Vettel wins as Hamilton rues Mercedes strategic error


While Lewis Hamilton's pole-winning lap might have left Daniel Ricciardo as though he had received a pie in the face, and Mercedes rivals with egg on theirs, that frightening 0.6s gap might well be overhauled today.

Though it appears the weather gods have chosen not to interfere in the season opener - another new move from Liberty? - we know from experience that Saturday and Sunday afternoons can witness a massive turnaround in fortune.

Certainly, Hamilton heads into the race (and season) as hot favourite, but for a start off he will not have teammate Bottas riding shotgun at the start.

Behind him come the two Ferraris, and while Kimi - who has been quicker than Vettel in most sessions - is giving little away, Sebastian is keen to make up for not only last season but no doubt Hamilton's dig at him during yesterday's press conference.

Though - especially with the ludicrously named 'party mode' - we know the W09 is blindingly quick, there remains doubt over its race pace and also its sensitivity in terms of tyres. On the other hand the Ferrari looks good when it comes to race pace.

Red Bull was always aware that it would struggle on what is an engine circuit, and no doubt the card up the Austrian outfit's sleeve is its decision to start the race on supersofts, the only team in the top ten to do so.

Ricciardo has that grid penalty however, fired up in front of his home crowd, the king of the late-brakers is sure to be mixing it up front within a few laps.

And then comes the real fun, the midfield, where Haas heads Renault, Bottas starting from 15th after requiring a new gearbox - McLaren, Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso and Sauber.

On the evidence thus far, Toro Rosso and Sauber are going to struggle, while Williams does little to convince. Even so, the exploits of an ever-frustrated Alonso, when up against the likes of a feisty Haas duo and the ever warring Panthers, makes for the sort of entertainment one needs on a Sunday afternoon.

And talking of entertainment. In case you didn't see the announcement about the Netflix F12 "docu-series", the sport's commercial boss, Sean Bratches, had this to say.

"Formula 1 is a global sport that we are actively repositioning from a motorsport company to a media and entertainment brand," said the American. Oh really.

Despite all the promises, including "brand new software", it very much looks as though Pirelli's predictions of a multi-stopper will be proved wrong, with most of the leading drivers once again opting for a single pit stop. Rather than logos and theme tunes, perhaps this is the area the sport - or rather entertainment brand - should have been looking at.

As if that wasn't bad enough, it is also thought a number of teams, particularly the non-Mercedes runners, will need to conserve their fuel. Plus ca change.

While we remain unconvinced that the addition of a third DRS will have the (official) desired effect, the exploits of both Ricciardo and Bottas should produce some magic, especially with the Australian (and his teammate) on a different tyre strategy.

The pitlane opens and one by one the cars head out. Air temperature is currently 24 degrees C, while the track temperature is 38 degrees. It is bright and sunny but quite windy.

The field heads off on the warm-up lap, as Hamilton is warned of a headwind in T1. All on ultras bar the Bulls, Stroll, Ericsson, Hartley, Sirotkin and Leclerc who are on supers.

They're away, Hamiltn gets away well while Raikkonen moves across to cover his Ferrari teammate, who himself moves across to cover Verstappen. The Dutchman loses ground as he heads into the first corner finds himself behind Magnussen who has made a particularly strong start.

As Vettel looks to hold off the pack, Raikkonen is all over Hamilton, but the Briton appears to have the situation in hand. Further back Ricciardo has already made up a place, making short work of Sainz.

At the end of lap 1, it's Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel, Magnussen, Verstappen, Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Ricciardo, Sainz and Alonso. Hartley pits at the end of the first lap and switches to softs having flat-spotted his tyres in the first corner in a massive lock-up.

"Come on mate, straight in," Verstappen is told, "we aint got time for this."

"Mode seven and overtake, if you need it," Verstappen is urged, the Red Bull driver clearly frustrated behind the Haas.

Out front, leading Raikkonen by 1.2s, Hamilton posts a fastest lap (29.809).

As Hulkenberg complains of traffic, Perez is warned about the temperature of his rear-left.

As Bottas passes Stroll for 14th, Ricciardo makes a typically banzai move on Hulkenberg for 7th. "Nice job, well done," the Australian is told.

Sirotkin has stopped at T13 on lap 7, thus bringing out the yellow. The Russian complains of a brake issue.

Ericsson pits at the end of lap 6, but his lack of speed suggests it isn't merely for a tyre change. The Swede reports a power steering issue and subsequently climbs from his car.

"My tyres are getting really hot," moans Verstappen. The Dutch youngster's frustration is clearly getting to him, the Red Bull constantly out of shape he pushes to the limit in his bid to pass Magnussen.

A nice clean move sees Bottas take 13th from Ocon - in the Mercedes powered Force India.

Inevitably, Verstappen spins in T1 as he pushes too hard, losing positions to Grosjean, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg as the Red Bull rotates the full 360. Grosjean and Ricciardo do well to avoid the spinning Dutchman.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Melbourne, here.

Asked if he's OK, Verstappen merely replies: "Yeh". "Make sure you are sensible now," he is told, "look after your rear tyres at this stage.

"Try to close, try to close," Raikkonen is told as he falls 2.3s behind the leader. The Finn responds with a fastest lap (24.485). Teammate Vettel is just 1.8s behind.

Alonso is told that Verstappen's is the car ahead of Sainz. Despite the Spaniard's protestations that it is very difficult to follow due to traffic, and the team needs to rethink its strategy, he is pretty much put in his place by his engineer. "The energy is high, I'm racing with you!" he is told.

An issue for Gasly on lap 15 as the Toro Rosso slows and heads back to the pits with smoke emerging from the back of his car.

"What about a different plan, not the original," asks Ricciardo, "how does that work?"

"I think something is wrong," urges Verstappen, "I'm getting so much oversteer in the middle of the corners."

Meanwhile, Raikkonen is urged that it is a "critical time".

Advised the Leclerc is closing, Stroll admits that he too is struggling with oversteer.

Raikkonen pits at the end of lap 18, the Finn rejoining in third ahead of Magnussen.

Next time around Hamilton pits, Mercedes clearly reacting to Ferrari. The Briton, also now on softs, rejoins in second behind Vettel but crucially ahead of Raikkonen who had a very, very quick out-lap.

"Vettel still inside our safety car window," Hamilton is told as the German is urged: "Stay out, head down".

Verstappen pits at the end of lap 21, the youngster dropping to 14th in the process.

Bottas almost collects Perez in his efforts to pass the Force India, the Mexican clearly struggling with his tyres.

Just 0.6s behind Grosjean, Ricciardo warns: "If I get an opportunity, I'm going to take it". And based on experience, the Australian means it.

No sooner has he pitted than Magnussen has an issue, the Dane, who parks at T4, at first appearing to suffer a loose wheel. "Suspension failure" he reports, but all the signs are that it was indeed a loose wheel.

Hulkenberg and Grosjean pit at the end of lap 24, as does Perez, but shortly after the second Haas grinds to a halt. Climbing from his car, the Frenchman's frustration is obvious.

In the pace of a couple of minutes it has all fallen apart for the American team.

As Grosjean's car is removed from the track, the virtual safety car is deployed as Vandoorne and Bottas are first to pit, as does Stroll.

Vettel also pits behind the VSC, rejoining ahead of Hamilton and Raikkonen. Ricciardo and Alonso also pit.

"Does this screw us over?" asks Ricciardo. "No it does not, it is good," he is told

Replay suggests that in both cases it was a loose wheel issue for the Haas drivers, left-rear for Magnussen and left-front for Grosjean.

"What's up guys," ask Hamilton, confused as to how he has lost the lead to Vettel. "Was it my mistake, was I meant to be going quick?" 2Negative," comes the reply.

Meanwhile the safety car proper is deployed as the second Haas is removed from the track.

Well that's a rare sight. Normally when a driver makes a mistake he keeps his helmet firmly in place. In the paddock a Haas mechanic sites with his colleagues... his helmet firmly in place.

Having told Raikkonen that he has the window to make another tyre stop, the Finn is subsequently told to stay out. Ricciardo is 14.6s behind.

"Lewis, we thought we were safe but there's obviously something wrong," Hamilton is told.

Meanwhile, TV replay suggests Verstappen appeared to overtake Alonso under the yellows.

The safety car withdraws at the end of lap 30, and heading into T1 Verstappen makes a great move on Hulkenberg.

The stewards are to investigate both Haas pit stops, the cars said to have been released in an unsafe condition.

Bottas is all over Vandoorne but cannot find a way around the 8th-placed Belgian.

Alonso, under pressure from Verstappen, is warned that "the last time a Red Bull made a successful overtake it was at Turn 13". Duly noted.

Now Hamilton is warned of engine overheating and advised to "lift and coast". The Briton responds by posting a new fastest lap (27.043). "I need to push to the limit right this second," says the world champion.

After 37 laps (of 58), it's: Vettel, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Ricciardo, Alonso, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas, Vandoorne and Sainz.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Melbourne, here.

Ricciardo is all over Raikkonen, the Australian clearly fired up, not least by the spirited calls from his pit.

Another fastest lap from Hamilton (26.889) as the Ferrari duo posts strong sector times.

As Raikkonen is praised for his efforts, Vettel is warned that Hamilton is almost within DRS range. Following a few 'easing off' laps, the Briton is now ramping up the pace again. However, he is once again warned to lift and coast as there is concern at his power unit temperature.

Great battles between Vettel and Hamilton, Raikkonen and Ricciardo and Alonso and Verstappen, with Hulkenberg and Bottas also joining in the fun and games.

Bottas is advised that it is thought Verstappen has some damage to his car, but try telling that to Alonso who is under intense pressure from the youngster.

Sainz complains of a lack of power, but Renault subsequently reveals that all is OK.

"I don't want to let him breathe," replies Ricciardo when asked how he wants to handle the closing stages of the race.

Meanwhile, a frustrated Hamilton warns: "I'm going for it!" However, his frustration gets the better of him as he subsequently locks-up and runs wide in T9 losing a heap of time, allowing Vettel to extend the gap to 2.5s.

"Ten laps to go Kimi, ten laps to go, good job, good job."

On lap 50, Hartley is shown the blue flag as the leaders come up to pass him.

Now down in tenth, Sainz confirms that he is struggling... with nausea! The news is subsequently passed on to Perez who is 0.564s behind.

On lap 54, Hamilton loses further time. Is he preparing for another attack or is he looking to ease the pressure on his engine temperatures. "My rears are going off," he reveals as Raikkonen closes to within 5.4s.

As Verstappen is told he'll be given more performance for the last two laps, Ricciardo is praised for his "blistering pace".

Quite why the wily old fox Alonso is warned about Verstappen probably making a late charge one cannot understand.

As Ricciardo closes on Raikkonen, the Finn is only 2.8s down on Hamilton.

At the start of the final lap, Vettel is 5.7s clear of Hamilton while Ricciardo is given the all-clear to attack Raikkonen.

However, it's all too late, as in 2017, Vettel leads Hamilton home for the season opener, with Raikkonen third, ahead of Ricciardo, Alonso, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas, Vandoorne and Sainz.

Perez is eleventh, ahead of Ocon, Leclerc, Stroll and Hartley.

"Nice one, nice one altogether, we're getting there," Vettel tells his team on his slow-down lap. "Still some work to do, but we're getting there."

In parc ferme it's all smiles for the guys in red, but Hamilton remains in his car for a long, long time, the Briton clearly upset at having an almost guaranteed win 'stolen' from under his nose.

Eventually he climbs from his car and shakes the hand of the two Ferrari drivers, unlike twenty-four hours earlier it is is the Briton's face that is unsmiling.

"Pretty good," tells Mark Webber on the podium, but stopping short of giving Hamilton the Larry David stare, 2we got a bit lucky with the safety car but I really enjoyed it.

"My start didn't really work so I had to settle for third," he admits. "I was struggling with the tyres, I felt a lot happier with the soft tyres and I was praying for the safety car and when I saw the stopped car... I was full of adrenaline!"

"Big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari, today they did a better job," says Hamilton, having paid tribute to the crowd, the track, the weather and almost everyone else, "we need to go away and work on it.

"This is an awesome circuit but it is so hard to overtake, even with the extra DRS. We live to fight another day."

"I had decent speed all day long," says Raikkonen. "Seb got the luck but at least it was our team. I'll take it, third place, I'm happy with the car."

"Obviously we were a little bit lucky today," admits Vettel, "Lewis controlled the race well but we'll take it. We are not exactly where we want to be but this gives us a good start and fresh motivation for the coming weeks."

A year ago Vettel left Melbourne as championship leader, a position he held right up to the summer break. Whether he and his team have learned from the lessons of 2017 or are doomed to repeat them remains to be seen.

While luck certainly played a part today, it is clear that the Ferrari is strong, while Red Bull also is in the hunt, and this on a circuit widely acknowledged as being an engine circuit and therefore favouring the Mercedes.

Toto Wolff subsqeqently admits that the strategy software left the team thinking that it would have a 5s advantage over Vettel at the time of his stop behind the safety car. It was wrong.

While Hamilton might have the smile missing from his face an awful lots of fans will be happy that we might, we just might, have another title fight on our hands.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Melbourne, here.

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Published: 25/03/2018
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