It’s often said that “timing is everything”; in Sebastian Vettel’s case it’s 25 championship points.
Sebastian Vettel’s opportunistic pitstop during a mid-race safety car period brought him back from a fruitless chase into contention allowing the four-time world champion to grab both the lead and victory from Lewis Hamilton’s hands in the 2018 Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. It was his 43rd career Formula 1 win, his second straight in the Australian Grand Prix, and his third at Melbourne’s Grand Prix Circuit.
Mercedes subsequently confirmed its computer software failed to warn the team that Vettel was catching Hamilton at a rate that made the pole sitter and early leader vulnerable should there be a Virtual Safety Car.
Ferrari driver Vettel was a distant third in the opening stint but stayed on his tyres longer than team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and early leader Hamilton. Just as Vettel was due to pit, both of the Haas F1 cars had loose left rear tyres, bringing them to a halt on track. The Virtual Safety car was called, allowing Vettel an opportunistic ‘free pit-stop’ (pitting while the rest of the field was going at vastly reduced speed) which vaulted him into the lead.
He then thwarted Hamilton’s full-on challenges with ease, taking victory by 5.036 seconds as teammate Raikkonen joined him on the podium for a Ferrari double. Hamilton held on for second place.
Teams arrived at Melbourne after eight days of Barcelona preseason testing, and while one of those days was snowed out, they developed a good idea of their machines’ competitiveness. That is, all except Force India and McLaren. Force India’s monetary problems meant they wouldn’t run their new 2018 chassis until first practice in Australia. McLaren had a more hapless reason; a rear suspension failure, flaming bodywork and niggling problems brought their total test mileage down to less than one-third of Ferrari’s distance.
By the end of qualifying things were much clearer. Lewis Hamilton seemed a perfect fit for the new W09, in both fast bends and slow speed corners where his car revolved smoothly and predictably. While he was compelled to use Mercedes’ power booster during Q3, his answer was a new lap record and pole.
Ferrari’s pace was slowed by continued aero tests as they struggled to come to grips with the performance of their new longer, narrower and more raked SF71H.
Still both Raikkonen and Vettel, in that order, closed on Mercedes’ pace in Q3 taking second and third after Bottas crashed his W09 and Verstappen’s two errors on his last lap cost him a front row start. He qualified fourth. Red Bull received even more bad news as Daniel Ricciardo lost three starting spots (fifth to eighth) with a penalty for his slow response to a Saturday red flag. Nevertheless, Red Bull seemed the most optimistic about their car. They’ll be a consistent threat to the Mercs.
One team ready to burst toward the front was Haas. Both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen had speed from their close Ferrari-like VF-18 from the first moments on Friday. By Q3, they looked thoroughly capable leading the mid-pack.
McLaren pulled themselves together from average practice times to have Alonso qualify and say they would be quicker during the Grand Prix. Bringing up the rear was the new Sauber Alfa Romeo, which looks beautifully complex but can’t yet be deciphered, let alone tamed.
Hamilton stayed in front at the start and shook off Raikkonen’s attack at Turn 3. He then consolidated a three-second lead as Vettel soldiered on behind Raikkonen.
Kevin Magnussen stayed on the outside of Turn 1 to demote Max Verstappen to fifth which also served to separate them from the Hamilton-Raikkonen-Vettel train. As the field fell into follow the leader, Verstappen had other plans. His pit was already in his ear saying “dispatch Magnussen’s Haas now” despite the Dutchman already feeling his rear tyres start to squirm due to overheating; they attempted to crash the youngster with snap oversteer and finally got the best of him on Lap 10. Verstappen’s damage-free 360-degree spin left him in eighth place.
On Lap 25, the Haas team received a double gut-punch that would turn the race a bit upside down
First Magnussen, followed a lap later by Grosjean, made tyre stops and then stopped on the track, both victims of loose left rear wheel nuts. First, a Virtual Safety car was called followed by a full Safety Car period. First Raikkonen pitted followed by Hamilton. Vettel, who had been losing ground to both Hamilton and Raikkonen, stayed out several laps longer and then bolted for the pits. He fit new softs, and in the process converted his nine-second deficit into the race lead.
From then on, it was the Vettel of old, controlling his pace while seeing Hamilton’s last overtake bid on Lap 47 result in a trip onto the grass. Vettel cruised to the flag.
Ricciardo closed on Raikkonen, but Albert Park’s tight and twisty layout thwarted his charge just as teammate Verstappen found in his battle with Alonso (they would finish sixth and a strong fifth respectively). Nico Hulkenberg finished seventh followed by Valtteri Bottas up from 15th due to the safety car. The final point went to Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr.
Alonso’s McLaren finally threw off years of Honda disappointment with a bruising run that was helped by good luck.
”We are able to defend; we are able to attack, things that in the last couple of years we were not able [to do], said Alonso, so it’s going to be much more fun this year.”
“Obviously today we got lucky with the two Haas retirements, and Carlos [Sainz Jr] had a problem in Turn 9, and then there was a safety car, and we overtook [Max] Verstappen,” said Alonso. “But we did no mistakes; we capitalised on everything, and [it was] perfect job from the team.”
Sebastian Vettel knows luck swung his way in Albert Park.
“If you look at the gaps the whole weekend, we are not yet a true match [for Mercedes],” he confessed. “I think the car has huge potential, but I’m still struggling a little bit. I want the car to be spot on when I hit the brakes and turn in, and in that window, I’m not yet happy.”
“So, it’s always sort of a compromise, because it’s our job to drive around the problems that we have.”
Next stop is the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir in two weeks time.
See you there!