By Sean Kelly, C4F1 Statistician
There’s never a more optimistic time in Formula One racing than at the start of a brand new season.
Drivers are either happy with their new team or excited to build on the previous year. Teams are confident their new car will make them world-beaters, and fans are just happy that the long winter wait is over. Best of all, there’s a 20-way tie at the top of the drivers’ championship with only 21 races remaining!
Hamilton vs Vettel - Who will join Fangio first?
F1's 69th world championship season will be unique as it is the first to begin with TWO four-time champions on the grid. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton may have both previously raced against seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, but neither of them had won this many titles by that stage.
Bearing in mind the UK has had 10 world champion drivers and 17 title successes (more than any other nation), it still seems slightly surprising to say that Hamilton is the first four-time winner from the British Isles.
He has been the dominant driver of the turbo hybrid era, winning 40 races across the past four seasons with Mercedes. Think about that – since the start of 2014 alone, Hamilton has won only one less race than Ayrton Senna did in his decade-long F1 career! It has put the Briton in second place on the all-time list, but even if he wins every race this season he still has a long way to go to reach Schumacher, who leads him 91-62.
No race in 2017 seemed to go by without Hamilton breaking a record. The biggest was when he surpassed Schumacher’s pole mark of 68 at the Italian GP, but there were many others – he also beat the front-row starts record (116), the consecutive race starts record (206 in a row), and joined Schumacher and Juan-Manuel Fangio as the only champions to score in every race of a title-winning season.
Did you know 2018 will be the first F1 season in history to feature two active four-time world champions in Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel?— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) March 20, 2018
Fingers crossed the battle between the two of them is as close as possible throughout the season #C4F1 #AusGP pic.twitter.com/qILAmH30ce
Additionally, Hamilton tied the record for most wins in the British GP (5), most wins in races held in the United States (6), most career wins from pole position (40) and most grand slams in a season (wins from pole with the fastest lap, and leading start-to-finish) with three. He also became the first man other than Schumacher to lead 100 grands prix and/or lead 3,000 laps.
So where now for Lewis in the record books? The most immediate record available to him is the one for consecutive points finishes. He goes into Melbourne on 25 in a row. Kimi Raikkonen’s record of 27, set in 2012-13, is tangibly within reach. He is also only two races shy of becoming the first man to start 100 grands prix for two different teams. His 98 races for Mercedes (2013-17) complement his 110 for McLaren (2007-12).
For Vettel, who dominated the final four seasons of the 2.4-litre V8 era at the beginning of this decade, records have been more modestly achieved of late. But let’s not forget that his five wins last year were the most by any Ferrari driver since Fernando Alonso’s championship near-miss back in 2010, and the German actually scored more points in 2017 than he did when he won the title with Red Bull in both 2010 and 2012!
The next time Vettel is on the podium will be history-making in itself, as he will become the fourth man to reach 100 career top-three finishes, joining Schumacher (155), Hamilton (117) and Alain Prost (106). He’s also only 10 laps short of joining Schumacher and Hamilton in the 3,000 laps-led club (which Hamilton coincidentally joined in Melbourne last year).
"That was not a race" - Ayrton Senna— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) March 19, 2018
He wasn't wrong either.... https://t.co/J8Espj0LfU
If this article seems unduly focused on Hamilton and Vettel so far, Albert Park history shows that to be valid. They are the only two drivers to have started from pole position in Melbourne in this entire decade! If Hamilton takes pole again this weekend he will beat Senna’s Australian GP record of six poles, which were all set in Adelaide.
Of course, Vettel set the best pre-season testing time, when he and teammate Raikkonen were 1-2 in the final Barcelona test, but this could easily be a false dawn. The Ferraris were also 1-2 in the final test last season AND in 2016. Despite this, the “winter world champions” still await their first triumph in the summer equivalent since 2007.
Will Red Bull find reliability?
Away from the top two, the lengthily-named Aston Martin Red Bull TAG Heuer team (for whom TAG Heuer is the supposed power unit, not Aston Martin!) aim to build on a season which showed pace – two wins for Max Verstappen and one for Daniel Ricciardo – but was beset by accidents and woeful reliability.
This time last year, Ricciardo came into Melbourne with a 29-race finishing streak, but Red Bull drivers suffered 13 retirements between them in 2017, more than Mercedes have suffered in the ENTIRE turbo hybrid era (12).
Reliability will be less of a concern in qualifying, and Verstappen still has this entire season to surpass Vettel’s record as the youngest polesitter in history (21 years, 73 days; Monza 2008).
Fans and media alike will be hoping this season is not all about those three teams. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull accounted for 59 of the 60 podium finishers last season, and 39 of the 40 front-row starters. The only exception, remarkably, was Lance Stroll, who was on the podium in Baku and became F1's youngest front-row starter in Italy, despite racing for a Williams team that scored fewer points last season (83) than either Force India driver on their own!
The race for fourth place?
Force India have finished fourth in the championship for the last two seasons, and have become the industry standard for mid-table consistency. Sergio Perez scored in the last eight races last season, without finishing in the top six at any of the final five grands prix, while Esteban Ocon starts his second full season having only posted one retirement in his last 47 single-seater races (his opening lap retirement at Interlagos).
Renault finished strongly last season, pinching sixth from Toro Rosso at the final race in Abu Dhabi – an irony considering they also pinched Toro Rosso’s lead driver Carlos Sainz Jr during the season run-in. Up until the final race, the Spaniard had bizarrely managed to score more points as an individual than either of the teams that had employed him!
A strong Sainz start is to be expected – he’s never finished lower than ninth in Melbourne – and it will be interesting to see if he can challenge Nico Hulkenberg in qualifying this year. The German has only been outqualified by a teammate once in the past 17 months, and even that was by default (when he declined to run in Q2 in Austin last year). Hulkenberg will be desperate to lose the ignominy of being the most experienced driver to never score a podium (135 races and counting).
As for Toro Rosso, they sit at the cusp of a new era. Quite apart from the fact that the parent company is now their title sponsor (they are officially “Red Bull Toro Rosso” rather than “Scuderia Toro Rosso”), but they now have a works engine deal for the first time in their history.
Many greeted their Honda switch with scepticism (or even ironic sympathy), but the Japanese power units have proven far better in pre-season testing than they showed in three years at McLaren. Pierre Gasly was seventh quickest overall, and Toro Rosso completed the MOST running in the first test, an unthinkable achievement during Honda's ill-fated McLaren reunion.
Conversely, the now-Renault-engined McLaren team were bottom of the pre-season mileage table with only 1,732 miles on the clock (compared with Mercedes’ 3,000 and even Toro Rosso’s 2,300). One of the big questions being pondered is whether or not Honda’s problems over the past three seasons were a function of the McLaren rather than the power unit itself.
On the plus side, Fernando Alonso was third fastest in the final preseason test, compared to being 18th quickest at the same stage in 2017. One of the greats in F1 history, Alonso might break an obscure record this season – if he should finish on the podium again, he will break Eddie Cheever’s record of 62 race starts between podium finishes (Italy 1983-Italy 1988). This weekend is Alonso’s 65th race since his last rostrum visit at the 2014 Hungarian GP.
The third-year Haas team were another surprise of pre-season testing, when Kevin Magnussen was sixth fastest overall despite using a tyre compound two steps harder than Ferrari. In both of their previous seasons, the US team have come out of the gate strongly. In 2016 Haas became the first start-up team to score in their first two races since Shadow in 1973, and last season Romain Grosjean qualified sixth on the grid in Melbourne, so look for their early pace to raise eyebrows.
Last year Sauber finished last in the constructors’ championship for the first time in their 25-season history, but 2018 sees a new tie-up with Alfa Romeo (joining Aston Martin in the not-actually-an-engine-supplier club this season) – the Italian marque’s first official involvement in F1 since the end of 1987. Not many people realise it, but this season Sauber have a link to F1 history that is even deeper rooted than their engine suppliers at Ferrari.
The first-ever F1 world championship race was the 1950 British Grand Prix, and it was won by an Alfa Romeo on Pirelli tyres. That came one race prior to Ferrari’s debut at the Monaco Grand Prix – where Louis Chiron finish on the podium, something that no Monegasque driver has done since. Alfa Romeo Sauber’s new hotshot Charles Leclerc, also from Monaco, has a little F1 heritage on his side in 2018.
Alfa Romeo have finally returned to F1!— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) March 20, 2018
The winners of the first ever F1 race in 1950 have tied-up with Sauber for the 2018 season, creating a livery very reminiscent of Alfa's colours in the 1980s #C4F1 pic.twitter.com/H2sHYNm38w
Melbourne has a habit of producing races that run contrary to how the rest of the season plays out. Only twice in the last six seasons has a driver won in Melbourne and gone on to claim the title (Hamilton in 2015 and Nico Rosberg in 2016), and the polesitter has only won twice at Albert Park in this decade (Hamilton again in 2015 and Vettel in 2011).
Almost 4,000 miles of racing are upon us, across 21 races in the next eight months. Can Ferrari finally live up to their pre-season form? Were Mercedes sandbagging by comparison? Will McLaren live to regret their Honda breakup? Can Toro Rosso and Haas spring surprises? We’re only days away from getting the first answers.@C4F1 and join us on Facebook.