Sometimes, the way the race ends is more exciting than the race itself

The history of motorsport is littered with unforgettable moments, be it Senna’s other-worldly qualifying lap for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, the title-deciding Hooters 500 NASCAR race that saw no less than six drivers battle it out for the cup title in ’92, or ’The Pass’ that Alex Zanardi executed on Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca in 1996. Today we’re looking at equally amazing moments that happened with the finish line in sight.

It’s always make-or-break time when approaching the finish line

The Most Insane Race Finishes Of All Time
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"When you’re racing, it’s life, everything that happens before or after is just waiting," said Steve McQueen’s character Michael Delaney in 1971’s Le Mans, one of the most famous racing movies of all times.

As cliche as it may sound, many real-life racing drivers would admit to sharing Delaney’s thoughts when the lid goes down and the lights atop the gantry go green. It is, then, not hard to understand why a racer is willing to go above and beyond in the last lap of a race.

But not all of the incredible finishes that made the cut portray a battle for victory, some are merely displays of clouded judgment just like our first entry that sees Brazilian second-generation driver Christian Fittipaldi take a page out of the Cirque Du Soleil’s routine during the 1993 Italian Grand Prix at the mythical Autodromo Nazionale di Monza.

Fittipaldi’s loop-the-loop

Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi, nephew of double World Driver’s Champion Emerson Fittipaldi, was approaching the end of yet another lackluster race aboard his Minardi-Ford M193. Over the final few laps of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, he’d reeled in team-mate Pierluigi Martini who was losing hand-over-fist to Fittipaldi on the straights due to the fact that his gearbox was missing fifth gear. With meters to spare before the line, Fittipaldi was drafting Martini and attempted to move to the right to pass the Italian when Christian’s left front wheel hit Pierluigi’s rear right. The high-speed contact sent the No. 23 car of Fittipaldi somersaulting into the air. Miraculously, the white Minardi landed back on its wheels and, despite the obvious damages, it crossed the line in eighth place behind Martini.

That time when Nigel Mansell pushed his car over the finish line

The 1984 Dallas Grand Prix was forever etched in the collective memory of the 90,000 fans that attended the one and only F1 race to be held in Dallas for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it was unbearably hot all weekend with air temperatures rising well above 100F. Then there was the tarmac itself which was all but ruined by a Can-Am race that ran the day before the Grand Prix as part of the support race schedule. In spite of the heat, the melting, pothole-ridden asphalt, and the many complaints coming from drivers the race took place anyway with Nigel Mansell in pole position for the very first time in his career.

The Briton led from the start but, come the final lap, he’d lost a bunch of places and was struggling to keep his car on the road. Approaching the final turn, Mansell’s gearbox failed and with it went the engine. Incredibly, he managed to coast around the bend before the Lotus came to a complete halt.

Undeterred, the one who'd be nicknamed 'Il Leone' (The Lion) by Ferrari's tifosi jumped out of the car and attempted to push it across the line before collapsing due to the extreme heat right next to his stricken machine.

Piercarlo Ghinzani passed Mansell’s stationary 95T but Nigel was still classified sixth and thus received one point for his heroics.

Corvette vs. Porsche wars at Laguna Seca

Laguna Seca played host to the final round of the 2009 American Le Mans Series. A four-hour race would see the Acuras of De Ferran Motorsports and Patron Highcroft Racing go head-to-head in the battle for the LMP1 title. While Gil De Ferran missed the title in the end, he managed to win what would be his final professional race. But there was also room for a different kind of emotions come the end of the race as, lower down the order, Porsche’s Joerg Bergmeister was fighting with Corvette’s Jan Magnussen.

The Dane was desperate to get by the Porsche to score Chevy’s first win since switching to the GT2 category earlier in the year.

The two would pass and re-pass each-other in the dying moments of the event in what was one of the most thrilling finishes in ALMS history.

It all went south as the two cars approached the finish line effectively together, leaning on each other, as no driver was willing to lift his foot off the gas pedal.

Hamlin wins as Newman flips

While the spread of the novel Coronavirus meant we didn’t get much real-world racing in this year, the first couple of months of 2020 did deliver some thrilling races such as the 12 Hours of Bathurst or the Daytona 500. The latter was the scene of a scary finish featuring Ryan Newman, Ryan Blaney and Danny Hamlin, all three battling for victory in one of the most coveted events on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar.

Exiting Turn 4 on the very last lap, Newman was up in front but got tagged by Blaney whom he moved to cover approaching the line. The contact sent Newman straight into the inside wall at an angle, his car flipping into the air before being hit by Corey Lajoie’s car. The incident between Newman and Blaney allowed Hamlin to slip through and win.

Macau bows to a wrecked Laurens Vanthoor

The Guia street course in Macau is one of the tightest and hardest to master street courses in the whole wide world and, once every year, the racing world comes to Macau to race in everything from F3 cars to GT3s and TCR tin tops. In recent times, the weekend also featured the FIA GT World Cup races for GT3 cars.

With virtually no place to pass, these GT races are often rather dull to watch but this wasn’t the case in 2015 when the Main Race promised to entertain us with a duel between Porsche factory drivers Kevin Estre and Earl Bamber and Audi’s Laurens Vanthoor. With 15 minutes left on the clock, Bamber got by Vanthoor approaching the ultra-fast Mandarin left-hander.

In an attempt to stick with Bamber, Vanthoor got into the bend too fast and made contact with the barriers on the outside.

The hit sent Vanthoor’s Audi onto its roof which, in turn, brought out the red flags. As the race was never restarted, the official winner of the event was the driver that’d been in the lead the lap before the accident took place. The name of the driver? Laurens Vanthoor.

Jack Brabham pushes his way to the World Championship

Old fox Jack Brabham led the mid-engine revolution in Formula 1 driving John Cooper’s single-seaters to championship glory in 1959 and, again, in 1960. The 1959 season finale took place in Florida on the age-old concrete slabs of Sebring Raceway. As it had been the case many times over in ’59, Brabham took the lead with team-mate Bruce McLaren in second place.

Out of the blue, Brabham’s engine developed some sort of problem and died on the last lap.

'Black Jack' got out and began pushing his car but the win had already been snatched by McLaren who, at 22, became F1's youngest race winner. Later on, Bruce would establish a rather famous race team bearing his own name...

Stopping before the finish line - a key to victory

Drawing inspiration from Alec Ulmann’s annual 12-hour endurance race held at Sebring, NASCAR founder and then-owner of the Daytona International Speedway Bill France Sr., pleaded with the FIA to allow him to organize a point-scoring round of the World SportsCar Championship at Daytona using both the oval and the infield section. The result was the Daytona 3 Hours race held in January of 1962, an event that gathered the world’s best sports cars and driving talent from all over the world.

Winning a long-distance race back in those days required you to know how to keep the machine going even as bits and pieces would start to fall off or fail.

Dan Gurney knew that all too well and that’s why he stopped right in front of the finish line with less than two minutes of the three-hour race left to go.

Gurney was aware that his ailing Lotus 19 would not last for another 3.2 miles and decided to stop in front of the line and wait for the two minutes to pass by before finally crawling over the finish line helped by gravity and the starter motor.

He was able to do so because his nearest pursuer was three minutes back when the Arciero Brothers Lotus began to break down.

The day a BMW M3 finished on the podium on its roof

BMW’s E30-generation M3 is arguably the most successful touring car of all time with over 1,000 victories scored in a plethora of championships all over the world. With a career spanning more than five years, the M3 remained competitive even as the Group A ruleset allowed more and more aerodynamic and technical modifications to be made to the cars. In fact, the M3 was so good that, one time, long-time factory driver Dieter Quester finished third by acting across the finish line on his roof.

Quester pulled it off at the fast Avus street course near Berlin that was basically a strip of the Autobahn made into an impromptu race course. Dieter’s BMW clipped the inside barriers going through the last turn and the car overturned. Race winner Hans J. Stuck offered the trophy to Quester on the podium saying that such a flamboyant finish deserves high praise.

How to go from third to first with no effort

We’re back at Macau for the second-to-last entry in our list and for good reason. The F3 races held here are always exciting because, unlike the hefty GT cars, the F3s are small and nimble and you actually see passing maneuvers being done successfully.

The 2017 edition ended with an almighty battle that saw Dan Ticktum of Great Britain jump from fifth place in lap 11 to first at the end. Ticktum was third going into the last lap, immediately behind Ferdinand Habsburg and Sergio Sette Camara. But neither Habsburg nor Sette Camara were destined to win the 64th running of the Macau F3 race and the tire wall on the outside of the ’R’ Turn had a lot to do with it...

The day yellow flags almost saved Rob Huff at Monza

Monza was a mainstay on the World Touring Car Championship’s calendar and, in 2010, the first race of the Italian weekend was an all-out thriller. It all culminated with a nail-biting duel between Chevrolet’s Rob Huff and Seat’s Gabriele Tarquini, the two of them a healthy seven seconds ahead of BMW’s Andy Priaulx and Augusto Farfus.

In an amazing twist, both Huff and Tarquini developed left-front tire punctures going though the Ascari chicane that allowed Priaulx and Farfus to reel them in even before they exited the Parabolica. The silver lining in all of this is that, minutes earlier, Pernia’s Chevrolet went into the gravel at Parabolica which triggered local yellows. But there were no yellows at the exit of Parabolica when Huff and Tarquini got there next time by and this allowed Priaulx and Farfus to get by them and score an unlikely 1-2 for BMW.

Honorable mentions

The first Formula E race ends with a bang

Not many could call themselves a fan of Alejandro Agag’s eco-friendly brainchild when the first Formula E race weekend kicked-off in Shanghai, China, six years ago. However, by the race’s end, you’d be sure Formula E had gained many fans, if not for the best of reasons. The buzz was caused by a huge shunt in the last lap that had it all: a mindless perpetrator in Nicolas Prost who turned in on Nick Heidfeld as the two of them approached the last lap and an innocent victim in Heidfeld who, in turn, was a passenger in his car that jumped over the curbs, got in the air and hit the tire wall hard with its side. Those 2014 Formula E cars could go no faster than 140 mph and that was in qualy trim but you wouldn’t believe it looking at Heidfeld’s crash.

Felipe Massa’s 60 seconds as F1 World Driver’s Champion

It’d been 17 years since a Brazilian had last won a Formula 1 World Driver’s Championship when Ferrari’s Felipe Massa crossed the finish line to win his home Grand Prix in 2008. He and his crew were ecstatic for all but two minutes with agony quickly replacing happiness when Lewis Hamilton completed what seemed like an improbable comeback by passing Timo Glock for fifth with merely a few corners to spare. The 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix was Massa’s last victory...

Toyota wins the 23 Hours and 57 Minutes of Le Mans

Toyota seemed destined to finally break the duck in 2016 and become the second Japanese manufacturer to score an overall victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans after Mazda’s lucky 1991 success. It all came to nothing, however, as Kazuki Nakajima’s No. 5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid developed a mechanical problem with seven minutes left to go and he grounded to a halt just in front of the finish line with one lap left. The teary-eyed Toyota crew then watched as the No. 2 Porsche clawed back the one-minute deficit to Nakajima’s car to win for the second time on the trot and for the 18th time since 1970. Toyota would need 24 more months before it was finally able to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Austrian Crash fest

The DTM was, for many years, Europe’s premier sedan series with Opel, BMW, Ford, Audi, and others battling for supremacy with plenty of support from the factories. Spiralling costs killed the series in the ’90s but the show was back on the road at the start of the new Millennium with a new silhouette formula agreed upon by Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Opel. The three manufacturers went hammer and tongs at it every time they met at the track and we mean that literally. Just look at what happened at the Red Bull Ring (known as the A1 Ring back then) in 2002. Former Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Boss Norbert Haug named it the "most exciting" DTM race of them all.

Craven and Busch push and shove each other to the line

We couldn’t sign this piece off without including the argie-bargie between Rickey Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in ’03. You know it but it’s always cool to re-watch the footage. Enjoy!

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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