EIGHT non-F1 Champions that won the season opener

by | Apr 12, 2019 | Motoring

Reading time: 9 minutes
Since 1950, the first Grand Prix of the Formula 1 season has mostly been won by a former, reigning or future World Champion. Mostly. Meet the eight drivers who break that rule.

The first Grand Prix of any Formula 1 season is crucial. Forget pre-season winter testing, the deceptive minx that’s brought us near-constant sandbagging, Fernando Alonso’s difficult (and thus expertly driven) Ferrari F2012, and the vapour-fuelled Prost AP04 of 2001. It’s the first qualifying session of the year and the race that follows that truly demonstrates the championship pecking order.

That’s not preamble either. Between 1990 and 2018, the season opening race was won 19 times by the driver who went on to secure that year’s title. That’s a 66% strike rate, something a certain V.Bottas might be interested to know, given that he recently smashed this year’s Australian Grand Prix. In fact, since 1950, the first Grand Prix of every F1 season has been won 59 times, out of 69, by a future, reigning or former World Champion.

This list ‘celebrates’ the unlucky eight who didn’t quite make it to the top of that mountain.

1. David Coulthard (Australia, 1997 and 2003)

Grand Prix entries: 247 (246 starts)

Wins: 13

Podiums: 62

Best F1 championship position: 2nd, 2001

Interestingly, ‘DC’ is one of only two non-F1 Champions, both of them British, who managed to win the season opener twice.

The first was at the Australian Grand Prix in 1997, a crucial result for McLaren as it finally put to bed a 49-race winless streak for Woking. Small fry by today’s standards, true – the eight-time Constructors’ Champions haven’t won a race in 121 Grand Prix starts, at time of writing – but Melbourne ’97 was nevertheless a statement of intent for the first non-Marlboro-sponsored McLaren in 24 years. Poor reliability though plagued the MP4/12, and despite taking another win at Monza seven months later and a couple of runner-up spots in Austria and Luxembourg, a succession of engine and gearbox-related DNFs, plus the occasional on-track shunt, meant DC finished 1997 with less than half the points of eventual champion Jacques Villeneuve.

Six years later, Coulthard scooped the Aussie silverware once again, albeit this time as the beneficiary of a bizarre incident for long-time leader Juan Pablo Montoya, who over-cooked it at turn one with just a few laps to go. Though he didn’t know it at the time, this would be DC’s last F1 victory. One final season at McLaren would transition into a four-year run at the fledgling Red Bull Racing before the Saltire-d helmet was hung up for good in 2008.

2. Giancarlo Fisichella (Australia, 2005)

Grand Prix entries: 231 (229 starts)

Wins: 3

Podiums: 19

Best F1 championship position: 4th, 2006

Giancarlo Fisichella’s works Renault career couldn’t have got off to a better start in 2005. In an ill-conceived era when drivers were allowed just one flying lap during qualifying, the Italian found himself on pole position by almost three seconds at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix after a rain-affected session relegated eventual champion, and teammate, Fernando Alonso to 13th on the grid, and the Ferraris of Rubens Barrichello and seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher to 11th and 18th respectively. A bigger open goal there could not have been.

Still, fair’s fair, the Italian drove a flawless albeit advantageous race, and while impressive charges by both Barrichello and Alonso meant the pair completed the podium, the day belonged to Fisichella.

Those two weeks at the top of the standings were as close as Fisichella would get to the F1 crown, however. Incredibly, he wouldn’t finish on the podium again until Turkey, 14 races later, by which point teammate Alonso had wracked up six wins and three further podiums. After finishing a disconsolate 5th and 4th in the standings in ’05 and ’06 (Alonso’s championship winning years), Fisichella ended his F1 career three years later with a substitute role at Ferrari following Felipe Massa’s near-fatal accident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. Still at Maranello, the Italian has at least added two GT class wins at Le Mans to his resume.

3. Eddie Irvine (Australia, 1999)

Grand Prix entries: 148 (146 starts)

Wins: 4

Podiums: 26

Best F1 championship position: 2nd, 1999

1999, by and large, was a mental season in F1. Two-time champion Michael Schumacher suffered a leg-breaking shunt at Silverstone that put him on the bench for most of the year. Substitute driver Mika Salo came agonisingly close to taking his first F1 win at Hockenheim in only his second race for Ferrari but was forced to give best to teammate, and championship contender, Eddie Irvine instead. Eventual champion Mika Hakkinen lost potential wins in Australia (throttle), Imola (shunt) , Great Britain (loose wheel), Austria (collision), Germany (exploding tyre) AND Monza (crying in the bushes) to leave the title race wide open, while ousted Williams driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen claimed his second and third Grand Prix wins at Magny-Cours and Monza respectively to become an unlikely championship contender for Jordan.

Elsewhere, Johnny Herbert took the first win for Sir Jackie Stewart’s eponymous team in a sensational wet-dry-wet European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, the race that also saw Luca Badoer lose a points finish for minnows Minardi, brutally, just 12 laps from home. In Canada, the final turn of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was christened the ‘Wall of Champions’ as Schumacher, 1996 champion Damon Hill – set for retirement at season’s end – and 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve eliminated themselves during the race. In Malaysia, after a dominant performance by the returning Michael Schumacher, Ferrari was disqualified for running illegally-sized bargeboards, effectively handing the title to Hakkinen. Until the penalty was over-turned, that is, setting up a championship showdown in Suzuka.

It was a weird year kick-started by Eddie Irvine taking his maiden F1 win at an attrition-hit Australian Grand Prix. With his teammate side-lined, and after capturing three more wins and five podiums, the Ulsterman would be a key player in the title fight for the only time in his career in 1999.

Strange year. Brilliant, but strange.

4. Jacques Laffite (Argentina, 1979)

Grand Prix entries: 180 (176 starts)

Wins: 6

Podiums: 32

Best F1 championship position: 4th, 1979-1981

It says a lot about the pace of the Ligier JS 11 in 1979 that, of the seven races Jacques Laffite finished that season, all but one was on the podium. Indeed, having taken two strong victories in the first two races of the season, the affable Frenchmen went into round three of the championship with an eight-point lead already in the bag.

Unreliability would prove Ligier’s curse, however, with those two race wins being the only occasions all year that the Frenchman stood on the top step. Barring a clumsy accident in South Africa, the Gitanes-sponsored JS 11 was appropriately caught smoking more often than not, felled as it was by brake issues (Long Beach), gearbox woes (Monaco), and good old ‘human error’ (Watkins Glen). Its Ford Cosworth DFV made an unfortunate habit of munching itself too in Jarama, Silverstone, Monza AND Montreal. Come the season finale at Watkins Glen, Laffite was already 15 points adrift of a championship fight he’d look set to be in the thick of at the start of the year.

Bizarrely, 1979 was the first of three seasons that Laffite would finish 4th in the standings. He’d pick up another win and four podiums in 1980, but couldn’t match the sheer pace of eventual champions Williams, nor the Gordon Murray-designed brilliance that was Brabham’s runaway BT49C in 1981.

5. Pedro Rodríguez (South Africa, 1967)

Grand Prix entries: 54

Wins: 2

Podiums: 7

Best F1 championship position: 6th, 1967 and 1968

So, fun fact, the 1967 season-opener celebrated not just the first, and so far only, Grand Prix winner from Mexico, but also the first, and so far only, podium finisher from Rhodesia, one John Love. A six-time South African Formula 1 Champion, y’know. But I digress…

Amazing to think that, just a few years earlier, and following the death of his brother Ricardo at their home Grand Prix in 1962, Pedro Rodríguez had almost turned his back on F1. Only as 1966 ticked by did the fixation start to take hold and the former ‘NART’ Ferrari man opted to give the whole ‘motor racing thing’ a serious go. Incredibly, offered a one-off driver by John Cooper in a Maserati V12-engined T81, Pedro won the ’67 season-opening South African Grand Prix in only his 10th Grand Prix start (admittedly retirements for early leaders Denny Hulme, Jack Brabham and John Surtees played their part).

Ironically, poor luck and the rejuvenated might of the Brabham team, Lotus and prospective champion Hulme meant this would be Rodríguez’s only podium of the year, and he would have to wait until his switch to BRM machinery for 1968 to claim his next. Mind you, victory that year aboard the Ford GT40 at Le Mans, the catalyst to a phenomenal sports car career for the Mexican, rather overshadowed his F1 podium.

6. Stirling Moss (Argentina, 1958 and Monaco, 1961)

Grand Prix entries: 67 (66 starts)

Wins: 16

Podiums: 24

Best F1 championship position: 2nd, 1955-1958

Thumb through the record books and you’ll find that, quite incredibly, Sir Stirling Moss finished as runner-up to Juan Manuel Fangio and Britain’s first champion, Mike Hawthorn four years running from 1955 to 1958, and finished 3rd from 1959 to 1961. That the finest driver to never to win the F1 championship is on this list should come as no surprise.

At Buenos Aires in 1958, the three factory Ferrari Dino 246s of Hawthorn, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins, each powered by far superior 2.4-litre V6s, were expected to dominate against the 1.6-litre four-cylinder privateers. Maranello though hadn’t counted on heavier-than-expected tyre wear, a driveshaft problem for Collins, Moss’ atypically brilliant race craft, and the decision by Walker Racing not to pit the Englishman for fresh rubber at all. It was the first-ever win for a rear-engined F1 car, and the first of four wins for Moss in 1958, who ultimately fell just a single point shy of eventual champion, Mike Hawthorn.

It’s the season-opening Monaco Grand Prix three years later though that Moss considers “the hardest race of [his] life, and the best.” Despite qualifying on pole position, rising engine temperatures for the four-cylinder, Rob Walker Racing-entered Lotus 18 meant bodywork had to be removed completely before the start of the race (unthinkable today). It was a bulls-eye to the pursuing, and much faster, 1.5-litre V6 Ferrari Dino 156 of Richie Ginther, who harried Moss all the way to the chequered flag. Such was the pace during those final 25 laps that the American and the Brit were lapping the principality a baffling three seconds quicker than either had managed in qualifying.

Monaco would be one of only two wins for Moss in 1961 though, duck eggs at France, Great Britain, Italy and the USA allowing the prancing horse to get the last laugh.

7. Bruce McLaren (Argentina, 1960)

Grand Prix entries: 104 (100 starts)

Wins: 4

Podiums: 27

Best F1 championship position: 2nd, 1960

One year before Moss’ ’61 win, it had been the turn of Bruce McLaren, though admittedly luck played a significant role in the Kiwi’s second Grand Prix win. Having qualified only 13th in the Cooper-Climax T45, the McLaren founder later battled his way past Ferrari’s Cliff Allison and José Froilán González, but would have to wait for teammate Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Stirling Moss to hit trouble (gearbox problems, overheating issues and suspension failure, respectively) to climb to 3rd, engine failure for leader Jo Bonnier and a jammed gear linkage for Innes Ireland leaving the way clear for McLaren to take the win ahead of one-time podium finisher, Allison. Three further podiums in the next four races meant it wasn’t until the French Grand Prix six months later that McLaren eventually lost his championship lead.

1960 would prove to be Bruce McLaren’s best season as a driver, falling, as he did, just nine points shy of eventual champion, Jack Brabham. A tragic testing accident at Goodwood in 1970 though sadly meant the Kiwi would not live to see the astounding success the company that still bears his name today would go on to achieve.

8. Piero Taruffi (Switzerland, 1952)

Grand Prix entries: 18

Wins: 1

Podiums: 5

Best F1 championship position: 3rd, 1952

All of which brings us to the very first non-F1 champion to win the season opener, and, intriguingly, the only gentleman on our list to claim his one and only official Formula 1 triumph in the process.

Fittingly, Italian-born Piero Taruffi both started and ended his 18-Grand Prix career at Monza, although, unfortunately for the tiffosi, neither ended in a finish. Taruffi proved considerably more adept at the 7km Circuit Bremgarten in Switzerland though: having taken his first podium at the Swiss Grand Prix in 1951, Taruffi would return a year later to collect his first win, albeit after long-time leader, and team leader, Giuseppe Farina, suffered mechanical woes at two-third distance. Further podium finishes followed at France and Great Britain, and the Italian ended the season a career-best 3rd in the standings.

Any chance of a higher ranking though were completely knackered by the record-breaking nine-race winning streak Alberto Ascari was about to embark upon en-route to the ’52 and ’53 Drivers’ championships. Not that Taruffi had too much to complain about. He’s still in the record books as the final winner of the original Mille Miglia, aboard a Ferrari 315 S, in 1957.

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