“Lights out, and away we go! And… OH! He’s crashed! He’s crashed!!”
Imagine this being shouted in the familiar, dulcet tones of Murray Walker, and you’d sum up F1 first corner crashes in an instant. The chaos of up to 20-30 super-charged cars piling into that initial turn has diminished somewhat in recent years. But as we saw over the 2017 Singapore F1 weekend, it hasn’t gone away completely.
The Singapore Grand Prix saw one of the most surprising first turn incidents in F1 in recent years. With a race set up for a potentially fascinating contest between Ferrari and Red Bull, with Mercedes left a distant third after a torrid qualifying session, the start would prove pivotal. Max Verstappen became the meat in a Ferrari sandwich, as Sebastian Vettel squeezed him into a Kimi Raikkonen that was storming through on the inside.
The result? All three would end up out of the race, leaving a can’t-believe-his-luck Lewis Hamilton to win and extend his championship lead.
The first corner in F1 can always spark such incidents though. Despite advancements in safety, and smarter procedures in the starting process (the fatal chaos caused by the race starter’s mistake in 1978 is thankfully now a thing of the past), early crashes will still happen.
With the pressure on for drivers, and everyone racing in such close proximity, one slight error can result in carnage. Throughout the years there have been some memorable first turn incidents, brief moments in time that not only changed races, but entire championships too.
BELGIAN GRAND PRIX (1998)
The Belgian circuit of Spa-Francorchamps has been steeped in high-profile crashes. Notoriously dangerous in the sixties (when ten driver fatalities occurred), the track has gone through several safety re-designs over the subsequent decades. Despite all this, that first hairpin corner of La Source is always a danger. And in the wet, it’s positively a minefield – as one David Coulthard found out in 1998.
His McLaren ran wide coming out of La Source, collected a barrier, and then ran back across the track. On wet tarmac, and with low visibility, chaos ensued as eleven cars were caught up in this striking crash. Incredibly, only four retired, and the remaining seven (including Coulthard himself) returned for the re-start hours later.
The dangers of La Source must never be under-estimated.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (1990)
The F1 rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost is the stuff of legends. Bitter championship rivals (and McClaren teammates) in the late eighties, the two took each other out at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1989. A crash that would hand Prost the world championship that year. In 1990, they would once again be on a collision course, this time with different results.
With Senna leading the championship this time round, the heat was on for both drivers. The controversial build-up to the start added to the tension. With both men on the front row (no longer teammates, with Prost having switched to Ferrari), Senna complained his pole-position spot was on the wrong, dirtier, side of the track. He’d almost convinced officials to switch the spot, before an injunction by the FISA president halted this change.
All of this off-track controversy probably would’ve been just an interesting footnote, if it wasn’t for the first corner crash that occurred between the pair. Prost had the better start, and he took the lead. But Senna wouldn’t give up easily, and attempted to squeeze through the inside at the first corner.
Inevitably, Prost would go to cut him off and the two drivers took each other out once again. As a result, Senna could not be caught by Prost in the points, and became 1990 champion. Was it a cunning, deliberate act by Senna, or just another racing incident between two greats of the sport? We’ll never truly know.
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX (2002)
The Australian Grand Prix was once the curtain-raiser to the new F1 season. And what an opener the Melbourne track would put on for the world, none more so than in 2002. A Ferrari lock-out on the front row seemed to promise good things for the Italian team in the debut race of the season.
Rubens Barrichello took a commanding lead going into the first corner, until disaster struck from behind. Ralf Schumacher was caught out by Barrichello’s attempts to cut him off, and he piled his Williams into the back of the Ferrari. The result was a terrifying leap into the air for Schumacher and his car. This eye-catching first corner incident took both cars out, and six other cars, in the process. And all within just the first minute of a brand new season.
BELGIAN GRAND PRIX (2012)
Back to Spa-Francorchamps for another farce at La Source. This time round we find Romain Grosjean attempting to squeeze his Lotus up the inside of the track. He had a slight problem though, the space there was currently being occupied by one Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren car.
Contact was made, which caused Grosjean to become the latest entrant into the F1 flying display team. He flew into the then championship leader, Fernando Alonso, whose own head luckily missed the airborne Lotus by inches.
Grosjean was ultimately held responsible for this crash, given a one-race ban and fined €50,000. Alonso would lose out on much more though, as this DNF cost him valuable points in the driver’s standings. Eventually, he would lose the 2012 championship to Vettel by only three points.
FRENCH GRAND PRIX (1989)
By far the most terrifying first turn crash in F1 occurred at the Circuit Paul Ricard in 1989. In what would be the penultimate F1 race at the famous French track (although, a Grand Prix is scheduled to finally return there in 2018), few could forget the drama at the start. Maurício Gugelmin would collide into the back of Thierry Bousten’s Williams car.
Once again, an F1 car would do exactly what’s it not supposed to do and take-off into the air. But this flight of fancy would be one of the most horrific yet though, as Gugelmin’s March car would land the wrong side up. Miraculously, the Brazilian walked away with only minor injuries. Ten years later, Pedro Diniz would also walk away from his car when it too found itself the wrong way up at the start of the European Grand Prix.