The first opportunity to assess Formula 1’s class of 2019 was a vexing thing to behold. Whilst the overwhelming pre-season favourites suffered a mysteriously slow weekend, a driver under pressure to step up and reboot produced a remarkable redemptive breakthrough. A quietly stellar performance from the midfield pack also elevated another driver who suffered a difficult 2018. However, further down the grid, there were a fair few tales of woe…
Top of the class…
Valtteri Bottas – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport
“To whom it may concern, fuck you” – Bottas’ Melbourne masterclass energised the Finn to defiantly exorcise some of his 2018 demons. The supreme performer that F1 witnessed on Sunday was a completely different driver to the tormented man who left Abu Dhabi. Bottas v2.0 chose to fly under the radar during practice – trailing team-mate Hamilton by his customary quarter of a second.
A blistering lap in the opening salvo in Q3 doubtless caught the reigning champion’s attention, with Lewis having to summon all of his one-lap mastery to pip Bottas by a tenth. By Valtteri’s own admission, the pole was within his grasp. But a perfect Sunday would more than make amends, blasting off the line and disappearing over the horizon in a distinctly Hamilton-like fashion. Undoubtedly, the Finn was the quicker of the two during the race – outpacing Lewis on old soft tyres after Hamilton had pitted for fresh mediums. Whilst a stunning recovery drive from 17th to 2nd at the 2014 British Grand Prix arguably still ranks as Bottas’ best drive in F1, Melbourne was more significant in announcing the arrival of a new man and a new driver.
Max Verstappen – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
With a final test truncated by Pierre Gasly’s heavy crash, Red Bull arrived in Melbourne as something of an unknown quantity. However there was nothing unknown about the speed of one of its drivers – so whilst Gasly suffered a messy weekend, Verstappen spent the weekend flattering the third fastest car in the field. The Dutchman would pip the Ferrari of Leclerc in the final run in Q3, having previously not shown anywhere near enough single-lap pace to worry the Scuderia.
In the race, Verstappen would capitalise on Leclerc’s first corner exuberance to regain the position he lost off the line. Having kept his powder dry in the opening laps, Verstappen expertly extended his stint on the soft rubber before exiting the pit behind Sebastian Vettel on 11-lap-younger tyres. Verstappen’s decisive and perfectly executed overtake on the German was precisely the kind of racecraft his team-mate struggled to produce in the lower reaches of the order. In scoring the first Honda podium of the hybrid era, Verstappen confirmed himself as the ultimate barometer of the Japanese manufacturer’s ongoing progress.
Lance Stroll – Racing Point F1 Team
Were it not for Ferrari’s no-show, Lance Stroll could have been the surprise of the weekend. The young Canadian eclipsed his more experienced team-mate throughout practice, but whilst Sergio Perez managed to qualify through to Q3, traffic left Stroll eliminated in Q1. However, his recovery drive was superb. Starting on the medium tyre, a typically strong start allowed Lance to climb three positions to thirteenth, before executing a perfect ‘overcut’ to pass a further five cars. A stoic defence against Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly in the closing stages capped-off one of the most complete weekends of the 20-year-old’s fledgeling career.
Homework to do…
Charles Leclerc – Scuderia Ferrari
Leclerc didn’t have a bad debut for Ferrari – indeed, he could have finished ahead of Vettel had the internecine battle in the closing stages not been called-off by the pitwall. However, just as the Ferrari was unexpectedly mediocre, Leclerc perhaps didn’t arrive with the impact many were expecting. The Monegasque suffered an alarming spin in the latter stages of FP2 before a scrappy lap in Q3 left him behind the Red Bull of Verstappen.
An over-optimistic lunge around the outside of the first corner came within a whisker of collecting team-mate Vettel, before another adventure at T1 left him scrambling over the gravel and well behind the frontrunners. A stronger second stint on the medium tyre brought Leclerc back into play, but he only caught Vettel due to tyre struggles following an aggressive pit strategy. The decision to maintain the order was emblematic of the team’s understandable dejection. Both Ferrari and Leclerc have plenty of work to do before Bahrain.
Antonio Giovinazzi – Alfa Romeo Racing
When Giovinazzi hooked-up a lap properly, he was right on the pace of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen. The Italian’s 1m22.431s from Q1 was just over a tenth slower than Raikkonen’s best from Q3. Unfortunately, Antonio was unable to replicate this in Q2 leaving him down in fourteenth on the grid. An attempt to regain ground with a medium rubber ‘overcut’ in the first stint proved disastrous, as Giovinazzi wore through his tyres becoming a mobile chicane which also would prove inconveniently fast in the speed traps. Albeit with wing and floor damage, the 25-year-old would ultimately finish down in fifteenth, 21 seconds behind the next midfield runner.
Robert Kubica – ROKiT Williams Racing
Driving a car at least 1.5 seconds slower than anything else, having been decisively out-qualified by rookie team-mate George Russell and sustaining damage in a variety of collisions: it’s difficult to know how Robert Kubica’s return to F1 could have been any less auspicious. The Pole actually admitted that he almost started laughing because the damaged car was behaving so poorly during the race. Unfortunately, the weekend only confirmed that in driving for a team in what is fast becoming an existential crisis, it’s going to be almost impossible to read how Robert is performing in the car.
There was an unfortunate symbolism in the way Pierre Gasly spent so much of the race in close proximity with Daniil Kvyat. Of course, the Frenchman was largely blameless for his difficult qualifying, suffering a “perfect storm” of track improvement, traffic and yellow flags. However, it’s impossible to exonerate Gasly from such an indifferent race performance, as he struggled to overtake and struggled to capitalise on any clear air.
Haas emerged from the winter phoney war as the fastest midfield team, with Romain Grosjean producing a typically impressive lap in qualifying, before losing out to Kevin Magnussen on the opening lap. A strong recovery drive from Nico Hulkenberg made up for an uncharacteristically scrappy qualifying, with the German vying to ‘undercut’ Grosjean even before another loose wheel resulted in the Frenchman’s second successive Melbourne retirement.
Daniel Ricciardo’s debut for Renault was an unfortunate affair. The Australian missed out on a place in Q3 by thirty-eight thousandths on Saturday, before a misplaced rut in the otherwise manicured trackside verge left Ricciardo without a front wing and out of competitive contention. Lando Norris produced a stellar performance on Saturday to qualify eighth, however his struggle to finalise a pass on the wayward Alfa of Giovinazzi cost the 19-year-old a good chance of points. Team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr suffered a truly disastrous weekend: out in Q1 thanks to an untimely yellow flag and out of the race thanks to another Renault engine failure.
Daniil Kvyat spent much of the weekend as a solid top ten contender, however, a poor lap in Q2 left him down in fifteenth on the grid and behind his rookie team-mate Alexander Albon. A fast yet scrappy recovery drive allowed the Russian to nab a point for tenth. Albon suffered a difficult race, initially climbing two places to eleventh, before wearing out his medium tyres in the second stint after an early stop.