Six of the Best: F1 Curtain Raisers

Most of the great narratives of Formula One history are written about conclusions, about last-gasp wins, victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat and battles going down to the wire. If endings create drama through how they close a story and consecrate its place in history, beginnings are naturally less definitive, offering more nuanced interpretations. 

Whilst some opening races set the tone for the year ahead, showcase a sterling debut or herald a competitive changing of the guard, others have provided red herring winners or seen wars of attrition in the face of temperamental new cars, over-zealous rookies or regulation-resetting rule changes. Whatever the outcome, the opening race of any Grand Prix season is defined by an indefatigable air of communal hope and expectation; the possibility that this could be the year. 

The magic of the opening race then lies not in resolutions but in potential, in the unknown of an entire field racing with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Although the old adage claims that 'the trouble with first impressions is you only get to make one', it fails to ring true when that first impression is of an indelible quality – and each of the six races below left a mark not only on their respective seasons, but the annals of F1 history.

1961 MONACO GRAND PRIX

For a race so firmly entrenched in heritage, it's oddly archaic to think of Monaco as having ever been at the start of anything – especially a Grand Prix season, given the Riviera's enduring penchant for springtime splendour. 

The calendar's former concentration as a summer jaunt around the grandee motorsport nations of Europe though meant starting the campaign in Monaco seemed positively natural for a time, and indeed the season's opening race was held around the streets of Monte Carlo five times between 1959 and 1966. 

Before Graham Hill came to embody the Mr. Monaco epitaph, it was another Brit, Stirling Moss, who reigned supreme in the principality. Having taken victory in the 1956 and 1960 Monaco Grands Prix, Moss would make it a hat-trick in stunning fashion to open the 1961 season in style.

Moss though had to defy the odds in an underpowered Lotus-Climax to hold off the three works Ferraris, driven by Richie Ginther, Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. Giving away over 30bhp to the Maranello's iconic 'Sharknose' 156s, Moss gave a dazzling display of control and guile, using his cornering speed, race-craft and skillful mastery of traffic to keep the chasing pack at bay.

In the early stages, the race had seen first Ginther and then Moss build comfortable cushions before being reeled in. Ginther and Hill took it in turns to try and hound the leading Lotus into a mistake, but Moss didn't put a wheel wrong, eventually leading Ginther home by a mere four seconds after nearly three hours of racing.

1966 MONACO GRAND PRIX

With their propensity to play out as an inevitable backdrop to sweeping regulation changes, brand new cars, new team and driver combinations and rookie debuts, opening races unsurprisingly have something of a reputation as wars of attrition. 

Across F1 history, the average finishing percentage at the season's opening round stands at 53.6%, compared to a 57.1% finishing rate across all Grands Prix. 38 of Formula One's 64 seasons have seen fewer finishes at the opening round than the year's average – including such demolition derbies as the 1984 Brazilian GP, the 1980 Argentine GP and the 1967 South African GP. 

No curtain raiser can boast as few finishers though as the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix - a race that set a record for attrition that still stands to this day. 

Opening the year in mid-May, the 1966 Monaco GP was the first race since the introduction of more powerful 3.0 litre engine capacity regulations. Few teams were prepared for the new rules though, so most started the season with 1965 engines or rapidly adapted and heavy sportscar-spec motors. 

The race was also the first to run with a 'classified finishers' rule – meaning that all entrants had to compete 90% of the race distance in order to be classified. Allied to these unique variables was the then traditional 100-lap race distance around Monaco's exacting streets and ever-present barriers - extending the race time to over two and a half hours. 

Little wonder that with so much upheaval, the race saw so few finishers. Despite starting from pole position, Jim Clark headed a luminary list of drivers who fell foul of mechanical gremlins, including John Surtees, Denny Hulme, Jack Brabham, and Jochen Rindt.

Unperturbed through all of this was BRM's Jackie Stewart, who took a second Grand Prix win by 40 seconds from Lorenzo Bandini. 'Mr. Monaco', Graham Hill, finished a lapped third after a spin, and was followed home by only one further runner, Bob Bundurant, who finished five laps down for his first and only career points. Guy Ligier and Jo Bonnier were still running as Stewart crossed the line, but, at more than 25 laps behind the Scot, ended the race with the ignoble distinction of being F1's first non-classified finishers. 

1982 SOUTH AFRICAN GRAND PRIX

Drama in Formula One has never been the sole preserve of the racetrack, but rarely have the sport's politics spilt over onto the circuit with such vitriolic frequency as throughout the 1982 season – a campaign which opened in contentiously theatrical fashion at South Africa's Kyalami circuit.

During Thursday practice, Niki Lauda, returning to the sport after a two-year absence, rallied the drivers into a strike over the new superlicense conditions proposed by the governing body, FISA. Although a truce allowed the drivers to race, the war between FISA and Bernie Ecclestone's FOCA team association would provide a messily disruptive backdrop to the campaign.

1982 also marked the dawn of the mainstream turbo age, with the turbo-powered cars of Renault, Brabham andFerrari enjoying a performance advantage over the rest of the normally aspirated pack. Trouble was, the engines were notoriously volatile, and were often as dramatically capricious as they were fast.

At Kyalami, though, turbo power prevailed as Alain Prost produced a stirring recovery drive after a puncture decimated his comfortable lead midway through the race. Starting fifth (the six turbo cars had qualified in the top six places), Prost enjoyed a lightning start, and would pass pole-sitting teammate Rene Arnoux for the lead on lap 14. 

A calamitous puncture on lap 41 looked to be the end of Prost's challenge, but in fact made his race. Dropping from first to eighth, Prost scythed back a whole lap deficit to Arnoux on fresh rubber, re-taking the lead on lap 68 of 77. The sister Renault ultimately fell away into the clutches of Carlos Reutemann's Williams with increasingly violent tyre vibrations. 

Set against the failure to finish of the Brabhams and Ferraris, Prost's tyre-changing win was the first of many 'tortoise and hare' narratives that would play out across the 1982 campaign - as self-preservation proved a viably effective strategy to outfox the fast and the furiously fallible. 

1990 UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

For every Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Kyalami or Jacarepaguá, spiritual homes of the opening race across its 13 destinations, there have been less auspicious curtain raising excursions to Bahrain, Bermgarten or, most inexplicably, Phoenix.

The last of F1's concrete jungle tour of uninspiring urban landscapes across America saw the circus set up camp in Phoenix for three seasons from 1989-91. Bizarrely, considering local ostrich races were rumoured to attract more fans than the Grand Prix, Phoenix was chosen to ring in the new season with a whimper in both 1990 and 1991.

However, despite the unpromising portents, the 1990 United States Grand Prix was an absolute classic, thanks to the career-making performance of a hard-charging French-Sicilian by the name of Jean Alesi. 

Alesi, marking his first full season with the under-funded and declining Tyrell team, qualified fourth during a wet qualifying session which saw Pierluigi Martini's Minardi and Andrea de Cesaris in the Dallara haul even more uncompetitive machinery into stunning grid positions of second and third respectively.

Whilst Martini and de Cesaris quickly fell away in the race however, Alesi scorched off the line into the lead, impetuously heading the hitherto dominant McLarens for almost half the race. Alesi finally surrendered after an enthralling dogfight with Ayrton Senna, although the Brazilian needed two passes to finally get the job done on lap 34 after Alesi made a cheekily bold re-pass on the championship favourite. 

The Tyrrell kept the McLaren honest to the flag, with Alesi trailing Senna home by 9 seconds for a sensational maiden podium. Alesi would repeat the trick at Monaco, the nimble Tyrrell again taking second behind Senna, and a star was born – although sadly Alesi's career would never scale the heights of the seemingly limitless potential on display that day in Phoenix.

1993 SOUTH AFRICAN GRAND PRIX

Of the 64 curtain raisers in Formula One history, 31, or 48.4%, have been won by the driver who would go on to win the world championship. More often than not, title-winning campaigns haven't been built on victorious foundations. 

In modern times though, the trend has shifted, with 17 of the 24 opening races since 1990 (70.8%) being won by that year's drivers' champion. Ever-improving reliability and entrenched hegemonies of dominance have helped to reduce the possibility of red herring results and unexpected fast starts. 

From 1990 to 1996, seven consecutive seasons saw the future champion lay down a marker at the opening race, as McLaren, Williams and Benetton took it in turns to blast out of the blocks.

One such campaign was 1993, which opened with an oft-overlooked classic in the form of Alain Prost's debut win for Williams at the final race from South Africa's Kyalami circuit.

Prost's return from his 1992 sabbatical saw hostilities with Ayrton Senna resumed, but the season would also see Michael Schumacher coming of age as a top class Grand Prix driver – and never was their cross-generational rivalry better demonstrated than at Kyalami.

Senna's McLaren and Schumacher's Benetton got the jump on Prost at the start, triggering a classic three-way tussle for the lead. Prost edged past Schumacher on lap 13 and the trio thrillingly circulated nose-to-tail for 10 further laps as Prost twitched around in Senna's slipstream - with the gap between the top three never more than 1s. 

Prost's Williams FW15C was ultimately too strong, allowing him to pass and pull away to an easy victory, although a late race thunderstorm added further drama, with only 5 cars still circulating by race's end.

Prost and Williams would go on to dominate the Frenchman's swansong campaign, but no victory that year was harder fought than the first – and none laced with as poignant or as fierce a battle. 

2003 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX 

Considering his enduring statistical stranglehold over Formula One, it's unsurprising that Michael Schumacher is the driver with the joint most opening race wins. His six curtain-raising victories, a record shared with Alain Prost, also tended to coincide as a pointer for the season ahead. Every time Schumacher won the first round, he would go on to land the title. 

The one exception to this rule was 2003, where, opening up the campaign that would see the sixth of his seven coronations, Schumacher was ousted from the top step of the season's opening podium by David Coulthard, who took his 13th and final Formula One victory at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit.

A scrambled grid and a wet start led to a wild race, punctuated by huge crashes for Rubens Barrichello and Ralph Firman, two safety cars and wheel-to-wheel dicing between the McLaren of Kimi Räikkönen and Schumacher's Ferrari. 

Following a dominant opening stint, Schumacher's race was compromised by poor tyre strategy and some uncharacteristically fudged Ferrari pit work. An extra pit stop to remove loose bodywork further hampered the German's efforts to keep pace with the McLarens of Coulthard and Räikkönen and the flying Williams of Juan-Pablo Montoya, with Schumacher eventually trailing home in fourth place.

Coulthard had himself started down in 11th, but staged a storming charge through the field, recovering from dead last at one stage to edge into second place behind Montoya through the safety car periods. When the Colombian carelessly spun under no pressure eight laps from home, Coulthard nipped through to take his second win Down Under, sharing the podium with teammate Räikkönen and a distraught Montoya.

It was the first time Schumacher had finished off the podium in 20 races and the first Grand Prix without a Ferraripodium in over three years. The first classic race of what would be an enthrallingly open season was just the tonic F1 needed; a note of new year optimism to alleviate the oppressive cycle of relentless Schumacher supremacy. What price on 2014 opening with a similarly stimulating reversion of entrenched Teutonic dominance…?