How did Vettel win the 2018 Australian Grand Prix?

Sebastian Vettel’s surprising Australian Grand Prix victory came as a result of a combination of factors, including Ferrari strategy, the timing of the Virtual Safety Car and a Mercedes software glitch. Lights Out investigates where the first race of the 2018 season was won and lost.

The first significant factor in Sebastian Vettel’s victory on Sunday afternoon actually came twenty four hours earlier, as Valtteri Bottas smashed his Mercedes into the wall on the exit of Turn Two at the Albert Park track. Bottas’ misfortune in the final qualifying session meant he’d start fifteenth on the grid following a five-place grid penalty for a change of gearbox. With Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel qualifying second and third behind the other Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, it automatically gave Ferrari an extra car to play with in the strategic battle which would transpire in the Australian Grand Prix.

The early stage of the race was pretty straight forward – despite Raikkonen’s best efforts on the first lap, Hamilton led from the Finn, while Vettel sat a little further behind them. Things began to change at the end of Lap 18, when Ferrari called Raikkonen in for an early stop. Raikkonen was just under four seconds behind Hamilton when he came into the pits. The planned strategy had been to call the cars in when the race reached around half-distance (Lap 28/29) but Ferrari opted to bring Raikkonen in, as their chance of beating Hamilton was minimal. Ferrari’s tactics forced Hamilton to also pit earlier than expected, in order to avoid Ferrari getting the ‘undercut’. Vitally, Vettel, who was around eight seconds behind Hamilton, stayed out and inherited the lead of the Grand Prix. A pit-stop at Albert Park usually takes around 22 seconds to complete, so Vettel, following his stop, should have stayed in the third place which he held before the leaders pitted.

On Lap 25, Haas’ nightmare race ended as Romain Grosjean came to a halt just two laps after his team-mate for the same reason – a botched pit-stop. The Frenchman parked his car at the exit of Turn Two with a loose wheel. The positioning of his car meant that a Virtual Safety Car was put in place while the VF18 was removed from the track. The VSC was introduced into Formula One following Jules Bianchi’s accident during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. It ensures the drivers stay above a minimum time in each sector, to keep themselves, and any marshals on track, safe. The VSC is more effective than a Safety Car period in achieving maximum on-track safety.

Vettel was 11.6 seconds ahead of Hamilton when the VSC was deployed. Yet, by the time Vettel reached the pits, he was already 15.9 seconds ahead of Hamilton, gaining a crucial four seconds as a result of his positioning on track when the VSC was called. The most likely reasoning for this is that Vettel was travelling flat-out when the VSC came into action. The system allows a few seconds for drivers travelling at high speeds to safely get down to the maximum speed without penalising them. Hamilton, on the other hand, will likely have been travelling through a slower section of track when the VSC was put in place.

The other by-product of a Virtual Safety Car period is that, because the cars are going so slow on track, you can actually lose less relative time in the pits. Vettel, among other drivers, took advantage of this, and came into the pits at the end of the twenty-fifth lap. The Ferrari emerged out of the pit-lane ahead of Hamilton’s Mercedes, partly due to the pit-stop time deficit being much smaller under the VSC than under normal racing conditions.

These two reasons alone are not why Vettel won the race, though. Each team has software which gives data about how much of an advantage their drivers need in order to maintain a place against a rival in any number of eventualities – including in the event of a Safety Car period or VSC period. A software glitch at Mercedes threw their timing estimates off by around five seconds. Had they known how close it was going to be at the pit-exit, Mercedes could have informed Hamilton and told him to push slightly, to get as close to the minimum time in each sector as possible. It is possible that Hamilton could have maintained the lead. It was not to be, however, and Hamilton ended up over a second behind Vettel’s Ferrari following the German’s stop. The incident, and the glitch in Mercedes’ software, is somewhat reminiscent of their 2015 Monaco Grand Prix pit-stop disaster, which similarly cost Hamilton the victory.

It is, in fact, arguable that Hamilton should not have been brought in at all, as the threat of an undercut by Raikkonen would never have been a problem. Mercedes should have been more aware of what Vettel was doing, rather than the man behind them on track. Vettel managed to make his Ultrasoft tyres last another seven laps after Hamilton pitted without losing any pace. Doubtlessly, Hamilton would have been able to make his tyres last too. Mercedes were hampered and Ferrari were helped by having two of their cars to strategically use against one Mercedes. Valtteri Bottas’ qualifying mistake ended up not only being costly for him, but for Hamilton also.

Mercedes did have the faster car, but Hamilton, despite his best efforts, couldn’t pass in the remaining laps of the race. Even with the help of a third DRS zone, the Albert Park track remains notoriously difficult to pass on. For the sake of the 2018 season’s excitement, lets hope that it’s a circuit specific issue and not indicative of a season with minimal overtaking.

Any way you view the situation, Vettel now has a seven point advantage over the man who is expected to be his main title rival. Those seven points could be very valuable indeed if the title hunt is as close as we’d like it to be by the end of the year.

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