When they were young

Four rookie drivers made their debut in last month’s Australian Grand Prix, and acquitted themselves with varying degrees of success. But how well did the rest of the grid fare on their debut races – did they show glimpses of greatness or opening night nerves?

1991 Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps
Michael Schumacher, Jordan Ford – Q 7 R Retired, clutch (0 laps)

Schumacher famously got his F1 break after regular Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot was arrested for spraying mace on a British taxi driver. Eddie Jordan has recently confessed that Schumacher only got the shot at the drive (instead of F1 veteran Stefan Johansson) because of his financial backing. Rapidly aquainting himself with a circuit he has always loved, Schumacher qualified an exceptional 7th, four places ahead of the poorly-rated but highly-experienced Andrea de Cesaris.

When his clutch let go on the first lap we were robbed of what might have been a great drive, even a debut win, as de Cesaris later ran second. Immediately afterwards Schumacher was whisked off to Benetton by Flavio Briatore, and we all know what happened next…

1993 South African Grand Prix, Kyalami
Rubens Barrichello, Jordan Hart – Q 14 R Retired, gearbox (31 laps)

Barrichello made his debut appearance at the first race of 1993, and is the only current driver to have made his debut apperance on a circuit no longer in use. He outqualified his highly-rated team mate Ivan Capelli by four places, but the Italian, disillusioned with Formula One after an appalling year at Ferrari, left after the following race. Though Barrichello retired first time out he impressed in only his third race with a charge through the rain in the European Grand Prix until, once again, his Jordan let him down.

1994 Spanish Grand Prix, Catalunya
David Coulthard, Williams Renault – Q 9 R Retired, electrics (32 laps)

Coulthard had the unenviable task of driving the Williams left vacant by the death of Ayrton Senna. He also had to do so amid the tension of the Williams team coming to terms with the loss of their star driver, the sport under massive media criticism and the regulations in a massive state of flux as endless changes were made in the pursuit of safer cars. On the weekend of the Spanish Grand Prix, Williams and several other teams briefly refused to run because they felt the latest dowforce-reducing changes had not been tested adequately. Through it all Coulthard kept calm, qualified well, and put in a strong race performance until his eletrics failed. But a string of impressive drives from then on secured him a Williams seat for 1995.

1996 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
Jacques Villeneuve, Williams Renault – Q 1 R 2
Giancarlo Fisichella, Minardi Ford – Q16 R Retired, clutch (32 laps)

Ironically the current driver who had the strongest debut of all is also the one who is struggling the most at the moment. Villeneuve, fresh from winning the IndyCar title and Indy 500, defected to Formula One in place of Coulthard for 1996. He responded to media speculation that he would be ‘another Michael Andretti (who struggled on his sojourn from IndyCars to F1 in 1993) by qualifying on pole on the then brand-new Melbourne circuit, and kept the lead ahead of Hill with a series of audicious defensive moves until finally succumbing to fading oil pressure, and having to let the Englishman by.

At the opposite end of the grid, Giancarlo Fisichella made a solid first outing for Minardi, outqualifying team mate Pedro Lamy, and running consistently until retiring. He is one of many drivers who started his career with Minardi before going on to bigger things.

1997 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
Jarno Trulli, Minardi Hart – Q 17 R 12
Ralf Schumacher, Jordan Peugeot – Q 12 R Retired, gearbox (1 lap)

Jarno Trulli was another Minardi man – attracting comparatively little media attention but driving a mature race. It would be the only time all season that he was outqualified by team mate Katayama, and by France he was promoted to Prost in place of the injured Olivier Panis.

Much more attention was on ‘baby Schumacher’, but his failure to live up to it was not really his fault. Though he outqualified team mate Fisichella, his race only lasted one lap before Jordan unreliability reared its head. The two Jordan drivers would soon fall out over an incident in Argentina, but Schumacher lost out to Fisichella over the balance of the season.

2000 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
Nick Heidfeld, Prost Peugeot – Q 15 R 9
Jenson Button, Williams BMW – Q 21 R Retired, engine (46 laps)

Nick Heidfeld’s debut was a microcosm of his career to date – unspectacular, workmanlike, solid. He recovered from a dismal two practice sessions, where he was last in both, to qualify 15th ahead of veteran team mate Jean Aesi and run to a strong ninth at the flag in the poor Prost chassis.

Meanwhile Button had scored a Williams drive in a tense off-season shoot-out with Bruno Junqueira, in a similar manner to the manner in whichHeidfeld would later take the Williams seat intended for Button from Antonio Pizzonia. He struggled in qualifying but showed the promise of the BMW engine, also making its debut, before retiring.

2001 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
Kimi Raikkonen, Sauber Petronas – Q 13 R 6
Fernando Alonso, Minardi Ford – Q 19 R 12
Juan Pablo Montoya, Williams BMW – Q 11 R Retired, engine (40 laps)

Much attention was paid to the 2001 rookie line-up: Montoya, another CART refugee; Raikkonen, a prodigal talent who was racing under a provisional superlicence; and Alonso, who had greatly impressed in Formula 3000.

They had mixed races. Alonso, limited by the Minardi chassis, kept out of trouble and brought the car home. Raikkonen ran strongly and finished seventh on the track, but inherited a debut point when Olivier Panis was given a 25s penalty for overtaking Heidfeld under yellow flags. Montoya made up places in the early laps but was thwarted by engine failure.

2002 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
Mark Webber, Minardi Ford – Q 18 R 5
Takuma Sato, Jordan Honda – Q 22 R Retired, electrics (12 laps)
Felipe Massa, Sauber Petronas – Q 9 R Retired, collision (0 laps)

The fortunes of the 2002 rookies were shaped by the collosal opening lap accident that decimated the field. Massa, replacing Raikkonen, qualified ninth ahead of team mate Heidfeld but was a victim of the first corner pile-up.

Takuma Sato qualified last, having been unable to get any running in the brief dry period of qualifying and crashing heavily in practice. He escaped the first lap collision and was running sixth when – you guessed it – his Jordan failed him…

Mark Webber, another Minardi debutant, qualified low but steered clear of the carnage and rose through field as others dropped out. Running fifth, he kept a calm head during a problematic pit stop and resisted the advances of Mika Salo’s Toyota to claim an incredible and emotional two points for Minardi at his debut, and home, race.

2004 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
Christian Klien, Jaguar Cosworth- Q 19 R 11

The paddock may have been cynical about Christian Klien’s arrival at Jaguar in 2004 in exchange for a hefty wad of Red Bull cash – but he is the only one of 2004’s rookies still in the top flight of the sport. That said, his first outing was not a staggering performance, qualifying and racing low, but at least staying out of trouble.

The supersubs – Davidson and de la Rosa

Anthony Davidson and Pedro de la Rosa have also driven in 2005, substituting for Sato and Montoya in Malaysia and Bahrain respectively.

Davidson’s first race also came as a substitute, in this casefor the hopeless Alex Yoong who had three times failed to qualify his Minardi Ford. At his debut appearance in the 2004 Hungarian Grand Prix, Davidson qualified 20th before spinning off the Hungaroring circuit on lap 59. He did one more race before having to hand back to Yoong.

Pedro de la Rosa is among the rare group of drivers who scored on their debut race, bringing his Arrows home an excellent 6th from 18th in the 1999 Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne. But he never added enough impressive finishes to his debut performance and was out of a race seat after 2002, becoming a McLaren test driver.

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