Is the 2018 grid the strongest in Formula 1 History?
From top to bottom there's a lot of quality on the 2018 grid. Has the sport ever had it so good?
There is a tendency to be cynical about the state of modern Formula 1. Like most things in life - be it entertainment, sport, or the general state of the world - we often look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. In comparison, the present looks pretty drab.
But while F1 is not perfect, there is an argument to be made that we're living through a kind of golden age. How so? Take a step back and look at this season's grid.
The headline acts are multiple world champions - Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso - and certain to go down as all-time greats.
That's a hug worth eight world titles (and counting). Pic: Sutton Images
The supporting cast isn't too shabby either. Kimi Raikkonen may be past his absolute peak, but he is still a world champion who can turn it on from time to time. Don't forget, he was on pole at Monaco last year.
Daniel Ricciardo is perhaps the finest overtaker of his generation and gets extra points for bringing some life to a sport that can feel a little stuffy. You'll get less razzamatazz from Valtteri Bottas, but the Finn can mix it with the best of them and has more wins in him yet.
And then there is Max Verstappen. Already the sport's youngest race winner, the Dutchman's potential suggests he could vault into the same category as Lewis, Seb and Fernando one day. Potentially, that's four all-time greats on the same grid.
Max Verstappen has the potential to win multiple world titles. Pic: Sutton Images
Those seven are all grand prix winners, not the highest we've ever had, but given the dominance of Mercedes in recent years it's not a perfect reflection of quality.
In Esteban Ocon, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Stoffel Vandoorne we have another trio with the potential to become race winners - and perhaps more - in the coming years. There are equally high hopes for F2 champion Charles Leclerc, who is considered a long-term Ferrari prospect, while Pierre Gasly comes with a GP2 title to his name and the support of Red Bull.
The midfield is stacked with experienced talent, too. Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Kevin Magnussen - all are established F1 racers with a strong body of work; what's more, all were standout performers during their junior careers.
The midfield is dominated by extremely high-calibre drivers like Hulkenberg. Pic: Sutton Images
NO WEAK LINKS?
They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Applied to this discussion, it means we should judge the grid on its least capable racer. In 2018 that is arguably Marcus Ericsson, who has yet to really shine during his four years in the sport.
Then again, nor has the Swede ever disgraced himself. He's kept the likes of Felipe Nasr and Pascal Wehrlein honest and while he is reliant on money to retain his seat he's got some ability, too.
Look at it this way: Ericsson won the Japanese F3 title as a teenager; he then secured 13 podiums in GP2 - three of them wins - over a four year period. While that doesn't suggest a world champion in the making, nor is it the CV of a complete no-hoper.
Marcus Ericsson is good enough for F1, even if he's not a potential star . Pic: Sutton Images
If he is the weakest member of the grid, it's primarily because the rest are so good. And if not Ericsson, who else might you single out? Sergey Sirotkin, who twice finished third in GP2? European F3 champion Lance Stroll? Le Mans winner and two-time World Endurance champion Brendon Hartley?
That's what makes the case for the 2018 grid so compelling. It's not just the enormous talent at the front; it's not simply the immense potential of the sport's youngsters or the stacked midfield.
It's that the driver who most people would class as the worst on the grid is, by normal standards, highly accomplished. There is no laughingstock - no Yuji Ide, no Giovanni Lavaggi - who we can point to as being out of their depth in F1.
Whatever you think of Ericsson, he is vastly superior to some of the sport's past backmarkers. Pic: Sutton Images
He's no world champion, but Ericsson can compete at the top level. Put him up against Alex Yoong or Jean-Denis Deletraz and the Swede would look like a megastar.
RIVALS FROM THE PAST
If we're looking for past grids that trumped 2018, an obvious candidate is the mid-eighties, when world champions past and present were operating at or near their peak.
In particular, 1984 stands out. Niki Lauda won the title that year, beating McLaren teammate Alain Prost by just half a point. Reigning champion Nelson Piquet was fast but unreliable in his Brabham, while Keke Rosberg had the occasional moment of glory for Williams. Ayrton Senna arrived on the scene and lit up the sport for the little Toleman squad, while Nigel Mansell was toiling away at a fading Lotus outfit.
1984 featured an all-star grid. Pic: Sutton Images
Looked at today, that's six world champions with 15 titles between them. However, by the end of the '84 campaign they totalled only six (three for Lauda, two for Piquet and one for Rosberg). The current F1 field has 11 - four a piece for Lewis and Seb, two for Fernando and one for Kimi.
A few years later Prost and Senna were racking up titles, but both Lauda and Rosberg had gone while Piquet was fading. By 1988, say, you had two of the finest drivers in F1 history at the top, but behind them the talent level was merely very good rather than outstanding.
1988 was all about Prost and Senna. Pic: Sutton Images
Looking back further, there are some eye-catching grids. In 1953 Alberto Ascari beat Juan Manuel Fangio to the title, with Nino Farina and Mike Hawthorn next in line, while a young Stirling Moss was establishing himself further back.
The mid-sixties were another golden era, with Clark, Stewart, Brabham, Surtees, Hill, Hulme, Rindt and McLaren all sharing the same grid. But there was a drop off in quality after the frontrunners, with less depth than we see today.
This was a different era that featured semi-professional drivers - including aristocracy and even minor royalty - who qualified several seconds off the pace and finished several laps behind Stewart, Clark and the rest. That did not detract from the racing, but it affected the overall quality.
It's very difficult to compare the sixties with the modern era. Pic: Sutton Images
The same was true during the eighties and early nighties. Grid numbers were huge - 34 cars entered the opening race of the 1991 season - boosted by drivers with big budgets and questionable qualifications. In '91, a driver of Ericsson's standard would have been a solid midfielder.
PLENTY STILL TO BE REVEALED
In truth, it's tough to make a definitive call on how good the current grid is because all of the drivers still have the potential to achieve more.
Perhaps we'll look back at this grid 20 years from now and be talking about Hamilton as the sport's most successful driver; maybe Max will be a multiple world champion; and Alonso might have become only the second person in history to secure the Triple Crown.
Who knows what Fernando's CV will include 20 years from now. Pic: Sutton Images
If these things come to pass - and the likes of Leclerc, Ocon and Sainz also become multiple winners - we may well come to see this field as the strongest in the sport's history.
That's all to be decided. For now, let's put the nostalgia aside and try to remember that, whatever else may be wrong with F1, the present driver line-up is as good as we have ever seen.