Five unexpected F1 season-openers


With the start of the 2020 Formula 1 season days away, we take a look back at prior season-openers where form was thrown out the window

Graham Hill

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

There may never again be a start to a Formula 1 season that’s as unorthodox or chaotic as 2020’s offering. A false dawn in Australia all those months ago was certainly unprecedented.

Just over a quarter of a year later, the paddock has congregated once again for the real beginning of the season, undergoing thorough testing against the ongoing pandemic. And what unfolds on the track could yet surprise us again.

The first race of a season always carries the prospect of the unexpected; a team rising up the pecking order; a new talent tearing the form book in two; or the debut of game-changing technology.

Here are five occasions from F1’s past when things in race one didn’t turn out as expected.

1962 Dutch Grand Prix

Graham Hill

Hill on the way to a debut victory in Formula 1

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

This one can be traced all the way to the autumn of 1958. As then, FIA president Augustin Pérouse announced that F1 for 1961 would move from 2.5-litre engines to 1.5.

British teams stamped their feet at this, but the rule makers didn’t flinch. Ferrari, almost alone, prepared while others politicked and the Scuderia dominated the ‘61 season with its ‘sharknose’ 156. Yet for ’62 the flipside awaited, as the British squads were by now ready.

From the archive

They had Ferrari-matching power plus better chassis and drivers. Ferrari also between seasons had a walkout of key staff to ill-starred ATS.

And it was unlikely teams that took over. BRM and Team Lotus prior to ’62 had only a single F1 world championship race win each.

But, in advance of the Dutch Grand Prix season-opener, BRM’s Graham Hill and Lotus’s Jim Clark won two non-championship races apiece. Then Zandvoort’s championship round one confirmed the new lay of the land.

Hill and Clark were on the front row while the best Ferrari, of reigning champion Phil Hill, was ninth out of twenty. Hill then won the race comfortably after Clark hit clutch problems, and the pair dominated for years.

The game had changed.

1977 Argentine Grand Prix

Carlos Pace

Searing hot conditions proved too much for Pace in a poorly-ventilated cockpit

Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images

Walter Wolf made his fortune in oil-drilling equipment and fancied his own F1 team. After a faltering initial effort, for 1977 he recruited proven winners Peter Warr as manager – side-lining a certain Frank Williams – and Harvey Postlethwaite as designer. Wolf also signed one of the drivers of the age in Jody Scheckter.

Yet in the Argentine Grand Prix season-opener it appeared to all still be coming together, as Scheckter qualified 11th amid problems. The race though became a battle of attrition in intense temperatures.

McLaren’s new champion James Hunt led but dropped out with suspension failure. John Watson, Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti hit problems too.

From the archive

This left Carlos Pace’s Brabham first and Scheckter second. Then the heat claimed another as Pace, in a poorly-ventilated cockpit, struggled physically and slowed.

Scheckter therefore gave the Wolf team the rare accolade of winning its debut Grand Prix.

“Their main asset had proved to be consistency and stamina in the stifling hot conditions,” noted Alan Henry for Motor Sport, “they are very conscious that ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’”.

Yet further swallows followed as the efficient outfit won twice more that year and Scheckter bagged second in the standings.

1989 Brazilian Grand Prix


‘Il Leone’ Nigel Mansell in the Ferrari

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

As we know, McLaren-Honda in 1988 was a late-race clash away from winning all 16 races. And as ’89 kicked off, particularly as Ayrton Senna took round one pole in Brazil by nearly a second, few expected it to be challenged much then either.

And it certainly wouldn’t be by Ferrari, as its revolutionary paddleshift gearbox spent winter testing breaking repeatedly, then did similar during the Rio curtain-raiser’s practice and qualifying.

Team boss Cesare Fiorio suggested indeed running half-tanks in the race for a glory run, while new signing Nigel Mansell, surmising he wouldn’t last long, booked himself on an early flight home.

From the archive

Senna removed himself from contention in a first-corner clash; the other McLaren, Alain Prost’s, would be impeded by clutch problems.

Mansell soon rose to the lead. “Sceptics snorted and prepared to delete car no27 from their lap charts,” observed Motor Sport’s David Tremayne. “Six laps? Well 10 maybe. But the Ferrari wouldn’t last much longer.

“But it did. Lap after lap Mansell was metronome-precise in his braking and gearshift points, and the five-valve V12 continued its delicious wail”.

Mansell took the most unlikely of wins and was immediately lionised, in every sense, by the tifosi.

1994 Brazilian Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher

Senna was expected to win but it was Michael Schumacher who stood on the top step

Mike Hewitt/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

“Few would seriously have bet against the chances of Ayrton Senna, on his home ground, and the Williams-Renault,” noted Tremayne. Williams indeed had dominated for two years and with Senna aboard for 1994 had acquired its main opposition from that time.

But as all headed out to Brazil’s season-opener Williams’ Patrick Head, against the grain, predicted a close fight at the front. In ’94 ‘gizmos’, such as active suspension and traction control, were banned and the new Williams it transpired was under-cooked.

Plus it now had a fearsome foe in Michael Schumacher, whose Benetton arrived early in pre-season and flew.

From the archive

At Interlagos, Senna initially looked fine nevertheless as from pole he moved 4sec clear after two laps, while Schumacher made his way past Jean Alesi’s Ferrari.

“But Schumacher narrowed that [gap] fractionally on lap three, and that was when he knew he had a chance of victory,” Tremayne said.

Then another thing new for ’94 – refuelling returning after 11 years – again did for Williams, as Schumacher vaulted Senna with a quicker stop.

He then pulled clear, eventually by 8sec. Senna, in front of his adoring public, dug deep and trimmed the deficit, but then spun his nervous FW16 out. This left Schumacher home and hosed.

2003 Australian Grand Prix

David Coulthard

David Coulthard stayed on track as his rivals hit trouble to win in Melbourne

Getty Images

The 2002 season was an F1 low point, characterised by soporific Ferrari and Michael Schumacher advantage. FIA president Max Mosley therefore for ’03, at the 11th hour before Melbourne’s round one, imposed one-shot qualifying and parc fermé between qualifying and the race.

It apparently changed little as Ferrari locked out the Australian front row comfortably. Yet, as Simon Taylor explained for Motor Sport, “what did more than the new rules to turn this race upside down was the changeable weather.”

The start was damp-but-drying and Ferrari made the wrong call of starting Schumacher on intermediate tyres. Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams started on dries, Kimi Räikkönen changed to them at the end of the parade lap and his McLaren team-mate David Coulthard followed suit on lap two. Schumacher didn’t switch until lap seven.

His recovery was impeded further by a multi-stop strategy and losing his bargeboards after an excursion. Montoya likely would have won but spun. Räikkönen likely would have won but got a pitlane speeding penalty (his breach by 1.1kph). Coulthard did win.

Schumacher finished only fourth and it was, astonishingly, the first Ferrari-free podium since 1999. It also was a portent of a renaissance F1 season.