Much play was made of the Melbourne podium because Kimi Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel were/are most people’s pre-season title picks – albeit not necessarily in that order.
But how telling have been the top threes of rounds one?
Very – at first glance.
Thirty-two of the 63 completed Formula 1 World Championships have been won by the driver who immediately stamped his authority on that particular season’s proceedings: at Silverstone, Bremgarten in Switzerland, Buenos Aires, Monte Carlo, Zandvoort, East London (where Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean meet), the old Kyalami, Rio, Phoenix, the new Kyalami, Interlagos, Melbourne and Bahrain.
That includes all bar two champions crowned in the 1990s – Jacques Villeneuve (1997) and Mika Häkkinen (’99) – and all bar two in the Noughties: Michael Schumacher (2003) and Alonso (’05).
But I should nip in the bud any grumblings about the predictability of the modern sport by highlighting that it was no different in the formative 1950s. During that decade just two champions failed to win their respective first rounds.
One of those was Ferrari’s Alberto Ascari, the runaway force of 1952 – and ’53 – who absented himself from the Swiss Grand Prix in order to compete in the second round: the Indianapolis 500. The other was Mike Hawthorn, beaten into third place in Argentina ’58 by the remarkable performance of Stirling Moss – the ‘Uncrowned King’ – in a mini Cooper.
The 1950s also produced the inaugural double 1-2. After finishing in that order at the Monaco GP in May, Jack Brabham and Tony Brooks raced to first and second places in the overall points at Sebring’s December decider.
Widening our Round One podium-o-scope to include steps two and three greatly increases the chances of twitching a championship frontrunner: on 55 occasions the 1-2-3 at the opening round has featured one or two – it’s 28 plays 27 on that score – drivers who would finish in the top three in that year’s final standings.
But the odds are stacked against finding none. (Is ‘none’ something you can find?)
Many view the 1960s as the most competitive decade of F1 such was its level of driver talent. But it was its levels of fragile build (on still rugged circuits) and mechanical/electrical reliability that made it so topsy-turvy.
Only two drivers won the first round and the world title in the same year during the 1.5-litre formula: Graham Hill (1962) and Jim Clark (’65).
And by injecting added power via the doubling ‘3-litre formula’, the edifice teetered on the brink of toppling: only Jackie Stewart (1969) achieved the feat.
Before that, came back-to-back ‘nones’.
Stewart, Lorenzo Bandini and Graham Hill (Monaco 1966) and Pedro Rodríguez, John Love and John Surtees (South Africa ’67) finished 1-2-3 in the opening rounds but could do no better than equal-fourth – Surtees for Honda in ’67 – when those seasons’ points were tallied.
1970 was the same – with added wings: Brabham, Denny Hulme and Stewart – 1-2-3 in South Africa in March – had been usurped by the late Jochen Rindt, Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni by Mexico at the fag end of October.
1979, too, was the same – with added skirts: Jacques Laffite, Carlos Reutemann and John Watson in Argentina in January – Jody Scheckter, Gilles Villeneuve and Alan Jones in the championship.
(Only one 1970s champion capitalised on his rocket start: Mario Andretti, whose Lotus hit the ground sticking at Buenos Aires in ’78.)
And, finally, 1982 was the same – with extra boost: for Alain Prost, Reutemann and René Arnoux in South Africa in January read Keke Rosberg, Didier Pironi and Watson in the craziest title race of them all.
It’s rarer still to find all three.
For there’s often someone enjoying a hopeful day in spring before a season settles into familiar summer rhythms, be it Round One runners-up Rudi Fischer (1952) and Cliff Allison (’60), or third-placers Tom Pryce (’76) and Nico Rosberg (2008).
Long Beach got the eventual order of 1981 back to front when reigning champion Jones beat Williams team-mate Reutemann and champion-in-waiting Nelson Piquet.
And in 2007, Melbourne’s 1-2-3 of Räikkönen – he’s familiar with this process – Alonso and super rookie Lewis Hamilton would finish 1-3-2 in the championship.
Finding all in the right order, therefore, is as rare as finding rocking horse droppings between hen’s teeth. Only once since 1950 has a first round come up three bells: 2001.
That result surfed on a sequence of four perspicacious opening 1-2s during the 1990s – okay, so the modern sport is more predictable – and hammered home that this was to be the Michael Schumacher/Ferrari era. David Coulthard gave chase in Melbourne, as he would all season, but when Schuey’s wingman Rubens Barrichello, third in Australia, split them two weeks later in Malaysia, one-way title traffic was pretty much guaranteed.
This, however, is not the most predicative opener.
The top five finishers – Nigel Mansell, Riccardo Patrese, Ayrton Senna, Schumacher and Gerhard Berger – at the new Kyalami in March 1992 would fill the top five places in the championship after Adelaide in November, with only Senna’s and Schumacher’s positions transposed.
Martin Brundle, who finished sixth in the table that year with Benetton, fluffed an overtaking move on lap one at Kyalami and broke his clutch while attempting a spin-turn by way of recovery. “Things could only get better for the Briton,” opined the report in Motor Sport. It did. Much. Trouble was, a pecking order had already been established.
What of the current season?
I realise that Lotus is much the same team that not so long ago was sticking it to Schumacher/Ferrari, but it’s difficult to imagine it regularly repeating its outstanding Melbourne performance without the total backing and commitment of a major manufacturer – or global fizzy drinks firm. Surely Ferrari and Red Bull – if not McLaren – will overtake it in the development race.
Kimi certainly won’t fade like Giancarlo Fisichella, winner in Melbourne in 2005, did, but can he muster the desire and focus to fend off both Alonso and Vettel?
In 2005, Alonso finished third in Melbourne behind team-mate ‘Fisi’ yet went on to secure the overall honour – a sequence that has occurred just five times since 1950.
And last year, Vettel finished second in Melbourne and went on to secure the overall honour – a sequence that also has occurred just five times.
(Vettel also won the title after finishing fourth in Bahrain in 2010.)
So, Melbourne last weekend: the right drivers – in the wrong order.