By Riccardo Monza & Damian Johnson
Gilles Villeneuve – Great Britain 1977
After being resoundingly beaten in a Formula Atlantic race by a relatively unknown Gilles Villeneuve, an impressed James Hunt urged McLaren team manager Teddy Mayer to sign up the French-Canadian as soon as possible. And so he did.
For the 1977 British GP at Silverstone, McLaren decided to enter three cars. Two were the latest M26 machine for Hunt and Jochen Mass, whilst Gilles had to make do with an old M23. After a reported twenty or so spins during practice, pre, and main qualifying (without damage), Gilles found the limits of adhesion and achieved 9th fastest, ahead of Mass.
In the race, Gilles held a strong 7th place in front of Mass and all was going well until lap 10, when a faulty water temperature gauge cost him 2 laps in the pits. He resumed the race behind eventual winner Hunt and the following bunch, whereupon he stayed until the end, finishing 11th and setting the 5th fastest lap. If Gilles had ignored the gauge then he would have come fourth, which is where Mass ended up. The impressed organisers gave Villeneuve the Driver Of The Day award, but despite Gilles best efforts, McLaren passed on offering the rising star another drive. Thereafter he was snapped up by Ferrari and became the stuff of legend.
Clay Regazzoni – Netherlands 1970
Initially driving sportscars for Ferrari in 1970, Swiss Clay Regazzoni was tried out as a second driver to Jacky Ickx for the F1 Dutch GP. The 31-year-old calmly qualified 6th ahead of former champions John Surtees, Jack Brabham and Graham Hill.
In the race, Clay drove smoothly behind leaders Rindt, Stewart, Ickx and Oliver, who fought it out amongst the sand dunes of Zandvoort. After swapping places several times, the top three finished as they started, with Regazzoni a brilliant fourth, albeit a lap down. Sadly, there would be no celebrations, as news spread that driver Piers Courage had died in a fiery accident during the race.
Clay’s success grew with a win at Monza and third spot in the championship. He was second in 1974 with further race wins, which cemented his tough racing reputation. Beyond Ferrari he joined the small Ensign team rather than Bernie Ecclestone’s race winning Brabham outfit, as according to Clay, he “preferred to race with nice people.”
Tragically, Regazonni crashed heavily at Long Beach in 1980 which saw him paralysed from the waist down. Despite his disability, he continued to race in sports car and rally events, inspiring other disabled people to do the same.
Lewis Hamilton – Australia 2007
Lewis Hamilton’s performance at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix marked him out as a star of the future, the 22-year-old coming home third behind the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen and team-mate Fernando Alonso. That said anyone who’d watched Lewis during the preceding decade knew he was a bit special. His debut heroics merely confirmed it.
And that’s why he’s down in P3: it was obvious he’d be brilliant in an F1 car, so it was hardly earth shattering stuff when he delivered. Qualifying just three-tenths off Alonso – who was the reigning double world champion – he drove a spotless race to leapfrog third place starter Nick Heidfeld and complete the podium. It was a near-perfect way to start his grand prix career.
But then what did you expect from a kid who’d been telling everyone he’d be an F1 champion since the age of eight? Lewis was merely showing the world what he’d known all along.
Not that we’re taking anything away from him – he drove with impressive maturity for a 22-year-old rookie. In fact he displayed a composure that was noticeably lacking in 2011. Perhaps even the likes of Hamilton wish they could be 22 again.
Jacques Villeneuve – Australia 1996
Whilst Hamilton was expected to perform on his F1 debut Jacques Villeneuve had it demanded of him. As the son of an F1 legend, not to mention an IndyCar and Indy 500 champion himself before his 25th birthday, Jacques’ entry to F1 was, unsurprisingly, pretty hyped. The fact that he was driving the best car on the grid by a country mile only made the prospect more tantalising.
And, in fairness to the Canadian, he more than lived up to billing, taking pole for his debut and leading until an oil leak – caused by a brief off at turn one – forced him to cede position to team-mate Damon Hill. For a maiden drive it was nothing short of spectacular.
So why doesn’t he top this list? Simple: that Williams was too fast. No one could touch either of their cars, meaning Villeneuve didn’t really have to do much beyond match the performance of his machine. Yes, he did so brilliantly, but it’s hardly the same as dragging an average car to the front on your debut.
Just as with Lewis though we’re taking nothing from him. Australia 1996 was a stunning performance by JV, who despite a further decade in the sport would never really produce a more impressive 90 minutes of driving.
Jean Alesi – France 1989
“He won’t qualify, never mind finish the race!” Ken Tyrrell told Eddie Jordan as the Irishman tried to secure Jean Alesi a drive at the 1989 French GP. Jordan was Alesi’s manager and landlord, and was keen to give the 25-year-old the break he deserved. With regular driver Michele Alboreto out of the picture due to a falling out, it was agreed that Jean would do one race and that things would probably be patched up with Alboreto afterwards.
Starting 16th out of 26, Jean carefully avoided a first corner pile up at the fast Paul Ricard circuit. After a break the race was restarted with a full grid, with many in their spare cars. The Tyrrell-Cosworth was generally considered a mid-field car in 1989, and onlookers noticed that the blue and yellow car driven by the French debutant was beginning to carve its way up through the order. Incredibly, by lap 44 Alesi was up to second position.
At the chequered flag Jean was 4th, behind a top three of Prost, Mansell and Patrese. Seven retirements ahead of Alesi had been helpful, but he’d still passed many along the way. It was a performance that had the paddock talking, and despite offers from other teams, Alesi stayed with underfunded Tyrrell for 1990, putting in further displays of skill and mastery.
Hans Heyer – Germany 1977
Many drivers strive to compete in F1, but in the case of Hans Heyer, he was more determined than most. At the 1977 German GP, local boy Hans was given the chance of a lifetime to drive a Penske for the German ATS team. Unfortunately Heyer could only post 27th best time round the old Hockenheimring, and as there were just 24 grid positions available, he was out of the grand prix, or was he!? The German remained optimistic that three drivers would drop out on the warm up lap and so readied himself just incase.
The start of the race was chaotic with the lights failing, resulting in the German flag being dropped in traditional style. Two cars collided on the grid, and in the confusion, Hans Heyer blasted out of the pit lane to join the tail end of the pack!
So Heyer had made it into the race and would surely be shown the black flag? You would have thought so, but his race continued for 9 laps until he was forced to retire due to a gear linkage problem. Only then was he officially disqualified. It seems likely that at the start of the race the marshals in the pits turned a blind-eye to their compatriot, and waved him on his way. Subsequently, Heyer was further disqualified from starting the next race, and never had the opportunity to race in F1 again, though he’d always have his experience at Hockenheim to cherish.