Finland’s Valtteri Bottas’ dominant performance to win the 2019 Australian Grand Prix proves he has left his disappointing 2018 season behind. Not only did the Finn’s Mercedes take the victory by 20.8 -seconds over teammate Lewis Hamilton, but Bottas also took one additional point for fastest race lap while capturing his first Grand Prix since his Abu Dhabi victory in 2017. In his honour, we have even “coined” a new “description” above for thoroughly trouncing an entire F1 field.
Max Verstappen’s Red Bull finished third in its maiden outing with Honda, bringing its Japanese power unit partner not only its first podium since returning to F1 in 2014, but also since Rubens Barrichello’s third place in the 2008 British Grand Prix!
Fresh from the Scuderia’s dominant preseason testing in Barcelona, Ferrari arrived in Melbourne as the team to beat. That lasted just one practice session. While Mercedes’ had departed the tests with more questions than answers, they quickly left their formidable computer boffins to find an optimum setup for Albert Park.
The result: Hamilton led all three practice sessions and took the pole an astounding .7- seconds faster than Sebastian Vettel’ SF90. To further rain on Ferrari’s parade, Max Verstappen started his Red Bull / Honda fourth, dropping rookie Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari to fifth.
Within four seconds of the start, Hamilton saw his control over Bottas evaporate. The Finn sliced ahead before Turn 1 and was never headed, nor challenged for the entire 58-lap Grand Prix. As now second-placed Mercedes runner on the track, the team pitted Hamilton on Lap 15 to switch to new medium tyres earlier than anticipated in reaction to Vettel’s attempted undercut pitstop on Lap 14. The stop left the Brit nursing his tyres to avoid losing second place to excessive tyre wear later in the race.
At the start, Vettel had unintentionally forced teammate Leclerc, up from fifth place, onto the gravel in Turn 1, giving Verstappen an opening into fourth. That’s all the Dutchman needed. Leclerc recovered in fifth.
With Vettel and Hamilton slower on new medium tyres Bottas, Verstappen and Charles Leclerc were able to run many laps longer on their soft compound tyres. Bottas covered eight more laps before stopping and then pulled out an unassailable 20.8 – second lead at the flag.
Verstappen was the last of the front-runners to stop for tyres 11- laps later, which gave him plenty of grip to challenge and pass Vettel in Turn 3 on Lap 31. From there, he closed on Hamilton, running 1.5-seconds behind for the second portion of the Grand Prix, but ultimately couldn’t get closer than .9-seconds before the finish.
By the final dozen laps, Ferrari’s Barcelona form was a distant memory. With Vettel 50-seconds behind Bottas, Leclerc had closed on his tail and asked the team for permission to pass, but the team declined, ordering him instead to ease off for some margin. Leclerc quickly complied. The pair finished fourth and fifth, 57-seconds behind Bottas.
Following Team Haas’ preseason form, Kevin Magnussen held a lonely sixth place throughout the race. Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg took seventh, leading a five-car train across the line ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo, Lance Stroll’s Racing Point, and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat claiming the final point for tenth place to cap his F1 comeback. Notably, teenager Lando Norris finished 12th with McLaren as the race’s top rookie.
Sebastian Vettel said his Ferrari SF90 had “way less grip” in the Australian Grand Prix than it did during pre-season testing at Barcelona. Somehow, in these two weeks since, the SF90 that looked so easy to drive on the limit in Circuit de Catalunya became unpredictable and slow to react.
“In Barcelona, we were very happy with the car right from day one. The balance was right; the car was responding to what I was asking it to do. I had a lot of confidence. “However here I didn’t have the same trust and feel in the car that I had in the first stint so I was struggling with overall pace throughout the second stint and obviously at the end, I was really struggling with tyres.”
Ferrari’s primary goal ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix must be to determine not only what caused this, but also a team strategy required to remain competitive. With Ferrari’s fans some of the most passionate in motorsport and with the team’s early performance suggesting a form that would deliver the team’s first Drivers’ Championship since 2007, the Scuderia’s next 10-days must result in not only performance recovery but a plan for advancement.
Max Verstappen’s third-place finish in Red Bull’s first race with Honda engines delivered the Japanese manufacturer’s first podium since their return to F1. It also suggested that Red Bull, and not Ferrari, might be Mercedes’ strongest 2019 challengers.
As Mercedes boss, Toto Wolff stated, “Honda has certainly made a huge step forward. They are very fast on the straights, and that’s good to see. We want them in the mix, and we want to have a great fight.”
Wolff could add, ‘especially if that fight is with Ferrari.’ A more competitive Red Bull could unintentionally shield Mercedes against a “sure-to-recover-their-form” Ferrari in this first half of the 2019 season.