Mark Hughes reports on the Formula 1 season-opener at Melbourne
The race turned on a confluence of flukes, a repaying of karmic debt owed to Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari from several races last year. For it to happen the way it did required Vettel being outqualified and beaten away by team-mate Kimi Räikkönen, the Haas of Kevin Magnussen running fast enough to delay when Vettel could clear it after pitting. It further required finger trouble at Haas that brought Romain Grosjean’s car to a halt at an awkward place, finger trouble at whoever input the Mercedes software algorithm that suggested, in the event of a VSC, Lewis Hamilton needed to be within 13.6 seconds of the yet-to-pit Vettel – when it was actually more like 10sec. Then the Haas problem had to occur at the exact moment needed to trigger the VSC that exposed the software error. It even required that Valtteri Bottas was nowhere around to run interference on the Ferraris, by having crashed out of qualifying. What were the chances…?
For Mercedes it was like a nightmare mirage as the Ferrari came out of the pits with Hamilton not quite alongside it at the end of the straight. “How did that just happen?” asked the man who had utterly dominated the event up until that moment. The team couldn’t give him an answer, as it was asking itself the very same thing.
There were 32 laps still to go in this one-stop race and this is the second most difficult track on the calendar on which to overtake, requiring a lap time difference of around 1.8sec. The Mercedes had established itself resoundingly as the fastest car around the Albert Park season opener, but not by anything like 1.8sec. So the silver car chased the red valiantly but without real hope as Vettel took hold of that opportunity and wrung its neck, absorbing the relentless pressure – mind over matter.
Had they known at Mercedes that Hamilton needed to be within 10sec of the Ferrari to guard against a VSC between his stop and Vettel’s, that comfortable pace advantage could have ensured a sufficient lead for Hamilton before the VSC was deployed. With every eventuality apparently covered and a handy lead over the net second-place man Räikkönen, Hamilton had no need to be abusing his new tyres early in the stint – and he fell short of the required gap by no more than one second.
The flukes did the season-opener a favour, giving a result that lent the impression of a competitive volatility that isn’t really there. There was much to suggest the Mercedes advantage over both Ferrari and Red Bull is significantly bigger than was the case at the end of last season.
Hamilton’s pole lap, his 0.887sec improvement on his final run, track grip still ramping up after being wiped green by the earlier rain, was a stunning demonstration of commitment, feel and precision. It was set, he insisted, without the full ‘party mode’ Q3 setting, just the ‘quali mode’ used in Q2, though there was some apparent confusion about this.
Related: Hamilton vs ‘party mode’
Whatever, the 2018 competitive picture was revealed in solid form for the first time and it looked much as it had in ‘ghost’ testing form; Mercedes with an edge over Ferrari and Red Bull and a big gap to the upper-midfield group narrowly headed by Haas from Renault and McLaren. The only question was how big that Mercedes ‘edge’ actually was. Hamilton revealed it as a handy 0.65sec, albeit at a track that always heavily rewards Hamilton’s skills and over a somewhat scrappy effort from Ferrari. The SF71H had begun the weekend losing time to the Mercs and Red Bulls with understeer in the slow corners and a sometimes-tricky transition to oversteer in the faster ones. Räikkönen seemed more at ease with it than Vettel whose characteristic efforts at refining the car through the practices was interrupted by the rained-out P3 session.
Hamilton, meanwhile, had been just getting into the groove of a car that flowed beautifully through the turns and smothered the bumps outrageously well. It appeared to change direction better than the Ferrari into the slow turns and sweep through the faster ones with more stability. Getting the tyres in the right temperature window front to rear at all parts of the lap and preventing the rears getting too hot in the last point and squirt section was the main preoccupation. But the raw pace was ominous. Bottas was about the usual margin off for a Hamilton team-mate around Albert Park.
Red Bull’s RB14 was aggressively responsive in direction change even if keeping its drivers rather busier than the Merc’s in its reaction to the kerbs. In the long runs of Friday afternoon Daniel Ricciardo averaged, actually, marginally quicker than Hamilton but without a worthwhile Q3 mode it was never going to be a threat to the silver cars in qualifying. Ricciardo would be taking a three-place grid penalty after the stewards adjudged he had not slowed sufficiently for the red flag that was shown in P2 when a timing cable came adrift from the track.
The way it all played out was with Bottas – putting himself under big pressure to match Hamilton – crashing in the opening seconds of his first Q3 lap, just getting a little too greedy with the turn one kerb, flicking him out just far enough to nudge the outer rear tyre on the astroturf as he kept the power on – and from that moment he was heading for hard contact with the turn two barriers, the impact at the rear requiring a gearbox change and associated penalty.
Hamilton – who’d been shaded to fastest time in Q2 by Vettel, but who knew he had pace in hand if he managed his out-lap tyre preparation better – now didn’t even have another Mercedes to beat. He was relatively cautious through the oil-covered turn one on his first run, but his commitment there next time was breathtaking and on an overlay lap with Räikkönen’s second-fastest Ferrari, Hamilton was already 0.2sec up on the lap by the exit of turn two. That gap would only build though the rest of the lap, and Hamilton’s pole was secured by a margin of 0.664sec.
The Ferraris were a little more trimmed out than the Mercs but were losing more time into and through the corners than they were gaining down the straights. Vettel locked up into turn 13 on his critical lap, putting him third, a hundredth down on Räikkönen.
Knowing it was without a competitive engine mode for Q3, Red Bull tried for something different, putting both cars on supersofts in Q2 rather than ultras, potentially giving them a longer first race stint. The supers were around half-a-second slower, so they comfortably made it through to the run-off where, back on the ultras, Verstappen and Ricciardo went fourth and fifth before the latter’s penalty was applied. Max had locked up into turn 13, quite probably losing him a place on the front row. This would prove to be an error that would define his entire weekend. The RB14 was heavily trimmed out relative to the Mercedes yet still 7kph adrift through the speed trap. On the pit straight and through turn 2/3 and 10/11 (ie mainly straightline running), relative to Mercedes, the Red Bull was losing 0.35sec.
Haas clearly has the fourth best car at the moment and Magnussen shaded Grosjean, the pair sixth and seventh ahead of the two Renaults where Nico Hülkenberg put a better Q3 lap together than Carlos Sainz. A lock-up prevented Fernando Alonso making the run-off, the McLaren 11th fastest on about the same pace as the Enstone Renaults but around 1.5sec adrift of the identically-powered Red Bulls. Stoffel Vandoorne was next, 0.15sec down on his team-mate but comfortably clear of the Force Indias which sandwiched Lance Stroll’s Williams.
The smell of summer was still lingering around Albert Park, even if the Friday rains had left the grass muddy. There were more people here than had turned up in the preceding 10 years, halos or not. The southern hemisphere colours were vibrant, the air warm but gusty as the cars limbered their way past the Ricciardo banners to a grid headed by a silver car and a red one, as so often before. Seconds later and the violent weave and blur of a Grand Prix’s first corner, Hamilton heading off Räikkönen and a circumspect Vettel. Behind them, Verstappen had found himself boxed in on the right by Räikkönen and lifted off, giving Magnussen a perfectly timed run around his outside to move the Haas straight up to fourth, tyre sidewalls almost touching the Red Bull’s. A snaking pack of shiny colour behind them – Grosjean, Hülkenberg, Sainz, Ricciardo, Alonso, Vandoorne, Sergio Pérez, Stroll, Esteban Ocon, Bottas, Marcus Ericsson, Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc, Sergey Sirotkin. Near the back, Brendon Hartley had locked up badly, taking his tyres down to the canvas and requiring an immediate stop for replacements.
Down they streamed to the deceptively tricky curve approaching turn three and Räikkönen had a lot of momentum on Hamilton, getting partly alongside and looking threatening, but without a viable route through he tucked back in. Ricciardo pulled a nice move on Sainz into turn five as the cars headed into the shadow of the overhanging parkland trees. Ocon took advantage of Stroll being in the wrong engine mode to complete a similar move. Alonso tried around the outside of Sainz through the seventh gear turn 12 but the Renault driver remained resolute and held his former hero out to dry.
Once he’d fended Räikkönen off in the early part of the lap Hamilton was up and gone, a vision of cushioned momentum as the Merc soaked up the bumps to leap out of the final turn. He was already over 1sec clear of a chasing pack that was quickly punctuated by the presence of Magnussen gamely holding off Verstappen as the Ferraris escaped at around 1sec per lap. This was a disastrous situation for Verstappen’s harder-tyre strategy, which heavily depended upon him staying right with the Ferraris. He attacked with an ineffective fury, car frequently wildly out of shape as he rescued himself from his excesses. On the sixth lap this approach led him to clatter over the kerb at the very fast exit of turn 12, even the RB14’s extreme rake not enough to prevent damage to the diffuser, losing him a lot of downforce subsequently and a resultant abuse of the rear tyres. His race would continue to snowball downhill from those opening few seconds into turn one.
Ricciardo hadn’t received the memo about needing a 1.8sec advantage to be able to pass, repeating his Sainz move on Hülkenberg into turn five on the fifth lap. He’d be up with Grosjean soon enough but the Haas would prove a tougher nut to crack as they both chased the compromised Verstappen. Sirotkin went out around this time, his Formula 1 debut lasting just five laps after a plastic bag had blocked a rear brake duct, causing the disc/caliper to overheat and boiling the brake fluid. Ericsson went out shortly afterwards with a power steering problem in the Sauber. Sirotkin’s retirement left Williams represented only by Stroll who’d been passed for 13th by Bottas. But Valtteri made little further progress, even a Merc shark among minnows unable to find a route through. Gasly went out early with a Honda MGUh failure.
Hamilton, his team with an eye on fuel consumption and temperatures, was just easing away as much as was needed to build up an undercut buffer before the pitstop windows began to open from around lap 16/17. This was assuming the prime strategy of a one-stop, exchanging the ultrasofts for a set of the softs that would go to the end. Vettel didn’t like his Ferrari on the ultras and was steadily falling back from his team-mate. It really wasn’t shaping up into a very competitive weekend for Ferrari’s talisman. “I just didn’t like the feel of it,” he admitted afterwards. “If I don’t feel what I need it’s a bit tricky,” he said in reference to his need for rear-end stability. “The car just doesn’t respond the way you like and it’s sliding in places you don’t want it to slide. 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… if we can get on top of that then I’ll feel more confident and at a track like this confidence is a big thing, especially as the wind was strong and gusty. With the car like this everything feels a bit too ‘conscious’.” The SF71 as currently configured is not the flexible, balanced machine that Vettel revelled in last year, and, even though it is faster outright, he is less competitive in it relative both to Mercedes and to team-mate Räikkönen.
Despite Verstappen’s loss of rear downforce he was still hustling to find a way by Magnussen’s perfect defence, whilst keeping an eye on the other Haas of Grosjean filling his mirrors. Going into the 10th lap he simply attacked too hard for his overworked tyres – and spun in between the turn-in and apex of turn one. In the time it took to gather it all up he was passed by Grosjean, the other Red Bull of Ricciardo and Hülkenberg’s Renault. Romain had been forced to take evasive action as he passed Verstappen’s spinning car and this gave Ricciardo the momentum to launch an attack down into turn three, but Grosjean defended hard and kept the place.
Even Hamilton had been kept on an engine mode leash for the first few laps to bring fuel consumption on schedule. If that was the case for the traditionally fuel and aero-efficient Mercedes, it would certainly be the case for everyone else too. But by the 15th lap he was being told it was OK to stretch out the pace and he eased the gap over Räikkönen out to around 3sec. The primary concern on the Mercedes pitwall at this time was to keep out of reach of a Räikkönen undercut attempt, so as to be able to respond a lap later and still come out ahead. It was trickier to do against a two-pronged Ferrari attack of course, with Bottas still mired in the midfield and unable to help. Ferrari pulled the plug with Räikkönen on the 18th lap and he switched to the softs and rejoined just ahead of Magnussen’s fourth place. Mercedes was forced to respond next lap with Hamilton and he too was switched to the soft tyre, rejoining still ahead of Räikkönen.
So Vettel, yet to pit, now led the race by 13sec over Hamilton. He was left out there as he was under no undercut threat from behind and wouldn’t even get the pitstop gap over Magnussen for another lap or so. Ironically, his relative lack of pace in that first stint is what placed him perfectly for what happened next.
Which is that Haas brought Magnussen in for his stop, the left-rear wheel did not go on flush and was cross-threaded as a result. He accelerated back onto the track before the dislodged wheel forced him to pull off – a cruel reward for a feisty and fast performance. Red Bull kept Ricciardo out there on his more durable tyres and so Haas went for the undercut on him with Grosjean. Unbelievably, this Haas stop went wrong in the same way as the previous one, except this time it was the left-front. Romain got only as far as turn two before being forced to pull off – at a somewhat awkward place for retrieval. The fateful Virtual Safety Car was initiated.
At Mercedes there was a false sense of security. Its numbers said that Hamilton – now 11.4sec behind Vettel – needed just to be within 13.6sec to guard against a VSC (as the pitting car will make up time on those not pitting by not being restricted to the VSC speed between the safety car line by the pit entry road and the pitlane speed limit line). That’s not what Ferrari’s numbers said. It correctly calculated that so long as Vettel was more than 10sec ahead, and the pitstop was good, he would come out in front. “The adrenaline was running through me when they called me in because we knew it should bring us out in front but that it was going to be really close,” said Seb. The Ferrari stop was perfect (and around 0.6sec quicker than Hamilton’s had been, a crucial race-deciding difference in this case) and Vettel was underway. As he gunned it once past the pitlane speed limit line, so the Ferrari maintained its lead from the closing Mercedes alongside.
The answer to Hamilton’s question of what had just happened was that Vettel – instead of coming out 10sec behind and in third, as he would’ve done without the VSC – was now leading the race and on tyres seven laps newer than those on Hamilton’s car. Vettel could barely believe his luck but, as he said, “We’ve been on the other side of it before.”
Ricciardo also pitted at this time and although the Haas’ demise had moved him up to fourth, he was still a long way behind Räikkönen when he rejoined. The VSC came at the perfect time too for Alonso who was able to clear the Renaults, both of which had pitted before the VSC (although Sainz had already lost time with an off through the gravel trap on his in-lap). Verstappen had stopped to replace his worn out tyres two laps before the VSC and so he too was leapfrogged by the McLaren – but it was incredibly close between them as Alonso exited the pitlane and Verstappen emerged just ahead; stewards reviewing the footage reckoned he’d passed on track and he was instructed to give the fifth place back. The VSC had come at a good time for Bottas too, enabling him to get straight in a lap before the others who stopped and this took him past Pérez and into ninth, with Vandoorne just ahead. Sainz’s in-lap excursion plus the VSC had lost him places to Vandoorne and Bottas.
Marshals were struggling to clear Grosjean’s car to a safe place and after a couple of laps of VSC the safety car proper was sent out. This was great news for Ricciardo, wiping out the half-minute by which he had trailed Räikkönen as the Ferrari came up against the slow-moving safety car while Ricciardo was still travelling at the stipulated safety car delta speeds (set at around 20 per cent faster than the actual safety car). On much newer tyres than the Ferrari, Ricciardo was fancying his chances of making the podium.
The safety car came in at the end of the 31st lap, with 27 still to go. Vettel played the cat and mouse game with Hamilton before sprinting comfortably clear, with the Mercedes under no threat from behind by Räikkönen who was keeping a careful eye on the thrusting Ricciardo in his mirrors. Hülkenberg got a run going on Verstappen who had to get very defensive down to turn three. Just behind them, Bottas was able to pounce upon Vandoorne’s eighth place.
Regardless of how unhappy he was with the feeling of his car, Vettel is always supremely comfortable running at the front and even with a charging Hamilton trying to redress his bad luck and throwing everything he had at the Ferrari, Vettel was a model of composure.
“I knew it was going to be very difficult for him to pass,” said Vettel, “so I just concentrated on keeping it smooth, looking after the car.”
The combined six laps of VSC and safety car had removed the fuel consumption concerns from everyone’s radar now. For Hamilton, in the chasing position, it was all about how to keep the pressure applied while looking after engine and tyre temperatures. The Mercedes would frequently move out of the hot slipstream down the straights to get some cooling effect. Its aerodynamics relies heavily on the array of vanes beneath the nose and relatively less on the underbody than the high-rake cars. Consequently, its grip is more adversely affected by the dirty wake of the car in front. Hamilton was often turning in early at key corners, just trying to keep some airflow over the car’s surfaces. It’s a machine designed to run at the front, not behind.
Vettel was actually much happier with the car on the yellow-walled soft tyres than he had been on the hard and in their flat-out duel he and Hamilton steadily edged away from Räikkönen who’d preferred the Ferrari on the ultras. Engine modes were being played with as the Merc engineers desperately tried to find a way of giving Hamilton an edge. He’d then have to back off and bring the engine and tyre temperatures back down. It was after launching a renewed attack on the implacable leader on the 47th lap that Hamilton locked up into turn nine and ran wide onto the kerb. It cost him 1.7sec, giving Vettel some breathing space. But still Hamilton wasn’t finished and after a couple of laps was right back on his tail.
Ricciardo was giving Räikkönen a similarly hard time, and even got a couple of runs going on him down to turn three but Kimi was always wise to his tricks and flourishes and was able to step up the pace in the last few laps to extinguish the Red Bull’s hopes. As he pushed on his fresher tyres, Ricciardo set the race’s fastest lap and it’s clear the RB14 is a super-competitive car in race trim despite an estimated 35bhp deficit to Mercedes, and more in qualifying.
Just as Ricciardo was setting that scorching lap, Hamilton’s challenge on Vettel was finally over. The tyres – after repeated overheating and cooling cycles – had finally fried. The engine was accordingly turned down as Hamilton accepted defeat and brought it home. This brought the dicing Räikkönen/Ricciardo battle close to his tail by the end.
A delighted Vettel took the chequer but for a twist of fate Hamilton would have been getting his season off to a comfortable win. There will be plenty more. Alonso’s fifth place was flattered by the double Haas retirements and the VSC, but it was, as ever, a tenacious performance as he fended off many laps of Verstappen pressure.
Hülkenberg, Bottas, Vandoorne and the unwell Sainz (nausea from an over-pressured drinks bottle making him over-hydrated) completed the points scorers. Pérez led his Force India team-mate Ocon home but it’s clear the under-developed VJM11 is as yet a long way from last year’s form. Leclerc, on his debut, had managed to pass Stroll upon the safety car restart and then impressively kept the Sauber ahead of the faster Williams for the duration, with the limping Toro Rosso of Hartley bringing up the rear.
Vettel was under no illusions about how fate had helped him this weekend and wasn’t drawing any parallels with his victory here last year, which was achieved on outright performance. “We are not yet where we want to be with this car, but we’re getting there.” We have to hope that happens soon, so that we have a season to relish rather than endure.
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