Sebastian Vettel was on course to finish third in the 2018 Australian Grand Prix, behind teammate Kimi Raikkonen and early race leader Lewis Hamilton. But Ferrari’s gamble and a stroke of good luck saw the former quadruple World Champion snatch victory away from a puzzled Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes during the first and only round of pit stops.
Vettel clinched his 43rd career win in Formula 1 and also recorded a century of podium finishes in the sport. The other drivers with a 100 podiums include Michael Schumacher and Vettel’s arch-rival, Hamilton. This was also Ferrari’s 230th Grand Prix win in Formula 1.
The Vettel-Hamilton rivalry started off on an entertaining note after Hamilton resorted to a verbally aggressive boxing-style display of one-upmanship when he claimed pole position (his 73rd, also Formula 1’s highest number of pole positions by a driver) on Saturday. Hamilton claimed that he wanted to ‘wipe the smile of Vettel’s face’ and he did exactly that when he stitched together a near perfect lap to qualify six-tenths of a second ahead of his nearest rival (Raikkonen). Vettel was a further tenth down.
Instead of focusing on Hamilton’s pole lap, there was intense focus on whether the mystical ‘party mode’ of the Mercedes power unit was used to qualify this ahead of the competition. While Hamilton and Toto Wolff sent out mixed signals about the mode that was eventually used, let’s agree that irrespective of the engine mode, the difference between the Mercedes and Ferrari is certainly not six-tenths.
This gap was purely down to Hamilton’s talent and ability to deliver a perfect lap while his teammate Valtteri Bottas found the wall at the exit of Turn 2 on his hot-lap in Q3. Hamilton’s qualifying lap and the coverage around it reminded us of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, It’s Not About The Bike. In Hamilton’s case, it wasn’t only about the Mercedes, of course.
Raikkonen qualified ahead of Vettel, while both the Haas cars were the surprise additions in Q3 (Kevin Magnussen, sixth; Romain Grosjean, seventh), much like both McLarens and Force India cars were the surprise exits (Fernando Alonso, 11th; Stoffel Vandoorne, 12th, Sergio Perez, 13th; Esteban Ocon, 15th).
The Renault works team also saw both their drivers in Q3 and eventually qualifying in eight (Nico Hulkenberg) and ninth (Carlos Sainz) for the race. The Australian fans were a bit disappointed when their local hero Daniel Ricciardo was awarded a three-place grid penalty for a transgression during Friday’s free practice. Riccardo, who qualified fifth just behind Verstappen, started eighth while Bottas, who had to change his gearbox following his crash in qualifying, started 15th.
Ferrari's lack of pace
Come Race Day, the entire grid made a good start and ensured that the first lap was a busy one for the fans. Magnussen got the better of Verstappen into Turn 1, while Alonso and Ricciardo climbed up places.
Haas’ superior performances were a treat to watch, and in fact, they successfully foiled Red Bull Racing’s plans to battle with the front-running Ferrari and Mercedes cars. Magnussen drove well to hold off an otherwise overtaking-happy Verstappen — being stuck behind the Dane was visibly frustrating for the Dutch youngster and saw him in a rare mid-race spin.
Meanwhile, Ricciardo was the driver on the go as he overtook cars with much aplomb with the target of a first-ever podium on his home soil on his mind. Eventually, after a hard-fought race, the Australian settled for fourth place with a drive that proved why Red Bull Racing rate him so highly and would be eager to retain him for 2019 and later.
But the story of the race has to be Ferrari’s lack of apparent pace, which confirmed the paddock’s worries after pre-season testing. Hamilton led from the front, and under normal circumstances, he should have won with much ease. However, a mid-race Virtual Safety Car period that was followed by the actual Safety Car saw the Briton lose the lead to Vettel in a freakish manner.
From the leading trio, Raikkonen was the first to pit and this prompted Mercedes to bring in Hamilton while Ferrari chose to let Vettel stay out longer and gamble on a mid-race Safety Car period — and that’s exactly what they got.
The double stoppage of the Haas cars neutralised the race via the VSC and SC periods and gifted Vettel a free stop. Hamilton, who was charging fast on newer tyres, couldn’t build up the required gap (thanks to the controlled lap time set) and saw his lead be taken away by a lucky Vettel.
Mercedes was quick to apportion the blame to a software glitch that miscalculated the lead required by Hamilton. In the end, it turned out that a mere 1.5 seconds was the gap that cost Hamilton eventual victory. But this is Formula 1, these are the gaps that teams spends millions to fight for.
“This is one awesome circuit but it’s so hard to overtake, even with the extra DRS, obviously with the cars being as close as they were. At the end it was really trying to live to fight another day, save the engine and we’ll try to regain the point later on," Hamilton said after the race.
After realising that he had lost the lead to Vettel, Hamilton was quick to radio his team and ask what had gone wrong and why the team hadn’t informed him of Vettel’s pit stop. Post-race, Hamilton was quizzed if he could have made a difference if he had sufficient information about the VSC period and he said, “I’d have to go and look at it but it was quite close between us, maybe a second or so. If I had known that Sebastian was in my window, I may have been able to make a difference, yes. Whether it would be enough, I’m not quite sure. I’d have to look.”
Best of the rest
Elsewhere, both McLarens and Renaults scored points — a welcome change for the sport. They picked up points that both Haas cars couldn’t collect after their dual pit stop errors due to faulty pit guns. Haas were clearly the ‘best of the rest’ in Australia and it remains to see if the team can keep developing their car to keep their advantage.
The ‘best of the rest’ team from last year, Force India, scored nought despite bringing upgrades to Melbourne. This was Force India’s worst start to a Formula 1 season since 2009 — when they last finished without scoring points.
Alonso, who was also voted as the ‘Driver of the Day’, drove a gusty race to fifth-place finish ahead of Verstappen while fellow Spaniard Sainz Jr scored the last available point after nursing his body to 10th place. A faulty water pump saw the Renault driver needing to drink more water than he wanted leading to mid-race nausea; his teammate Hulkenberg finished seventh, while Bottas recovered from 15th to finish eighth.
The other surprise of the grid was Sauber, who did not finish last, despite all indications that they might be the slowest car on the grid. Charles Leclerc was classified as 13th, a place ahead of Williams’ Lance Stroll who even managed to overtake on track.
Finally, the Honda story of failure continued as both Toro Rosso drivers ‘Did Not Finish’ their races thanks to power unit issues. However, one of the questions that the paddock and Mercedes will seek answers to is whether the W09 is like its predecessor — one that was incapable of following cars with much ease and wasn’t as good in tyre management as the Ferrari.
Bottas’ charge through the field was limited, while Hamilton had to back off in the last few laps of the race thanks to worn-out tyres and it was early in his battle against Vettel when his pit wall warned him of an overheating engine.
Up next is the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix, which is a fortnight away. While Mercedes and Hamilton would have left Australia a little disappointed with their second-place finish, they know that they have the strongest package and the results in Australia helped validate this claim.
Ferrari, in the meanwhile, will know that their party will and should end soon because they have much catching up to do. “Well, at the moment we’re a bit worse off. Last year we had more pace at this point. If you look at the gaps the whole weekend and we’re not yet a true match." Vettel explained.
As for Red Bull Racing, their story could have been different had Haas not spoilt their plans, but let’s see if they are able to fight at the front in Bahrain.
We started the week with a view that after the opening round successes of IndyCar, MotoGP and Formula E’s Punta del Esta ePrix, Formula 1 would be under pressure to deliver a good race in Australia. All in all, it was a good motor race, one that should have kept fans engaged throughout. Let’s hope that this remains as the story of the season.
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Updated Date: Mar 26, 2018 10:26:15 IST