The Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel took an unexpected victory at the season opening Australian Grand Prix, after gaining a “free pit stop” under the virtual safety car and leapfrogging the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and his Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton made the perfect getaway and led into the first corner ahead of a punchy Raikkonen and the sister Ferrari of Vettel. Much to everyone’s surprise, it was Raikkonen who provided the pressure on Hamilton in the first stint of the race. Keeping close with a gap of 3.4-seconds to the lead Mercedes. The Finn made his pit stop on lap 17 in an attempt to force Mercedes to have to pick a driver to shadow. One lap later Mercedes pitted Hamilton to cover off Raikkonen, who at this point still looked set to finish the race a solid second.
Vettel’s side of the garage, in a bid to try and bring his race to life, kept him out to set up a shorter final stint. This ended up playing into his hands when a Virtual Safety Car was called to retrieve the stricken Haas of Romain Grosjean. Hamilton was forced to abide to a set time as he toured the circuit. However, the restrictions on times did not apply to Vettel in the pitlane, who came in instantly for what was in effect a free stop, saving the Ferrari driver over 10 seconds of lap time over Hamilton. The result was just like twelve months ago, Vettel was able to emerge from his one and only pitstop of the race ahead of Hamilton.
Vettel then ran the race from the front, capitalising on his golden opportunity and driving faultlessly to hold Hamilton at bay. The Mercedes fought valiantly, but called off the fight with five laps to go.
“Today has been our day.” Vettel said after the race. “The Safety Car helped of course, but apart from that, I think we did everything we could do as a team. So when something happened, we were ready to react. We did our job before the race, evaluating different scenarios, and then in the race we had the pace as well.”
Post-race the Mercedes team admitted that they lost the race due to a glitch in their computer software. Their software incorrectly failed to warn their pit wall that Hamilton was vulnerable if the Virtual Safety Car was deployed.
“We believed that we had the scenarios of both the Safety Car and the Virtual Safety Car covered, so that Sebastian could not pit and come out ahead of Lewis on track,” said team principal Toto Wolff afterwards. “We should have been several seconds safe, then suddenly saw on the TV screens that we were not.”
Confused by what had happened, Hamilton finished second, ahead of Raikkonen after the Finn held off a hard-charging Daniel Ricciardo during the closing stages.
The Red Bull driver and home favourite showed some impressive speed after the Safety Car period. Hunting down Raikkonen and pressuring him for the podium. Though thanks to the processional nature of Albert Park Ricciardo wasn’t able to take the position to score his first ever home Grand Prix podium.
“I obviously tried to do all I could with Kimi,” he said. “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.”
Red Bull can take some solace from the fact their speed was close to Ferrari and Mercedes. This time last year, they were around a second-a-lap off Mercedes and Ferrari at the opening race of the season.
Fernando Alonso was fifth for McLaren after holding off the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, as the Woking team look to shake off the drama of the Honda power days by securing good points finishes. Alonso at first berated his race engineer for lacking energy on team radio during the opening laps. But when he crossed the finish line he told McLaren he was “proud” of the work they put in during the off season.
Verstappen meanwhile was disappointed in sixth after having a frustrating race where the tight and twisty Albert Park circuit was too narrow for him to launch a successful overtakes. His troubling race started at the very first turn, when an opportunistic Kevin Magnussen robbed Verstappen off the line for fourth place. Frustrated, Verstappen set about hunting down Magnussen, but was compromised by damage to his RB14 he sustained in the opening laps. Things went from bad to worse when he spun off as he sought to chase down Magnussen, promoting Grosjean up to fifth.
Haas were on for their best points finish in their history, but it all unravelled at the pit stops, as both cars retired immediately after their pit stops. The apparent victims of a faulty wheel gun, with Grosjean’s stranded car triggering the deployment of the Virtual Safety Car.
Nico Hulkenberg finished seventh for Renault ahead of the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas who bounced back after his qualifying accident. While Stoffel Vandoorne and Carlos Sainz finished ninth and tenth respectively to make it a double points finish for Renault and McLaren.
Overall this race had so much potential, especially from the bickering midfield. Everything was shaping up to be a great battle. And then the VSC and Safety Car brought much of that to an end. Following the restart, the processional nature of Albert Park came back to rear its ugly head with a vengeance. And not even the addition of a third DRS zone could save the race. It fizzled out into a mediocre last third of a race. Which was such a shame after such huge potential in the early stages.
Teams now will have to turn their attention to Bahrain, with Free Practice 1 commencing on the 6th of April.
Australian GP race result
1. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari: 1:29:33.283
2. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes: + 5.036
3. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari: + 6.309
4. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull: + 7.069
5. Fernando Alonso, McLaren: + 27.886
6. Max Verstappen, Red Bull: + 28.945
7. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault: + 32.671
8. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes: + 34.339
9. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren: + 34.921
10. Carlos Sainz, Renault: + 45.722
11. Sergio Perez, Force India: + 46.817
12. Esteban Ocon, Force India: + 60.278
13. Charles Leclerc, Sauber: + 75.759
14. Lance Stroll, Williams: +78.288
15. Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso: + 1 lap
16. Romain Grosjean, Haas: DNF
17. Kevin Magnussen, Haas: DNF
18. Pierre Gasly, Toro Rosso: DNF
19. Sergey Sirotkin, Williams: DNF
20. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber: DNF