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Formula One

Gallery: the closest finishes in the history of motor racing

Like a close race? Here are the photo-finishes that nearly baffled the timing gear

  • Amazing as it is that two drivers or riders can be a few tenths of a second apart over a single two or three-mile lap, it’s pretty common in motorsport. Just look at F1, where practically the whole competitive field is separated by only a couple of seconds.

    To be less than a hundredth of a second behind or ahead of your closest competitor after sometimes hours of racing? Less common. Here are nine of the closest calls in the history of motorsport for your delectation, starting with...

    Senna vs Mansell, 1986 Spanish Grand Prix, Jerez, 0.014secs

    It was 1986. Prost was at McLaren, Mansell at Williams, Senna making his mark at Lotus. Jerez was only the second Grand Prix of the season, but all were driving as if the title was up for grabs there and then. The racing was stellar, a three-way battle for the lead. Prost faded in the latter stages, to eventually finish 21 seconds adrift. Mansell, having pitted with 10 laps to go, proceeded to demolish Senna's 20-second lead at the rate of two seconds per lap...

    It all came down to the final hairpin. Mansell, having taken yards out of Senna under braking, rounded the corner buried under the Lotus's wing. He then slipstreamed up the finishing straight and dashed out to take the flag. It wasn't quite enough. Senna, his car's tyres practically flapping, held on by just over a hundredth of a second.

    Images: LAT, NASCAR, IndyCar, DPPI, National Dragster/NHRA

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  • Gethin vs Peterson, 1971 Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 0.01secs

    Back in the days before motorsport timing gear recorded to more than two decimal places, Monza was a fearsome place, and 1971 was the last year before chicanes were installed to reduce the speeds. This race was, and would remain for over 30 years, the fastest F1 race of all, won at an average of 150.754mph.

    Slipstreaming ruled that September day, and the top five were masters at it. The lead changed almost every lap as they pulled away from the pack. On the final lap, Peter Gethin came from fourth to steal the lead from Ronnie Peterson by a hundredth of a second. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the top four were separated by just 0.18secs.

  • Craven vs Busch, 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, Darlington Raceway, 0.0026secs

    There's no quarter given in Nascar, and, like so many races, the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 had been a war of attrition.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr had led for most of it, but behind him pairs of cars had collided and fallen by the wayside. All except one pair.

    Towards the end it boiled down to a two-horse race: veteran Ricky Craven against punk youngster Kurt Busch. Craven led with one lap to go, Busch tapped him and snuck underneath, Craven looked to be gapped, but through the final two corners Busch looked loose, allowing Craven to pass him on the inside, then pop back up, rubbing panels all the way down the straight.

    They crossed the line together in more ways than one. Six years later, it was voted NASCAR's race of the decade. Look it up on YouTube, it's worth it for the commentary alone.

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  • Gomez vs Lloyd, 2007 Chicagoland 100 Indy Pro Series, Chicagoland, 0.0005secs

    Guinness World Records recognises this as the closest margin of victory in any car race - and it didn't even happen in a senior race series. Indy Lights was the feeder series for IndyCar, basically a gang of ferocious young upstarts wanting to make a good impression. And at the Chicagoland circuit, notorious for its close finishes, they got to prove themselves.

    Alex Lloyd, a 23-year-old Brit, was head-to-head with American Logan Gomez, just 19, on the final lap. Both were racing for the same team, but team orders clearly didn't apply. Lloyd tried to go round the outside and it looked like he'd made it stick, only for Gomez to get a better drive onto the straight. View the finish from one side, and it looks like Lloyd has won; from the other, the win belongs to Gomez. Should've called it a dead heat, really.

  • Plato vs Chilton, 2009 Brands Hatch BTCC, 0.015secs

    Technically speaking, this isn't the closest BTCC finish of all time. In 2008, Tom Onslow-Cole beat Gordon Shedden by 0.009secs - also at Brands - but they were racing for second until Tom Chilton was excluded from the final results, so we're fast-forwarding a year, but remaining at Brands and keeping Tom Chilton as one of the protagonists. The other is Jason Plato.

    It's a balls-out race over the last few laps, Chilton leading in his Ford Focus, Plato hassling him in the Chevrolet Lacetti - and getting closer and closer. But until the very last corner it doesn't look like Plato'll make it past. Somehow he manages to gain hard yards where he shouldn't be able to and make it a straight dash for the line. Plato, by the width of his front bumper, is through for the win. Bet he was pleased he hadn't knocked it off this time.

  • Dempsey vs Chaves, 2013 Firestone Freedom 100, Indianapolis, 0.0026secs

    Irishman Peter Dempsey hadn't had a stellar career path. He'd done stints in Formula BMW and Formula Ford in the UK before winding up in the States and making his way into the Indy Lights series for a couple of stuttering seasons. Then came 24 May, 2013.

    At the start of the last lap, Dempsey looks to be nowhere - it's all happening up front where three cars, having run line astern, start to spread out. So intent are Gabby Chaves, Carlos Muñoz and Sage Karam on their own battle that they leave a door open high on the outside. Through the final turn Dempsey slipstreams up behind Chaves, makes for the gap and the four cars cross the line abreast. Dempsey wins by perhaps three inches. At 220mph. His first win, his team's first win. And just plain spectacular to watch.

  • Elias vs Rossi, 2006 Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril, 0.002secs

    At the last count, Valentino Rossi has won 67 Moto GP races. Toni Elias only won a single one in his entire career - but it was a bit of a humdinger. Portugal 2006, and Elias was running third going into the last lap on his Honda. But, with his contract likely to expire at the end of the season, he was riding like a man possessed. He dived down the inside of Rossi and Kenny Roberts Jr at turn one and made the move stick. However, Rossi pounced on Elias's mistake at the chicane to take the lead. And that, you'd assume, would be that. But Elias wasn't done yet. He shadowed Rossi and kept it pinned through the final turns, drafting him onto the straight. And the rest is the stuff of Moto GP legend, Elias edging Rossi by just two thousandths of a second.

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  • Castroneves vs Dixon, 2008 Indy 300, Chicagoland, 0.0033secs

    The timing screen showed Scott Dixon had won. The timing screen was wrong. Apparently when IndyCar finishes are less then 0.006secs, the leader at the start of the last lap is awarded victory until photo evidence can be properly consulted. The result was then overturned and Hélio Castroneves was awarded victory - by a margin that equated to a fraction over a foot. The news was in fact broken to a predictably overexcited Castroneves by a reporter on live TV. All relatively standard fare, even if it was at the time the second-closest finish in IndyCar history. What made it properly remarkable was that Castroneves had started stock last of the 28 cars and fought his way through for a fairytale victory. But don't feel too sorry for Scott Dixon, because while Castroneves won the 300-mile race, Dixon himself took the championship, his second-place finish on the day enough to secure him the 2008 IndyCar title.

  • Edwards vs Johnson, 2012 Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Bristol Motor Speedway, 0.000secs

    Usually in drag racing, the time gaps are huge, as one of the cars often explodes in a great ball of flame or turns sharp right into the barriers straight after launch. But on this occasion, both cars made it to the quarter-mile line. At precisely the same moment. It's thought to be the closest finish in any sport, both crossing the line in exactly 6.679secs at over 206mph. Allen Johnson had the faster time down the quarter-mile at 6.661secs, but his slower reaction off the line, by 13,000ths of a second, meant Mike Edwards emerged the winner. The organiser claimed its timing gear would measure to a millionth of a second, but chose not to share the final decimal places. The final gap between them? Less than an inch...

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