When Lewis Hamilton drove quickly and consistently to third place at the Australian Grand Prix, nobody imagined that another rookie would make a more spectacular debut in 2007.
Yesterday Markus Winkelhock did exactly that.
The new Spyker driver had an incredible first race at the Nurburgring and although it was all due to luck, it surpassed Hamilton’s arrival as the most striking in F1 this year. Winkelhock’s incredible first appearance had little to do with his talent, but nonetheless it was one of the most amazing debut races in history.
The young German became the only driver to lead his first race in the opening stages after starting from pitlane. Not only did he jump from last to first in only three minutes, he did so in the first three minutes of his Grand Prix career. No other driver has done so well after only 180 seconds in a Formula One race. Lewis Hamilton may have overtaken Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso at turn one of Albert Park, but statistically no other driver has made such a phenomenal start at their first attempt.
Winkelhock was incredibly lucky. He was off the pace all weekend and qualified dead last over a second behind Sutil. Since Spyker had nothing to lose they elected to start him on wet tyres and their gamble paid off. The heavens opened before the field reached the first corner and everyone had to slide and squirm back to the pits. Winkelhock started making up ground immediately and passed all the drivers who stumbled on lap one. By the time everyone else had stopped for wet tyres on lap two he had a commanding 33 second lead.
Winkelhock was even able to retain his lead during a pitstop before the race was suspended.
Rather interestingly, Jochen Mass did exactly the same thing at exactly the same circuit thirty years ago when he was driving for McLaren. The race was wet at the start but Jochen knew the old Nurburgring well and figured it would dry quickly. He started the race on slicks whilst everyone else started on wets, and powered into first place on lap two.
History repeated itself yesterday and Winkelhock found himself leading his home Grand Prix before conditions brought out the red flag.
It is worth noting that several years ago it could have worked out even better for Markus. The red flag rules were different in the late 1990’s and if they were still in place today Winkelhock would have started a new race from pole position with a half minute time advantage over the whole field. Even though he was always going to fall back, the old rules would have given Markus more time at the top.
Winkelhock did four particularly special things in his first race. He went from last to first, he did it in only two laps, he did it in a Spyker, and he did it in front of his home crowd. It is a very unique set of circumstances and has given Markus one of the most remarkable debut performances of all time. Hamilton, Villeneuve, and Schumacher were quicker and more impressive in their first appearances, but Winkelhock’s extraordinary luck ensured his first race was more dramatic.
In fact, the only person that can claim to have had a more spectacular debut than Winkelhock is Giancarlo Baghetti, the only man to have taken victory at his very first attempt.
Giancarlo Baghetti got his Formula One break in 1961. Halfway through the season part-time Ferrari driver, Olivier Gendebien, left the team to race sportscars. This meant Ferrari had a spare car for the French Grand Prix and subsequently loaned it out to the small FISA team.
FISA was an organisation that comprised of several small Italian teams and was focussed on giving young drivers a chance to race in Formula One. Giancarlo Baghetti had driven for them in 1960 in a few non-championship races, and when the team got their hands on a new Ferrari 156 they gave it to Baghetti for his championship debut.
Although the Ferrari was easily the fastest car on the grid Giancarlo could only qualify twelfth. It didn’t matter though because the awesome top speed of the V6 engine helped Baghetti climb through the field to fifth.
The four cars in front of him were the three factory Ferrari’s and a Lotus driven by Stirling Moss.
Just like Winkelhock at the Nurburgring, Baghetti was extremely lucky that day.
Two of the factory Ferrari’s developed mechanical troubles. Von Trips had a broken radiator and Ginther’s engine ran out of oil. Whilst this was going on the other Ferrari of Phil Hill spun and was hit by Stirling Moss, ending the race for both drivers.
This left Baghetti unexpectedly fighting for the lead with the two Porsches of Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier. His good luck continued when Bonnier dropped out, making it a two horse race to the flag.
As both cars came around the final corner on the final lap Dan Gurney was in front. However the main straight at Reims was very long and Baghetti used the Porsche’s slipstream to power past Gurney to win by only one tenth of a second.
To this day Giancarlo Baghetti remains the only driver to have taken victory on debut. In fact, he technically won the first three Formula One races he entered although two of those did not count towards the championship.
It was easily the high point of Baghetti’s career that steadily went into a spiral. He managed only five points in the remaining seven years of his time in Formula One.
Sadly Winkelhock’s career will also go into decline. He is likely to be replaced at the Hungarian Grand Prix by someone with more sponsorship dollars and it is doubtful he will get another seat in Formula One on the basis of his talent. Markus did very well to keep the Spyker on the road in very tricky conditions, but he simply wasn’t fast enough to impress.
Winkelhock’s junior career has been good but not great. He has won races in almost every car he has driven but has never been consistent enough to win a championship. His least successful outings came on home soil in the DTM series where he did not score any points, let alone race victories.
If the European Grand Prix turns out to be the only time Markus Winkelhock drives in F1 he will have something very special to look back upon. No-one else can say they overtook 21 cars in the first two laps of their debut race. No-one else can say they led a Grand Prix in a Spyker, and no-one else can claim to have lined up on the grid in both last and first positions at the same event.
There was something else particularly special about Winkelhock’s European Grand Prix. Markus is the son of the late Manfred Winkelhock, a Formula One driver between 1980 and 1985. The Nurburgring was the last place Manfred ever drover a Formula One car so it was very fitting that it should be the same place where Markus made his debut.
Wherever Markus does end up in motorsport he will be hoping to take some of his Nurburgring luck with him. If he stays in Formula One he is going to need it.