The list of World Champions who have come out of retirement to race in F1 again is a surprisingly short one: of 31 World Champion drivers only four* came back: when he takes up his seat at Mercedes GP in 2010 Michael Schumacher will become the fifth.
As a group, their records on their return to F1 are patchy, but two of the four won world titles and only one failed to win a race. History – not to mention Ross Brawn and the might of Mercedes-Benz – looks to be on Schumacher's side.
The Returning Champions
Alan Jones (1975-81; 1983; 1985-86) Started his F1 career with Hesketh, Hill, Surtees and Shadow cars, then moved to the efficient Williams outfit for 1978. Won the world title for Williams in 1980, and won two more races in 1981 before retiring. Made a one-race return for Arrows in 1983 but retired from the race, exhausted. But Jones then reappeared in the new Haas-Lola for a handful of events in 1985 and a full season in 1986, alongside Patrick Tambay. After a disappointing string of results he retired again – this time for good.
Niki Lauda (1971-79; 1982-1985) The pre-eminent driver of his generation, Lauda won two world titles for Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, and only failed to win the 1976 title after a horrific accident at the Nürburgring which almost killed him. Moved to Brabham in 1978 but endured two largely unsuccessful seasons, leaving F1 before the end of the 1979 season to devote more time to his own airline. Returned in 1982 through a combination of financial need – the airline needed money – and unfinished business on the track. Won the third race after his return, at Long Beach, then following a tricky year as the team switched from Cosworth V8s to TAG turbo V6s he triumphed over team-mate Alain Prost after a season-long battle, taking the title by just half a point. Lauda retired from driving again at the end of 1985, returning briefly to manage the Jaguar F1 team. After selling his first airline, Lauda Air, he has since established another – called Niki (www.flyniki.com).
Alain Prost (1980-91; 1993) ‘The Professor’ came close to winning the championship in 1983 (for Renault) and 1984 (for McLaren), then won back to back titles in 1985/86 – the first time anyone had managed two consecutive wins since Jack Babham, way back in 1959/60. Beat Ayrton Senna to the 1989 title, then moved to Ferrari where he endured two tempestuous and only occasionally-competitive years. Took a sabbatical in 1992, then returned to F1 with a seat at Williams in 1993, winning seven races and a fourth world title. Chose to retire rather than race alongside arch-enemy Senna, who was due to join Williams for 1994. Returned to F1 again as a team owner in 1997-2001, but the Prost Grand Prix team never won a race.
Nigel Mansell (1980-92; 1994-1995) Perenially unlucky and increasingly under-motivated during his time with Lotus at the beginning of his career, Mansell only came good when he moved to Williams to compete alongside Keke Rosberg and, later, Nelson Piquet. When the machinery was up to the job Mansell was always a tough competitor, and his single world championship title victory in 1992 underplays the steely determination which was always the bedrock of his motorsport career. Opted to leave F1 and compete in the USA in 1993, and promptly won the IndyCar series. After Ayrton Senna’s death at the San Marino GP in 1994 Mansell returned to F1 to fill his Williams seat, competing in four GPs and winning the final round of the championship in Australia. A full-scale return with McLaren in 1995 beckoned, but embarrassingly Mansell didn’t fit into the car, which was uncompetitive anyway. After just two races he turned his back on F1, never to return.
* This list ignores four more world champions who were absent from F1 for a season or more during their careers, but not because they were ‘retired’:
- JM Fangio (career 1950-58, absent due to injury 1952)
- Phil Hill (career 1958-66, absent 1965 racing sports cars)
- Mario Andretti (career 1968-82, absent 1973 but racing in US formulae throughout)
- Fernando Alonso (career 2001-09, absent 2002 on Renault F1 test driver duty)