In the Sunday sunshine of Melbourne it would have been impossible to see, but high above the nigh-on cloudless sky, the stars had aligned. And they favoured Sebastian Vettel.
For Vettel to win the 2018 Australian Grand Prix, a certain set of unlikely events – in an equally unlikely order – had to occur. Firstly, Vettel needed to be out-qualified and beaten to turn one by his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen so that the Finn could accept a ‘preferential’ strategy.
Secondly, the Haas F1 Team car of Kevin Magnussen needed to be quick enough to delay Vettel from making his one-and-only pit-stop.
Vettel’s victory then required someone in the field – namely Romain Grosjean – to retire the car in an awkward place, a loose wheel would do the job. It further needed Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport’s software to develop a “glitch” in which it would inform them that in the event of a virtual safety car, Lewis Hamilton, having already served his stop, would need to be within 13.6 seconds of Vettel, when in fact it was more like 10 seconds.
Of course, Grosjean’s misfortune would have to happen at the right time to reveal that Mercedes’ glitch.
And finally, Vettel’s run to victory needed Valtteri Bottas to be nowhere near the front of the field to defend Hamilton’s commanding position. Perhaps the Finn could crash in qualifying and become marred in the mid-field…
I know, slim to no chance of all that happening, right…and yet.
WHO’S REALLY SMILING NOW?
On pace alone, it became abundantly clear in qualifying that Vettel didn’t stand a chance of winning. Between Hamilton’s first run in the final session of qualifying and the lap that cemented his seventy-third pole-position, the reigning champion found 0.887 seconds; an age in Formula 1 terms.
Some claimed the astonishing lap – over six-tenths quicker than Raikkonen in second – was down to Hamilton deploying Mercedes’ secret weapon: a ‘party mode’ within the engine. The suggestion led to uncomfortable ‘banter’ between Hamilton and Vettel in the post-qualifying press conference:
LH: “I can assure you, we don’t have a party mode. I use the same mode from Q2 to the end of Q3. There was no extra button, there was no extra button that I engaged.”
SV: “Then what were you doing before?”
SV: “What were you doing before?”
LH: “I was waiting to put a good lap in. To wipe the smile off your face!”
And indeed it did. Hamilton’s pole lap wiped the smile off many a non-Mercedes face.
Vettel later conceded that Hamilton’s “party” could take place on Saturday but said that it would be he who parties come race-day. And with his fortunate victory, he was right.
But who really has the biggest smile leaving Australia? Vettel has the biggest trophy, sure, but there’s no doubt that Hamilton has started 2018 with a far superior package beneath him. In qualifying he was untouchable and in the race, he stalked Vettel with doubtless pace in hand and now has justified optimism heading to Bahrain.
Aside from Vettel’s fortunate win – one even he concedes he got lucky on – there was a deeply concerning moment with just a handful of laps to go. And it raises a serious question of F1 2018…
DID HAMILTON QUIT THE FIGHT TO NURSE THE POWER UNIT?
Albert Park is not the easiest track on which to overtake. Statistically, it’s only beaten by Monaco on the bloody-hard-to-overtake scale.
But the speed at which Hamilton was able to pull away from third place Vettel in the opening stages and likewise the speed at which he caught him once he emerged ahead after his fortunately timed pit-stop suggested Hamilton could, at the very least, stick to Vettel’s gearbox and apply immense pressure until the checkered flag.
Instead, Hamilton, faced with little chance of overtaking took the option to drop back from Vettel and nurse his power unit to a disappointing second place.
It should be said that in 2018 drivers are limited to just three power units for the entire season. The rule is there to save costs from spiralling out of control. But did it rob us of a race finish in which one four-time world champion pushed another to new levels?
HEARTBREAK IN HAAS-TRALIA FOR MID-FIELD LEADERS
The good news to come from this year’s curtain-raiser was that the mid-field, while appearing in a different order of form from last year, does appear to be closer than ever.
The leaders of the pack, marginally clear of the Renault F1 Team and the McLaren F1 Team but still seemingly someway behind Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport, Scuderia Ferrari and Aston Martin Red Bull Racing, are the Haas F1 Team.
But it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise. Rumours abound that this year’s Haas is strikingly similar to last year’s Ferrari; the prancing horse merely covered with the Haas logo…a Prancing Haas, if you will.
It was heartbreak in Australia for the American team though as both cars retired from the race following issues with wheel-nut guns cross-threading nuts and failing to secure the wheels to the car.
[we know, insert satirical comment about Americans and guns here]
Both cars pulled out of top five positions and the team, from the pit crew to Guenther Steiner at the helm, were rightly distraught. The pace of both Magnussen and Grosjean however, suggest a strong season lays ahead for the team in just their third year.
As it was, the beneficiaries of Haas’ demise were McLaren. The team with nowhere to hide now that they run what is largely considered to be a vastly better engine in the Renault power unit scored twelve points in Australia, forty percent of their entire total last season.
Before the race, Alonso, who finished fifth, had told Autosport “This will be our lowest level, I think during the season we will improve a lot.
“What we see here is going to be important, yes, but I think we’ll be better and better.”
Formula 1 now moves onto the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix on the 6-8th April. Alonso will want to prove himself correct with another strong finish whilst Haas will want to right the wrongs of Australia.
A strong showing from Renault will back up their double points score from round one but Sahara Force India F1 Team will desperately want to get on the scoreboard for the first time this year.
Another strong showing from Alfa Romeo Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc, who finished a credible thirteenth in Australia, will only increase his already lofty reputation as a ‘special one’. Fellow rookie Sergey Sirotkin will look to avoid large sandwich bags as Williams Martini Racing look to improve.
And finally, Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda will look to put Australia well within the rear-view mirror as Honda continue their search for speed and reliability.
Of course, there’s the small matter of who will claim victory, too. Who will be in party mode in Bahrain?