PARIS: Often, another name for Formula One could have been Formula Same-Same: Same-old faces driving for the same-old teams winning the same-old races.
This has long been a sport with established hierarchies of top teams, cars and drivers so hard to dislodge that 342 races over the past 20 years produced fewer than three dozen different winners, or just 29 to be precise. And six of those 20 seasons – including the last two – produced no new race winners at all.
So if variety is the spice of sport as it is in life, then F1 has at times over the past two decades been serving up the entertainment equivalent of hospital food – lacking rich choice and therefore quickly tiresome and bland. Can we switch to another channel, dear?
But this year, well, wow. Hands off that remote control.
For the first time in 62 seasons of F1, the guy dousing himself in champagne on the winner’s podium has changed at each of the first six races. Australian Mark Webber was the sixth, providing a tasty new slice of F1 history to jazz up the otherwise ho-hum Monaco Grand Prix this Sunday.
Another welcome addition to F1’s menu is that two of the other winners so far in 2012 – German Nico Rosberg and Pastor Maldonado from Venezuela – hadn’t won an F1 race before this year. They were F1’s first new faces atop the winner’s podium since Webber in 2009.
At this rate, 2012 is shaping up as a throwback to F1’s mustachioed, some would argue sexier, era in the 1970s and early 1980s when drivers like James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Rosberg’s father Keke and many others regularly shared victories and glory. The 14 races in ‘75 produced nine different winners, and an astounding smorgasbord of 11 drivers won in the 16 races of ’82.
But the 19 races last year and the 19 of 2010 produced just five different winners, and 16 of them went to just one driver – double world champion Sebastian Vettel. That small pool of winners is pretty much par for modern F1. In the two decades since seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher won his first Grand Prix in 1992, there’s been an average of five race winners per season.
So, with six winners and counting this season, we should consider ourselves fortunate. The most there have been in a single season of the Schumacher era was eight different winners, in 2003, when the German was forced to wait until the final race, in Suzuka, Japan, to secure his sixth world title.
There were also seven different winners in 2008. That season also went down to the final race, with Lewis Hamilton making a vital pass on the last corner of the last lap at Interlagos in Brazil to win his first world title.
Which seems to bode well for another gripping finale this year.
Hamilton has yet to win in 2012, but you’d put money on him doing so. Schumacher’s pace in Monaco, where his Mercedes was quickest in qualifying but broke down in the race, suggests he also could score his first victory since coming out of retirement in 2010.
If F1 rookie Romain Grosjean can make fewer mistakes, and with former world champion Kimi Raikkonen not looking too rusty after his two seasons in rally cars, they can legitimately target a race win this season in their Lotus.
So, F1 could have more winners in 2012 than at any time since the wide-open ’82 season saw the swashbuckling, chain-smoking Rosberg become world champion.
F1 is most compelling when the outcome of races and the world title is uncertain. And there is absolutely zero certainty after six races who will be the champion of 2012. With the field so tight, the winner could be the driver who makes fewest mistakes in the 14 races that remain and not necessarily the one with the fastest car. It could, in other words, be a genuine driver’s championship, more of a human victory than a purely technological one.
The uncertainty this year is tough on the teams. They spend millions developing their cars. Their engineers and mechanics work all hours designing them and putting them together. And yet, for all that money and sweat, performances this season have been erratic and confusing, good one race, disappointing the next.
Schumacher, in particular, has grumbled that the 2012 tires are like driving on “raw eggs” and that their fragility is preventing drivers from pushing themselves and their cars to the limit.
It must be frustrating. Webber said so after his Monaco win Sunday.
“The races are hard to predict, so even for us, how we judge how the Grand Prix is going to unfold, is not particularly straightforward,” he said. “It’s different to how it was in the past.”