Heading up the new young charges are Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen who, incredibly, will both make their debuts with front-running teams: Kovalainen with reigning champions Renualt, Hamilton with the team widely tipped to take the title this year: McLaren.
This duo has a realistic, once-in-a-generation chance to match a unique record: winning a Grand Prix at the first attempt.
Only two drivers have done it before – Giancarlo Baghetti and Giuseppe Farina. Farina had the fortune of winning the first ever world championship Grand Prix – so whoever won it would have been winning their first Grand Prix.
But Baghetti’s story is a highly curious one – having won his debut world championship Grand Prix he never won again, and only entered another 20 Grands Prix.
Four Ferraris were entered into the 1961 French Grand Prix at Reims on July 2nd. There were three for the works team and a fourth under the name “Federazinoe Italian Scuderia Automobilsche” (FISA). The works drivers were Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther; in the fourth car was a quiet, 26-year-old Milanese racer called Giancarlo Baghetti.
Non-championship Grands Prix were still a big part of Formula One racing in the sixties, and Baghetti had already raced in two and won them both, one at Syracuse in April and another in Naples the following month.
During practice the opposition could do nothing to contain the ‘Sharknose’ Ferrari 156s. The cars had already won two of the first three rounds of the season, failing only to win at Monaco because of the genius of Stirling Moss; they nonetheless placed 2-3-4 behind Moss’s Lotus.
Ferrari had stolen a march on its rivals by preparing a competitive new car for the drastically changed regulations of 1961, imposing a cut in engine size to 1.5 litres, while the British teams had wasted their energies trying to force the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI, forerunner to the FIA) not to implement the new rules.
As ever, the political aspect of Formula One was at least as important as the sporting.
Reims was a power circuit, roughly triangular in shape, and in the traditional searing heat that accompanied the race the Ferraris annexed the three-car front row: Hill, von Trips and Ginther. In close attendance was Moss, fourth, who had cunningly run in von Trips’ slipstream in qualifying to improve his car’s straight-line speed. Baghetti was 12th.
On race day it was hot enough to melt the tar on the track – and it was exactly that which eliminated two of the leaders. Hill pirouetted to a standstill at the last corner, Virage du Thillois, on lap 20, and Moss could do nothing to avoid hitting him. Both recovered, but were out of contention.
The heat took its toll on the machinery too. Von Trips retired on lap 18 with engine failure, and Ginther’s oil pressure fell six laps later, putting him out. Now the four most likely winners of the race had all been eliminated.
Baghetti was battling Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier’s Porsches – and this three-way slipstreaming tussle became the focus of the crowd’s attention as they were now leading the race.
The three ran as one, swapping positions over the last 12 laps until, with three to go, Bonnier’s engine failed. Gurney came out of the final corner in the lead but Baghetti swept out from behind and lead across the line by 0.1s.
Difficult though it is to comprehend today, Gurney could have defended his position from Baghetti – ‘blocking’ it was called then – but elected not to because it simply wasn’t the done thing at the time. Kovalainen and Hamilton will certainly not expect such leniency from Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen.
The next round was the British Grand Prix at Aintree and it brought Baghetti back down to earth with a bump. He qualified 19th (alongside the four-wheel-drive Ferguson in its sole Grand Prix appearance) and crashed out on lap 27 while being lapped by von Trips. He was lying tenth at the time.
Remarkably for this driver that had won his first three Grands Prix, he would only compete in a total of 21 championship races, adding just a fourth and a fifth in a sporadic career that spanned six years.
Motor Sport’s Denis Jenkinson described Baghetti as, “probably a [Achille] Varzi who has yet to acquire the latter’s grimness of purpose.” Baghetti’s subsequent career never produce the results to suggest he was more than a mere journeyman, which was totally at odds with the record he holds.
Although Jacques Villeneuve came close in 1996, no-one has since replicated Baghetti’s feat. If either Hamilton or Kovalainen are to, they may require the kind of fortune that Baghetti had in seeing an unusually large number of the front-runners eliminated.
But it can happen, and does – indeed it did most spectacularly at the venue for the first race of the year, Melbourne, five years ago. To a betting man, it’s got to be worth a punt…