The 2019 Formula 1 season is almost upon us, and after a long winter away, expectations are high ahead of the opening round. Testing produced times that hint the field could be extremely close this campaign, with some suggesting that the entire grid is separated by less than 2 seconds. The first round of the season is always highly anticipated, as it's the first opportunity to see the new cars and drivers, due to the fact that apparent pace in testing is never an exact science. While the Grand Prix doesn't always live up to expectations, there have been some stunning curtain raisers over the decades, and here's 5 of the best.
#5 - Australia 2016
Ever since the Australian Grand Prix was transferred from the streets of Adelaide to Melbourne in 1996, the Albert Park Circuit has hosted the Formula 1 curtain raiser more often than not. While the previous two years' Grands Prix left much to be desired, the race three years ago, though, was an incredible spectacle.
As we've become accustomed to in the new V6 era, the two Mercedes cars occupied the front row, Lewis Hamilton, ahead of Nico Rosberg on the grid, but the Ferraris muscled their way past the pair going into Turn 1. Hamilton had a horror-start, the first of several during this season, and was sixth by the end of the first lap. The order remained largely the same, Sebastian Vettel leading Kimi Raikkonen, until Lap 17 of 57, when Fernando Alonso’s McLaren ploughed into the back of Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas in a spectacular accident to bring the red flags out.
When the race got back underway, a strategic error by Ferrari meant that Vettel had to pit once more compared to Rosberg and Hamilton behind him. To add insult to injury for the Scuderia, Raikkonen had to retire with a turbo failure shortly after the restart. Despite a late surge by Vettel, it was yet another 1-2 for Mercedes, but Romain Grosjean’s heroics further down the grid also grabbed the headlines. The Frenchman finished sixth and scored points on Haas’ F1 debut, but it was far from the best debut race down under…
#4 - Australia 2009
2009 brought a large shakeup in the regulations, not dissimilar to those which we saw in 2014 and 2017, and this always provides teams lower down with an opportunity to close the gap to the fastest outfits. From the embers of the Honda Racing F1 team came Brawn Grand Prix, and not much was expected of them going into the opening race in Melbourne. That was until qualifying, when they unbelievably got a 1-2, as Jenson Button claimed pole with teammate Rubens Barrichello alongside him.
When the race got underway, Barrichello almost stalled and plummeted down the field into P9 and was lucky not to retire after contact with Mark Webber. The Brazilian driver then set about regaining the places he lost on the first lap, and after a sloppy move on Kimi Raikkonen, he was on his way. Late on in the race, Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica came together when the Pole was trying to make a move. This meant that both retired and Barrichello snuck into second place behind Jenson Button, who was wheel-perfect all race. Brawn GP debuted with a 1-2, and Lewis Hamilton got an incredible third in his lacklustre McLaren before he was disqualified in controversial circumstances.
#3 - Brazil 1989
Wind the clock back thirty years, and it was McLaren that was the best team in the sport, how times change. The Woking outfit had just completed the most dominant season in F1 history, 15 wins from 16 races and when Ayrton Senna claimed pole for his home race in 1989, it seemed like the trend would continue. However, Senna was involved in an altercation at the first corner and was effectively taken out of the race, along with Ferrari's Gerhard Berger. Riccardo Patrese assumed the lead of the race in his Williams, which he held until Lap 15, when Nigel Mansell powered around the outside of the Italian.
The scorching temperatures at the Jacarepagua circuit meant that tyre stops were a must and despite Mansell requiring two, including one to change the steering wheel and all of the concerns over the Ferrari’s revolutionary semi-automatic car, Il Leone, he became the first Ferrari driver to win his debut race since Mario Andretti in 1971. Mauricio Gugelmin also had an excellent home race, finishing on the podium in his March.
#2 - United States 1990
A year later, this time in Phoenix, F1 produced another classic opener. Saturday qualifying was a literally a washout, so the grid was decided by the times set in Friday practice. This meant we saw Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi on the front row and both a Dallara and Tyrrell on the second row. Riccardo Patrese was down in twelfth and Nigel Mansell, the winner 12 months ago, all the way down in seventeenth!
Going into Turn 1, Jean Alesi dived down pole sitter Gerhard Berger to sensationally take the lead. Even more incredibly, he pulled out a lead over the Austrian. When Berger spun on Lap 9, this opened the door for his McLaren teammate, Ayrton Senna, to start to chase the French-Sicilian for the lead. Senna, the 1988 World Champion, was renowned for skill behind the wheel, especially at street circuits. It took the Brazilian 25 laps to pass Alesi and even then, he couldn’t make it stick as the Tyrrell driver had the audacity to stick his car down the inside of Senna's McLaren into Turn 2 to retake first position. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t to be, as Senna took the lead at the same point on the following lap and didn’t make the same mistake twice, despite excellent driving from Alesi.
Ayrton Senna went on to win the race but Jean Alesi would grab the headlines as his performance that day was truly amazing. Very much a remarkable race on an unremarkable track.
#1 - Australia 2003
After 3 titles in a row, one could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu when Michael Schumacher claimed pole around the Albert Park circuit in 2003. However, a jumbled-up grid in qualifying coupled with a damp track from rain earlier in the day produced a fantastic race.
After a hectic start, the Safety Car came out on Lap 7 to stabilise the field, thanks to the offs of Rubens Barrichello and Ralph Firman. Juan Pablo Montoya led the race after that affair, and by Lap 36 of 58, was chased by Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren and M Schumacher’s Ferrari. Michael was desperate to pass the McLaren and close up to Montoya, but a lunge down the outside of Turn 1 ruined his chances of doing so. The German tried to take Kimi around the outside but was forced off and damaged his car.
With just 8 laps remaining, as Montoya looked set to win the race, David Coulthard was closing, but the Brit was still a few seconds back. The Williams driver then did something completely unexpected, he went into Turn 1 too fast, spun around and gifted the lead to the McLaren. Coulthard was a hardened veteran of F1 and was never going to make the same mistake. Montoya limped home to get second place but it could’ve so easily been the Colombian’s second win the sport.
What do you think is the most eventful F1 opening race ever? Was it one we listed or another we missed? Let us know in the comments below!