Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 24° Track 36° Humidity 67% Wind 2.6 m/s
Brilliant ribbons of blue sky hung over Albert Park, but it was all clouds for Red Bull man Daniel Ricciardo whose car, already dinged 5 spots for a gearbox penalty, mysteriously stopped on the way to the grid. Electronic sensor according to Horner and with minutes to spare he was still in the pits.
The first race of the year contains the greatest unknowns by definition and the run down to T1 has been the focus, especially with the inconsistencies suffered by Mercedes last season. Both Saubers and Magnussen for Haas start on the Soft tyre (the hardest available) and should Ricciardo make it to the grid it will be on the Soft tyre. The rest of the grid are on the Ultra’s and the best guess for pit stop window is in the low 20’s on lap count. T1 has seen some spectacular crashes and with the wider cars the possibility of carnage looms large.
Lights Out!!!! Or not, as they did another formation lap almost immediately, for reasons that were not obvious. The repeated circling did nothing to make Hamilton happy as the field weaved around the circuit and he complained of the grip, or lack thereof.
Lights Out!!!! Again. And into T1 it was good start for Hamilton and it was Bottas trying to snag P2 from Vettel. Lockup from Hulkenberg as Ericsson took damage from Magnussen in the chaos of the start.
Perez immediately took Kvyat to the cleaners as they headed into S2 and it was Sainz on the defense early. Up at the front Vettel was hanging half a second off as they looped around to lap 2.
Stroll disappointed with a clean start and up to P14 (humour) as Ricciardo managed to get out of the garage, 2 laps down but at least in the running. Alonso made it up to P11 and it was Vandoorne with display issues on his wheel.
Into lap 4 and it was Vettel drifting out of the final turn and laying out the DRS. Not enough down the straight and it was real racing for 4 straight laps for P1. But Bottas in P3 was drifting the wrong direction, already 3.5s clear of the fun at the front.
Stroll was into the pits lap 6 and back out P18 with a set of Softs strapped to his chassis. On replay of the start, he had a huge lockup into T1 likely accounted for the early stop as a massive flat spot would’ve resulted.
Lap 8 and Hamilton had begun his grind, extending his early lead to 1.7s as Vettel seemed content just to keep in touch after his early attempts to overtake.
Mercedes made the call to have Lewis run 1:28:00’s and he replied that it was not possible. Even still, he was running in the low 28’s and as lap 10 rolled up on the counter, Vettel countered with a fast lap a full 0.1s up on Hamilton’s effort.
Vandoorne’s weekend of misery continued as he was forced to box and power cycle the car himself in order to try and clear the dash and solve a loss of power. Next lap up and Mercedes was officially starting to look worried as Lewis reported overheating. Palmer had some sort of issue and the yellows were thrown, but only briefly as he managed to get the car going again.
The gap at the front continued to yo-yo between 1.5s and 2s whilst Giovinazzi in P14 defended hard against Stroll in the Williams, on fresh tyres and generally with a much stronger engine.
The battle continued into lap 15 and then it was all tears for HAAS as Grosjean hit the pits with smoke billowing copiously from the rear of the car. Palmer continued to struggle with his issues. It wasn’t all bad news as the loss of Grosjean promoted Alonso to P10.
Ocon in from P12 and back out on the Soft tyre as the gap at the front dipped below 1s on lap 17.
Hamilton in on lap 18 and onto the Soft but out into P5 behind Verstappen and immediately it was Giovinazzi in the way. Vettel stayed out and continued to rock 1:28’s as Palmer finally gave up the ghost and boxed for the final time.
Hamilton at that point was driving to get inside the pit window for Vettel. Clear of traffic it was game on as Lewis set fast lap with a 1:27.551 lap 19 while Vettel stayed out and responded with a 1:28.118.
Drama at the back, as Perez made a particularly violent move on Sainz, claiming P8 and a chunk of Sainz’ wing while forcing the Spaniard into a massive lock up. Mercedes was all over Hamilton to get by Verstappen and Lewis responded by saying it was impossible. Yielding to the inevitable, his engineer told him to keep the pressure on as Verstappen complained of bad tyres.
Lap 24 and Vettel was in and out in FRONT of the Mercedes of Lewis and it was a dice between Vettel and Verstappen with the Ferrari getting the best of it. Vettel disappeared up the road and by the end of lap 25 it was nearly a 3 second gap between them.
The yellows were out lap 26 as Ericsson’s car gave up the ghost and Bottas was in and out, also on the Softs. Verstappen chose the SuperSofts as his weapon and Lewis was on the horn saying the tyres had no grip left in them, despite being only 8 laps old.
The following lap saw Raikkonen in for his set of Softs and Mercedes began talk of Plan B as Hamilton had dropped nearly 6 seconds back. AS the potential repercussions of Plan B echoed through the commentariat, Ricciardo completed his weekend of catastrophe as his Power Unit self destructed, leaving him stranded at the side of the track, gentle wisps of smoke boiling up from under the nose.
Before the yellows were out Lewis had started to reclaim a bit of the gap, but it was gone by time the Red Bull was cleared. To add insult to injury, Bottas was beginning to close in a bit over the last few laps and as lap 33 ticked over once again, it was Mercedes on the radio calling for high 27’s, or whatever Lewis could deliver.
Lap 35 and it was well into the backmarkers and Lewis getting hung up with the Alonso/Ocon melee for P10. Cost him a second or two, which he could ill afford.
By lap 38 the gap to Bottas behind was under 3s whilst it was almost 8s up the road to Vettel as it was all going sideways for Mercedes as the last thing they wanted was a battle between their two drivers.
Meanwhile, up at the front Vettel was using his dash to look up Italian vocabulary for celebrating as he swanned off into the distance with 17 laps left in the race.
As lap 42 went into the books, it was Magnussen languishing at the back of those still running in P16, with Vandoorne ahead in P15 and then the surprising Giovinazzi in P14. Stroll went straight on in T1 cut through the gravel trap and as it transpired, brake issues ended his day as he boxed at the end of the lap.
A lengthy negotiation with Sainz, resulted in Kvyat being let by to pursue Perez, with a promise to yield the position back if the attack did not succeed. As the end of the race began to take shape, Verstappen versus Raikkonen for P4 looked to be the most promising match up with Bottas and Hamilton next up for P2.
By lap 49 Kvyat had dialed Perez into his sights and was into DRS on Perez while Hulkenberg had grabbed onto the gearbox of Ocon. Then drama again as Toro Rosso called for Kvyat to box as he had a problem with engine air. This did not make the Russian happy in the least and he argued vociferously before finally yielding and bringing the car in. Mercedes was concerned about Lewis’ floor and even as that was being sorted, Lewis reported an intermittent loss of power.
It was a Fernando train that had developed, and lap 52 saw all 3 drivers running nose to tail out of the final turn. Down the straight and then 3 wide into T1 as Ocon got by Alonso and Hulkenberg followed him through. Less good was the result for Alonso who immediately reported a suspension issue due to some contact during the fun, and it was game over as he was called in to retire the car.
The following lap Verstappen was within 2s of Raikkonen and it was Sainz now within DRS of Perez. Up at the front a bored Sebastian Vettel decided to put in fast lap and Kvyat looking for something to do now he had to pit wanted to have a go, much to the consternation of his engineer who just wanted him to finish without breaking anything. Verstappen, also sensing the futility of getting by the Finn, enquired about who had fast lap, and was told it was too fast for him.
AS Vettel crossed timing and scoring for the penultimate time it was looking to be status quo for the checkers and it was Vettel claiming the palmares as the checkers flew, with Hamilton P2 and Bottas P3. Raikkonen and Verstappen rounded out the top 5.
As Vettel took his victory lap fans somehow managed to get onto the circuit while the cars were still moving, which was a bit concerning. AS the top three hit the victory garage, it turned out the wider cars would no longer fit 3 wide making for an awkward moment as Vettel was unable to pull between the Mercedes.
Further back it was Massa P6 doing the job he was brought into do, and truly an amazing P12 by Giovinazzi. Also a good day for Force India who managed to get both cars into the points. But the real stories were in the carnage of the 7 who didn’t finish. Alonso’s fight for P10 saw him off, leaving Vandoorne as the sad lanterne rouge in P13. Ricciardo was the biggest tragedy as the hometown hero would’ve significantly enlivened the race as he tried to carve his way through. Grosjean too was a real loss as HAAS looked good for a proper haul of points and wound up with both cars out. Palmer, Ericsson and Stroll all failed to make the end of the race as the new demands on cars and Power Units took their toll.
The real worrying trend is that outside of the first 4 laps when Vettel had a proper go, there was little on track action (which is kind of normal for Melbourne, but still), and driver’s predictions of difficulty passing appear to be accurate. The most important pass of the race was in the pits and aside from the excitement with Alonso late in the race there was little else of note. Confounding matters, it was beyond clear that the majority of races will be one stops and there will be precious little strategic variation throughout the season. Melbourne is a one off track in many ways and China will be a better benchmark, but this truly might wind up being a throwback season to the days of passes you can count on a single hand.
All in all, though a brilliant race for Ferrari, both for Vettel and for Jock Clear, formerly Hamilton’s race engineer, and current head of trackside operations for Ferrari, who nailed their strategy on tighter than a drum. It’s looking to be a proper challenge from them this year and that will go a long way towards making viewers tune in. Mercedes looks to have difficulty passing, which had been noted in the past, but when they had clear air they were also setting fastest laps. They may not be the best at split second calls, but they rarely make the same mistake twice and the onus is still on Ferrari to be able to get round them on track as no on yet seems to have an answer to Mercedes’ magic qualifying mode.
More good news is the drivers, despite the kvetching during the race, seem to be happy with the tyres, with Vettel waxing rhapsodic in post race interviews about being able to push, despite degradation.
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