GRR

Australian Grand Prix – what Melbourne often tells us about title chances

28th March 2017
Paul Fearnley

Lewis Hamilton has a fight on his hands. And not just with Ferrari. The Aussie odds are stacked against him, too.

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Since 1996, which is when the race relocated from Adelaide, only one driver has finished runner-up in the Australian Grand Prix and gone on to become that season’s world champion: Sebastian Vettel, in 2011. That man Vettel, this time in 2013, is also one of just two to have won the title ‘from’ third in Melbourne, the other being Renault’s Fernando Alonso in 2005.

In contrast, 13 Australian GP winners have so progressed, including Hamilton, in 2008 and 2015. Damon Hill’s successful campaign of 1996 began in the grandest style with Williams, and its maximum-points example has since been followed by world champions Mika Häkkinen, Michael Schumacher – on no fewer than four occasions – Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen, Jenson Button and, in 2011, that man Vettel.

The same was true of last season’s race, when Nico Rosberg signalled his intent by defeating team-mate Hamilton. In fact, the race’s 2016 iteration featured the season’s leading quartet in its top four places, albeit not necessarily in the right order: that man Vettel and local hero Daniel Ricciardo had swapped places by the season’s close. 

Unlike 2015’s podium – Hamilton, Rosberg and Vettel, 1-2-3 – which predicted entirely accurately the championship’s final order. The same was true of 2001’s: Schumacher, David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello.

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The Australian GP has also highlighted unlikely championship challengers. In 1999, Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine used his first GP victory as a springboard and only fell short at the Japanese finale. And but for an electrical glitch at the Nürburgring’s European GP, Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen might have made it a three-way fight at Suzuka, the German having begun his challenge with a second place, behind Irvine, in Melbourne.

Rarely indeed has a Melbourne podium-finisher slipped through the net result. Irvine, who finished third on his Ferrari debut in 1996, ended that season 10th in the points, as did Ralf Schumacher for Toyota in 2006 and Renault’s Vitaly Petrov in 2011.

McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen went two worse in 2014, from second in Melbourne, his GP debut, to 11th in the points. But it was Rosberg who slipped furthest, from third to 13th while with Williams in 2008.

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Win in Australia, however, and the worst you can reasonably expect from your year is an eventual fifth place, as Giancarlo Fisichella, Button – twice – and Räikkönen have discovered. The only exception to this being Coulthard, whose 2003 victory with McLaren, his last in Formula 1, was book-ended by seventh place in the championship.

So, in conclusion: first away, always ahead. More often than not.

P.S. Two Australian GPs since 1996 have not kick-started an F1 season. In 2006 and 2010 that honour fell to Bahrain, and Alonso won both. On the former occasion he went on to score his second consecutive world title and on the latter finished just four points shy of a third. 

The latter was the year that that man Vettel bucked the trend completely. Having finished fourth in Bahrain, he retired from the lead in Australia when braking issues sent him skittering into the gravel. Yet still, he won the first of four consecutive world titles with Red Bull Racing.

Images courtesy of LAT

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