After Saturday’s record-breaking qualifying lap Lewis Hamilton will certainly not have expected to be left feeling confused and unhappy after the first race of the new Formula One season.
Hamilton was dominant all weekend, taking pole position nearly 0.7 of a second ahead of the rest of the field, and will have been feeling confident on Sunday morning after giving a masterclass in qualifying. The defending champion will have been full of optimism that his attempt to win a fifth title would be off to the best possible start. However, that optimism was then shattered in a matter of seconds when Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel opened the season with a win, just as he did last year.
Had Hamilton been overtaken on the track them he would have probably been less bemused. However, after dominating from the pole for 20 of the race’s 58 laps, Vettel took the lead from Hamilton by taking advantage of a pit stop under the virtual safety car and then emerging in front.
While it may not be the most satisfying way to win a race, Vettel, who admitted that Ferrari do not have the same speed as Mercedes, will have been pleased to be able to capitalise on it.
Mercedes pulled Hamilton in to the pits on the twentieth lap to match the stop by Kimi Raikkonen, who was in second and finished in third place. At that point Hamilton had a very comfortable lead of more than six seconds to Vettel. The car was looking good and he seemed untroubled at the front of the field.
However, Ferrari decided to keep Vettel out and when Romain Grosjean’s retirement at the side of the track resulted in the virtual safety car being used on lap 26, Ferrari took full advantage of the situation. With the cars on track being forced to drive a slower lap time, Ferrari had the opportunity to send their driver out in the lead.
Speaking after the race Hamilton said, “Even now I don’t understand what happened. I did everything I believed I needed to. Disbelief was how I felt from that moment until the end…I am in disbelief because l did everything l was supposed to do. I drove as well as l could and l didn’t put a foot wrong.”
Later Hamilton explained, “In the race I had extra tools – I could have been further ahead by the first pit stop. I could have been further ahead afterit. But there were so many good things we could have done, but if one thing’s telling you one thing and you think you’re doing it to the book and within the limit then there is nothing you can do. It is a team effort but when you are relying on computers, on data, and on so much technology for the right strategy, I wish it was more in my own hands. It is obviously never easy to lose a grand prix, and we still got second, but it feels like a dark cloud.”
The world champion added, “Everyone in the team is feeling it but there’s so much great work and so much positivity to take forward with us. We still got second today so it feels like a dark cloud, but it’s not. We still got a positive result, we’ve got a great car and we’re still the world champions. With a couple of adjustments we can win the next race – I believe that.”
Mercedes had not given Hamilton any special instructions in order to handle the situation and take away the advantage that Ferrari enjoyed by pitting while the virtual safety car was out and in the end the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, admitted that they had made a mistake.
According to Wolff, the software that Mercedes use to calculate the gap that Hamilton needed to establish in order to ensure he remained ahead produced the wrong number. As a result, the team thought that Hamilton had plenty of time, even with the virtual safety card, so they didn’t advise him to push harder and extend the gap.
“The software or system we have been using for five years just gave us the wrong number,” Wolff said. “He did nothing wrong. It was down to a software bug or an algorithm that was simply wrong.”
It is entirely understandable that Hamilton was left feeling confused after the race. He was leading from pole and looked entirely in control of the situation until the moment he lost the lead. He had opened a gap ahead of the two chasing Ferraris and at no point did it look as if either of them had the speed to close the gap, never mind over take the race leader.
It is well known that overtaking at Albert Park is extremely difficult and once Vettel had made it to the front there is little that Hamilton could have done, other than keep the pressure on him. At one point Hamilton got within half-a-second of Vettel once the race resumed, but he ran off the track in his pursuit before eventually giving up on trying to win, “’I was hungry to try and recover, and I was risking it all. I could have lost all the points. But eventually I had to make a sensible choice. There is a long, long way to go in this championship and all is not won in one race.”
After the race even Vettel admitted that Ferrari won as the result of a stroke of good luck, “We got a bit lucky with the timing of the safety car. If you are at the front you can control the race, we know overtaking is difficult. Lewis was probably the quickest of the three of us but that’s the way it goes.”
It was the forty-eighth win of Vettel’s career and his 100th podium finish, coming in his 200th F1 race. He is now the fourth driver to claim 100 podium finishing, joining Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost. In the end, Vettel finished the race a full five seconds ahead of Hamilton.
Hamilton is probably now wondering what he must to if he is to win in Australia again. He has won there twice before, but in the last five years he has failed to convert pole position to victory on four separate occasions.
The day showed that Mercedes’ confidence in their car is justified, but their confidence will have taken a knock as they have always had great trust in their decision making processes.
For Vettel it is the perfect start to the latest campaign. He is still hoping to win his fifth tile, equalling Juan Manuel Fangio. During testing and the build up to this race he was circumspect. While he was outclassed by Hamilton in qualifying, he was confident that Ferrari would improve in the race and he showed that the team are determined to do everything possible to challenge Mercedes, even when their cars are not quite as good.
After qualifying Hamilton joked that he wanted “to wipe the smile off” Vettel’s face, a comment that didn’t go down too well with the German. Vettel said that he preferred to focus on the race and ultimately, he has come away with the points. Mercedes will now be examining how after an excellent qualifying performance and early dominance in the race, they left their title defending driver wondering why he was not able to win the race.
Elsewhere in the race Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo make an excellent recovery to finish in fourth place from eighth on the grid and while his teammate Max Verstappen could only manage sixth after an uncharacteristic spin, the team’s cars were looking strong.
McLaren also enjoyed their best result since 2016 with Fernando Alonso making the most of their new Renault engine to finish fifth. Nico Hulkenberg came seventh for Renault, ahead of Valtteri Bottas who had recovered from fifteenth on the grid. The second McLaren, Stoffel Vandoorne, finished ninth and the second Renault, Carlos Sainz, finished tenth.
Ricciardo was pushing Raikkonen hard for the entire second half of the race as he chased up a podium place, but Raikkonen drove exceptionally well to hold him off and keep his third place finish. Afterwards Ricciardo said, “I think we’re pretty close with Ferrari and our race pace is strong. Being so close to the podium and getting fastest lap is definitely an encouraging way to start the season.”
The next stop of the season is the Bahrain GP, taking place on Sunday April 8th, and Mercedes are sure to have a full review of their systems before the race. Hamilton is sure to be feeling under more pressure now, and all eyes will be on him during qualifying in Bahrain to see how he responds. While we are just one race into the season, it already looks set to be full of excitement.