Nikita Mazepin’s Formula 1 debut in the Bahrain Grand Prix was an ignominious one, with 25 seconds between the race starting and his Haas hitting the wall at Turn 3.
But while Mazepin described that as “one of the worst days of my life”, he’s not the only driver to have suffered such a disastrous start in grand prix racing.
In total, 27 drivers are considered to have started a world championship race without completing the first racing lap on their debuts. On top of that, there are a number of drivers classified as ‘did not starts’, often as a result of withdrawal before the race or a problem that prevented them taking to the grid – although there are some muddy definitions of the difference between retirements and did not starts that means these numbers can be disputed and do vary depending on the source.
Among that group is a driver who crashed out before his debut but went on to become an F1 legend. Granted, Colin Chapman is best known for his design genius despite being a very capable driver, but after crashing his Vanwall at the Thillois Hairpin at Reims during Thursday practice for the 1956 French Grand Prix, the car was too damaged for him to take what would have been his only world championship start.
Mazepin’s self-inflicted first-lap elimination was the first such case in 19 years, with two drivers crashing out of their grand prix debuts in the 2002 Australian Grand Prix. Both Felipe Massa (Sauber) and Allan McNish (Toyota) were caught up in the first-corner accident triggered by Ralf Schumacher launching his Williams over the back of Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari.
The tradition of getting caught up in someone else’s accident on debut has a long history, stretching all the way back to the second world championship race – the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix. On the opening lap of the race, a wave soaked the track at Tabac, with Giuseppe Farina losing it and crashing. In the ensuing melee, debutants Harry Schell, Robert Manzon, Maurice Trintignant and Franco Rol were all eliminated.
A similar fate befell Roger Williamson and Jochen Mass in the 1973 British GP. They were recorded as non-starters after being caught up in the famous Woodcote accident caused by Jody Scheckter. Another debutant, Graham McRae, couldn’t take that restart but is considered a retirement as it was a throttle problem that kept him out.
Perhaps the most famous victim of a first-lap collision is Marco Apicella, whose one and only F1 outing came with Jordan in the 1993 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. He is usually credited with covering just 800 metres, but whatever the exact measurement he ended up facing backwards just before the first chicane on the opening lap amid a multi-car tangle.
A similar fate befell Osella driver Miguel Angel Guerra in the 1981 San Marino Grand Prix. He ended up in the barrier seconds after the start following a brush with Eliseo Salazar – and sustained leg injuries in the process too.
But both Guerra and Apicella at least got further than Frank Gardner. The Australian, best known as a three-time British Touring Car champion, spun after being squeezed at the start of his debut at Brands Hatch in 1964 moments into the race – so didn’t even clear the grid!
Bob Said is another credited with an off on his first lap on debut in the 1959 United States Grand Prix, although this was caused by a seized engine. It was a similar story for Arthur Owen in the 1960 Italian Grand Prix. His accident was the result of brake problems.
Of course, sometimes those early retirements were down to mechanical failures. Michael Schumacher’s debut lasted a very similar length of time to Mazepin’s, with his Jordan 191 suffering a clutch failure that caused him to slow at Raidillon on the opening lap of the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix.
Another painful example is that of Mauricio Gugelmin, whose March suffered a gearbox failure as he launched off the line in the 1988 Brazilian Grand Prix. He coasted to park in the pit exit (pictured on the left below).
He at least lasted longer than Ernst Loof in the 1952 German Grand Prix. Loof is reputed to have managed two metres after his Veritas suffered a fuel pump failure. Peter Hirt, also in a Veritas, suffered a similar fate on the opening lap of the 1951 Swiss Grand Prix.
By comparison, Paolo Barilla making it to the end of Suzuka’s esses on the opening lap of his debut with Minardi in 1989 before his clutch gave up seems successful.
Arguably the most unfortunate name on this list is Mike Thackwell. He made his debut in a third Tyrrell in the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix and managed to avoid the carnage triggered at the start by Nelson Piquet and Alan Jones colliding. Unfortunately, Tyrrell team-mates Jean-Pierre Jarier and Derek Daly were involved, with the former taking over Thackwell’s car for the restart.
One interesting anomaly on the list is Jackie Oliver. His official F1 debut came in the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix and ended on the opening lap when he was hit by Bruce McLaren. But he had already participated in a world championship race in the F2 class, finishing fifth in the 1967 German Grand Prix but not being eligible for points as a result.
So Mazepin is far from the first, and he won’t be the last, to fail to complete a racing lap on his F1 debut – as this overview (which doesn’t mention every single case) illustrates. But given he had a crash that was a result of his mistake, rather than a collision with another car or that followed a mechanical problem, he is a rarity.