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Five of Formula One’s biggest opening race surprises

| 17.03.2016

The new Formula One season gets underway this weekend in Australia, and with it comes a new wave of hope and expectation before the true order of things is eventually discovered.

Lewis Hamilton claimed a dominant victory in Melbourne 12 months ago, but there’s plenty of reason to believe the three-time champion might not have it so easy this time around along the streets of Albert Park.

With new rules and regulations in place, plus new drivers and even a new team, anything could happen Down Under, and history shows the opening event can often spring up a surprise or two.

We’ve had a little look down memory lane and rolled back the years to dig out five of the most memorable curtain-raisers to bring us an early surprise…


After four years with Williams, Nigel Mansell was the headline move in the off-season, becoming Enzo Ferrari’s final signing at Maranello.

Though quick, the new Scarlet challenger rarely lasted more than a handful of laps, largely due to a revolutionary semi-automatic gearbox.

Mansell himself had booked an early return flight home from Brazil, so confident was he that the car would fail in the race.

But it didn’t, and with Ayrton Senna well down the field after an early collision, the Brit had the measure of Alain Prost to claim a famous and hugely unexpected debut win for his new team.

1989: Nigel Mansell of Great Britain in action in his Scuderia Ferrari during the Brazilian Grand Prix at the Rio circuit in Brazil. Mansell finished in first place. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

Nigel Mansell endeared himself immediately to the Tifosi with victory first time out in Brazil


Having made his debut less than a year before, Jean Alesi had only briefly shown his potential as F1 kicked-off the 1990’s in Phoenix, Arizona.

Qualifying fourth in a topsy-turvy grid, Alesi in his Tyrrell-Ford shot into the lead and confidently stayed there for almost half the race.

The great Ayrton Senna eventually caught up with the Frenchman however, and swept through into the lead, but the daring Alesi had other ideas.

Catching the Brazilian by surprise, the youngster retook the lead immediately with a bold and fearless move.

Senna and his McLaren-Honda eventually won out, but Alesi was never far behind as he announced himself in the biggest possible way.

11 Mar 1990: Tyrrell-Ford driver Jean Alesi of France in action during the US Formula One Grand Prix held in Phoenix, Arizona. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Jean Alesi lead from the start in Phoenix, but Ayrton Senna eventually hauled him in


Having played second fiddle admirably to Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine rarely had a chance at winning a GP.

However, with Schumacher suffering a host of problems at the 1999 curtain-raising Australian GP, and the pace-setting McLarens both retiring from the front, Steady Eddie came through the drama to claim his first Grand Prix in a race where only seven cars made it to the end.

The Northern Irishman took the chequered flag another three times that season in what was arguably his finest campaign.

7 Mar 1999: Ferrari's Eddie Irvine takes the chequered flag to win his first ever race at the Formula One Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne. Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson /Allsport

Eddie Irvine claimed his first win in the 1999 opener after his rivals all encountered issues


The 2002 season got off to a flying start, quite literally in the case of Ralf Schumacher, who careered over the top of Rubens Barrichello moments after the lights went out, with seven drivers out by the first turn.

A little over half-distance and just eight cars remained, but home heroes Minardi with Aussie debutant Mark Webber and compatriot boss Paul Stoddard were one of them.

Underfunded, lacking power, and with barely enough money to last from one season to the next, the Italian squad had long-been perennial underdogs.

But as Michael Schumacher raced ahead to victory, all eyes were on fifth place as Webber crossed the line for two huge points for his side, bringing millions of pounds in prize money come the end of the season.

Team manager Stoddart hauled Webber onto the podium, celebrating as if they’d won the race, and if you listened to the crowd that day, you’d think they had.

3 Mar 2002: Mark Webber of Australia and Minardi celebrates with team boss Paul Stoddart after his 5th place finish in the 2002 Fosters Australian Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit, Melbourne, Australia. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson/ALLSPORT

Home heroes Paul Stoddard and Mark Webber stormed the podium after finishing fifth in 2002


As the grid lined up in Melbourne to begin the 2009 season, Jenson Button must have been surprised as any to be there at all, let alone on pole position!

The Somerset man had been out of the job just months before, after the economic crisis of 2008 caused Honda to withdraw their entire F1 operation at the end of the season.

Thankfully, Ross Brawn rallied the troops, and a £40m buyout, plus a re-name and a new coat of paint saw Button and team-mate Rubens Barrichello appear in Melbourne having set impressive times in pre-season.

Button then serenely drove to a dominant win which seemed beyond thinkable mere weeks previously, with Barrichello right there in second place.

Brawn driver Jenson Button of Great Britain on the podium after winning Formula One's Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 29, 2009. Button won the race in a time of 1 hour, 34 minutes, 15.784 seconds, with teammate Rubens Barrichello of Brazil in second and Jarno Trulli of Italy in third in a Toyota. AFP PHOTO/William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

Jenson Button caused a major stir in 2009, taking his new Brawn team to a debut win

Brit Button would win six of the opening seven races in what became his Championship year, before Mercedes bought out Brawn having claimed both titles in their only season.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.



Richard Marsh

Richard loves his sport, especially if it involves the sound of tyres screaming around a race track. He's not fussy though and his '90s Premier League nostalgia and knowledge of team nicknames is tough to match.