By Gary Becker
Sebastian Vettel used a very fast Ferrari and outstanding team strategy to grab the lead near the halfway point in the 57 lap Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park and run away with a nine plus second win over the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton.
The story of the race boiled down to an early lap 18 pit stop by Hamilton for fresh tires that resulted in the Mercedes driver returning to the track mired in slower traffic. Hamilton's plight allowed Vettel to build a large enough lead for the Ferrari team to service Vettel's car and return him to the action ahead of Hamilton. From that point on, lap 24, Vettel never looked back, riding a comfortable lead to the checkered flag.
“It’s been a great day for us." said Vettel "The team has been working so hard at the track as much as back at the factory. It’s a great feeling. “Grazie mille”, you can’t say much more. The last months have been really intense, it’s been tough to get into the rhythm. It’s just the beginning and there’s still a lot of work going on. This is one of many steps and we have to enjoy what we do. It’s great to see people smiling. Now we have to reset to go to China and try to do a good job.”
For Hamilton it was a day of traffic and tire wear. After grabbing the lead with an outstanding start Hamilton stayed a second or more ahead of second placed Vettel until Hamilton was called into the pits, the first of the leaders to do so, for a tire change on lap 18. When Hamilton returned to the circuit after a 3.3 second stop for four soft compound tires he found himself behind the fifth placed Red Bull Racing machine of Max Verstappen. While Hamilton tried to find a way around Verstappen, Vettel pulled away.
On lap 24 Vettel pitted, his 3.0 second stop for soft compound tires put him back on track ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton. Vettel then began to pull away from both as Hamilton was battling tire grip while trying to find a way around Verstappen who did not pit until lap 26. By that time Vettel was gone and Hamilton was battling tire wear and a closing Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas.
"A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari." said Hamilton "I know this win has been a long time coming for them. This shows we’ve got a real race on our hands this season and it’s a challenge we will relish. It’s going to be great for the fans. We had a really good start which is fantastic. It was nice to get a good getaway. But I was struggling with grip from the get-go. Sebastian was able to always answer me in terms of lap time and just go quicker. Towards the end of the first stint I caught some traffic and that overheated the tires. I struggled for grip to the point where I needed to come in, plus the gap was closing up and I was sliding around a lot. We made the call to pit, because otherwise I think Sebastian would have come past me anyway. After my stop I got caught in some traffic which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing."
When it was all said and done it was Vettel, Hamilton, Bottas standing on the podium.
"There are always things that could have gone better on the day but it’s a good starting point for my journey driving for Mercedes." said Bottas "As a team I think we did a really good job with the car we had. But Ferrari were quicker today, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve obviously done a great job over the winter. From my side the main issue was the first stint. I felt like I was always sliding around on the UltraSoft tire - missing front and rear grip - especially after 10 laps. That wasn’t easy. But once we stuck on the Softs I had a great feeling with the car. It was behaving really nicely and it felt really nice to drive. It’s a shame it was just a bit too late. But overall this race wasn’t a disaster. It’s good to start with a podium with a new team and every position is important for the Championship. There’s a long season ahead. I have my points and I’ll do better next time. I’m looking forward to China."
The hometown favorite, Daniel Ricciardo's day went from bad to worse. Riccirado suffered a gearbox problem on the grid lap forcing him and his car to the Red bull Racing garage for repairs. Ricciardo joined the race two laps into the running and then lasted until lap 29 when he slowed and stopped in the tracks sector three.
“Not the weekend I wanted at home." said Ricciardo "For all these things to happen at my home race that’s probably the most frustrating thing. We were on the back foot already after the crash in qualifying and then today we had an issue during the warm up lap followed by a second issue in the race. On both occasions the car just came to a stop so I couldn’t do anything else. But look, it’s the first race so hopefully we’ll move forward from this. Sure I’m disappointed now but it is what it is. I’ve been here before so I’ll wake up tomorrow and be motivated to get ready for China. I feel for the fans. I’m sure they would have loved seeing me in action, but I feel super grateful for everyone that came this weekend and supported me. Even when I stopped they were still cheering and shouting my name. That goes a long way and it makes me stand here now feeling a lot better than if I didn’t have that so I definitely appreciate their support. Also, the boys worked so many hours this weekend, and did a great job getting me out on the track again but unfortunately it hasn’t come together for any of us. Max’s pace in the race looked a bit more encouraging, so I think we’re better than what we’re showing but it’s still a bit of a puzzle we’re trying to figure out. If any Aussies have a bit of energy left in a few weeks, then come out to China and you’ll hopefully see a better race from me.”
Things also went badly for Haas Formula One. Romain Grosjean was running in the top ten before the engine went sour ending his day on lap 15.
“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car." said Grosjean "It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car. I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points. I’m feeling it right now, but tomorrow I’m going to wake up thinking, you know what, we’ve got a great car, so no matter what, we’re going to be there this year.”
Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen’s first bout of misfortune came on the opening lap when contact with the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson sent him into the turn-three gravel trap. Magnussen powered through the gravel and reemerged onto the track, albeit with a damaged front wing that necessitated a trip to pit lane. With a new wing and fresh tires, Magnussen returned to racing, but well down the running order. Then 11 laps short of the finish, a suspension issue likely stemming from the incident with Ericsson forced Magnussen to retire his race car.
Said Magnussen, “I had contact at turn three. I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit. We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast. That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”
Behind the three leaders Kimi Raikkonen was able to hold off a charging Max Verstappen for fourth. Verstappen was able to get within two seconds of the Ferrari before laps ran out finishing fifth.
“The start was really good but it was just a shame that out of turn one I had dirty air ahead of me, this allowed Kimi to stay on the outside and get in front of me again." said Verstappen "From then on the pace wasn’t too bad, I could follow him pretty well which was a nice surprise and I had no pressure from behind me. It was positive to see we weren’t that far off Ferrari and Mercedes over a full race distance, this was a concern this morning but I’m relieved now to finish within touching distance. Physically I feel fine, you have to fight the cars a bit but to be honest I feel better than I did last year after race distance. The car behaved and handled quite a bit better than in qualifying. It was hard to follow and drive close behind others, I think as soon as you get within two seconds you can really feel it and could destroy your tires. Looking ahead to China I think we need to keep working hard on the car, race pace was good but you can still see we are not quick enough in certain situations.”
Felipe Massa was sixth for Williams with Sergio Perez scoring solid points for Force India with a seventh place. Toro Rosso's Carlos Sainz was eighth ahead of teammate Daniil Kvyat. The final points position was taken by Esteban Ocon.
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