Five fine F1 debuts

A look back at a quintet of current drivers who made their mark in Melbourne as rookies.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

Jenson Button, 2000 Australian Grand Prix
Age:
20
Team/car: BMW-Williams F1 Team, Williams FW22
Qualified: 21st
Race: Did not finish (46 laps, engine)

Don’t let the raw stats deceive you – barely out of his teens, Jenson Button made an impact in Melbourne in 2000 with a prodigious turn of speed that marked him as a man to watch for the future. His first trip to Australia started with a late-night ride around the circuit from an eager-to-please Melbourne taxi driver, and his F1 debut came against a backdrop of off-track controversy. Many questioned whether he was ready for the top flight, Sir Jackie Stewart bluntly opining: “I don’t believe you can go straight from kindergarten to university”. Button had an eventful weekend on track too: after hitting a bird in Friday practice in an incident he described as “a bit gory”, Button had a monster 250km/h-plus crash on Saturday morning, and his hastily-repaired car had fuel problems in qualifying, leaving him a distraught second-last on the grid. It was no deterrent – in the race, Button overtook six cars on the opening lap, fought his way to sixth and the final world championship points position on a scorching Melbourne autumn day, and looked set to stay there before his engine cried enough with 11 laps left. Points came at the next round in Brazil, and 16 years later, he’s a world champion, 15-time Grand Prix winner and the third-most experienced driver (284 starts) in F1 history.

Button’s view: “I think I have proved a lot of people wrong today. But that’s not the most important thing for me. What was most important was that I proved I’ve got what it takes for Formula One.”

Kimi Raikkonen, 2001 Australian Grand Prix
Age:
21
Team/car: Red Bull Sauber-Petronas, C20
Qualified: 13th
Race: 6th

Rubens Barrichello was always good for a soundbite, and the veteran Brazilian cut to the chase when the furore surrounding Kimi Raikkonen’s ascension to F1 with just 23 car races under his belt dominated the build-up to the 2001 season-opener. “If he’s good enough, then he’s old enough,” Barrichello shrugged, and the 21-year-old soon proved the Ferrari driver right with a polished debut. After qualifying 13th on Saturday, an early indication that Raikkonen had a, well, relaxed approach to racing came 24 hours later, when he was still asleep half an hour before the lights went out at Albert Park. No matter: Raikkonen set off at a searing pace in a chaotic race that saw a crash between Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher claim the life of a trackside marshal, and finished seventh on the road before being elevated to sixth after Olivier Panis was penalised for overtaking under yellow flags. One race had done enough to silence the doubters, and team boss Peter Sauber was moved to describe ‘the Iceman’ as “a miracle”. Raikkonen’s return to Australia 12 months later came in a McLaren, and from there came stints at Ferrari, Lotus and Ferrari again – and the 2007 world championship, the same year he took the first of his two Melbourne victories.

Raikkonen’s view: “It’s been a good day and a great start to my Formula One career.”

Fernando Alonso, 2001 Australian Grand Prix
Age:
19
Team/car: European Minardi F1 Team, PS01
Qualified: 19th
Race: 12th

Minardi arrived in Australia for that same 2001 race as the unofficial home team after being purchased by Australian businessman Paul Stoddart less than two months before, but that Stoddart’s debut as a team owner happened in his own backyard only added to the stress levels for a team that hadn’t been able to test its car before heading to Melbourne. Fernando Alonso was Minardi’s test driver in 2000 and came as part of the sale, but Stoddart quickly realised the Spanish teenager had that something special. Alonso turned heads when he qualified 19th on Saturday – ahead of Luciano Burti in the well-funded Jaguar outfit – and soldiered on to 12th in the race, finishing two laps down, but making it clear he’d be in F1 to stay. Stoddart could barely believe what he’d seen. “To take 12th place on our maiden outing, there are just not the words to describe the feeling,” he said after the race. “Fernando showed what he is capable of and proved that we need to be taken seriously this year.” Alonso sat out 2002 as Renault’s test driver, became the youngest race-winner in F1 history for the same team a year later, and won titles with the Enstone outfit in 2005 and ’06, cementing his status as one of the best in the business for more than a decade after that auspicious debut.

Alonso’s view: “I arrived in a new car that nobody had tried, in a new team, and with English people. It was a crazy time, but I qualified 19th and finished the race without any problems, so it was perfect.”

Lewis Hamilton, 2007 Australian Grand Prix
Age:
22
Team/car: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, MP4-22
Qualified: 4th
Race: 3rd

With endless laps in the McLaren MP4-22 in pre-season testing and a career path that had been pointing towards F1 since his early teens, few rookies have been as prepared for the big-time as Lewis Hamilton was in Melbourne in 2007. Even still, what he did in the first few hundred metres of his F1 career caught even the most enthusiastic Hamilton-watchers by surprise. Qualifying fourth at Albert Park, Hamilton made a tardy getaway and was passed by BMW-Sauber’s Robert Kubica on the run to the first corner. In a millisecond of genius, Hamilton juked the McLaren to the outside of turn one where passing is generally a no-no, ambushed Kubica and McLaren teammate (and two-time reigning world champion, no less) Fernando Alonso, and tore off after race-leader Kimi Raikkonen. He led for four laps through the mid-race pit stops, and despite Alonso re-passing him through pit strategy later in the race, Hamilton finished third. Forget living up to expectations; he’d exceeded them. It didn’t stop in Australia – by the end of 2007, Hamilton had finished on the podium in his first nine races, set new benchmarks for wins (four) and poles (six) by a rookie, and finished second in the world championship to Raikkonen by a solitary point. Titles duly came the next year at McLaren and for the past two at Mercedes, but Australia was where all of his obvious promise turned to proof.

Hamilton’s view: “I think this is probably beyond my dreams. To be in F1 is a dream, but to go in your first race and have a third is something that you don’t expect.”

Kevin Magnussen, 2014 Australian Grand Prix
Age:
21
Team/car: McLaren-Mercedes MP4-29
Qualified: 4th
Race: 2nd

In hindsight, you could argue Hamilton’s debut was one we saw coming. The first race for Kevin Magnussen? Not so much. The second-generation Danish racer stepped in to partner Jenson Button at McLaren after its dalliance with Sergio Perez in 2013, and was under no illusions of what was ahead of him. “I’m not underestimating the challenge that I’m facing,” was his comment before the race weekend, and when rain lashed the Albert Park circuit in qualifying for a second consecutive year, the rookie had every excuse he needed to drop the ball. Magnussen responded brilliantly, qualifying fourth, and survived a lurid oversteer moment off the start the next day to run the majority of a chaotic race well inside the points, even pressuring the Red Bull of home hero Daniel Ricciardo for second place in the final stint. Third on debut was stunning enough, but it became second when Ricciardo was disqualified hours after the race for his car breaching the sport’s fuel flow regulations. It was the best finish by a rookie on debut since Jacques Villeneuve finished in the same position at the same circuit for Williams on Melbourne’s F1 debut in 1996, and was comfortably Magnussen’s best result of a 2014 campaign that saw him finish 11th overall. The Dane was jettisoned in favour of Fernando Alonso at McLaren last year, but deputised for the injured Spaniard in Australia only for his car to break down on the formation lap. Two years since the sole podium of his career, Magnussen returns to Melbourne with new team Renault this week.

Magnussen’s view: “I just can’t believe it. It’s not a win, but it feels a bit like a win.”

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