It’s been a looooong wait, but this morning my lust for Formula was sated, thanks to the inaugural round of the 2018 season, at Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia. There’d been the possibility of rain, but it never materialised, with bright sunny weather providing the backdrop to the race.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton had put his Silver Arrow on pole, having put in a stonking lap, sixth tenths quicker than second-placed man Kimi Raikkonen in his Ferrari. The margin was somewhat surprising, given hints from practice that the gap would be smaller – how much was the car and how much was the driver? With Valtteri Bottas crashing the other Mercedes in qualifying, a direct comparison proved impossible. Instead Bottas, initially classified in 10th, would start 15th after a penalty for a gearbox change. Not the best start to his season, not when his contract will expire at the end of it.
Another man to get hit with a penalty was local boy Daniel Ricciardo, for an infringement (petty in my view) in practice. The three-place penalty saw him still start in the top ten, but heavily hampered any hope of victory. His performance had put him fifth, just behind his Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen. He would instead start eighth, whilst Sebastian Vettel, in the other Ferrari, would start third. Haas went strong, qualifying sixth and seventh, whilst Renault were eighth and ninth, but Hulkenberg (along with Magnussen and Grosjean) were all bumped up a place by Ricciardo’s penalty.
At the start everyone got away reasonably well, though Magnussen took advantage of an ill-fated effort from Verstappen on the Ferraris, leaping into fourth into the first corner. Verstappen, who would complain of oversteer throughout the race, struggled to follow the Haas, suffering in the dirty air of the car in front. He would get close under DRS but the nature of car and track made it very difficult for anyone to make a move stick. Instead Verstappen would, after several frustrating laps, put himself into a spin at turn one, losing out to the second Haas of Grosjean, Ricciardo, and Hulkenberg’s Renault.
Up ahead Hamilton was leading and gradually extending his lead, but the advantage from qualifying had disappeared. Occasionally he would put in purple sectors but the Ferraris would respond. Nonetheless he was slowly eking out his lead. By the time of the first round of stops he had opened a three second lead over Raikkonen, with Vettel a couple of seconds further back. Ferrari decided to try something different, bringing Raikkonen in first and swapping his ultrasoft tyres for harder tyres to see out the race. Mercedes had to pit Hamilton to be on the safe side, whilst Vettel stayed out. In theory Hamilton would move back into the lead once Vettel stopped – but then the wheels came off, in more ways than one.
For Hamilton it was metaphorical, whilst for Haas was more or less literal and devastating. First Magnussen pitted; within a few corners he was pulling over and stopping – the left rear hadn’t come off but it wasn’t fixed properly, forcing Magnussen to retire. Two laps later, Grosjean pitted, suffering the same fate, but with his front left. Grosjean didn’t even make it to turn three – he retired just after turn two, triggering a virtual safety car. Vettel pitted and, owing to a miscalculation from Mercedes, emerged in the lead. The virtual safety car became a full-blown safety car, at the end of which Vettel led from Hamilton and Raikkonen was fending off a pacy Ricciardo. With Albert Park proving a difficult place to pass, things became somewhat processional. McLaren’s Fernando Alonso had found himself in fifth, with Verstappen right behind him but unable to get by.
At the front, Hamilton would go on a charge to catch Vettel, but with a handful of laps to go got bent out of shape and lost any hope of closing in. Vettel held on to take an opportunistic victory, with Hamilton dropping off and settling for second and Raikkonen completing the podium. Ricciardo was fourth, with Alonso, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, a recovering Bottas, Vandoorne (in the other McLaren) and Carlos Sainz completing the points. Interestingly, six Renault-powered cars made up the top ten, admittedly with the caveat that both Haas cars dropped out. The lessons from the race? Mercedes may well have the pace, but there’s potential at both Ferrari and Red Bull to get more involved, whilst tactical considerations might also play a major role. Roll on Bahrain!