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Greatest Albert Park Openers
Some of the best season opening races from Albert Park
Date published: 13th March 2019
The season opening race is always exciting – it’s where many questions are answered around the forthcoming season. The season starting in Melbourne has become a modern tradition and here, Craig Norman goes down memory lane, sharing some of the greatest Albert Park openers.
1997 – Coulthard for the win
The 1997 season saw a new look for the McLaren team, with the famed red and white of Marlboro replaced by the silver and black of West. They just couldn’t kick the cigarettes, but one nasty habit they did manage to put an end to that day was their winless streak. Having not tasted victory since the Australian Grand Prix of 1993 (then held on the streets of Adelaide) David Coulthard swept to glory at the ’97 season opener, helped somewhat by pre-race favourite Jacques Villeneuve being eliminated at turn one.
Meanwhile reigning world champion Damon Hill’s title defence got off to a nightmare start, with the Englishman’s Yamaha-powered Arrows failing to make the grid due to a throttle problem. It was no great loss – he’d only qualified 20th.
Things were even worse for the Lola team, who’d turned up with a car that looked like a shoebox on wheels and the awesome driving talent of Ricardo Rosset. He and rookie team-mate Vincenzo Sospiri both failed to qualify for the race, posting laps 12 and 11 seconds shy of pole respectively, and the team would fold soon after.
Also making their debuts that day (and actually managing to make the grid) were future Toyota team-mates Jarno Trulli (Minardi) and Ralf ‘do you know who my brother is’ Schumacher, as well as the entirely forgettable Shinji Nakano. He was driving a Prost thanks to his links to their engine suppliers Mugen-Honda.
2007 – Kimi takes the win
The 2007 Australian Grand Prix was the first following Michael Schumacher’s initial retirement from the sport and saw the two men seen as heirs to his throne of F1 top dog share the front row, with Kimi Raikkonen pipping Fernando Alonso to pole. On the second row meanwhile was a driver making his F1 debut who would also ascend to very top of the sport: Lewis Hamilton.
Kimi dominated from the word go, leading away from the lights to eventually take victory by seven seconds, whilst Alonso got a poor getaway and dropped behind Hamilton. However the Spaniard would recover the position following the final pitstops, saving some face against his rookie team-mate – for now at least.
Another great story to emerge from the weekend was the superb pace of the tiny Super Aguri outfit. Having struggled massively in 2006 Takuma Sato gave the whole team a boost by reach Q3, eventually lining up tenth on the grid, whilst debuting stablemate Anthony Davidson started a very impressive 11th.
The 2007 Australian Grand Prix gave us a hint of what was to come that year: Hamilton and Alonso scarping tooth and nail, hogging the limelight, only for Raikkonen to take the eventual triumph. A great start to a great year.
2002 – Webber impresses
Australia might have had a venue for a World Championship race, but it was several years until an Aussie driver took to its tarmac. Mark Webber eventually went on to win 9 grand prix, but back in 2002 he was just starting out with perennial backmarker Minardi.
Qualifying in a lowly 18th position, a slow start became a blessing in disguise when a first corner crash triggered by Ralf Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello (and eliminated them and six other cars) promoted him to fifth place. He brought the car home to score the little Italian team’s first points in three years, despite having a damaged differential and being harassed by a hard charging Mika Salo.
After the race, fellow Aussie and Minardi owner Paul Stoddart blagged a podium celebration for Webber and himself which was made sweeter by the remnants of winner Michael Schumacher’s champagne. Fifth place never tasted so good.
2009 – Brawn GP rise from the ashes of Honda
If the work “fairytale” was to apply to any F1 team, it would the emergence of the phoenix-like Brawn GP after the withdrawal of Honda in 2009. With the staff of the team not knowing whether they would have a job or not come Australia, the buy-out by chief designer Ross Brawn kept them in employment.
But, when the BGP-01 finally hit the track, it was clear that the season was going to be a special one for everyone involved. Jenson Button took pole and lead home team-mate Rubens Barrichello (thanks to a dust-up between Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica in the closing laps) to secure an unlikely 1-2 and start the ball rolling for a championship year for the team.
1996 – Hill takes Victory
It was a case of several debuts in Oz in 1996, as not only did Jacques Villenueve make his F1 bow, but also Melbourne as the season opener. It was all change at Ferrari, who ditched Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi for Eddie Irvine and Micheal Schumacher, with Benetton becoming the new home for the veteran drivers. David Couthard also took his seat at new team McLaren.
Although a rookie, Villenueve raced like a seasoned pro to take pole position and the fastest lap before an oil leak caused him to slow and hand the win to Williams team-mate Damon Hill. It would be the first of eight wins to finally seal a driver’s World Crown.
The race was also notable for Martin Brundle’s car disintegrating crash which forced a re-start.
1998 – McLaren dominate
The 1998 Australian Grand Prix was definitely one to remember, though not for the best of reasons. McLaren’s new Adrian Newey designed MP4-13 was the class of the field, allowing Mika Hakkinen to rocket to pole with team-mate David Coulthard second. Third-placed starter Michael Schumacher was a full three-quarters of a second shy of the Mercedes-powered cars.
Hakkinen led in to turn one and seemed set to power to his second successive win, having taken victory at the 1997 season-closer in Jerez. But, on lap 36, Mika entered the pits, believing the team to have called him in. They weren’t ready for the Finn and he was forced to drive through the pit-lane without stopping, costing him the lead to Coulthard.
Then, as the race entered its final few laps, DC slowed on the pit straight to allow Mika back through, the pair having apparently agreed that whoever led in to turn one should take the race win. McLaren’s domination of the event was soured, with the team eventually hauled before the World Motorsport Council and warned about repeating such a scene. The result would also prove costly for Coulthard: whilst Hakkinen went from strength to strength, eventually winning the world title, he would take just one win and end the year with close to half the points of his team-mate.