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Opinion
Formula 1 Australian GP

Autosport writers' favourite Australian Grands Prix

It may not have hosted the season-opener since 2019, but the Australian Grand Prix remains one of the most anticipated races on the Formula 1 calendar. Autosport's writing team pick out their favourites from the past 36 world championship editions.

Keke Rosberg, McLaren MP4/2 TAG Porsche leads Ayrton Senna, Lotus Renault

The Australian Grand Prix has a long tradition that pre-dates its arrival on the Formula 1 schedule as a fully-fledged world championship round in 1985. Indeed, Lewis Hamilton's two wins in 2008 and 2015 mean he's still one behind Roberto Moreno's treble at Calder Park between 1981 and 1984!

From the streets of Adelaide to its current destination of Albert Park in Melbourne, F1's home in Australia since 1996, the Australian Grand Prix has produced thrilling championship deciders and unpredictable season-openers, as well as memorable incidents such as the 2002 pile-up that contributed to Mark Webber's point-scoring debut with Minardi.

From the controversial clash between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill that gave the German his first world title in 1994, on a day that Nigel Mansell scored his final F1 victory, to Brawn GP's unforgettable maiden win in 2009 and a surprise triumph for Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus in 2013, there were no shortage of classic moments for our panel of experts to pick out.

Ahead of this weekend's 2023 edition, we selected our favourite Australian Grands Prix.

1986 – The greatest title decider? Kevin Turner

"And colossally, that's Mansell!" Murray Walker's words on commentary as Mansell's title hopes were extinguished are perhaps among his most memorable

Photo by: Sutton Images

Nigel Mansell fans could rightly point out that the Briton could or should have been world champion in 1986, but Alain Prost’s campaign in his outgunned McLaren-TAG has to be considered one of the great F1 performances. And a remarkable day in Adelaide, still sadly missed from the F1 schedule, meant the crown went the Frenchman’s way.

Mansell required third to secure the championship whatever his Williams-Honda team-mate Nelson Piquet and Prost did. Mansell took pole but fell to fourth on a cautious opening lap before taking the third he needed from Ayrton Senna’s Lotus on lap four of 82. Prost made his way by and then Piquet spun, leaving the McLarens of Keke Rosberg and Prost 1-2 and Mansell in third.

The first crucial moment came when Prost was forced in for a tyre change due to a puncture on a day when going through non-stop seemed possible. While Prost began a charge from fourth, Piquet made his way back into second and Mansell settled once more into third.

With 20 laps to go, leader Rosberg rang the first alarm bell that the Goodyear rubber might not be able to last the race when he suffered a blowout and retired. Prost overtook ‘Red 5’ for second but still Mansell looked good. That was until his infamous tyre failure on the back straight on lap 64, Mansell dramatically fighting the FW11 to avoid an enormous crash before realising his race was done.

PLUS: How the 1986 Australian GP played out in the pitlane

Leader Piquet came in for tyres to avoid a similar fate, handing Prost the lead. The Brazilian charged and set the fastest lap on the final tour but fell 4.2 seconds short of catching the short-of-fuel McLaren. Prost thus became a jubilant double world champion, two points ahead of Mansell and three ahead of Piquet.

1990 - Piquet's penultimate win, Charles Bradley

Piquet took advantage of chaos to win in Adelaide for Benetton

Piquet took advantage of chaos to win in Adelaide for Benetton

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Australia 1990 was surely one of the most overshadowed grands prix in Formula 1 history – at least when someone hadn’t died in the previous race.

It came hot on the heels of the hugely controversial Alain Prost/Ayrton Senna collision that had decided the world championship’s outcome in Senna’s favour at Suzuka. Amid the recriminations that ensued, the build-up in Adelaide featured the extraordinary TV interview where Senna butted heads with Jackie Stewart, speaking his famous line “if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver” and stating he was “designed to win races”.

Senna led from pole, ahead of McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger and the Ferraris of Nigel Mansell and Prost. Making a stellar start from seventh was Benetton’s Nelson Piquet, who quickly outbraked Jean Alesi’s Tyrrell at Turn 4 to grab fifth: “Good news to see Nelson looking like he really means business,” noted James Hunt in commentary.

Clearly rejuvenated by his victory in Japan, Piquet picked off Prost by lap three and lunged past Berger for third at the hairpin on lap nine, while leader Senna pulled away from Mansell in traffic. Mansell fell back into Piquet’s clutches after overshooting a corner, and the treble champion carved past his old rival at Turn 1 before Mansell pitted for fresh rubber.

The race turned when dominator Senna plunged off the track and into the tyrewall, as his gearbox refused to engage second gear.

Mansell was on a tear in the closing stages, surging past Berger and Prost with lap-record pace, and caught Piquet, who had run wide at the Turn 10 kink with a couple of laps remaining.

Mansell made a huge lunge at the hairpin on the last lap, which almost took them both out, but Piquet held on to score his penultimate F1 victory, the 22nd of his career, and his first back-to-back wins since his final championship year in 1987.

It also meant he beat Berger to third in the championship, tying on points but with two wins to the Austrian’s none.

1996 - Villeneuve's debut stunner, Richard Asher

Villeneuve looked set for a shock debut win until an oil leak forced him to slow and allow Hill through

Villeneuve looked set for a shock debut win until an oil leak forced him to slow and allow Hill through

Photo by: Motorsport Images

To really understand the hype around Jacques Villeneuve's arrival in Formula 1 at the opening race of 1996, you have to go back a couple of seasons to 1993, when Nigel Mansell had switched to (CART) IndyCar racing.

Along with Michael Andretti’s move in the other direction, this had kicked off an intriguing era in which the categories enjoyed something of a symbiosis. IndyCars were suddenly on the radar in a way that Formula 3000 never had been, and briefly became a legitimate source of top-line F1 drivers. Many of the spectators in Melbourne would have followed Villeneuve winning the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar title in 1995.

Apart from the excitement of seeing how North America's best would fare as he jumped straight into the best car – Williams’ FW18 – for his F1 debut, the mystical Villeneuve name was also at work. Gilles’s tragic story automatically made his son box office.

Friday favourite: The Williams that put Hill in an exclusive F1 club

But there was another huge switch to savour: Michael Schumacher would now be clad in red, having moved to Ferrari after two world titles with Benetton. The Scuderia was still struggling after some tough years, but its fans were hoping the German genius now armed with V10 power would turn things around.

The Australian Grand Prix was also the second in succession, as it switched from finale to season-opener. But it had a new stage, with Melbourne replacing Adelaide. That race was also the birth of the now familiar start procedure: five red lights, then out.

Villeneuve had read the script: by pipping Damon Hill to pole, he thrilled neutrals around the world. Only Carlos Reutemann and Mario Andretti had also qualified first on debut – could Villeneuve become the only man besides Giancarlo Baghetti to win first time out?

His chances looked particularly good when he headed the pack into the first corner. Twice, in fact, because this was the race in which Martin Brundle’s Jordan had that scary flirtation with the fencing on lap one, necessitating a restart.

Fate, though, had other ideas. Villeneuve led his team-mate most of the way, coming out on top of an aggressive scrap around the pitstops, but the rookie’s car had begun leaking oil. With a few laps to go, Williams had to tell the Canadian to back off in order to make the finish. He trailed home 38 seconds behind Hill.

Schumacher would likely have completed the podium, but retired around half-distance with brake issues. His team-mate Eddie Irvine thus took third on his Ferrari debut, the Ulsterman having survived a ham-fisted overtaking attempt by new Benetton (and ex-Ferrari) man Jean Alesi.

1999 - The mad hatter's tea party, Jake Boxall-Legge

Irvine scored his first win for Ferrari on a day that both McLarens broke down

Irvine scored his first win for Ferrari on a day that both McLarens broke down

Photo by: Sutton Images

Two fires, two stalling champions, and an Eddie Irvine victory. Those disparate events could usually fill the drama quota for a Formula 1 race altogether but, in the case of 1999's Australian Grand Prix, these occurred before the race had even properly started. It rather set the tone for the rest of the race.

Retrospective: The day Irvine showed he was more than Schumacher's subordinate

To outdo the creation of the universe, the 1999 event at Albert Park began with two big bangs, as the Ford engines in the back of the Stewarts spontaneously combusted ahead of the first formation lap. Rubens Barrichello managed to get into the race after legging it to the spare car, which thankfully did not pop like its brothers. A second formation lap was hence required as the tartan-tinged Stewarts were pushed away from the grid.

McLaren had dominated qualifying, but polesitter Mika Hakkinen was a hair's breadth from stalling at the second parade lap and managed to get the car going to preserve his place at the front of the pack. Michael Schumacher, starting third, had no such luck and was resigned to a back of the grid start, which freed up a space for Irvine to jump Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the belated start of the race.

The rest of the field indulged in their own March madness; incidents seemed to happen every single lap, and McLaren did its level best to throw away a procedural victory through unreliability. It set up an Irvine-versus-Frentzen battle, a duopoly that seemed unlikely in the context of the previous two years, but nonetheless added a sprinkle of intrigue as Hakkinen made heavy weather of a second F1 title.

If you've got an F1 TV subscription, this race is an absolute must-watch. It's one of those grands prix where, just as it looks like the drama has dried up, something else inexplicably happens as the racing gods were in the most impish of moods.

2003 - Coulthard profits amid chaos, James Newbold

Coulthard took his final F1 win in 2003 at the scene of his first for McLaren in 1997

Coulthard took his final F1 win in 2003 at the scene of his first for McLaren in 1997

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Everywhere you looked, the 2003 Australian Grand Prix was action-packed. A race that started in wet conditions could have been won by Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen or Juan Pablo Montoya, but instead it was David Coulthard who collected his 13th and final F1 win.

The new one-shot qualifying format, which required teams to set their times using the fuel they would carry for the start, contributed to several drivers starting out of position. An overly conservative Coulthard, unhappy with his McLaren's twitchy handling, was a lowly 11th while team-mate Raikkonen elected to take a pitlane start instead of the 15th position he'd been landed in after a scruffy lap - but crucially with dry tyres and a heavy fuel load for a one-stopper.

Schumacher led Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello in the early laps, the 2002 Ferrari having shown no sign of its age in qualifying, but they stayed out far too long on the wets as the advantage started to shift towards those - including Montoya's Williams - who had started on dries. "It was as if Ross Brawn was on holiday," noted Autosport.

Ferrari's day got worse when Barrichello, due a drivethrough penalty after he'd been a little too eager away from the lights, crashed at Turn 5 and then Schumacher had a tardy change to dries that dropped him back to seventh as Montoya assumed the lead. Coulthard had also started on wets and had been last after changing to dries at the end of lap two.

But two safety-car periods in quick succession, to clear the crashed Jordan of Ralph Firman and Mark Webber's stranded Jaguar after its rear suspension failed, dashed Montoya's lead while also moving Raikkonen, Schumacher and Coulthard back into contention.

When Montoya pitted for the first of two stops, Raikkonen moved into the lead from Schumacher - although the Finn's hopes would soon be dashed by a pitlane speeding penalty. This didn't deter him from defending hard against Schumacher though. The Ferrari had short-filled at his second stop in a fruitless attempt to get ahead and needed to build a gap to Montoya ahead of a late splash-and-dash.

Once Raikkonen was out of his way, Schumacher pushed on but rode the Turn 5 kerb too hard and dislodged a bargeboard, which prompted a black-and-orange mechanical flag. After making his stop, the Ferrari rejoined behind Raikkonen once more, in fourth, with Montoya now back in the lead from Coulthard. Yet there was to be one final twist in the tail. Montoya spun exiting Turn 1 and Coulthard accepted the gift.

Archive: How Williams's last F1 title challenge unravelled

The Scot admitted "it wasn't one of my finer wins", and had to ride his luck, but Autosport noted he had done so "with the circumspection and judgement of an old pro". On a day of drama, Ferrari was absent from the podium for the first time since 1999. And so a season that would go down as a modern classic had begun.

Raikkonen refused to yield in battle with Schumacher, but both lost out in the final reckoning to trouble-free Coulthard

Raikkonen refused to yield in battle with Schumacher, but both lost out in the final reckoning to trouble-free Coulthard

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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