- Pic: Sutton Images

What does the Australian Grand Prix tell us about the season ahead?

Is the season-opener a good barometer for the year ahead, or an outlier that offers few real clues?

3y ago
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The first race of 2018 is upon us. After the smoke and mirrors of winter testing, we will finally learn who's got what for the season ahead.

But how strong a barometer is the Albert Park event? Does it genuinely plot a course for the upcoming campaign, or is it an outlier that provides no real clues?

To asses this, we've looked at the races staged since 1996 (excluding 2006 and 2010 when Bahrain hosted the opening round). In total that's 20 races at Albert Park, enough to give us a good read on any patterns that may or may not exist.

Pic: Sutton Images

Pic: Sutton Images

NOTHING BEATS A WINNING START

It won't come as much surprise to learn that there is a fairly high frequency of the driver who wins the opening race going on to clinch the world title, beginning with Damon Hill in 1996.

Since then it's happened a further 11 times, giving us a total of 12 winners at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix who went on to clinch the title.

But this isn't a perfect science. For example, last year Sebastian Vettel won the opening race but finished second to Lewis Hamilton in the standings.

A more decisive guide comes from qualifying. On a whooping 18 out of 20 occasions, the team that qualifies on pole has produced the drivers' world champion. The pole-sitter is usually the champion himself, albeit with a few exceptions.

Schumacher launched four of his world title bids with victory at Albert Park. Pic: Sutton Images

Schumacher launched four of his world title bids with victory at Albert Park. Pic: Sutton Images

So, if Mercedes are on pole come Saturday, put your money on Lewis; if Ferrari bag P1 in qualifying, you'd best back Seb; and if Red Bull lock out the front row you may need to hedge your bets.

What we shouldn't expect is a shock winner - Albert Park hasn't really produced any. From 20 opening races, we have seen just three victories by drivers who did not either have a world title to their name or go on to claim one.

That trio consists of David Coulthard (McLaren), Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) and Giancarlo Fisichella (Renault). All were driving for powerhouse teams and only Irvine was taking his first win. Generally, this is a race for big hitters.

SEASON-LONG SUCCESS

You could call Kimi Raikkonen's 2013 win a surprise, if not a shock given his reputation. It was the Finn's only win of the year but it began a very solid season for his Lotus team, with Kimi and teammate Romain Grosjean securing 14 podiums between them.

It's not just title-winners who make an early mark in Melbourne: strong results at the opener are often followed by a good season.

Take Sauber in 2001. The Swiss team were coming off the back of a poor 2000 campaign and had a very inexperienced driver line-up in newcomer Raikkonen and Prost refugee Nick Heidfeld.

Raikkonen starred on his F1 debut in 2001. Pic: Sutton Images

Raikkonen starred on his F1 debut in 2001. Pic: Sutton Images

But with Heidfeld finishing in fourth and Kimi taking sixth in Australia, the team had made a stellar start.

It lasted. They went on to secure fourth in the constructors championship, their highest finish at that stage and still their best as an independent outfit.

Haas began their debut year brilliantly with Grosjean taking fifth in 2016. It was a season high, but it did point to the fact that the newcomers were a serious operation. They went on to finish eighth in the constructors', beating three well-established teams in the process.

Sometimes it's about the driver. Mark Webber's brilliant fifth for Minardi in 2002 led to a strong debut year that launched a highly successful F1 career; two years earlier Jenson Button had run well in his maiden race before retiring; while in 2007 Lewis Hamilton hinted at what was to come by finishing third in his first F1 outing.

Hamilton's debut podium suggested big things for the Brit. Pic: Sutton Images

Hamilton's debut podium suggested big things for the Brit. Pic: Sutton Images

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RDULE

Of course, there are exceptions.

In 2014 McLaren began the season brilliantly, with Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button taking a double podium.

But results thereafter were no match for this. Button's experience showed as he picked up regular points, albeit no further podiums, while Magnussen struggled and only cracked the top five once more all season. Having led the championship after the opening round, McLaren ended 2014 fifth in the standings, equalling their worst finish since 1981.

You could also point to Giancarlo Fisichella's win in the opening round of the 2005 season - his debut for Renault - which proved to be his only victory of the season. In fact, Fisichella didn't score another podium for six months while teammate Fernando Alonso stormed to his maiden title.

Fisichella's win was a false dawn as Alonso came to dominate their intra-team battle. Pic: Sutton Images

Fisichella's win was a false dawn as Alonso came to dominate their intra-team battle. Pic: Sutton Images

And in 2011 Lotus driver Vitaly Petrov kicked off the season with a podium, but the Russian didn't get near the top three again all year. Having started the campaign with a bang, he ended it by losing his seat.

For the most part, these are exceptions to the rule. A strong start usually leads to a good season, but it's by no means a cast-iron guarantee.

HARBINGERS OF DOOM

While the opening race can create promise, it may also foretell at a miserable campaign.

The McLaren-Honda nightmare had been strongly hinted at in testing, but when they were the slowest two qualifiers at Albert Park in 2015 the extent of their problems became painfully clear.

In 1999 the BAR team were making their much-vaunted debut, but Melbourne was a bust as both failed to finish. This began an unbelievable run of unreliability for Jacques Villeneuve, who didn't finish a race until round 12 at Spa. The team scored no points all season, a disaster that was first hinted at in Melbourne.

BAR's 1999 season started badly and continued in the same fashion. Pic: Sutton Images

BAR's 1999 season started badly and continued in the same fashion. Pic: Sutton Images

But at least BAR survived. A genuinely bad showing at the opening race can hint at much worse.

In 1996 both Forti cars failed to qualify within the 107% time and sat out the race. By mid-season the team was out of F1.

In 1997 both Lola cars and Pedro Diniz (Arrows) failed to qualify. Diniz was allowed to race having set a quick enough time in free practice, but the Lolas were left on the sidelines. The team never started a grand prix and folded within weeks.

A few drivers fell foul of the 107% rule over the following years, but all were allowed to race. The next team to actually sit out the Australian Grand Prix for being too slow was HRT in 2011, when Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan both saw the dreaded DNQ appear next to their names.

Both drivers managed to qualify for every other grand prix that year, but 12 months later it happened again, this time with Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa driving.

Again, neither was allowed to race in Australia and then went on to contest every other event that year. Alas, 2012 was the end of the road for HRT as the team folded that winter.

Back in the garage with you, Pedro. Pic: Sutton Images

Back in the garage with you, Pedro. Pic: Sutton Images

So that's three teams whose drivers missed the Australian Grand Prix having failed to set a fast enough time. Of those, two did not finish the season; the other soldiered on for a while but eventually went the same way.

It's highly unlikely to happen this weekend, but if it does the team in question may want to prepare for the worst.

What have we learned? It's fair to say that the Australian Grand Prix is no outlier. A strong performance at the opening event suggests a good season ahead, with the pole-sitting team highly likely to secure the drivers' title.

Will it remain that way this weekend, or could 2018 buck the trend?

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Comments (3)

  • Hi congratulations - your post has been selected by DriveTribe F1 Ambassador for promotion on the DriveTribe homepage.

      3 years ago
  • Small typo in the 'exceptions' sub heading. Feel free to delete this comment after editing.

      3 years ago
  • It does have the odd result from time to time, looking further than p1. Probably why it's so beloved by the fans. That and because it's the beginning of a new season. Great article!

      3 years ago
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