It’s not fair. Here I am pounding my keyboard a few hours before jumping on the jumbo to Melbourne, and there you are reading the result of my labours after it’s all over. You know precisely who won the first GP of the new century, and why: but I can only guess. That’s deadlines for you.
But we don’t need a crystal ball to know that, every year, the team that arrives for that first race fully prepared, with a fast, well-sorted and reliable car, gains an advantage that will probably hold for the rest of the season. Eight years out of ten in the last decade, the driver who won the opening round ended up Champion. By contrast, last season’s new McLaren was hugely fast but clearly unready for the opening round a — disadvantage from which, without Schumi’s Silverstone accident, they wouldn’t have recovered, and which in any case lost them the Constructors’ title.
For Nick Heidfeld, Jenson Button and Gaston Mazzacane, the daunting hurdle of the first Grand Prix will now be surmounted, to some degree at least. Of course, if a rookie can earn points first time out, he’s almost invariably destined for great things — almost invariably, if you remember Giancarlo Baghetti, who made history by winning his first Championship Grand Prix but achieved little else. In recent years Alain Prost, Johnny Herbert Jean Alesi and Eddie Irvine have all managed it, and Jacques Villeneuve led all but the last five laps of his first Grand Prix before finishing second. Often forgotten from this list is its newest recruit, Pedro de la Rosa, who earned himself and Arrows a point for sixth in Australia last year, and who has more talent than most people realise.
As BAR learned last season, it’s much harder for a team to get it right from the start: but it has been done. When Max Mosley announced the creation of March at the end of 1969 he claimed, amid much derision, that he would have two cars on the front row of the grid for the first Grand Prix of the new season And that’s exactly what happened. Jackie Stewart beat the Ferraris, Lotuses, Brabhams and McLarens to take pole in his blue Tyrrell-entered March, and Chris Amon was alongside in the red works car. Stewart led the race, and finished on the podium: then he won round two in Spain. But, discounting the return of Mercedes in 1954, only Wolf achieved the impossible and won its first Grand Prix when Jody Scheckter won in Argentina in 1977.
These days, every car on the grid for the first race will be brand new, but few will be much more than a development of what has gone before. In the past, dramatic newcomers were more frequent The mid-season arrival in the Reims paddock in 1954 of the three silver Mercedes streamliners must have been truly sensational. They finished first and second.
In 1962 the season opened in late May with the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, and Team Lotus turned up with their astonishing new Mark 25. It recreated monocoque construction in an Fl context, and also brought the reclining driving position to a new low, all in a tiny, elegant car of great functional beauty with a cockpit so tight-fitting that the steering wheel had to be little bigger than the span of the driver’s hand. Clark led until clutch trouble intervened, but for the next three years the 25 and its derivative, the 33, usually either retired or won, bringing Jimmy the world tide in 1963 and 1965. Before long spaceframes had disappeared in Fl, and every car had a monocoque.
On the fifth anniversary of the 25’s debut at Zandvoort — although not this time the first race of the season — came Chapman’s next seminal design. The 49’s monocoque ended behind the cockpit, with the new Cosworth DFV bolted to it as a stressed member to carry the rear suspension. Soon the other teams had copied that, too.
Sometimes the opening races turn out to be a poor guide to the form of the season. In 1981 Riccardo Patrese started his final year with Arrows by taking pole position at Long Beach. After 337 Grands Prix it remains their only pole, and they have still to win a race. Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Shadow was on pole when the 1975 season opened in Argentina; the car did not survive the warm-up lap. And in 1979 Ligier driver Jacques Lafitte began the season with two pole positions and two magnificent victories on the trot in Argentina and Brazil. Thereafter it all seemed to go backwards. Legend says that in South America they’d lucked into the perfect chassis set-up, and someone wrote down the settings on a Gitanes packet. By the time they got back to Europe for Round 3, the fag packet had been thrown away…
Occasionally the first race of the new season throws up a trend which is truly epoch-making. That happened in 1958. New Fl rules had banned alcohol fuel, and also reduced the minimum race distance from 500 kms or three hours to 300 kms or two hours — as it remains today, 42 years later. By the time the teams had to leave Europe for the first race, the Argentine Grand Prix on January 19, neither Vanwall nor BRM had got their cars to run right on pump fuel, so both simply gave the race a miss.
In Vanwall’s absence Stirling Moss had no car to drive, so at the last minute Rob Walker put his 2-litre Cooper on a plane to Argentina, with a few tools and just two mechanics, the legendary Alf Francis and his young Aussie assistant Tim Wall. Rob didn’t go himself. No-one took the tiny Cooper seriously, and the weekend started badly when Stirling’s new wife Katie Molson poked her finger in his eye larking about in their hotel. The cornea was badly damaged, and Stirling did much of practice one-eyed, wearing a patch! As the grid lined up in the choking heat of Argentine high summer, only three privateer Maseratis were behind him.
Fangio’s Maserati 250F was on pole, followed by the Ferraris of Hawthorn and Collins, Behra’s Maserati and Musso’s Ferrari. To reduce cockpit heat the indefatigable Alf had re-routed the Cooper’s oil and water pipes, and on the morning of the race Moss asked him to fit a drink bottle, filled with orange squash. The abrasive track was so hard on tyres in that heat that Alf reckoned a set could only last 50 of the race’s 80 laps. But Stirling knew the only way he could beat Fangio and the Ferraris was to try to do the race without a stop.
His vision still blurred, Moss ran into further trouble after only four laps when the Cooper’s clutch failed and the car jammed in second gear. After wrestling for a lap he managed to free it, and did the rest of the race clutchless. Despite this he worked his way up the field, the nimble little Cooper flying through the twists of the Buenos Aires circuit, and when the front runners made their mid-race pit stops Stirling found himself in the lead.
The Ferrari and Maserati teams weren’t worried: this funny little English car with its undersized engine in the back would have to make its stop soon. Alf confirmed their belief by ostentatiously bringing out jacks and four fresh wheels onto the pit apron just after half-distance, but still Stirling stayed out, driving as smoothly as possible to preserve his tyres. He was peering anxiously at his fronts, and in the mirrors at his rears, and a dozen laps from the end he could already see the white canvas showing through the black rubber on all four.
But they held, and he won by 2.7 seconds. It was one of Sir Stirling’s most brilliant victories, and classic Moss — the underpowered underdog, with all sorts of handicaps, beating the works teams. And it made history: the first World Championship race won by a rear-engined car, the first won by a private entrant, and victory in the first race he drove for Rob Walker. It was the start of four wonderful years of collaboration between these two very English men.
The following year Jack Brabham’s Cooper took him to the World title, and — apart from the 1960 Italian Grand Prix, boycotted by the British teams because of a dispute over the use of the Monza banking — Tony Brooks’ win for Ferrari in the 1959 German Grand Prix at Avus was the last for a front-engined car. Within two years, the revolution ignited by Stirling’s win in Buenos Aires was pretty much complete.
By contrast, there is one opening round which, in retrospect, can be seen more as an end rather than a beginning. The South African Grand Prix at Kyalami on New Year’s Day 1968 ended in a sweeping 1-2 for the Lotus 49s. But it turned out to be the last Grand Prix, and the last win, for the great Jim Clark. Three months later he died when a tyre deflated on his F2 car at Hockenheim.
And it was the last time that the Team Lotus cars ran in a Grand Prix in their classic green and yellow colours. By round two in May they wore the garish red, white and gold livery of a brand of cigarettes. Once again Colin Chapman had changed the face of Formula One, for ever.