Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Melbourne was not a knockout blow, but Formula 1’s history suggests that Lewis Hamilton’s response must be swift as well as strong. For 47 of the 67 world champions crowned since 1950 have won either the first or second rounds of their successful title campaigns. Of those: 19 won the first; 13 the second; and 15 both.
APR 07th 2017
Chinese F1 GP – everything to play for
Should Vettel prevail in China – the first time that this country has hosted the second round of the world championship – the odds on his being this year’s champion will shorten dramatically. For only four of the men to have won the opening two rounds have failed to top the points at the season’s end: Emerson Fittpaldi (1973), Niki Lauda (1976), Jacques Laffite (1979) and Alain Prost (1982). And today’s digitised era is much more predictable than the Bernie-v-Balestre, FISA-v-FOCA, grandees-v-garagistes analogue age of giant-leap technology and leap-of-faith safety. The 30-year period from 1960 was indeed F1’s Wild West.
The decade prior to that had been relatively calm, with thirtysomething-plus talents driving proven and sturdy front-engined machinery. Twice Juan Fangio won the first two rounds and the corresponding titles – in 1954 and 1957 – a feat already achieved in 1953 by Alberto Ascari. And only once during the 1950s did neither the winner of the first nor second round become champion, Stirling Moss and Maurice Trintignant – the dappy Frenchman was a springer of early-season surprises – eventually losing out to Mike Hawthorn in 1958.
In stark contrast 16 of the next 30 seasons were so composed: 1960, 1961, 1964 and 1966; 1970, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1979; and 1981, 1982, 1986, 1987 and 1989. The only man to equal Ascari and Fangio during this period was Jackie Stewart, whose Ken Tyrrell-run Matra of 1969 provided a hard-won combination of sufficient speed and necessary reliability.
Such inconsistency, however, went out with the manual gearchange. Since 1990 only three seasons have featured a brace of ‘rogue’ early winners. In 2003, McLaren’s David Coulthard and Kimi Räikkönen won in Melbourne and Malaysia respectively – even the venues had settled into a pattern – but thereafter drew a blank, although the consistent Finn ran Michael Schumacher close in the standings.
Rare were the occasions that the latter loosened his grip: the one-two punches of his seven title years saw him win 10 from 14 races. In 1994, he joined Ayrton Senna (1991) and Nigel Mansell (1992) as a champion who had won the first two rounds – an example followed by Damon Hill (1996) and Mika Häkkinen (1998). But, with opening ‘doubles’ in 2000, 2001 and 2004, Schumacher set yet another mark that remains beyond reach.
Competition has been much more open since, with Fernando Alonso, Räikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel battling to be Schumacher’s successor. With Jenson Button also in the mix – the Brit adding two victories in Melbourne to his double of 2009 – the 2010 and 2012 seasons were mini-Wild Wests, with Vettel leaving his title charges late each time.
The modern era’s extended calendars allow some room for manoeuvre, but Hamilton knows from personal experience, both good – 2008, 2014 and 2015 – and bad that the chances are he must win this weekend if he’s to attain a fourth title this season. Failing that, he must at the very least prevent Vettel from doing so and thus building up a head of Nico Rosberg-in-2016-type confidence and momentum.
NB For the purposes of the article I have passed over the occasions when the Indianapolis 500 constituted the second round of the world championship: 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1959. There was very little crossover, in truth.
Images courtesy of LAT
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