Why doesn’t the eventual world champion always win the opening race?

I recently looked at the statistics for the seasons opening race, showing that the most likely scenario is that it’s won by the eventual drivers (and constructors) champion that year. However, around 1/3 of the time that doesn’t happen. In this post, I want to review each race and see if the world champion *should* have won the opening race with a bit more luck/reliability. Of course, there are many “ifs” and “buts” here (as the late Murray Walker used to say “IF is F1 backwards!”), and perhaps this is not the most scientific of analysis, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavour to see if a driver that has a solid but steady drive to forth place in the opening race (for example) has any hope of launching a successful championship campaign. Let’s first look at the eventual champions results in the opening race.

Fig 2: Summary of opening race results of eventual champion. Non-victories are highlighted in pink.

Update: For 2021 Verstappen qualified on pole, but finished 2nd at the season opener.

I poured through the data more in my previous post, but the conclusions relevant to this post are:

  • Most world champions for that year win the opening race.
  • No-one has ever finished the opening race lower than 4th and gone on to be champion.
  • It used to be very common for the winner of the first race to win the championship, but more recently it is less common.

You can see this final point by the number of pink rows in Figure 2 (above) in recent years. Even in cases where the champion doesn’t win, they almost certainly have a competitive car: in only three of those years in pink was the world champion not on pole, and in two of those three exceptions it was his teammate on pole.

Anyway, let’s go over each of these pink cases to see if there’s a case to be made that the ultimate championship winner *should* have won the season opener, but was somehow denied by the racing Gods.

The key for the data is:

Year (Name of champion, their qualifying position, their race result).

1997 (Villeneuve, pole, DNF): Villeneuve qualified on pole by a staggering 1.75 seconds, but ended up in the gravel trap at turn 1. In the next two races he qualified on pole and won both times.

1999 (Häkkinen, pole, DNF): Häkkinen qualified on pole before retiring from the lead with reliability issues. He won the next race from pole, although poor reliability would be a regular feature of McLaren’s campaign.

2003 (Schumacher, pole, P4): An entertaining race that several drivers could have won, in a highly competitive season. Schumacher started on pole, and although a case could be made that he would have been a worthy winner, the same could be said for Räikkönen and Montoya too. The eventual winner Coulthard did not ultimately feature in the championship fight, but the battle for victory between Schumacher, Räikkönen and Montoya was a good precursor for the season ahead. It took Schumacher until the 4th race to record win, after an unusually slow start.

2005 (Alonso, 13th, P3): A short-lived new qualifying format put Alonso 13th on the grid, mostly due to the fact that his allotted time slot for first qualifying coincided with rain, whilst others completed their laps on a dry track. He recovered to finish 3rd whilst teammate Fisichella won from pole. Given that Alonso established himself as a cut above Fisichella throughout the season, he would have surely been in a good position to win if he had had comparable qualifying conditions. Alonso went on to win the next 3 races, claiming pole at 2 of them.

2010 (Vettel, pole, P4): Vettel almost won from pole before slowing in the final stages with reliability issues. Vettel returned to win the third race of the year, but famously never lead the championship until its conclusion.

The theory that world champions “should” win the opening race seems to hold up extraordinarily well up to this point. Of the 18 seasons from 1994 to 2010, 13 had the eventual world champion winning the opening race (72%), and in almost all the others it could be argued that they could have won with a bit more luck/reliability. However, there are some problems with the theory. One thing to note is that I have only considered bad luck in one direction. For example, in 1996 eventual champion Hill only won the opening race due to his teammate suffering an oil leak. This isn’t necessarily an issue with the theory, it just means that we should be cautious in our conclusions.

The much bigger problem is that the last decade of results appears to go against the theory. Since 2011, only 2 of the last 9 opening race winners went on to clinch the title. Luck can account for some of these, but not all. Perhaps this is due to the increased number of races in recent years, diluting the importance of the opening race. It also seems true (anecdotally) that both Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton typically start seasons slower before peaking in the second half. Vettel won 4 championships for Red Bull, but in only one of those did he win the opening race (2011). Hamilton’s opening race stats are even worse: he has currently won 6 world championships for Mercedes, but in only one of those did he win the season opener (2015).

Regardless, let’s go through the rest of the seasons:

2012 (Vettel, 6th, P2): As noted in my previous post, 2012’s first race is a pretty big anomaly. In fact, the whole first third of the season was incredibly unpredictable. There’s no real argument to be made that Vettel should have won this race, despite his recovery drive to second. Vettel only won 1 of the first 13 races before a strong finish to the season rescued his campaign.

2013 (Vettel, pole, P3): Again Vettel was beaten to victory fair and square, at least partly due to an inferior strategy and getting stuck behind slower cars who had yet to pit. Vettel won the next from pole. Similar to 2012, Vettel and Red Bull came good at the end of the season.

2014 (Hamilton, pole, DNF): Hamilton retired early on with engine issues after starting from pole. He went on to win the next four races, getting pole at three of them in an extremely dominant Mercedes car. He would have been favourite to win here too had his car held together.

2017 (Hamilton, pole, P2): Vettel beat Hamilton in a straight fight. Hamilton secured victory at the next round from pole, although the momentum moved back and forth throughout the first two-thirds of the season,

2018 (Hamilton, pole, P2): Again, beaten by Vettel, but this one is at least partially down to luck as Vettel took the lead by putting under a Virtual Safety Car. It took Hamilton until the 4th race to win, but a strong second half of the season secured him the title.

2019: (Hamilton, pole, P2): Another pole from Hamilton that ended up as second place in the race, Bottas jumped him at the start and controlled the race from there. 6 wins in the next 7 races saw an easy run to the title for Lewis.

2020 (Hamilton, 2nd, P4): A unusually messy weekend for Lewis saw him finish off the podium. Perhaps a grid penalty could be counted as bad luck, costing him a straight fight for victory. Regardless, winning from pole in the next 3 races set up what turned out to be a very dominant season for the Brit.

2021 (Verstappen, 2nd, pole): A close battle between Hamilton and Verstappen that set the tone for the whole season. Verstappen passed Hamilton for the lead late on, but gave the place back as the overtake was presumed to be outside of track limits.

Conclusions

There is not a single season where the eventual world champion was not competitive in the first round. There is a good case to be made that the world champion “should” have always won the opening race in the 90s and 00s, but recently it appears to have less of an impact on the season as a whole.

4 thoughts on “Why doesn’t the eventual world champion always win the opening race?

  1. I wonder if the Hamilton effect in not being at the races for the first GP of the year skews these stats a bit? I know he won the first race of the year in 2021 but that seems like a exception as that Red Bull looks quick.

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    1. I’m sure it has skewed the stats, as there is a clear difference between the last 10 years or so and the time before. However, I’d argue that the real issue is the lack of competition in modern F1. In the last 10 years (2011-2020) there’s only been 3 world champions from 2 teams, and only once (2012) was there a true year long battle between different teams. Compare that to the 5 years before that, (2006-2010), where a different driver from a different team won every season, and every season had a year long battle with a driver/drivers from another team/teams.

      If Hamilton wasn’t winning so consistently then his effect on the stats would be minimal.

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