The Australian Grand Prix has become one of the longest tenured races in modern-day F1. Since its inaugural running at Adelaide in 1985, Australia has been a mainstay on the calendar, only missing out in 2019 and 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only the British, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese and Monaco Grands Prix have been such consistent destinations for F1 in that time.
The five most shocking Australian Grand Prix moments
5. Button and Brawn make a huge impact in 2009
This one sits relatively low on our list because by the time we arrived in Melbourne for the first race of the 2009 season, it was already quite clear which team had the advantage after pre-season testing. That being said, the manner of Brawn GP’s dominance will probably never quite sink in.
The Brawn was of course born from the ashes of the failed Honda programme, so strictly speaking this was not a brand-new team, but for a group that had gone through a winter of such turmoil and uncertainty to turn up at the opening race and blow everybody else out of the water is a rare, rare thing.
Drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello locked out the front row by three tenths of a second, but now all was well at the start. Barichello bogged down, fell to ninth place and made contact with Mark Webber at the first corner. He survived however, and set about slowly fighting his way back to the front, where he finally got up into second place on lap 56 after Vettel and Kubica collided in the fight for the podium places.
It was Button, however, who exemplified the brilliance of the Brawn car. He led from lights to flag, overcoming a handful of safety car periods in the process, never so much as blinking on his way to the first victory of what would be a very, very successful year.
4. Villeneuve’s incredible debut in 1996
For 1996, the Australian Grand Prix was moved to a new home in Melbourne, another street circuit of sorts, with some permanent elements, around Albert Park. There it has remained ever since. The race was also moved from its then-traditional spot at the end of the year to a new home at the very top of the calendar.
It didn’t take too long for this new high-speed circuit to bite, as at turn three on the opening lap Martin Brundle’s Jordan flew over two other cars and split in two as it cartwheeled through the gravel trap. That might well be the most memorable moment in this race, but there was another story that weekend that we think in even more astonishing. A young Canadian by the name of Jacques Villeneuve made his debut with the Williams team, and very nearly won at his first attempt. To this day, no driver has managed to win their first race, but Villeneuve came awfully close.
It began in qualifying as Villeneuve became the third driver ever to claim pole on his debut. He was in an advantageous position, of course, that year’s Williams was vastly superior to the rest of the field, but he was still required to beat his teammate, Damon Hill, who was striving to finally achieve championship glory.
Such was the team’s dominance, the race was a battle between the pair, with nearest challenger Schumacher falling a long way back in the opening stages. Villeneuve led Hill through much of the race, and despite an off at Turn One that almost let his teammate through, he looked to have the pace to see off Hill, as he kept the gap at around one second for the entire race.
However, eagle-eyed viewers could see that not all was well with the leader’s car, as Hill, who was following closely all race, was gradually getting covered in what looked like oil. Sure enough, with a gut-wrenching five laps remaining, Hill was able to pass as he slowed to nurse it home. It was an extraordinary performance from Villeneuve, who was still able to limp home in second, albeit some 38 seconds behind his team-mate.
3. Ralf Schumacher gets airborne in 2002
By 2002 Albert Park was the traditional venue for the opening race of the year, and excitement was high as it always is for a fresh year of F1 racing. Sadly, it did seem as though Ferrari were once again primed to make mince meat of the opposition, but Williams, with its BMW engines, was at least up for the fight.
Rubens Barrichello took pole from Michael Schumacher by just 0.005 seconds, but it was Ralf Schumacher in third who was keen to do what he could to disrupt Ferrari dominance.
Unfortunately for him, and us watching, his efforts lasted only a few hundred metres. Ralf got a good start and passed his brother Michael. He had momentum and closed in on Barrichello as they headed towards the breaking point of Turn One. The Ferrari dodged inside but then changed lanes a second time towards the middle of the track. Ralf had no time to react and could only hold on tight as his car launched over the back of Barrichello.
What followed was a terrifying moment as the Williams flew into the air at around 150mph and steamed into the barrier at near-unabated speed. The collision caused a domino effect as those behind attempted to avoid the spinning Barrichello as eight cars in total saw their races end on the spot. Nobody was hurt, but the image of Schumacher flying through the air has stuck in the memory ever since.
2. Hill and Schumacher collide in 1994
After almost a decade of Piquet, Prost, Senna and Mansell, the F1 landscape looked very different by the end of the 1994 season. In the shadow of the tragedy that took place at Imola that year, the baton of those four great drivers was taken up by Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher, and the pair fought relentlessly for championship glory.
Schumacher had dominated the early going but Hill recovered well in the second half of the season to head into the final round at Adelaide just one point behind the German who had lost four rounds in total to disqualifications. Schumacher and Hill qualified second and third on the grid behind Nigel Mansell, who had returned to his former team for the final three races of the year.
It didn’t take long for the championship rivals to hit the front, as Schumacher and Hill both passed Mansell at the start, and the pair raced closely for 35 laps. That is until Schumacher made a mistake in his Benetton and hit the barrier, causing damage to his car that would have been enough to see him retire. However, he was able to re-join the track ahead of Hill and the two went into the next turn together. Chances are you’ve already seen what happened next many times.
Contact. Hill stuck his nose up the inside as Schumacher turned in, the front wheel of the Williams sent the Benetton up in the air, and into the barrier for a second time. At first glance, it looked as though Hill had punted his rival off, but it didn’t take long for millions around the world to take a very different view of what had happened. Hill had also suffered damage, which put an end to his race, and his championship challenge. Schumacher was victorious, but questions over that incident would be asked for a long, long time.
1. Mansell’s tyre failure in 1986
The 1986 season arrived at the final race in Adelaide with the prospect of three drivers fighting for the world championship. Nigel Mansell was leading the way with 70 points and could afford to finish fourth and care little about what his rivals managed. He qualified on pole, with his Williams team-mate Nelson Piquet in second and McLaren’s Alain Prost in fourth position, it was all looking good for Britain to have its first F1 champion for a decade.
As expected, chaos ensued almost immediately as Ayrton Senna got a storming start in his Lotus to lead out of Turn Four, as Mansell fell behind Piquet and Rosberg into fourth, but crucially ahead of his closest championship rival Prost. Piquet fought past Senna to lead before the end of an opening lap that laid the foundation for the race that followed.
The five at the front continued to swap positions almost lap by lap, in what was a thrilling battle with enormous stakes. Rosberg led for the majority, and Piquet spun on lap 23 to allow Prost through, as Mansell continued to do what he needed to do in third. But the climax of the championship occurred on lap 65 when Mansell suffered the most famous tyre failure in history at some 180mph. The exclamation of Murray Walker on commentary has gone down in folklore, but it was a moment that caused an entire nation’s heart to break in a single moment.
It was a sad way for such an incredible race and championship to finish, but the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, which was a brilliant race by any standard, will be forever remembered for one extraordinary moment.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images
Join our motorsport community
Get closer to motorsport at Goodwood! Join the GRRC Fellowship to be first in the queue for event tickets, to attend the GRRC-only Members' Meeting and to enjoy year-round, exclusive benefits.
Sign up for Motorsport news
Stay in the know with our newsletters that contain all the latest news, stories and event information.