Lewis Hamilton made quite an impact on the Formula One world at Albert Park. He was fast, consistent, and made no major mistakes on his way to a performance that any driver on the grid would be proud of. It was a remarkable debut and it lived up to the expectations that arrived with him.
All a rookie can hope for in his first Grand Prix is to finish. If he can complete the race without making any mistakes then it’s a great result. If he finishes on the podium after a highly competitive weekend, it’s phenomenal.
Perhaps most impressive was Hamilton’s effort in Friday practice. It was the first time he’d ever driven a Grand Prix car at a race weekend and it was the first time he’d ever seen the Albert Park layout. Not only that, but the conditions were cold and wet making it the worst possible scenario for a rookie driver trying to learn a new circuit.
You could excuse Hamilton for throwing the car into a gravel trap, but it didn’t happen. He didn’t even run wide or bounce over the kerbs. He was perfect, as if he’d been doing it his whole life. His 14 laps were totally mistake free.
Not only did he keep it on the black stuff, but his lap times were fast and consistent. Being quick out of the box and keeping that speed constant is difficult for anyone to manage in the wet, let alone a first-timer. His driving was fantastic and it set him up nicely for the rest of the weekend.
However, parts of the British F1 media have placed a lot of pressure on the young man and surrounded his debut with mountains of hype. Whilst Hamilton did put in a strong solid effort in Melbourne, he was easily outpaced by Alonso all weekend. Hamilton was ahead of Alonso in practice but only because the Spaniard was running full tanks. During the Grand Prix itself Alonso let Hamilton set the pace and was able to match his speed with ease. Fernando had the better strategy and used it to full effect, finishing a good ten seconds ahead of Lewis by the race end. Had Fernando not been caught behind Heidfeld at the start he would have left Hamilton further behind.
Having said that, let us remember that Fernando Alonso is a double world champion. The fact that a rookie could run so close to him let alone ahead of him is amazing.
Hamilton’s debut compares nicely to that of another driver who arrived in F1 with big expectations, Jacques Villeneuve. Both drivers made their debuts at Albert Park and both had won championships in other categories. Villeneuve and Hamilton jumped straight into the deep end with competitive machinery alongside more experienced team-mates and set the world alight.
Villeneuve’s first race was more impressive that Hamilton’s, if only because it was more spectacular.
Just like Lewis Hamilton, Jacques Villeneuve had plenty of pressure placed on him by the press in the build up to his debut. The media spotlight was firmly on the new Canadian driver in 1996 because it marked the return of the ‘Villeneuve’ name to Grand Prix racing. Gilles Villeneuve had been tragically killed whilst battling for the 1982 world championship and some had regarded him as one of the best ever. Jacques’ debut sparked memories of his late great father and the F1 world was keen to see if he would race with the same passion and aggression.
Jacques didn’t disappoint and put the Williams Renault on pole position, out-qualifying his team-mate as well as the whole grid. It made him only the third driver in history to start his first race from the very front.
When the lights went out Villeneuve made a perfect getaway and had a comfortable gap by the third corner. He was forced to do it all again when the race was red-flagged and restarted, and he did so easily. Jacques ran just ahead of his team-mate, Damon Hill, for the first 30 laps and only lost the lead when he made his solitary pitstop.
Hill pitted two laps later and rejoined ahead of the Canadian, and this is when it got really exciting. Villeneuve managed to do something that Hamilton couldn’t.
As soon as Damon Hill emerged from the pits on cold tyres he was under siege by a fired up Villeneuve who had worked out he could win his first Grand Prix. Villeneuve hounded his team-leader as they headed towards the third corner, and promptly drove around the outside of Damon Hill at turn four.
Taking the race lead from your team-mate is spectacular enough, but doing so on your debut is something else altogether.
Hamilton did something similar at the start in Melbourne.
The first corner of any grand prix is frantic as the entire field fights for the same piece of track. This is when heartbeats skyrocket and when mistakes are most common. First corner accidents are inevitable as drivers have to rely on instinct to guide their car through all the others. It must be very easy to make a simple heat-of-the-moment misjudgement and end up in the back of someone else.
Melbourne 2007 was no exception. Anthony Davidson stalled, Scott Speed ran wide, and Wurz was lucky not to be collected by Liuzzi. Amid all that, Hamilton was sublime. He made a poor getaway from the line and was passed by Kubica before the first braking zone. However he kept his head and took to the outside of turn one, driving straight past Kubica and Alonso who were trapped at the apex.
His move wasn’t as dramatic as Villeneuve’s but it was no less significant. Lewis Hamilton showed F1 fans all around the world that nothing fazed him, not even the start of his first grand prix. His quick thinking and instinctive skill at turn one put him on track for an excellent podium finish.
Jacques looked set for an even better result in 1996 until an oil leak started spraying fluid out the back of his car with only 5 laps to go. He had no option but to slow right down to avoid an engine failure and Damon Hill powered past to win the Grand Prix. Villeneuve had come incredibly close to winning his first race, and to this day Giancarlo Baghetti remains the only driver to have done so (in 1961).
Villeneuve completely outclassed Damon Hill and his debut stands out in memory far stronger than Hamilton’s solid drive to third. Although Hill would be an easier opponent for a newcomer than Fernando Alonso, Damon had still managed to win 13 races at the start of 1996. Alonso has only two more on his tally.
After his wheel to wheel battle for the lead at Melbourne, the F1 press went crazy over Villeneuve. Unfortunately, he didn’t live up to all the great expectations. He managed to win four races that year but he never seemed to have the same advantage over Damon Hill again. He had a few brilliant drives, arguably his best at Portugal , but Hill had a stranglehold on the championship.
Villeneuve won the title in 1997 but his career faded and he gradually disappeared off the radar. His first race is one of the highlights of his time in F1.
As Lewis Hamilton is surely aware, a great performance on debut does not mean excellent results will be free flowing all the time. Villeneuve is living proof. Not only can strong race weekends become more difficult, but the favourable press may turn sour if things start to go wrong. Hamilton has set the bar very high for himself and when the first bad race does come around there is going to be some serious disappointment.
I don’t think anyone is too worried though. If Melbourne is anything to go by Lewis will handle any such disappointment with a maturity beyond his years. His career will go on to eclipse that of Villeneuve’s and he will be a star for many years to come.
He said himself at the end of the Grand Prix â€œIt is good to have that first race under your belt, over and done with. Now I can go and let my hair down and look forward to the next raceâ€
We’re all looking forward to it Lewis.