Everyone craves an exciting opening Grand Prix to set the F1 season up. There’s normally two ways they go, either the teams all turn up still finishing off their preparation and it’s chaos, or a team has got its pre-season perfectly sorted and walks away from the field. We’ve picked our favourite barnstorming openers from the last seven decades of F1, and before you notice it, yes Australia does dominate, but then it has opened the calendar 22 times...
The seven best F1 opening Grands Prix
1996 Australian Grand Prix
The first time that the Australian Grand Prix opened the season was a fantastic showcase for why it would become a settled home for F1’s yearly curtain raiser. Sure, it was dominated by a Williams team that was set to canter to the title pretty much unchallenged, but there was intrigue throughout the grid. Firstly Williams themselves had hired CART champ and Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve to challenge stalwart and expected champ Damon Hill. Second Benetton and Ferrari had effectively swapped driving line-ups, with champion Michael Schumacher heading to Ferrari with most of the old Benetton technical department and Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger going the other way. On Saturday the apple cart was upset even further, newcomer Villeneuve stuck his FW18 on pole, beating Hill, then Eddie Irvine beat Schumacher to third by over 0.2 seconds. The old guard appeared to be being run out of town.
Come race day Villeneuve in Melbourne led (from the second start, the first attempt led to Martin Brundle’s legendary airborne Jordan) away from Hill, convincingly keeping his much more experienced team-mate at bay. That was until Hill’s white-and-blue Rothman’s livery started to became more yellow, and then brown, than white. The Canadian’s leading car had sprung an oil leak and, just a few laps from winning on debut, he was forced to cede position to the chasing Hill. It set up an intriguing season, where Villeneuve would unsettle the status quo.
1961 Monaco Grand Prix
We’ve already spoken at length about this race, largely in our story about the five best Monaco Grands Prix, so we won’t go too far into the details, but this is a race that ranks among the best that both Monaco, Lotus and Stirling Moss ever had. A lesser car, fighting off the might of Ferrari and its brand new powerful engines, and a battle inside the Scuderia between Enzo and his engine designer Carlo Chiti. You can read all about it in the fascinating The Limit by Michael Cannell, which charts the tale, and which we included in our list of the best motorsport books.
The basic details are that Moss raced an underpowered Lotus 18 to the front of the pack, and then spent the next three hours on the absolute ragged edge to keep the trio of red cars just out of reach. It truly is one of the great tales of motorsport heroism, with the much faster Ferraris absolutely stumped as to how they could close down Moss at his absolutely transcendental best.
1993 South African Grand Prix
Alain Prost qualified on pole, Alain Prost won the race by over a minute. Sometimes the simple record books do not tell the whole story. Sometimes 72 laps can hide a scintillating battle, and sometimes that battle does not seem as significant on the day as it will do in future.
While Prost’s win at Kyalami set up a season of domination for the Williams FW15, probably the most technologically advanced car F1 has ever seen – its trick active suspension and traction control would be outlawed the following season – there was far more to the 1993 opener than meets the eye.
It was, perhaps, the only time we ever really got to see a Senna/Prost/Schumacher battle on track, before the former’s untimely death just over a year later. At the start Prost got away badly, and team-mate Damon Hill, in his own first race for Williams, jumped from fourth to lead. But the inexperienced Hill would spin on the opening lap, dropping down the field and slowing Prost in the process. Senna led, with Schumacher behind and Prost snapping at their heels. What followed was a 25 lap battle between three of the greatest racing drivers of all time.
It took 13 laps for the Frenchman to dispatch Schumacher – in his first full season of F1 – and another 12 to finally pass his old foe Senna. While Prost would waltz away in the superior Williams, the new kid was in no mood to stay meekly behind Senna, harrying the Brazilian triple champ until they came to blows on lap 40. Schumacher would tag Senna, and come off worse, spinning into retirement. But the German had left his mark on the two old leaders, he was one to watch from then on.
1990 US Grand Prix
Jean Alesi only ever won one Grand Prix. While it was an almost poetic win, in Canada, in a Ferrari, bearing the number made most famous by Gilles Villeneuve, at the circuit named after him, that single win was not a fitting reflection of the great French-Sicilian.
The 1990 US Grand Prix in Phoenix was probably Alesi’s finest moment. In his second season in F1, with a Tyrrell team that was long past its best. First off he stuck his not only slow, but out-dated Tyrrell 018 fourth on the grid with a lap nearly a second faster than his team-mate. Then he had the audacity to spring into the lead by the first corner, and then stretch a 2.4-second lead over Gerhard Berger’s McLaren. Behind him, no one seemed to have an answer. Ayrton Senna dispatched Andrea de Cesaris to take third, and would on lap nine eventually pass his team-mate, but only when Berger lost control on a bump and backed his MP4-6 into a tyre barrier. That left Senna a full 8.2 seconds behind Alesi.
It took 25 laps for Senna to hunt down Alesi in his far superior McLaren (which’s state of the art Honda V12 was almost infinitely superior to the ancient Cosworth DFR in the Tyrrell). But then it seemed inevitable that he would lead soon. On lap 34 he was through... for all of a single corner. Alesi showed he was not to be bullied and hung on around the outside of Senna, setting himself up to repass at the very next turn. One lap later Senna tried it again, and this time made it stick. But Alesi didn’t take it lying down, several times launching his Tyrrell alongside the McLaren in an attempt to regain the lead. Eventually the toll of keeping the recalcitrant Tyrrell at McLaren pace showed, and Alesi slowed to conserve his tyres, but he would only fall eight seconds back from Senna, securing a podium that surely showcased an incredible career to come...
1997 Australian Grand Prix
Second time out for F1 to begin its season down under, second time for it to be chaos. Jacques Villeneuve again stuck his Williams on pole, this time an astonishing 1.7 seconds clear of his team-mate and 2.1 clear of the lead non-Williams. It seemed like a canter to victory was incoming.
Eddie Irvine had other ideas, flinging his Ferrari 310B from fifth to challenge Villeneuve into the first corner. Actually, “challenge” is being very generous, as Irvine catastrophically misjudged his braking point and wiped out himself, Villeneuve and Johnny Herbert without a corner being completed. That left Heinz-Harald Frentzen clear for his first victory... until his brakes began to give out. In the pit window Frentzen lost time in traffic as he struggled with his brakes, and found himself third, behind David Coulthard and Schumacher. In the meantime Alesi had suffered a textbook mishap, failing to hear his team’s pleas for him to bring the Benetton in, and running out of fuel while leading. Frentzen regained the lead and tried to build a lead after the other pair pitted, but couldn’t quite manage the gap. He emerged behind Schumacher, who it turned out needed a late pit stop, unleashing his fellow German to chase Coulthard.
As the laps went by Frentzen closed relentlessly, but the closer he got, the more black dust began to pour from his brakes. With three laps to go they failed and he spun out of the race. Coulthard was able to finish the remaining two laps and claim McLaren’s first win since 1993.
1989 Brazilian Grand Prix
Nigel Mansell was one of the favourites to win the opening race of 1989 in Rio de Janeiro, having just joined Ferrari and handed the rapid 640 and the iconic number 27. But qualifying sixth Mansell was insistent that Ferrari’s new semi-automatic gearbox meant the Brit stood very little chance of even finishing, as it was suffering from some extreme teething problems.
At the start champion Senna was taken out in a kerfuffle with Mansell’s team-mate Berger and the Williams of Riccardo Patrese, which helped. Patrese would survive, to lead a Williams one-two with team-mate Thierry Boutsen. Williams were attempting to reach the end on a single pit stop, hoping the road position and lack of time lost would make up for the issues with fading tyres. Mansell though planned for two stops, a strategy that would make the most of the Brummie’s legendary ability to extract maximum pace from a car and push as hard as possible at all points. It did mean he needed to take the lead twice though.
Prost would lead for a short while, but suffered from an ailing and eventually non-existent clutch, so posed no problems for Mansell, whose second stop actually involved changing five wheels – four rubber and the one he held – to help with gear change issues. Mansell hit the front with 14 laps to go and his car held out for a famous Scuderia debut win. Behind him Mauricio Gugelmin harried a slowing Prost in his March for an unlikely podium, and Johnny Herbert came home fourth on his Benetton debut – just months on from his devastating F3000 crash.
2010 Australian Grand Prix
OK, so the opening round in 2010 was in Bahrain and on the long circuit it was so dull it's practically a forgotten race. So we're ignoring its existance. The 2010 Australian Grand Prix wasn’t actually that exciting a race for the lead either, but included one of, if not the, best performance of Jenson Button’s F1 career. In his first race at McLaren having lost his seat at Mercedes (which bought Brawn over the winter) despite winning the World Championship, Button was in a position of needing to prove himself. His 2009 title-winning season had been a barn-storming start followed by no wins in the second half of the season and his new team-mate Lewis Hamilton had shown his worth by dragging a poor McLaren to the most points of anyone in that latter half.
Hamilton though messed up his qualifying, and found himself starting 11th, while Button’s MP4-25 would start fourth, behind the two Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso.
The race began, in a weird change for the usually hot weekend, in the wet. Which immediately caused chaos. Button tagged Alonso at the start, who spun and collected the returning Michael Schumacher. Further around the lap Kamui Kobayashi broke his front wing, which eventually became detached, and he collected Nico Hülkenberg and Sebastien Buemi. Out came the safety car.
When racing resumed Vettel stayed at the front, and Hamilton, who had worked his way through the chaos, passed Button for sixth, leaving the World Champion apparently out of contention for any kind of podium. Then on lap seven Button made one of the greatest pit calls in F1 history. Somehow he had deduced that it was time for slicks, when the whole rest of the pack was still happy on Inters. Button came in, and struggled immediately on a wet pit lane. That he then slid off at turn three and just about made it out of the gravel cemented the idea that the track wasn’t ready for dries yet.
But it was. Button started lapping faster than the pack and pretty quickly it became clear he would lead if they didn’t do something about it. When the rest eventually made the change it was pretty much too late. Vettel still lead, but Button was behind him. Vettel suffered a mechanical problem on lap 26 and spun into retirement, and suddenly Button, who had been out of it in the gravel on lap 10, was leading by a significant margin. Button would waltz to victory while behind him the chaos continues. Hamilton, fighting with Webber and Alonso for fourth, would be the big loser, eventually finishing sixth. Button would be followed across the line by Robert Kubica, underlining the Pole’s growing reputation.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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