Isn’t it great to have Formula One back? It’s been a long winter of waiting and Melbourne certainly offered up an intriguing curtain raiser for the 2018 season.
For the second year in a row, Sebastian Vettel pitted and emerged ahead of Lewis Hamilton during the Australian Grand Prix to go on and win the race. Sebastian joins the exclusive 100 podiums club, with only Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton having achieved the same level of success.
There seems to be a lot of unnecessary conspiracy theories over Vettel’s win. Safety Cars have always given drivers ‘free’ pit-stops. Taking advantage of a Safety Car period is nothing new in Formula One – it’s part of the unpredictability of racing. There also seems to be a group of people suggesting that the Virtual Safety Car’s main purpose is to ‘neutralise’ the field. It isn’t. The VSC was put in place in 2015 following the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix to ensure drivers are restricted to a minimum speed when there’s an incident on track, to help to avoid a catastrophe such as what happened at Suzuka with Jules Bianchi. It has nothing to do with making sure everyone stays in the same order. A potential change in the order is a by-product of the system. Let’s not forget that Vettel lost and Hamilton won a race in similar circumstances in China last season.
Vettel’s team radio after the race was telling, though. He knew Ferrari had been somewhat lucky with the timing of the VSC today. ‘We need to do our homework’, Vettel said over the team radio. Nevertheless, it’s nice to start the season with a slightly unexpected result.
Qualifying gave us a real thrill as the top three drivers were within a tenth of each other in the first half of Q3. Our illusions were shattered, though, by a formidable lap by Lewis Hamilton to set pole by over six tenths of a second – a highly impressive gap. Hamilton was disappointed to lose the race after such a dominant Saturday display due to a technical glitch from the team, but he surely knows Mercedes have the competitive advantage on pure pace alone. Meanwhile, Valtteri Bottas had a far from ideal opening weekend to his 2018 campaign. With a contract expiring at the end of the season, binning the car in Qualifying and starting 15th was the last thing the Finn needed to do. He could only make up seven places during the Grand Prix.
A three-place grid penalty from an incident in Friday Practice had Daniel Ricciardo in a rare angry mood at his home Grand Prix, but he managed to move from his starting slot of eighth to fourth in the race to equal his best result at Albert Park. On the other side of the Red Bull garage, Max Verstappen couldn’t get his tyres to work in the early stages and had a spin at the same part of the track where Bottas crashed on Saturday. He was lucky to not hit the wall and came home sixth, consolidating Ricciardo’s points to leave Red Bull third and just two points behind Mercedes after the first round.
The Red Bull drivers were split by Fernando Alonso who seemed happy to have a competitive car again. It was a double points day for McLaren. A great start, considering both of their cars finished in the top ten on only one occasion in the entirety of the previous season. McLaren’s old engine partners, Honda, seemed to be in a spot of bother with Toro Rosso this weekend after a pain-free winter test. Pierre Gasly was forced into retirement with an engine failure, which most likely means one of his allocated three power units for the year is already out of play. Meanwhile, Brendon Hartley compromised his strategy by locking up into Turn 1 on the first lap and requiring an earlier than optimal tyre change. He finished last of the fifteen classified drivers.
Elsewhere, Renault showed their solid baseline from winter testing and managed a double points finish, despite Carlos Sainz feeling nauseous through the race due to a water bottle issue. Both Renault and Force India were further victims of the timing of the VSC. Force India had pitted one lap before the VSC was deployed, which threw the strategy off a little. It was a disappointing day for the Silverstone-based team, but alarm bells won’t be ringing just yet. They only picked up a handful of points here last year, yet still went on to have a competitive season.
Sauber and Williams look to be the two teams battling at the back this season. Sauber have definitely made a step forward and were able to battle with the Williams drivers. Marcus Ericsson was enjoying the challenge, until he was forced to retire with little more than a handful of laps complete. There was also disappointment for Sergey Sirotkin in his debut race for Williams. He had to retire due to a plastic bag becoming lodged in his right-rear brake duct. Without question, Williams are on the back foot and have to make improvements if they’re to score points this year. Lance Stroll finished the Australian Grand Prix this year at least, but in a lowly fourteenth – not where the team will have wanted to be.
It’s worth mentioning Charles Leclerc’s debut F1 weekend. A shaky start on Friday as he was learning the track, but he carried out a respectable job on Saturday to qualify within a tenth of his team-mate on a track which he’d never turned a wheel on before the start of the weekend. In the race, Leclerc finished ahead of a Williams and a Toro Rosso, helping Sauber hold seventh, albeit pointless, after the first round.
The most disappointed team at the end of the Australian Grand Prix will undoubtedly be Haas, who had their best ever qualifying and ran as high as fourth and fifth in the race, before wheel gun issues at their pit stops halted both drivers. Images of Romain Grosjean consoling a mechanic reinstated the very human side of this sport. What Haas can take away from this weekend, though, is that their testing pace seems legitimate and they are the fourth best team pace-wise. Now they just need to finish in Bahrain and reap the rewards.
2018 welcomes a new era for Formula One, and that was clear through the new graphics package and the swanky new music at the start of the broadcast. Overall, I like the new package and I think it’s a solid baseline. It perhaps needs a few tweaks – the positions weren’t exactly clear to read during the race, for example. Or maybe that’s just my eyesight… One thing that your eyes can’t help but notice is the ugliness of the onboard cameras now that the halos are attached to the cars. I actually found the halo to be pretty inoffensive and not really noticeable, aside from when we ride on-board with a driver and it takes up around 50% of the screen. Nose cams are the way forward, Liberty!
Next up, the cars go under the floodlights in Bahrain for the second round of the championship. Can anyone challenge Mercedes on a track which should, in theory, suit them?
See you in Sakhir in two weeks!
After graduating in 2015 with a First Class honours degree in English Language and Literature, Nicky Haldenby, a lifelong fan of Formula 1, founded the Lights Out F1 Blog in 2016. The blog has become a firm fan-favourite, delving deep into the sport’s history books and lifting the cover on unusual F1 statistics.
Nicky also writes at F1Destinations and Motorsport Guides and can be heard as the resident stats man on the 2 Soft Compounds Podcast. His work has appeared on WTF1, BadgerGP, motorsport.com, Sky Sports F1 and BBC Radio 5 Live. Nicky is also the host of the F1 Rewind Podcast.