The first race of the 2019 Formula One season in Melbourne had a lot of talking points: Valtteri Bottas’ crushing win after a difficult 2018, Ferrari’s surprise flopping, Daniel Ricciardo’s retirement once again in his home GP, Honda’s first podium finish in 11 years… But the drama towards the end of the race is an early indicator of a season that would go down to the wire with drivers fighting for points, no matter how small.

Giving a point for the fastest lap returned to the series a week before the season opener after the rule was used in F1’s first ten seasons. But there’s a clause: the driver must be classified in the top 10 at the end of the race. No point will be allocated if a driver achieves the feat and ends up in 11th place or lower. At the FIA press conference last Thursday, only Hamilton was bubbly about the effect the fastest lap point would have on the season as the others were either indifferent (Max Verstappen & Ricciardo) or downplayed its effect (Sebastian Vettel & Robert Kubica). Vettel must have eaten his words, seeing the events that played out on Sunday.

On lap 52 of 58, Bottas was holding the fastest lap time and a massive 25-second lead over second-placed Hamilton, but he was willing to take a risk and pitstop for fresher tyres to guarantee the bonus fastest lap point with another attempt. His crew was not ready to take any risk, even though the Finn had enough gap between him and his teammate. Bottas reiterated his intention to insure the bonus point and was going to make another fastest lap attempt at the end, saying: “I want 26 points”. He got it. Verstappen thought he had the point in the bag after nailing the fastest lap with three laps to go, but the Flying Finn pipped him to the point in the penultimate lap. Even Hamilton joined the hunt: “I need that point, Bono”, he said to his race engineer. Both Mercedes drivers defied team boss Toto Wolff’s pre-race instructions not to chase the now-precious point.

Of the 69 World Drivers’ Championships (WDC) in the history of F1, 25 were decided by five points or less. Every point counts, not only in a title fight, but also for the survival of a team. Felipe Nasr’s 9th-place finish in the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix lifted Sauber above Manor by a point and secured vital F1 prize money.

Years the driver’s championship was decided by just a point.

1958 Mike Hawthorn Stirling Moss
1961 Phil Hill Wolfgang von Trips
1964 John Surtees Graham Hill
1976 James Hunt Niki Lauda
1981 Nelson Piquet Carlos Reutemann
1982 Keke Rosberg Didier Pironi & John Watson
1994 Michael Schumacher Damon Hill
2007 Kimi Raikkonen Lewis Hamilton & Fernando Alonso
2008 Lewis Hamilton Felipe Massa

The smallest title win margin in Formula One history was in 1984 after Lauda outscored his McLaren teammate Prost by 0.5 point!

Though one could argue that the points scoring systems used in F1’s early years and up to the 80s were niggardly compared to the current scoring system, it doesn’t mean that this season and subsequent seasons cannot be decided by the finest of margins. If Chase Carey and co. can succeed in their planned budget caps for teams as part of the planned 2021 regulations changes, the races may be tighter in the nearest future and the points differences between the drivers and teams would be in tens, not hundreds.

Drivers are known to ease off and save their engines for the next race towards the end of a race. We may now happily see the demise of procession-like ends to races. We could even see teams and drivers outside the top 10 go for the fastest lap to deny rival teams and drivers the point. Team bosses would be reluctant to allow their drivers push for the fastest lap. It won’t be fun when your driver crashes out when going for the fastest lap. But one can bet that we haven’t seen the last of drivers disobeying team orders and go for the fastest lap (Mad Max comes to mind).

One thing is certain: it surely would be a blockbuster year, with the fastest lap adding to the show! Charlie would be proud of F1.

By Ekwonye Osy Ernesto

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