Cracking F1’s curtain raisersby Paul Fearnley on 22nd March 2018
Paul Fearnley explores the stories and statistics of Formula 1's first rounds and asks whether it's essential to hit the ground running
Ding-ding! Round one.
What to do: set out your stall or spring a surprise – or both in Jenson Button’s 2009 case?
The numbers point to the first ‘option’: 35 winners of the 68 Formula 1 World Championships, from Giuseppe Farina to Nico Rosberg, kick-started their campaigns with a victory.
And 13 of the 35 were a Grand Chelem: from pole and with fastest lap.
Had Ferrari’s Alberto Ascari not decided to contest the 1952 Indianapolis 500 rather than the Swiss Grand Prix – he dominated the second round at Spa – chances are that the first four champions would have swept their respective openers, earning the extra point available (until 1958) for fastest lap.
Eight of the first 10 won their opener but Juan Fangio received only half-points from victory – plus another for fastest lap – in Buenos Aires 1956, because of his commandeering Ferrari team-mate Luigi Musso’s car, after his own suffered a fuel leak.
The exceptions during the 1950s were Piero Taruffi (1952) and Stirling Moss: the former was a distant third behind Ascari in the final standings and the latter fell a point shy of Mike Hawthorn in 1958.
Hawthorn was the first of six champions to have finished third in the opener.
That’s the same as for those who were second, and double that of those who were fourth.
Only one champion finished outside the points in his opener: McLaren’s Emerson Fittipaldi was 10th at Buenos Aires 1974. Already delayed by a misfire, he pitted for a second time after accidentally cutting the ignition.
And only one began with a DSQ: McLaren’s Ayrton Senna was black-flagged for an illegal car-swap at Rio 1988.
Twenty-nine champions started their opener from pole; 43 did so from the front row.
Only one qualified outside the top 10: Renault’s Fernando Alonso lined up 13th at Melbourne 2005 after being caught out by rain in the first of two aggregated sessions.
But the Spaniard, in recovering to third place during the race, became one of 23 champions to set fastest lap in their opener.
Speed, of course, is nothing without reliability: just 12 champions have retired from an opener.
Just two have failed to finish since 1988.
How times have changed.
Twenty champions since 1990 – all bar 1997’s Jacques Villeneuve in the decade – won their opener.
But only one champion did so in the less reliable, more inclusive, kit-car 1970s: Lotus’ Mario Andretti at Buenos Aires 1978.
First-round surprises are harder to come by but not yet impossible: McLaren’s David Coulthard won in the mixed conditions of Melbourne 2003 from 11th on the grid.
A feat matched by Jody Scheckter for Wolf under the blazing 1977 sun of Buenos Aires.
(In his 1979 title year with Ferrari the South African failed to take the restart in Buenos Aires after hurting his wrist in the first-lap pile-up that caused a red flag.)
Cooper’s Bruce McLaren won at Buenos Aires 1960 from 12th on a 4-3-4 grid.
But winners of openers – even the surprise ones – have tended to start from pole: 24 in total.
And set fastest lap? 37.
Only 14 have sliced through from the second row to win and only 10 have muscled it from beyond.
Ferrari’s Nigel Mansell managed it from the outside of the third row at Rio 1989, as had Prost for McLaren four years earlier.
Kimi Räikkönen came through from the inside of the fourth for Lotus at Melbourne 2013 and Denny Hulme from the outside of the fifth for McLaren at Buenos Aires 1974.
Winners of the opening round are likely to have a good season even if they don’t wind up as that year’s champion: 14 were runner-up in the final standings – McLaren in 1960 and Scheckter in 1977 among them.
And very few have slipped further than an eventual fifth in the points: BRM’s Jackie Stewart finished seventh in 1966, as did McLaren’s Hulme and Coulthard in 1974 and 2003.
Andretti was eighth after christening a partial 1971 campaign with Ferrari with victory at Kyalami.
And Jim Clark’s regal display for Lotus at the same circuit in 1968 gave no hint of the tragedy to follow.
The greats generally hit the ground running: Prost won six openers, as did Michael Schumacher; Fangio won five; and Stewart and Graham Hill three apiece.
Only Hawthorn, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Jochen Rindt, James Hunt and Keke Rosberg of the world champions have failed to win an opener.
And only seven of the 33 men who have shared those 68 opening victories do not have an F1 title to their name.
And one of those is Moss!
Ironically his victories in the openers of 1958 and 1961 were works of genuine genius.
Many, including The Boy himself, cite his fending off and eventual out-kicking of a shoal of ‘Sharknose’ Ferraris at Monaco to be his best.
This writer, however, prefers Moss’ earlier Buenos Aires performance.
In a Cooper giving away a half-litre, he qualified seventh on 4-3-4 grid after completing just three laps in practice in order to save his rationed Continentals but would cross the finish line on their flailing canvas even so.
He also battled with an inoperative clutch for much of the race.
Yet he won – by 2.7sec – the inaugural victory for a car with its engine behind the driver.
But that’s not the best bit.
He was wearing a patch to protect an eye damaged while, ahem, horsing around with new bride Katie.
Rain is forecast for Melbourne this weekend and Red Bull looks to have closed the gap to Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari.
History and statistics suggest, however, that we can only hope for a race of sufficient excitement and interest to deflect from the inevitable discussion surrounding the halo.
May the saints and – ding-dong! – Stirling Moss preserve us.