‘Quite mad in a positive way,’ was how Sebastian Vettel described it afterwards. It was that. One of those races in which you have to rub your eyes so to be sure that you know what’s going on. As it’s such a shift from what you were used to.
Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari, ahead of the usually-imperious Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. And there was no unreliability, weather intervention, weird tyre behaviour or anything else unusual. He was plain quicker than his haughty Mercedes foe.
The placid new Merc recruit Valtteri Bottas summed it up. ‘The red guys were a bit too quick’. Well one of them was anyway.
Plenty have noted that it’s the first time since the start of the hybrid era that anything other than a Mercedes has led an F1 world championship. Impressive enough, yet the break from the norm is greater than that. Aside from the grand outlier of Singapore in 2015, and Malaysia earlier that year that owed more to tyres, you really have to dig back to find the last time Merc was beaten genuinely on pace like this. Perhaps you’d have to go before the start of its imperious march from the get-go of 2014. This new F1 is different after all.
In terms of Seb switching places with pole man Lewis, it all came down to strategy. And Ferrari prevailing on this you could say is about as big a shift from last campaign as its prevailing on pace.
Lewis’s start was sweet, Seb’s not so much with too much wheel slip although he retained second. The German then looked comfortable in the Englishman’s wake. Still the silver car eked a two second advantage after ten laps or so and you thought the familiar tale was being told after all. But then Vettel clawed the time back, and Hamilton was bemoaning a shortage of grip.
Likely related to this Lewis was pitted first, on lap 18. Lewis said later it was at his behest. ‘I only stopped a lap earlier than my normal target,’ he noted, ‘but I couldn’t go any further. I used up all the money I had in those tyres’. It’s a tactic that usually works in the modern era, as one can lap faster on the fresher rubber. But it reckoned without Max Verstappen whom Lewis emerged behind, and that overtaking is not easy, perhaps particularly not with this year’s cars.
Lewis quickly got onto the back of the Red Bull, and his day got trickier as he was bottled up as Seb out front pressed on and added to his advantage, and Lewis appeared to have no possibility of passing the RB13. He didn’t tire of pointing out the difficulties of passing either, saying among other things that there was ‘no way’.
‘We were always thinking that we probably had reasonable pace,’ said Ferrari’s Jock Clear afterwards, ‘we were trying to get right behind Hamilton for the undercut, and he went early.
‘From that point you think OK we go as long as we can and maybe we attack at the end but then he got caught up in traffic and the overcut offered itself effectively.’
Merc boss Toto Wolff explained that, ‘We were worried about the undercut possibility for Sebastian, and we decided to pit him [Lewis] with all the risk…’
Five laps later Seb pitted himself and got back on track with a tiny, vital, advantage over the Max-Lewis train. From then the race was in the palm of his hand.
Much discussion was had about the Merc approach. As the sage Pat Symonds noted after the race a team is well advised to listen to its driver, particularly in a season-opener when so much is unknown. But track position is something not to be given up easily; particularly in these cars and on this track.
Force India’s Otmar Szafnauer was blunt on that last point: ‘I don’t know what Mercedes were doing stopping him when they did.’
Seb ticked off the laps, managing the gap to Lewis and occasionally adding to it. His advantage was six seconds when Max did eventually pit; by the end it was up to ten. In that situation he is one you’d pick to drive to save your life. He likely had pace in hand too.
Lewis didn’t have anything to respond with, indeed his team mate Valtteri Bottas cruised down upon him, and was only a second or so behind for much of the final part of the race. Some wondered if being in the Red Bull’s wake had taken the finer life out of Lewis’s tyres. At one point he, curiously, enquired about the state of his floor.
But none of this should distract us too much from the bottom line – that Ferrari was plain the faster car in Seb’s hands. ‘Ferrari was quicker,’ admitted Merc’s Niki Lauda with his usual directness, ‘bringing Lewis in earlier or later wouldn’t have made any difference.’ There was a feeling around that whatever Merc did Ferrari had enough to cover it off. The two Mercs followed Seb home in order, while the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen was fourth, 22 seconds shy of his team mate.
Thus Ferrari in the course of this weekend came full circle. It started as tentative paddock favourites based on testing, on Friday it was a busted flush, on Saturday it was not that bad, and based on today the testing hype was justified after all. ‘It’s going to be a stressful season,’ admitted Wolff.
Red Bull meanwhile is likely to be even more worried than Mercedes. Being over a second off in qualifying and half a minute off in the race is bad whichever way it is sliced. This was a formula that was supposed to suit the team, as was the fact that there was a reg shift at all. Verstappen got best of the rest in fifth; Daniel Ricciardo had an awful time at home. After binning it in quali and starting fifteenth after a grid drop due to resultant gearbox damage, he then stopped on the way to the grid with an electrical problem, started two laps adrift and then stopped definitively at mid-distance with another technical malady.
Felipe Massa made good on his fine new Williams by bagging sixth (albeit ended up close to a minute off Verstappen). The Force Indias and Toro Rossos completed the scorers, though the final points-paying place was somehow held by Fernando Alonso until late problems.
And so… that odd thing called optimism is all of a sudden around in F1 right now. Such things in this sport can be fleeting. Mercedes isn’t going to stand still; Wolff reckoned ‘we can probably push them [Ferrari] much more’. Plus there was a minor bum note in the new symphony with many comments from drivers about the difficulties of passing, as a few had feared in advance with these cars. Then again as intimated the Albert Park track ain’t big for overtaking at the best of times.
In any case all that can wait. For now we can be content that the Formula One World Championship will be one with competitors. Something that, in Martin Brundle’s words, ‘we’ve been aching for for a very long time.’
Author: Graham Keilloh
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