Today, at last, a new Formula One season will begin in earnest with the first official timed session of the year at the 2018 Australian Grand Prix.
It may only be free practice, and Australia may be just one round of a bumper 21-race season, but this weekend is an important opening stanza to a crucial F1 season, because in 2018 the opportunity is on offer for the victors.
Mercedes will start the season as reigning constructors champion for the fourth year in succession, having swept all before it since the regulation changes of 2014 catapulted it to the front of the field.
Lewis Hamilton will also take to the grid as the reigning drivers titleholder for a fourth season after his championship victories in 2008, 2014, 2015 and last year.
Though these are obviously impressive numbers — particularly for Mercedes, which is entering only its ninth year as a manufacturer in the modern Formula One era — they are sufficient to be only noteworthy in the grander narrative of the sport.
But if Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton were to extend their control over the sport into 2018, they would indelibly mark themselves as the dominant forces not only of this era but of all time.
A fifth Mercedes constructors world championship would elevate the team above Red Bull Racing in terms of both consecutive and accumulative season victories.
This achievement would rank the Silvers Arrows outright second to Ferrari for consecutive team titles and make it the most successful marque since the Scuderia’s era of domination ended with a sixth straight championship in 2004 — and that record would then come within range for Mercedes in 2019.
A fifth Lewis Hamilton world championship would elevate him into rarefied air and above German rival Sebastian Vettel. Except for Michael Schumacher and his seven championships, no driver has equalled Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio’s five world titles, won in 1951 and 1954–57.
Already casting a significant shadow over the sport, by taking home a fifth crown Hamilton could credibly claim the tag of the generation’s most best driver.
Finally, together Mercedes and Hamilton can make themselves equal second on the leaderboard for most potent team and driver combination, matching Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel’s four double titles of 2010–13 and putting themselves within reaching distance of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher’s five doubles won between 2000 and 2004.
These are numbers worth absorbing. Sure, in the moment of superiority the ownership of the sport by any one team or driver can come across as boring — certainly Hamilton’s 2015 championship, largely unopposed by teammate Nico Rosberg, the only other driver in the mix, fits this description — but it’s important to recognise how impressive Mercedes’s consistency has been.
Bernie Ecclestone, for example, thought it was so unlikely that even two championships in succession were winnable that he offered the team £50 million ($A91 million) in bonus prize money if it could take back-to-back titles. Needless to say Mercedes now accounts for a significant percentage of Formula One’s expenditure.
But, after all, isn’t competitive excellence what sport is about? If the challenge is to build the fastest car — doubly difficult when the regulations change, as they did in 2014 — then Mercedes’s efforts should be rejoiced rather than derided.
Consider Roger Federer and his effect on the tennis world. Federer, having won 97 career titles, including 20 grand slams, with a victory rate of more than 82 per cent, doesn’t turn off crowds; indeed he and those like him at their peak — Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and so on — enliven the sport by asking, “Who can beat me?”.
That is the question Mercedes poses, and it’s fitting that those attempting to answer the call — Ferrari and Red Bull Racing — are those who stand to have their places in F1 history reconsidered by another year of silver hegemony. Apt too is that Sebastian Vettel, himself a four-time champion, is likely to play a part in attempting to prevent Hamilton from reaching Fangio’s milestone before him.
This is what’s at stake in 2018, beginning with this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. The story of the season isn’t just another chapter in the history of Formula One; it’s a revision of the bar against which future generations will be assessed.
There’s history at stake for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.