Sebastian Vettel powered to victory in a tense Australian Grand Prix and ultimately entertaining race, the Ferrari driver winning a race of two halves… one in which he chased Lewis Hamilton and then a second-half whereby the German stole the lead and was in turn chased by the Mercedes driver after the men in silver blundered on the pitwall.
Vettel capitalised from the Mercedes miscalculation during a safety car period which resulted in the Ferrari unexpectedly taking the lead, with Hamilton in second filling his mirrors until the field was unleashed again.
On the restart Vettel scurried away with Hamilton glued to his tail, the pair pulling away from the field rapidly, but the reigning world champion overdid it in his chase and dropped back. With a handful of laps remaining the Mercedes ran out of steam.
Thus Vettel scored an unlikely victory at the Melbourne season opener as he did last year and indeed it was he who wiped the smile off Hamilton’s face as Mercedes were left scratching their heads on how their fumble cost them a certain win at Albert Park.
It was a timely victory for Vettel and Ferrari after Hamilton and Mercedes showed massive pace a day earlier in qualifying.
And also fortuitous because the safety car periodclearly provided the unexpected good fortune that resulted in him emerging behind the pace car ahead of Hamilton.
Thereafter Vettel did well to fend of a sustained attack from Hamilton who was calling for maximum mode to attack and was well within the DRS zone behind the Ferrari, but a mistake saw him drop back two seconds and thereafter Vettel was unchallenged as he claimed the first big trophy of the season.
During the podium interviews, Vettel told MC Mark Webber, “We got a bit lucky obviously with the Safety Car. I really enjoyed it. I hoped my start would be a bit better but it didn’t really work so had to settle for third. At the end of the first stint I lost a bit of the connection to Lewis and Kimi ahead.”
“I was praying for a Safety Car and then there was a car stopped in Turn 4 and then the Haas stopped in the exit of Turn Two and when I saw it I was full of adrenaline.”
“The race is frozen but to come into the pits on the limit and when I got out ahead I knew it was difficult to pass. He kept the pressure on, especially the beginning of the last stint but the last five laps I could enjoy a little bit more,” added Vettel sporting the biggest smile in Melbourne.
On the podium, Hamilton was graceful in defeat and summed up, “It’s been an incredible weekend, to arrive and have the performance we had today. Big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari. Today they did the better job.”
“We have to go back to the drawing board and work on it. We still have great pace and during the race I could apply pressure at the end but it is so hard to overtake here. At the end it was live to fight another day and save the engine,” concluded the world champion.
Starting from second on the grid, Kimi Raikkonen had one of his strongest showings in some time on his way to third and almost a perfect afternoon for his Ferrari team.
The Finn chased Hamilton off the grid and was well entrenched in second until the safety car stint played against him and he had to settle for third after resisting a latye race attack from Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull.
Raikkonen said, “It was OK. We didn’t have the most luck but what can you do. Luckily it was Seb who got the luck and it was our team at least.”
“I think I had decent speed all day long, it’s just difficult to pass. The Safety Car is pure luck but we could hold onto third place. I’ll take it, I’ve been happy with the car.”
Ferrari powered Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were stars of the first stanza of the Australian Grand Prix, running fourth and fifth at one point in the afternoon. But Magnussen was first to go as he parked at the side of the circuit on lap 22.
A couple of laps later Grosjean was released from his pitstop with a loose wheel and was forced to stop on track which triggered the race defining virtual safety car and the subsequent safety car period.
Neither Haas driver finished but they showed on the day that they have it in them to take the fight to the top three teams, and most likely the team that is right now the Best of the Rest. No points from Albert Park is a cruel blow to the American outfit.
Local hero Ricciardo turned eighth on the grid to fourth when the chequered flag waved, the Red Bull driver narrowly missing out on becoming the first Australian to celebrate on the podium in his home race, instead, he matched Mark Webber’s feat with fourth place.
Late on Ricciardo’s feisty chase of Raikkonen for the final podium position – which included the fastest lap of the race on lap 54 – had the appreciative crowd on their feet cheering him on, but in the end he ran of laps.
The Australian told reporters afterwards, “I obviously tried to do all I could with Kimi. It’s a tight track, it is tricky to overtake but we set the fastest lap and that’s really good signs for things to come in the next few weeks.”
“I think we’re really close to Ferrari’s pace. We had the fastest lap so we were definitely one of if not the quickest car on track today. Hopefully that’s representative moving forward, I think we’ve still got to find pace on one lap but the race pace is good,” he added.
His teammate Max Verstappen had a forgettable race by his standards, a tardy start followed by a spin while in fifth lost him a few places and did not help his cause, but he did fight back to finish sixth which will be a disappointment for Red Bull who were no match for Mercedes and Ferrari at this first race of the season.
Verstappen reflected, “Suddenly I had a lot of issues with the car, balance problems, we found out after four or five laps something broke off the car, and all the time in the middle of the corner was losing a lot of grip and at one point I got caught out at Turn 1 and spun.”
“With the circumstances we were in, the damage we had, we still scored some points. As soon as we were in clean air the pace was good. We don’t need to worry, we just need to focus on getting a clean qualifying and then in the race everything should sort itself out,” added the Dutchman.
It was a big race day for McLaren as they herald in their new Renault-power era and their star driver Fernando Alonso – benefitting from the safety car period – delivered by finishing fifth, beating both the works Renault cars in the process.
The McLaren MCL33 is no Red Bull RB14, but it was handy and robust enough for Alonso to flex his muscles for a change and led the team to a double-point finish with Stoffel Vandoorne enjoying a steady, albeit unspectacular race, to ninth place.
Alonso reported, “It was more or less expected to be honest. We knew we had a strong race pace and better than Qualifying. We capitalised on some of the problems that others had. We had attacks from Verstappen all the last 20 laps and we were able to defend.”
“I’m happy, it was great work from the team, the integration of our power unit in two or three months and we redesigned some of the car last winter. Now we are here, both cars in the points, fifth place so happy and a good starting point,” concluded the Spaniard.
Nico Hulkenberg finished seventh on an afternoon in which Renault showed signs of a resurgence. Their early pace was handy but petered off towards the end. His teammate Carlos Sainz was tenth, the pair running around those positions throughout the race.
Starting from 15th was always going to be a tough ask around Albert Park which is notoriously bad for overtaking, Valtteri Bottas’ race was compromised when he crashed out of qualifying 24-hours earlier.
Having to play catch-up all day, he recovered to finish eighth but will be well aware that the pressure will be ramped up as two Ferrari drivers on the podium alongside his Mercedes teammate Hamilton will only exacerbate his shortcomings this weekend.
After finishing fourth in the 2017 constructors’ championship a no point haul for Force India drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez will be a disappointment for the Pinks, who circulated on the wrong side of the midfield throughout the day.
It was a tough weekend for the rookies of which Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was the best with his 13th place finish, while Brendon Hartley placed 15th (and last of those running at the end) as the new Toro Rosso-Honda project received a massive reality check in their first race together as Pierre Gasly in the other Toro Rosso ended with a DNF due to a power unit issue.
Sergey Sirotkin’s grand prix debut for Williams ended after four laps, while his teammate toiled on the wrong end of proceedings on his way to 14th. A woeful start to the season for the Grove outfit.
Hamilton led away comfortably at the start, dismissing a brief challenger from Raikkonen as they made their way through the first corners. Vettel held third place but behind Magnussen got the jump on Verstappen who dropped to fifth ahead of Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Ricciardo.
At the back of the field, Hartley had a major lock-up into Turn 1 and pitted at the end of lap one. The New Zealander took on soft tyres in a bid to reach the end of the race on the yellow-banded set.
Ricciardo was soon past Hulkenberg to take P7, but further ahead team-mate Verstappen was struggling to put pressure on Magnussen. The result was a rapidly degrading set of tyres and on lap 10 the Dutchman lost control into Turn 1 and spun. He dropped to eight behind Hulkenberg.
At the front Hamilton was attempting to build a gap, but both Raikkonen and Vettel were tenaciously hanging on and by the end of lap 15 Hamilton only had three seconds in hand over the Ferraris.
On lap 22 Magnussen made his first stop of the race, but almost immediately afterwards he pulled over at the side of the track. The Dane reported an engine issue but Race Control later stated that the team had possibly released Magnussen unsafely.
That boosted team-mate Grosjean to fourth but under pressure from Ricciardo and on fading ultrasofts the Frenchman also pitted. Again though, as soon as he rejoined the circuit, he immediately pulled over and stopped in a mirror image of the Magnussen incident, this time with the front left wheel of Grosjean’s car not being properly attached.
With Grosjean’s car at the trackside on lap 24 the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. Ferrari seized the opportunity and pitted Vettel for soft tyres. Hamilton, though, lost a huge amount of time under the VSC and when Vettel emerged from the pit lane he swept into the lead.
The VSC was replaced by the real thing as Grosjean’s car was cleared and when racing resumed Vettel held his lead over Hamilton, with Raikkonen third and Ricciardo fourth. Alonso had vaulted up to fifth place under the SC and was being shadowed by Verstappen who had also recovered from his early woes.
The second half of the race became a cat and mouse battle between the Ferrari and Mercedes driver, with Hamilton regularly getting to within DRS range of the leader only for Vettel to drag the gap back out to beyond a second.
Six seconds further back, Raikkonen kept Ricciardo at bay in the same manner, with the Australian getting to within DRS range and the Finn pulling away as he carefully managed his defence of the final podium position.
Behind them, in the battle for fifth place, a little under two seconds covered three Renault-powered drivers in the closing stage, with Alonso leading Verstappen and Hulkenberg.
With 10 laps remaining Hamilton got on the radio to his team saying that he was going to attack for the lead. The attempt came to nothing, however, as the Briton suffered a heavy lock-up at Turn 9, losing almost two seconds to Vettel.
He clawed half that back over the next two laps and with seven laps remaining was 1.5s behind Vettel. A lap later and the deficit was just one second.
But there Hamilton’s charge ended. On the next lap he was 1.3 slower than Vettel and then drifted to 4.4s off the Ferrari, and having been warned about high engine temperatures, Hamilton voted to save the engine on his car and settled for a safe second place.
A handful of laps later Vettel crossed the line to take his 48th career win ahead of the Briton. Raikkonen clung on to third place ahead of Ricciardo, while Alonso gave McLaren a positive start to life with Renault power by keeping Verstappen at bay to take fifth place.
With the Dutchman sixth, Hulkenberg finished seventh ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.
The final points position went to Sainz, who battled to the finish despite suffering from nausea caused by the fluid in his drinks bottle during the race.