This will be the 69th season of Formula 1 – with just as many first races of the season, obviously. Anyone with a short memory might think that these only ever took place in Australia over the roads of Albert Park in Melbourne, where the championship gets underway again this weekend: just as it has done for 20 of the last 22 years.
But that’s not the case at all; in deference to its title as a world series, Formula 1 has actually got underway in 10 different nations since its inaugural year in 1950. Those 10 countries have hosted a debut race on 14 different circuits: a microcosm of the history of Formula 1 itself, constantly swayed by technical, sporting and also political influences.
In 1950, that first race took place at Silverstone. Back then, the British track consisted of six straights linked by a variety of different corners: some extremely quick, with dizzying average speeds. The Northamptonshire circuit had finally shaken off its origins as a military airfield: a role it carried out throughout World War II. This grand prix symbolised the rebirth of a Great Britain that had been pulverised by Hitler’s bombardments but ultimately triumphed, leaving the country free to celebrate its passion for racing. Under the gaze of Queen Elizabeth II, who was then aged barely 20, Nino Farina won the race in an Alfa Romeo. It was Italy’s day, with the combination of Farina and Alfa going on to claim the title as well at the end of that year. The other part of that winning line-up was of course Pirelli: a key element of the Italian success story.
The United Kingdom would go on to host at least one grand prix every year, right up to the present day. But it would never again host the first grand prix of the season. In 1951, the season got underway in Switzerland: more specifically, Bern. And that too was an anomaly: there are no circuits in Switzerland today (in fact, building them is banned). Switzerland also hosted the opening race at the beginning of the 1952 championship, but the country would soon divorce itself from grand prix racing. The last grand prix run under the Swiss flag actually took place as recently as 1982, but for reasons already mentioned, it was in Dijon, France.
In 1953, the Formula 1 World Championship started in Argentina. Juan Domingo Peron, president for the last seven years and a hero to his political followers – known as the descamisados – charmed them by bringing Argentina to motorsport’s ultimate party: with racing being a true passion throughout the nation. Peron himself had organised for a number of Argentinian drivers to head off to Europe at the end of 1940s, with the aim of putting Argentina on the motorsport map. Among them was a certain Juan Manuel Fangio, who soon became world champion in 1951, then again from 1954 to 1957 inclusive, regularly delighting the crowds at the Buenos Aires circuit – which opened the Formula 1 season right up until 1958.
Buenos Aires also hosted the opening round in 1960, then again from 1972 to 1975, and finally from 1977 to 1980. In those days, the season began with a South American leg: Argentina for the first round, then Brazil for the second. The championship started early back then, around February, in the height of the South American summer. There would subsequently be a gap of several weeks before the championship resumed in Europe or South Africa.
On five occasions, the championship got underway on the streets of Monte-Carlo: 1959, 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1966. There was just one season debut in Holland, which took place in 1962 between the dunes of Zandvoort, buffeted by the wind that whips up the Northern Sea alongside the track.
In the 1970s, the action began in South Africa as well: in 1965 with a race that actually took place on New Year’s Day, then again from 1967 to 1971, once more in 1982 (at a grand prix that was famously threatened by a drivers’ strike), and finally in 1992 and 1993. Two circuits were used: East London and then Kyalami, close to Johannesburg. And recently Kyalami has been putting together a bid to return to Formula 1, on a redesigned circuit.
On 10 occasions, between 1976 and 1995, the championship kicked off in Brazil. In 1976 the venue was Interlagos, close to Sao Paulo: from 1983 to 1989 it was Jacarepagua, in the outer suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. In 1994 and 1995 it returned to Interlagos, but on a dramatically shorter version of the circuit (which is still used today).
In 1981, the championship’s opening race was in the United States on the Long Beach track. It’s a place that Formula 1 would like to go back to, but first a degree of indifference from the American public has to be overcome. But the championship got underway from America again in 1990 and 1991: once more on a street circuit, but this time in the searing heat of Phoenix.
And that brings us up to the present day. In 1996, the first race of the year was run in Melbourne, establishing a curious record: two grands prix on the trot in Australia, both on a street circuit. The first of the two closed the 1995 championship, through the 90-degree corners of Adelaide. And then on to Melbourne…where we are now.
Since 1996, Melbourne has only missed out on the season-opener twice: in 2006 and 2010 when Bahrain started the year off. So, 14 different circuits in total (including the dramatic remodelling of Interlagos between the 1970s and 1990s). That makes 10 nations and four continents: Europe, America, Africa and Oceania. The only one missing is Asia, but maybe we won’t have to wait too long for that…
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