F1’s greatest opening race? Coulthard's '03 Australian GP win


David Coulthard's 13th and final F1 win at the 2003 Australian GP was packed with incident from start to finish – a strong contender for the championship's best-ever opening race

2003 Australian GP David Coulthard McLaren 2

Coulthard takes a final win in an eventful Australian GP

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There were seven lead changes — between four drivers — new talent emerging and old warhorses fighting back amid spins, crashes and no-holds-barred battles. All under Melbourne’s leaden skies.

Twenty years ago, the 2003 Australian GP was a thrilling curtain-raiser for what would turn out to be a classic year, and is an easy contender for greatest season opening F1 race of all time, as well as the best GP Down Under.

In what was David Coulthard’s final GP win, the Scot played the perfect strategy while avoiding the chaos unfolding at Albert Park all around him, with early-2000s heavy-hitters Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya all falling by the wayside.

Prior to 2003’s first race, the FIA had made swingeing changes in a bid to spice up the action after a dull 2002 allowed Schumacher and Ferrari an easy championship double.

2003 Australian GP start

Ferrari formation leads at race start

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Qualifying was turned into a one-lap shootout for each car, and refuelling was banned in between that session and the race. This meant that each competitor’s one fast lap would have to be done with the fuel the car would start the race with (refuelling during the GP was still allowed at this point). Points were also now extended to the first eight finishers from the previous six.

All this looked to have been in vain though – Schumacher and team-mate Rubens Barrichello were almost a second faster in quali than the next closest challenger, the Williams of Montoya.

Come Sunday the doom-mongers were sounding the death knell for the season’s excitement – how wrong they were.

From the archive

A pre-race thunderstorm left a wet but drying track, with drivers made to agonise over whether to play it safe by starting on rain tyres or risking it with grooved ‘slicks’.

Montoya and Toyota’s Olivier Panis rolled the dice while most of the rest played it safe.

Räikkönen saw which way things were going and elected for a pitlane start on dry tyres, diving in at the end of the formation lap.

At lights out the two Ferraris set off in formation, but the rest squabbled over position in a frantic start.

2003 Australian GP Juston Wilson Minardi

Frantic opening laps saw backmarker Justin Wilson almost get in the points

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Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld began to slice through the field on his wet tyres and was up to third by the end of lap 1, as Panis dropped through the field like a stone, falling from fifth to 11th in one lap.

It was all happening further back as well: by lap two the late Justin Wilson, who had started last and was now up to tenth, but he too soon fell back down.

“Despite an almost total lack of testing and no qualifying time, Wilson did a first-class job for Minardi until the car failed him,” commented Motor Sport’s Simon Taylor. “On a damp track he was tremendously brave in the opening laps. Astonishing.”

Conditions soon began to favour the dry tyre runners though, with Coulthard pitting on lap two. Both he and team-mate Räikkönen began overtaking multiple cars per lap.

On lap five, the tricky conditions claimed their first victim. Barrichello, still running in second behind Schumacher, was due for a drive-through penalty for jumping the start, but he never served it.

At Turn 5 the Brazilian’s wet tyres lost traction and he slid backwards into the tyre barriers, taking both ends off his Ferrari.

The safety car came out, but not before Jordan’s Ralph Firman had an identical accident at the same place, ploughing through Barrichello’s debris, while Toyota’s Cristiano Da Matta also spun off, seemingly in sympathy.

2003 Australian GP Mark Webber Jaguar

Webber suspension damage brought out second safety car

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This was unfortunate for Montoya, who was making hay on his dry tyres in the lead and building a healthy buffer over Schumacher, who had pitted just before the safety car emerged.

On the restart Montoya put the hammer down in typical style, as Räikkönen slipped up the inside of Jaguar’s Mark Webber for fourth, with Schumacher following through a lap later.

Webber’s home race then came to an end as his right suspension failed three laps later, moments before Ralf Schumacher was given full marks for a beautiful pirouette in the first corner – Alonso was forced to mow grass with his R23 in avoidance of the Williams.

From the archive

Montoya and Jarno Trulli then pitted as the safety car was brought out on lap 16 for a second time to remove the stricken Jag, meaning on the restart it was Räikkönen versus Schumacher, a mouth-watering prospect for those who believed this was F1’s next great rivalry: 2003’s title fight would indeed go down to the wire between the pair.

The Finn hared off three corners before the main straight, catching his German rival unawares.

Chaos resumed behind as a spinning Heidfeld sent Ralf Schumacher into the gravel, with brother Michael soon closing back in on Räikkönen – the Iceman’s Michelins were beginning to give way, as the Ferrari set a new track record of 1min 27.7sec on lap 27.

The Red Baron couldn’t find a way past though and pitted a lap later in an attempt at the undercut.

2003 Australian GP Michael Schumacher Ferrari 2

Räikkönen shows Schumacher the Melbourne scenery


This meant it was a McLaren 1-2 with Coulthard up to second, but both soon pitted, putting Montoya in the lead for a second time.

Schumacher yet again zoomed up to the back of Räikkönen as they squabbled over the second, the Finn summarily putting the Ferrari onto the grass at Turn 1 in a show of no fear.

“Someone needs to give up and it was this time him,” the Finn said pithily afterwards. “It was nice.”

This was all in vain though, as Räikkönen was then handed a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pitlane, before an off at Stewart (Turn 14) left him down in eighth.

Next Montoya surrendered his lead for another stop, handing over first to Schumacher on lap 42 – but not for long.

Slightly rude Räikkönen’s ice-cold shoulder onto the Turn 1 lawn meant the F2002B was now shedding bits, and a black and orange flag on lap 46 required Schumacher to come in to have his Fezza tidied up.

As fate would have it the suspect components had already emancipated themselves by the time he came in, but the German needed fuel anyway.

The order was now Montoya-Coulthard-Räikkönen-Schumacher. No-one apart from the latter had led the championship for the past 18 months – could that all change?

With 12 laps remaining it looked like an easy cruise to the top step for Montoya, but drama struck once more.

The Columbian spun out of the first corner, just kissing the barriers as his Williams came to a stop.

“Everything was going my way and we got screwed twice [by the safety car],” said Montoya afterwards. “Then we had the lead [at the end] and when I picked up the throttle the car turned ends on me – my fault.

2003 Australian GP Juan Pablo Montoya Williams

Montoya spin handed Coulthard the win

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“The best comment was from Patrick [Head]. Get some pillows against the wall, some really hard shoes and kick it as hard as you can.”

Coulthard was now through to first, with Montoya shaking his head at 100mph+ as he got going again.

From there the McLaren man sailed to his 13th and what would turn out to be his final win – from 11th on the grid.

“I didn’t actually overtake many people out on the track but we can gloss over that!” said a self-deprecating Coulthard afterwards.

It was an all-action start to what would be a brilliant season – Schumacher would clinch it by just two points from Räikkönen.