Top 5 Driver Debuts in Formula 1

One of the greatest indicators of a future star in the making in Formula 1 is to get off the ground running straight away.

In fact, there is no better way to make an impression than to score points on your debut in the illustrious racing series. A mere 67 drivers can lay claim to this achievement, but in this article we will take a look at 5 particularly awe-inspiring drives which took the driver near the upper reaches of the standings.

5. Johnny Herbert: 1989 Brazilian GP

Having suffered from a life-altering crash just six months before his premier class debut, it was actually a minor miracle that the young Johnny Herbert was on the grid at all.

With an excruciatingly painful lower leg and foot injury hampering his movement (it still does to this day), the Briton somehow managed to qualify his Benetton ahead of prolific teammate Alessandro Nannini and duly converted a 10th-place grid slot into 4th, just 10 seconds behind race winner Nigel Mansell.

Herbert deserves a spot on this list merely for his grit and determination to make it onto the F1 grid that year, 2 qualities which propelled him to 3 race wins later down the line.

4. Reine Wisell: 1970 US GP

Photo by David Phipps

Standing on the podium on your first race in F1 is a sure method to garnering the attention of the whole paddock. This is exactly what Swedish pilot Reine Wisell achieved, but unfortunately this was as good as it got for him.

Starting in 9th position, Wisell benefitted from retirements in front of him to secure a maiden podium first time out in Watkins Glen, crossing the line in 3rd.

This was even greater of an achievement than it may seem at first glance, as the event was a gruelling 108 laps around the unforgiving circuit. Furthermore, he was a mere 45 second shy of race winner, eventual multiple World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

Wisell was one of only three drivers to ever race in the only jet-powered F1 car.

3. Jacques Villeneuve: 1996 Australian GP

Having entered Formula 1 off of the back of an IndyCar title, many expected great things from the young Canadian, Jacques Villeneuve. And he certainly made a solid first impression on his debut at the opening round of the 1996 season.

It was the first time that Formula 1 had raced around Albert Park in Melbourne, and the late Gilles Villeneuve’s son made an immediate impact by placing his Williams on pole. Admittedly, the FW18 was a class above the rest of the field, but to beat teammate Damon Hill on pure pace at the first time of asking was nothing to scoff at.

And it looked like the Canadian was cruising to an unprecedented debut victory, but an oil leak in the latter stages of the race slowed him down and the race win was gifted to Hill instead.

Villeneuve would cruise to second in the championship in ’96, before finishing one place higher the following year to claim his one and only Drivers’ Title.

2. Lewis Hamilton: 2007 Australian GP

Much like with Jacques, Lewis Hamilton arrived at Albert Park with a heavy burden of expectation on his shoulders. The Briton was the first black (and so far, only) man to race in F1, and had been absolutely dominant in every racing series he had competed in before climbing up to the highest tier of open-wheel motorsport.

Moreover, Hamilton had a defending Champion in the shape of Fernando Alonso for company as teammate. But this only motivated the then 22-year old to show what he was truly capable of.

Lewis immediately went for a daring move around the outside of his teammate in the first corner of the opening lap. He briefly led his debut race, but bit the bullet for his second pitstop a little too early and ultimately finished in third, behind Alonso and race winner Kimi Raikkonen.

This was just a little taster of what was to come for Hamilton, as he went on to claim the Title the next season and cement his status as one of the greatest of all time with a further six World Championships as of 2022.

1. Giancarlo Baghetti: 1961 French GP

Now for the reason I decided to write this article in the first place. So far the only driver in F1’s 70+ year history to win on their very first race in the series (excluding Nino Farina, who won the first ever Formula 1 race, the 1950 British GP).

Ferrari were the dominant force in 1961, and had a host of 4 cars competing at Reims-Gueux for the French Grand Prix. The top 3 qualifying spots were taken by the Scuderia drivers of Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther respectively. However, the fourth Ferrari of Baghetti started the race down in 12th position, qualifying nearly six seconds off the pace.

Nevertheless, this did not faze the Italian driver as he charged his way through the field. With one lap to go, Baghetti was in second place behind the Porsche of Dan Gurney, and used the superior straight line speed of his Ferrari 156 to power his way past Gurney with just 100 yards left to the finish line. This would prove to be the closest finish in F1 for almost decade, before being surpassed in closeness during the 1969 Italian Grand Prix.

Giancarlo raced sporadically in F1 until 1967, and never won a race again, not even another podium. He passed away in 1995, but his legacy lives on in the record books (and in this article!).

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