency.

This was the zenith of his career, with seven of his 13 podiums coming between '07 and '09. He was not quite able to take that elusive win, however. His best chance was arguably the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, but teammate Robert Kubica seized the initiative. Nick finished second.

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But, as well as largely unspectacular reliability, Heidfeld symbolises dogged determination and resilience. He started his career with a horrible car that would have ruined other 23-year-old rookies, but rapidly rebuilt his reputation at Sauber. When they dropped him a few years later, he received a last-minute reprieve and signed for Jordan, showing strongly in a poor car. He was nearly without a drive for 2005, but landed at BMW-Williams after an off-season 'shootout' with Antonio Pizzonia. That helped him into BMW's good books, and secured his big chance at the newly-purchased Sauber for the next few years.


When BMW quit the sport there was another comeback at a reborn privateer Sauber, and yet another at Lotus – he just wouldn't give up on F1. It was during that final comeback that Heidfeld scored podium number 13, which made him the sole owner of his record (he'd previously been tied with Stefan Johansson). Quitting was not on Heidfeld's agenda, which helps to explain how he ended up with his record. There's the simple fact he would not go away, yes, but it also speaks to resilience in his character.

Nick 'Born to Runner-up' Heidfeld celebrates another P2 finish // Photo: Kerim Okten/EPA

Heidfeld's record of 13 podiums probably doesn't rankle too much – ultimately he had a very good career, and plenty of drivers reach F1 but never manage a single top-three finish. Adrian Sutil, for example, started 128 grands prix but never stood on a podium, a record one step lower than Heidfeld's and two beneath Rosberg. His best result was a fourth-place at the 2009 Italian Grand Prix, and a few dozen lower points places in the years that followed. But he never scored a podium and, frankly, never threatened to do so.

For most, Sutil is seen as the ultimate example of mediocre F1 drivers. No one could call him bad – like anyone he made a few mistakes, but on the whole he was reliable, smart and cool in the car. During his time at Force India he was the king of P7, P8 and P9. He racked up plenty of points over the course of a season through consistency and reliability.

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But there was no real flair, not even a flash of hidden genius that might suggest he was capable of more, and without his financial backing he'd not have been in F1 for long. In truth, he was a driver born to take on the 'most races without a podium' accolade.

And yet Sutil too was resilient. There is the obvious hardiness of persisting in F1 for seven seasons despite not being standout-good, accepting his lot in the midfield when he could perhaps have won races in another category.

And there was also his comeback following an assault conviction, which saw him sit out the 2012 season. It doesn't make him a hero – far from it – but it speaks to a guy who wasn't going to let anything keep him out of F1. Not even an 18-month suspended sentence.

Adrian Sutil, probably on his way to seventh or eighth position // Photo: Nicolas Bouvy/EPA

Ultimately, while not on the same level as Heidfeld or Rosberg, Sutil hung around in the sport because he was a safe pair of hands. Sure, he brought money, but a lot of guys bring money. Sutil combined that with something else, a calm in the car that was oddly absent in that Shanghai nightclub in 2011.

And so for Heidfeld and Sutil, two German drivers with unwanted but not wholly negative records, it was about resilience. It was about keeping going, not accepting defeat, even if the chances of achieving their greatest dreams were ultimately very small.

Does that sound like Nico Rosberg? Six months ago I'd have said yes. But since Lewis won his third title, it's hard not to think something has changed. Perhaps Stirling will be getting sole ownership of that record back before 2016 is over.