Fernando Alonso will return to Formula 1 in 2021 with the rebranded Alpine F1 Team. It marks a comeback for the 39-year-old after a two-year absence from the grid but he is far from the first World Champion to put on his F1 kit once more after an initial departure. MotorsportWeek.com looks at how other World Champion comebacks panned out.
Niki Lauda (31 races missed)
Lauda claimed two titles with Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, either side of his near-fatal accident at the Nurburgring, but a race-winning 1978 campaign with Brabham was followed by a dismal 1979. A disillusioned Lauda quit before the end of the season to concentrate on his burgeoning airline business but was tempted back for 1982 by McLaren. Lauda took victory third time out and, after a win-less 1983, contended again for the title in 1984, alongside new team-mate Alain Prost. Lauda won fewer races than Prost, and did not claim a pole position all year, but secured a third world title by just half a point, recovering from 11th on the grid to second in the Estoril finale to amass the points he needed. Lauda’s title defence was disappointing and he bowed out of Formula 1 for good after 1985.
Alan Jones (40 races missed)
Jones gave Shadow its first, and only, win in 1977 and the following year he linked up with Sir Frank Williams’ burgeoning team. Jones took a string of victories in 1979, as Williams got a handle on its majestic FW07, and the next season took five wins to become World Champion, the first Williams driver to achieve the feat. Jones’ title defence was unsuccessful but he retired on a high by triumphing in the 1981 Caesars’ Palace finale. He remained active in sportscars, and made a one-off appearance with Arrows at Long Beach in 1983, but in late 1985 launched a full-time comeback with the nascent Team Haas (no connection to the current Haas F1 Team). But tardy and unreliable machinery limited Jones’ prospects and he managed just five finishes from 19 starts, with a best of fourth, and he exited for good after 1986.
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Alain Prost (17 races missed)
Prost won world titles with McLaren in 1985, 1986 and 1989 but his time with the team came to an end when his relationship with team-mate Ayrton Senna soured. Prost switched to Ferrari for 1990 though initial hope soon turned to dust due to uncompetitive machinery that left him winless in 1991. He fell out with the management and sat out the 1992 season while exploring his options. Prost signed a deal to compete for Williams in 1993 and was equipped with front-running machinery from the outset. Prost claimed 13 pole positions and seven victories from 16 races to comfortably take a fourth world title and opted to retire at the end of the campaign.
Nigel Mansell (22 races missed)
Mansell’s dogged determination yielded dividends when he won the crown in 1992, ably aided by Williams’ meteoric FW14B, widely regarded as one of Formula 1’s greatest machines. But Mansell’s relationship with Williams soured, amid Alain Prost’s impending arrival, and he switched to the CART series for 1993. Mansell claimed the title, and stayed on for 1994, but was also courted back to Williams – and by Formula 1 itself – following the death of Ayrton Senna. Mansell entered four rounds and claimed pole position and victory in the Adelaide finale, inheriting the lead after the infamous clash between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. Williams favoured David Coulthard for 1995 and instead Mansell, by then 41 years of age, linked up with McLaren but the alliance proved short-lived. Mansell quit after just two outings due to uncompetitive machinery and did not race again in Formula 1.
Jacques Villeneuve (16 races missed)
Villeneuve surged into Formula 1 in 1996 off the back of his success in the United States and claimed the title in only his second year in 1997. But a move to the newly-formed British American Racing team in 1999 was disastrous and while the team gradually kicked on Villeneuve’s relationship with the overhauled management became fractured. Villeneuve left the team prior to the 2003 finale and did not secure a seat for 2004. However he was drafted in by Renault to replace the out-of-favour Toyota-bound Jarno Trulli for the final trio of events, having already agreed a deal to join Sauber for 2005. But Villeneuve could not match Fernando Alonso and then during the following season at Sauber he scored only three times in 19 races. Sauber was acquired by BMW for 2006 but Villeneuve departed mid-season when the team decided to trial up-and-comer Robert Kubica.
Michael Schumacher (52 races missed)
Seven-time champion Schumacher stepped aside from a Ferrari race seat after the 2006 campaign, having narrowly missed out on the title, but remained affiliated with the squad and occasionally tested its machinery. A mooted comeback mid-2009, in place of the injured Felipe Massa, was abandoned but Schumacher mounted a return for 2010 to link up with Mercedes, for whom he had competed in sportscars prior to his Formula 1 debut. Mercedes and Schumacher both initially struggled but as the duo made progress there were glimmers of optimism. Schumacher occasionally ran competitively and thrived on a handful of outings in 2012, most notably in Monaco, where he set the fastest time in qualifying prior to a grid penalty. Schumacher claimed a podium in Valencia, his only top-three finish during the Mercedes stint, and retired for good, aged 43, at the end of the year.
Kimi Raikkonen (38 races missed)
Raikkonen delivered Ferrari the title in 2007 (its last Drivers’ crown to date) but the hoped-for post-Schumacher dynasty never materialised. Ferrari recruited Alonso for 2010 and Raikkonen instead opted for a stint in the WRC and even tried his hand in NASCAR. Raikkonen began exploring the possibility of a Formula 1 comeback and for 2012 signed for the Enstone-based team then operating as Lotus. The squad thrived for two years and Raikkonen bagged two popular wins prior to re-joining Ferrari, alongside Alonso. Raikkonen spent much of his second Ferrari spell playing the supporting role, largely to Sebastian Vettel, but finally triumphed in red once more in Austin in 2018. Rather than walk away when Ferrari deemed him surplus to requirements Raikkonen quickly negotiated a deal with Sauber, for whom he raced in his rookie campaign in 2001, effectively swapping seats with Charles Leclerc. Raikkonen is now Formula 1’s most experienced driver as he prepares for year three with the team.