The first Grand Prix of a new season is always a time of great anticipation – a fresh start, new cars and drivers, maybe a winner totally unexpected. It was, therefore, with a little dismay that I heard the result of the Australian Grand Prix and another untroubled one-two for Mercedes, albeit the wrong way around. Does this mean we are in for yet another season of one team/driver domination?
But historically, how significant has winning the season’s opener been in respect of the outcome of the World Championship?
In the forty-five seasons I have been attending Grands Prix since 1974, twenty three of the drivers who won the opening race went on to become that year’s World Champion. That is just over a half, fifty-one per cent. More significantly, twenty-eight of the winning teams have gone on to provide the World Champion driver, that is almost three-quarters, seventy-three per cent.
In the 1970s the opening couple of rounds (usually in South America) were held so early in the year they were more like a continuation of the previous season rather than the start of a new one. The new regulations and consequently updated cars took effect at the start of the European rounds sometime later. As a result the opening-day winner was not necessarily a good indicator of the season to come.
The first race of 1974 (Argentina) was to be the eigth and last F1 victory for the 1967 World Champion Denny Hulme, but it would be his new McLaren team mate, Emerson Fittipaldi, who went on to take the title.
The most unlikely result was in 1977 when the first race (again in Argentina) was won by a brand new car in a brand new team in their first ever race, the Wolf driven by Jody Scheckter. And that was no fluke. They won two more races that season and Scheckter was runner up in the World Championship. Jenson Button and Brawn GP winning the opening race and the World Championship in 2009 was impressive, but not quite the same as although a new name, Brawn was the re-branded Honda team.
The opening two races of 1979 were unexpectedly won by Jacques Laffite in the Ford (as opposed to Matra) engined Ligier giving him a healthy World Championship lead. But he would not win again that season and faded away to eventually finish fourth overall.
In the four seasons between 1988 and 1991 inclusive, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna won all the Championships and three of the opening four races between them driving for McLaren. The one that got away was Brazil 1989 where Nigel Mansell won first time out for Ferrari, a feat emulated by Kimi Räikkönen in 2007 and he also went on to take the title that year. Staying with Ferrari, in 1999 Eddie Irvine won his first ever Grand Prix at the opening round in Melbourne. He would win three more that year but lost out in the final Championship standings to Mika Hakkinen by two points.
The twenty-first century has been dominated by three serial winners, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and now Lewis Hamilton. Such was the dominance of Schumacher he won six of the opening rounds in his seven title seasons, two with Benetton in the 1990s and four out of five with Ferrari. Conversely, Vettel only won a single opening round of his four Championships with Red Bull, the same as Lewis Hamilton with Mercedes, although he did do the double with McLaren back in 2008.
Regardless of history, such is the predictability of modern-day Formula One, it looks like another Mercedes Championship is on the cards. Let’s hope for all our sakes, the two drivers are allowed to make a fight of it.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.