Nico Rosberg may have stunned the world of Formula One by announcing his retirement within a week of winning his first, and what seems likely to be his only, World Drivers’ Championship, but he is not the only F1 champion not to defend his title.
The second world driver’s champion, and for many years, the most successful with five titles, was Juan Manuel Fangio. He took his first title in 1951, but a change in rules saw the 1952 season run to Formula Two specification, leaving Alfa Romeo unable to compete and saw Fangio sit out the season before returning in 1953.
In 1958, Mike Hawthorn took the world title at the Moroccan Grand Prix. Starting from pole in his Ferrari, Hawthorn’s second place behind the Vanwall of Stirling Moss was enough to give him the world title.
Stuart Lewis-Evans had crashed during the race, and was badly burned. He was airlifted back to the UK but died in hospital six days later. It was a more dangerous sport in 1958 than today, and among the victims of that year’s season was Peter Collins, who crashed at the Nürburgring and was killed. This incident took its toll on Collins’ team mate Hawthorn that he announced his retirement from the sport after taking the world title.
Tragically, Hawthorn was himself killed in January 1959 when he crashed his Jaguar on the A3 near Guildford.
In 1970, the season started with a win for Jack Brabham then a win for Jackie Stewart. Austra’s Jochen Rindt took five of the next six races giving him a lead in the race for the title. Engine failure prevented Rindt from taking the win at his home Grand Prix in Austria, and the season moved on to Italy. Rindt was killed in an accident on the practice session on Saturday.
The season continued, but Rindt’s nearest rival, Jacky Ickx, was unable to catch Rindt’s total, seeing him crowned as the sport’s only posthumous world champion, with all of his points in the season coming from his five wins. The previous champion, Jackie Stewart presented the trophy to Rindt’s widow, Nina.
Stewart retook the title in 1971, and finished second in 1972. He was a busy man, also racing in the European Touring Car Championship, the Can-Am series. He decided to retire after the 1973 season, and he managed to end his career in style. He added five wins to his tally in his Tyrell through the course of the year, and ended his career as the reigning world champion.
Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nigel Mansell was often Formula One’s nearly man. So close to world championships, but somehow not quite able to claim one. In the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix, when the Williams team looked likely to have a good season, Mansell was leading the field and waving to the crowd on the last lap when his car stopped, gifting the race to a surprised Nelson Piquet. It seemed to sum up so much of Mansell’s career.
1992 was different. Mansell’s FW14B was clearly the best car and the season started with five pole positions converted to five wins. However, pole in Monaco did not convert to a win when a puncture saw Mansell pit and his key rival Senna take the lead. Despite plenty of trying, it was Senna who took the chequered flag. Mansell added four more wins to his total in the season and took the championship with a record nine wins. He developed an unassailable lead at the Hungarian Grand Prix in August. At the next race in Spa, a young Michael Schumacher celebrated a year in F1 with his first win.
By this stage, the relationship between Williams and Mansell was straining over negotiations over the 1993 season. It became known that the team had signed Alain Prost for 1993, and with the team and Mansell not able to agree terms, Mansell went on to drive in the CART IndyCar championship in 1993 taking the title there too before returning to Formula One for the last three races of 1994 – including his final win – and two appearances for McLaren in 1995.
Alain Prost’s return to Formula One in 1993 saw the dominance of Williams continue, with Prost taking the first race of the season, the first of his seven wins that year. At the Portuguese Grand Prix, Prost announced that he would retire at the end of the season, leaving the sport as world champion. He became only the second person to win four world drivers’ championships, and the first to take fifty race wins.
Incidentally, at the same race, McLaren announced that they had fired Michael Andretti, and were promoting their test driver, Mika Häkkinen, to a race seat.
Nico Rosberg’s retirement whilst at the top of the sport puts him alongside some illustrious talent.