Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Best of - The Australian Grand Prix

For the 17th time in the Formula One World Championship, Australia will host the opening round of the season. The 2014 season is the most hotly anticipated championship for Formula One in its history, and the first race this weekend should be an instant classic. Australia certainly is the best place to get off to a flyer...

Ralf Schumacher's 2002 season starts in spectacular, though short lived, fashion.

As the first round of the championship, Australia has been host to many drivers debuts within F1. Kevin Magnussen will hope he can emulate or even improve on Lewis Hamilton's debut with McLaren in 2007. In his first ever Grand Prix, he was up against one of the drivers he replaced at McLaren, now debuting for Ferrari. He was also paired up against the 2 time champion, Fernando Alonso, in the same machinery for his only year at McLaren. Despite the hype surrounding the British rookie, everyone was surprised when he drove clean around Alonso at turn 1 following a great start, and set about passing the cars between himself and leader Kimi Raikkonen. Once into second though, he could do nothing about Raikkonen's lead, and he also lost out to teammate Alonso in the second round of pit stops. Third place in his debut race though laid a benchmark for what would become a mighty first season within F1, losing the championship by just 1 point.

Lewis Hamilton's third place, just behind double world champion Fernando Alonso, announced the arrival of a new talented contender.

Another debut at Albert Park came even closer to taking the win in 1996, Jacques Villeneuve starting his career at the competitive Williams team shot into an early lead before Martin Brundle got squeezed out into turn 3 by David Coulthard in the McLaren and had a huge airborne accident which broke the chassis of his Jordan in two.

Enough force to crack the chassis of the Jordan in two, yet Brundle walked away from this crash and even managed to make the restart of the race in the spare car.

At the restart, Villeneuve continued to lead from teammate Damon Hill and controlled the pace. At the pit stops, both Williams drivers had slow stops, and it was Damon Hill who emerged in front. Villeneuve was not beaten though, and spectacularly moved back into the lead in a gutsy move around the outside of turn 4. Unfortunately it was not to be though, as the Renault engine in his Williams began to smoke and spray oil over the chasing Hill's car. He finally relinquished the lead on lap 54, and managed to nurse the car home for a mighty second place finish.

Villeneuve was mightily unfortunate not to win on his debut. The oil can be seen all over Hill's Williams, and affected his view ahead as well.

1996 was to be Damon Hill's championship winning season, but it was again in Australia where he came so close to winning the 1994 championship. The Australian Grand Prix was held on the Adelaide street circuit and capped the season rather than kicked it off. Schumacher lead the championship by a single point having dominated the season but lost 36 points due to exclusions. He would start second, ahead of rival Hill but behind his teammate Nigel Mansell. The stage was set for a thrilling finale.

Nigel Mansell's slow start puts the two championship contenders at the head of the field.

Mansell got away slowly, allowing the title contenders to lead the field. Hill applied the pressure, knowing he needed to beat Schumacher to take the championship. Applying the pressure paid off on lap 36 when Schumacher ran wide and tagged the right rear of his car against the wall. The suspension clearly damaged, Hill closed in and made for the inside at the next corner. Schumacher turned in on him though and collided with the front left wheel of the Williams, launching his Benetton into the wall and into retirement. With Schumacher out, Hill only needed 2 points to take the championship, but the damage caused by the collision was terminal. The crash had snapped a suspension wishbone, something the team were unable to repair making Schumacher the world champion. Mansell went on to win from Gerhard Berger and Martin Brundle, but the incident was the main talking point for weeks to come. Despite general consensus being that Schumacher had been to blame for the crash and the title should be given to Hill, it was deemed by the stewards to have been a racing incident. Patrick Head said that despite the Williams team being certain they could successfully protest against the outcome, they didn't because they were still dealing with the aftermath of Ayrton Senna's death earlier in the season.

Deemed a racing incident, the retirement of both drivers handed Michael Schumacher his first (contentious) world championship.

The greatest Australian Grand Prix was another title decider at Adelaide involving the Williams team, taking place 8 years earlier. Nigel Mansell lead the championship by 6 points and was the clear favourite heading into the weekend. Alain Prost Sat second in the championship hunt, driving for McLaren and 1 point ahead of Mansell's Williams  teammate, Nelson Piquet. Qualifying strengthened Mansell's chances as he took pole position with Piquet second. On the second row, Senna in his Lotus added a further barrier back to Prost. Senna however did not read the Williams script, and at the start of the race he skipped into the lead as Mansell fell to 4th. Piquet took the lead from Senna within the first lap of the race, but soon found himself under pressure from fast starting Keke Rosberg, having lined up in 7th on the grid. Piquet needed to win to take the title, and the pressure built after losing the lead to Rosberg and with Prost pushing him for second. The pressure showed and Piquet spun, dropping to 4th behind Mansell. Rosberg leading meant Mansell was still safe, a fact that may have been a factor in his mind when Piquet eased back past to 3rd position. Most of the field had stopped for fresh tyres, but the Williams drivers carried on on the tyres they'd started the race on. It should have served a warning to them when Rosberg suffered a puncture and subsequently retired. Instead they carried on, and just 1 lap later Mansell spectacularly slithered out of the race with a puncture of his own.

With such a points advantage over his rivals, Williams decision not to pit for fresh tyres seems a strange one.

The championship was still far from over with the points lead Mansell had coming to Australia, but his rivals were now in the prize seats with Piquet leading from Prost. 1 point separated them, so it was now the winner of these 2 that would take the title. Williams were not going to take the risk with Piquet that had costed Mansell, so they pitted him for fresh tyres. Prost had a 21 second lead following this stop, and was now able to cruise to a comfortable win and the 1986 Formula 1 world championship, the second championship that he would win from four.

Alain Prost celebrates winning both the Australian Grand Prix and the 1986 Formula One World Championship.