Formula One

Top F1 debuts – The drivers that impressed straight away

Each driver’s debut Grand Prix is a special occasion. For some, the nerves get to them and it is not a performance to remember, but others shine and make their name prominent straight away. So, let’s revisit some of the top F1 debuts of all time. Keep in mind that the order is chronological!

Giancarlo Baghetti

Ferrari was the dominant force in Formula 1 for the 1961 season, after the introduction of the Ferrari 156, but when 27-year-old Giancarlo Baghetti was entered for the 1961 French Grand Prix, he was not part of the Scuderia. He was driving a car for Team FISA, a team ran by a collection of Italian team owners to field promising drivers, who chose Baghetti as its driver for 1961.

Before the race in France, the team raced in two non-championship races with the Ferrari 156 and won both with Baghetti behind the wheel. In Reims though, he would come up against a much stronger field, that also included three more Ferraris, driven by the Scuderia’s full-time drivers, Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther, who qualified at the front, while Baghetti was twelfth.

All three factory efforts dropped out of victory contention leaving Baghetti at the front, after he climbed though the field early on. An epic battle against the Porsche of Dan Gurney followed, with the pair exchanging the lead every lap as they headed towards the chequered flag. It all came down to the finish, with Baghetti reclaiming the lead inside the final hundred meters of the race to achieve victory on debut. 

Baghetti is still the only driver to claim the feat, obviously excluding Giuseppe Farina and Johnnie Parsons, who won the first Grand Prix and the first Indianapolis 500 in the World Championship. It would be the only victory for the promising Italian too, as he retired from his other two appearances in 1961 and achieved a best result of fourth in his other twenty entries.

Ricardo Rodriguez

When Ricardo Rodriguez started the 1961 Italian Grand Prix for Ferrari, he became the youngest driver to start a Formula 1 race, a record that stood for almost two decades and still places him in sixth. Despite him being very young, the Mexican driver was no stranger to success in big events, finished second at the Le Mans 24 Hours the previous year, at the age of just eighteen.

Ricardo Rodriguez in the Ferrari 156
Joop van Bilsen, Anefo / Wikimedia

Rodriguez impressed immediately, qualifying second, among his three teammates as Ferrari took over the top four spots. Sadly the polesitter, Wolfgang von Trips, was killed along with fifteen spectators in an accident during the second lap. Rodriguez swapped the lead with the other two drivers of the Scuderia, Phil Hill and Richie Ginther, until the thirteenth lap, when a fuel system issue put him out of the race.

The drive earned him a seat for five races in 1962 with Ferrari and he achieved a best of fourth before he was killed in a non-championship race on home soil, at the age of just twenty. His older brother, Pedro, competed in Formula 1 after the loss of Ricardo and won twice, before he was also killed in a racing accident in 1971.

Carlos Reutemann

After years of racing in his native Argentina, Carlos Reutemann moved to Europe in 1970, at the age of 28, to chase his Formula 1 dream. It was a dream that became reality two years later, when he secured a seat at Brabham, which at the time was led by Bernie Ecclestone and fielded two-time World Champion, Graham Hill.

Carlos Reutemann made one of the top F1 debuts of all-time
Photo by PictureAlliance / Icon Sport

Coincidentally, Reutemann’s debut took place on home soil, as the season opener took place in Buenos Aires. A shock result followed, as the Argentine took pole postion., That came after a difficult 1971 campaign for the team, in which it scored just five points. The rookie was also quite a way faster than Hill, who was down in sixteenth. The race did not go as well, as he was passed by Jackie Stewart on the first lap and fell to seventh after pitting due to excessive tyre wear.

It was the start of a great career, which included twelve wins and four finishes in the top three of the championship, including a great shot at the crown in 1981, which was lost in the final race.

Johnny Herbert

To appreciate the magnitude of success in Johnny Herbert’s F1 debut, we must revisit the months before that took place. He was one of the best British prospects in a long time, but an accident at Brands Hatch in September left him with leg injuries so severe, that even an amputation was considered. That was avoided and after surgeries and physiotherapy, Benetton took a chance on him.

Despite him still using crutches when he made his debut in the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, he qualified a respectable tenth, ahead of his teammate, Alessandro Nannini. And things got even better in the race, which he finished in fourth, just ten seconds off the winner, Nigel Mansell. 

Later that season he was controversially dropped when the management of the team changed, but he bounced back and had a successful career, which lasted twelve seasons and included three victories.

Kevin Magnussen

Kevin Magnussen was 22 years old when he was selected for a seat at McLaren, next to Jenson Button, after four years in the team’s Young Driver Program. Expectations were low both for the Dane and the McLaren team, which was coming off a disappointing season as it fell down to fifth in the constructors’ championship with no podiums in its entirety.

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Photo by XPB / Icon Sport

Magnussen brought a breath of fresh air though, as he qualified fourth in Melbourne, in wet conditions. When Lewis Hamilton suffered a mechanical issue and dropped out, he was promoted to third and held onto the position until the finish, just ahead of his teammate to climb on podium in his debut. He went one better after the race too, as Daniel Ricciardo got disqualified for a technical infringement. It remains his only podium to this day.

Top F1 debuts: Honorable mentions

Let’s mention a couple of performances which almost earned a spot in the list.

First of all, Michael Schumacher, who qualified seventh in an unfancied Jordan car at Spa-Francorchamps, a circuit he had not driven prior to practice, just days after his first F1 test. Also, consideration was given to Jacques Villeneuve, who qualified on pole for his debut and was on his way to victory, before an oil leak dropped him to second, behind his teammate, Damon Hill.

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