Date: 26th March 2018 at 6:09pm
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Who’s smiling now?

Who’s smiling now?

For all that much is new in contemporary F1, the pecking order in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne’s Albert Park looked terribly familiar. The grand reveal of the first qualifying session confirmed the efficacy of the pre-season testing grapevine. We had a tight midfield with Haas heading it. Ferrari and Red Bull close to each other. Mercedes well clear. There was a hiccup – Valtteri Bottas binned it in qualifying and started 15th. Yet Lewis Hamilton stunned all with his final effort and was nine tenths clear on pole.

There was much talk of a special Mercedes ‘party mode’ for the last of quali, denied by all in the silver camp. And when jibed by his rival Sebastian Vettel on the subject Lewis retorted that his late boost instead was the desire to ‘wipe the smile off your face’.

‘I think what goes around comes around,’ Seb rejoined. ‘He’s free to have a party tonight and then hopefully Kimi [Raikkonen] and myself will have a party tomorrow.’

It seems he’s as good a mystic as racing driver.

Come the race things initially were in a similar vein to qualifying however. Lewis didn’t run away from the Ferrari pair next up but looked undeniably comfortable. As for Vettel, he wasn’t even the fastest Ferrari as Kimi set the Scuderia pace. In that familiar way it was all rather follow my leader too.

But it remains the case that anything can and does happen in a Grand Prix race, and it started just before half distance with both of the haughty Haas pair in turn being released from their pitstops without a wheel attached. Romain Grosjean, the second to suffer, parked on the exit of the first complex and this heralded a Virtual Safety Car (which in time became a full Safety Car deployment). Kevin Magnussen not for nothing called the double retirement ‘heartbreaking’.

There was a more immediate consideration though. Virtual Safety Cars can really turn races on their head, by allowing cars to pit and save something in the region of 10 seconds to the normal loss, as all others tool around more slowly. Seb hadn’t pitted at this point as he was attempting some kind of offset. Lewis and Kimi had, as Lewis had come in to cover an early-ish stop from Kimi.

Seb thus made his sole stop smartly and emerged suddenly in the lead and the day was in a beat unrecognisable. Yet the extent of the switch, and that Lewis was in danger, surprised even the Mercedes pitwall. ‘I thought we were safe but there was obviously something wrong,’ noted Lewis’s engineer Peter Bonnington sheepishly on the radio, after Lewis had insisted on a postmortem.

Merc boss Toto Wolff spoke afterwards of a software problem – ‘we thought we had about a three-second margin, so we need to ask the computers…’. Whatever, thoughts returned to the previous day and that as Seb said what goes around…

Furthermore Ferrari, and Mercedes, had to some extent made their luck, as it all was an indirect result of Ferrari making a pincer movement on Lewis. Maybe it can be traced back to Bottas’s crash in qualifying and that he wasn’t around to help.

We know too that overtaking in F1 isn’t easy; particularly not at this Albert Park track. Particularly not in a Mercedes which it seems is designed primarily to run out front. And, oh yeah, if there’s anyone you’d have convert a lead to a win to save your life it’s Seb. Just beyond half distance the cars were released to race again and Lewis harried the Ferrari.

There was no shortage of effort, but that became part of the problem. At one point Lewis declared he was ‘going for it’ but ran wide and lost two seconds half a lap later. He scampered back to within a second with five laps to go but not long later he fell back again, now in conservation mode and ceding defeat. Seb won and Lewis was an unforeseen runner up.

Seb accepted he got lucky, and that the major take for Ferrari from this one is that Mercedes has major ground on it. ‘We have some more work to do, but we’re getting there,’ Seb said soberly on his slowing down lap.

‘We got a bit lucky obviously’, was about the first thing to pass his lips on the podium.

‘My start could have been better, it didn’t really work so I had to settle for third and then at the end of the first stint I lost a little bit of the connection to Lewis and Kimi ahead. I was struggling a little with the tyre. I was praying for a Safety Car!

‘But we’ll take it. It’s a good start, a good win and fresh motivation for the next few weeks.’

And Lewis’s take was similar. ‘It has been an incredible weekend,’ he said. ‘To arrive and have the performance we’ve had today. Big congratulations to Sebastian and to Ferrari.

‘Today obviously they did a better job and we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and work on it but we still have great pace, our qualifying was great.

‘I think that during the race I was able to apply some pressure at the end but this is one awesome circuit but it’s so hard to overtake, even with the extra DRS, obviously with the cars being as close as they were so, at the end I was really trying to live to fight another day, save the engine, and we’ll try and regain the points later on.

There were similar stories further down. Daniel Ricciardo, recovering from a grid penalty for not slowing sufficiently under a red flag in practice, similarly harried Kimi in third all the way after the safety car period but as with Lewis didn’t have many opportunities to pass. They also therefore finished in that order.

And that wiliest of foxes Fernando Alonso was another to benefit, vaulting to fifth place under the mid-race shuffle which he knew how to keep, even though the effervescent Max Verstappen was darting and dodging in his mirrors. Max indeed had a frustrating day, first being bottled up behind Magnussen early on, then spinning… A reminder that he yet has the odd rough edge.

As for McLaren the result wasn’t entirely lucky, the car looks now in the vicinity of the likes of Renault and Haas at the front of the midfield (though Nando didn’t really max qualifying). At the very least its decision to switch engines from Honda to Renault looks entirely vindicated.

Nico Hulkenberg followed Max home in seventh; Bottas salvaged eighth. The other McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne then the other Renault of Carlos Sainz – the latter suffering from nausea in the race’s latter part, after earlier complaining of a lack of power – completed the scorers.

Force India and Williams underwhelmed, while Sauber did better than expected. Marcus Ericsson looked racy all weekend though retired early having lost power steering, while his team-mate Charles Leclerc got home ahead of Lance Stroll’s Williams and Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso.

Not everything changes as we are often reminded. Today’s Australian Grand Prix with its surprise tilt reminded us of a few more familiar aphorisms. That in F1 there is many a slip between cup and lip. And that, no matter what, prizes are not handed out until the end of a Sunday. That’s when the smiles matter.

Author: Graham Keilloh

TWITTER: @TalkingaboutF1


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