The dawn of a new era in Formula 1 began this morning with the promise of faster cars and more durable tyres – this proved to be more or less true, as did pre-season predictions about team pace – Ferrari are back, and they mean business. In qualifying the story was a familiar one from Lewis Hamilton – the Mercedes driver put his car on pole, albeit not by an especially huge distance from Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. Hamilton out-qualified new teammate Bottas by a fair margin, whilst the second Ferrari of Raikkonen lined up in fourth. Home favourite Daniel Ricciardo had an accident in Q3 that would force him to start 10th, and 10th became a pitlane start following problems with the car – with things only getting worse from there. Ricciardo didn’t get going until two laps had already passed, and faced a huge battle to even make the points.
At the start (which was actually at the second attempt) Hamilton led Vettel away and Bottas remained ahead of Raikkonen. Verstappen briefly threatened the Finn’s Ferrari but after that settled in behind. Despite the promise of difficulties in following another car, Vettel was able to keep to around 1.5 seconds behind Hamilton, and was showing the pace that Ferrari had threatened to show. Before too long, the ultra-soft tyres of Hamilton began to show signs of wearing out, and Hamilton had to make a decision – pit, and risk the over-cut, or stay out and risk the under-cut. In the end, Hamilton pitted first, and crucially, came out behind the Red Bull of Verstappen.
Max was in no mood to move over, and here is where a potentially critical weakness of the Mercedes was exposed – aside from the difficulties in overtaking that the new designs represent, the Mercedes struggles when following other cars (a weakness we’ve seen before). Hamilton was frustrated, and this would have been a bigger problem when he saw Vettel emerge from the pits, just ahead. The lead was lost, and with it, the race. Verstappen would soon pit, but Hamilton lacked the pace to catch the Ferrari. Behind him, Bottas started to close in, posing the possibility of a battle for second that Hamilton didn’t need. A combination of traffic and (possibly) Hamilton simply nursing the car kept Bottas at bay, but the real winner was Vettel, who secured an ultimately comfortable win that laid down an important marker. Ferrari looked quick, and Mercedes will have a fight on their hands. Intriguingly, Vettel finished 23 seconds ahead of fellow Ferrari man Raikkonen – is that gap between the two really that big?
Elsewhere, Verstappen settled for 5th, with veteran Massa 6th for Williams. Perez was 7th for the pink-liveried Force India, and there was a double points finish for Toro Rosso, with Sainz leading Kvyat home in 8th and 9th. The second Force India of Ocon claimed the final point, though for a while it seemed as though the McLaren of Alonso might take it – until almost inevitably, the car stopped working. His teammate Vandoorne was the last classified runner, finishing 13th.
Both Haas retired, as did Ricciardo, and Palmer, and Ericsson, and Stroll, for Redbull, Renault, Sauber and Williams. The new era of F1 has proven tough on the cars, at least to start with.
So, Ferrari have drawn first blood. In just over a week F1 rolls into China. Will the different nature of the track play into Mercedes’ hands, or will Ferrari continue their early form?