Mercedes took a big step forward last weekend with their first victory in the modern era. For some teams, that difficult first win is a stepping stone to bigger and better things, for others it’s a fond memory of the time they stood on the brink of greatness before tripping over their shoelaces and falling flat on their faces. So into which category do Mercedes fall? Well, for now, nobody knows for sure.
Red Bull Racing
Like Mercedes, Red Bull Racing took their first victory in China. Despite the Brawns having rampaged around Australia and Malaysia, Vettel grabbed pole at the third race of the year and never looked back. The race was wet – so often the catalyst for an unexpected result – and started behind the safety car. The heavier Brawns weren’t able to extract any advantage from their extra fuel and Red Bull took their first win. Vettel had an untroubled run to victory but Webber had his hands full fighting Australia and Malaysia winner Jenson Button, which, in atrocious conditions, was superb to watch.
It proved a good platform for Red Bull and the RB5 went on to take four more pole positions and five more victories. The team and Vettel both finished second in their respective championships and, having learned how to win, went on to dominate by winning everything in 2010 and 2011.
Here’s Seb winning – it only seems like yesterday:
Brawn GP / Honda
Mercedes GP, of course, was Brawn GP in 2009 and BAR Honda before that – in fact the team based in Brackley has made sign writers and stationery printers very happy changing its name seven times in the last dozen years, but somehow they all feel like separate entities – and therefore every winning car feels like something new.
In 1999 BAR came into F1 full of extravagant boasts, so no one outside the team was particularly sad to see them flounder in that first year and failed to score a single point. But in the end, the operation, which eventually became a Honda works team, got its act together. Jenson Button took their first pole in 2004 and the team finished second in the championship behind a dominant Ferrari – but wins were frustratingly absent. Honda and Button’s first victory came in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Having started 14th at a wet Budapest, Button carved through the field and benefitted from people going out in front of him, including Kimi Räikkönen hitting a backmarker and Fernando Alonso leaving the pits with only three wheels attached to his wagon. Button eventually won by half a minute. Honda had a couple of victories in the 1960s and their engines ruled the world with Lotus, Williams and McLaren in the late 1980s, but this was the first flicker of a new dawn. Sadly the momentum didn’t carry forward into the next season, though, and Honda had to endure two more poor years before selling up…
Out of those ashes, Brawn came out of the traps to win their first race. Button’s victory at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix seemed impossibly unlikely. A few months earlier, the team looked like going out of business with Jenson facing unemployment. When the car got on the test track, however, it was incredibly fast, as the dust cloud left by mechanics heading to the bookmakers would attest. To this day there’s plenty of engineers grumbling that the double-diffuser it employed couldn’t possibly be legal but the FIA disagreed and the BGP001 went on to take five pole positions, eight wins and both championships in 2009. The team was then sold to Mercedes, which is where we came in.
But here’s Jenson winning in Melbourne:
Robert Kubica’s win on the circuit Gilles Villeneuve was as fitting as it was popular. Big Robert drove relentless, brilliant qualifying pace lap after lap to record his and BMW-Sauber’s first victory. He had a little bit of help along the way though. Everyone streamed in for a pitstop behind the safety car. Kubica and Kimi Räikkönen stopped for a red light at the end of the pitlane. Hamilton, in a manner alarmingly reminiscent of an entirely ordinary RTA didn’t see the red light and arrived at speed, faced with a choice of rear-ending Räikkönen or Kubica he ran into Räikkönen – who entirely coincidentally had been Hamilton’s nearest championship rival at the start of the race. "I have to thank him for choosing Kimi rather than me,” deadpanned Robert afterwards. The win put Kubica top of the Drivers’ Championship and BMW-Sauber just three points behind Ferrari in the Constructors’ – but the team didn’t have faith in their ability to win either title (much to Robert’s stated annoyance) and instead of pushing forward with development, opted to concentrate on designing a winning car for 2009 instead. Unfortunately the KERS-equipped 2009 BMW-Sauber stunk like week-old fish and BMW pulled out at the end of the year.
Hopefully Robert will win a few more, but for the moment here’s another look at Lewis trollying Kimi:
For anyone who’s been following F1 in the 21st Century, seeing a German winning at Monza in an Italian car doesn’t particularly raise the eyebrow – but it did on September 14, 2008, when the German in question was Sebastian Vettel and the car was a Toro Rosso. That Monza race was one of those where a team wins because everything comes together at the same time. Toro Rosso had the right driver in the right car in the right conditions. It was wet, the car was reliable and Vettel was peerless. “I remember when we were doing strategy on the Saturday afternoon. I was talking about dry strategy,” recalls Toro’s technical director Giorgio Ascanelli. “I told him that he couldn’t stay in front but he could aim for third place… Seb asked me “what if it rains?” I told him: “Congratulations”.” Toro went on to finish the season strongly and beat Red Bull Racing in the Constructors’ Championship, but with the rules changed and banned technology sharing then Toro had to start all over again, and only in the last 12 months have they started to pick up the pieces.
Another team for whom the stars aligned was Renault. In the hands of Fernando Alonso, Renault won the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix at a canter. Such was its dominance, Fernando even lapped Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, which despite that insult would go on to win the Championship. Everything went right for Renault in Hungary: they had the right tyres for the track (Michelin) and the power-deficit of their engine was for once less critical than it’s low-weight and impressive torque which shot Alonso out of corners like the cork from the champagne bottle he was later waving around. Alonso stuck the Renault on pole, and though Williams looked like having the quicker car for the race, Mark Webber put in a stellar qualifying lap and took third place for Jaguar to split them. Qualifying second and fourth put the Williams on the dirty side of the track (which in Hungary is really dirty) and so they spun their wheels at the start while the odd numbers shot off into the distance. 1,3,5,7 on the grid translated into 1,2,3,4 on the track. Webber’s Jag wasn’t quick but at Hungary that didn’t matter so much, and so an orderly queue formed behind the Australian while Fernando disappeared into the distance. It was Renault’s first win as a constructor since 1983 and Fernando’s first in F1. The team won another race in 2004 (Jarno Trulli at Monaco) but really came to the party in 2005 and 2006 when, in Alonso’s hands, the R25 and R26 swept all before them.
Here’s an Australian view of what really happened:
Johnny Herbert’s third and final grand prix victory was Stewart Grand Prix’s first and only. The European Grand Prix of 1999 was another wet-weather lottery, though holding a race in the Eifel at the end of September, that was always going to be likely. Still, it was a race nobody seemed to want to win with all manner of breakdowns and spins putting race leaders and championship contenders out left and right. Eddie Irvine’s race was wrecked when Ferrari only gave him with three wheels at a pitstop. Mika Hakkinen gambled on more rain and then had to take another stop when it suddenly got very dry. Heinz-Harald Frentzen suddenly found himself coasting when everything cut out, David Coulthard slid off while in the lead, Ralf Schumacher picked up a puncture while leading, Giancarlo Fisichella spun off while leading, leaving Johnny to saunter to the finish 20 seconds clear of the field.
By then, Stewart had already been sold to Jaguar and there followed a five-year textbook example of how running an F1 team from Dearborn, Michigan, USA, really isn’t a good idea. But some of the original Stewart team were still around when, reinvented as Red Bull Racing, more victories came their way.
It’s even more frantic in Italian:
Damon Hill won 22 Grands Prix but unlike many drivers, his final victory is probably the best remembered. On possibly the wettest day in the history of the Belgian Grand Prix (which is saying something) Hill kept his head and paddled Jordan to the top step of the podium. The Jordan had been good in qualifying and Hill was third on the grid but well off McLaren’s pace. Then came the 13-car pile up at the start and a subsequent restart from which Michael Schumacher pulled away from the field at enormous velocity… before running over David Coulthard while attempting to lap the Scot. Hill was in front, his team-mate Ralf Schumacher was second, and once Eddie Jordan ordered Ralf to back-off, Hill was in the clear. Jordan came back stronger the following season with Frentzen winning two races and being a serious contender for the Championship right up until the end of the European season – but after that Jordan lost their way, missed out on engine deals and sponsors and finally bit the bullet at the end of 2005 when bringing up the rear. Several name changes later they re-emerged as Force India.
For fans of the certain age, the start line crash is still the most memorable thing to ever happen in Belgium: