Sebastian Vettel drew first blood, in his red Ferrari, as the German took advantage of a ‘virtual safety-car’ period to lead home the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton by over five seconds at the opening round of 2018.
The Formula 1 season burst in to life in Melbourne, Australia, and it was time to leave all the pre-season testing behind, and for the teams to show their hands in anger for the first time this year, not to mention a race debut for the championship’s controversial new safety device, the halo.
Lewis Hamilton headed qualifying for Mercedes in traditionally dominant fashion, over half a second clear of the Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel. The third row was a Haas/Ferrari lock-out, with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean benefiting from Daniel Ricciardo’s grid-penalty and Valtteri Bottas’ Q3 crash. Nico Hukenberg [Renault], Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz [Renault] and Fernando Alonso [McLaren] rounding out the top-ten.
Hamilton led well from pole position, despite early pressure from fellow front-row starter Raikkonen, followed closely by Vettel in third place – Magnussen, Max Verstappen [Red Bull] and Grosjean rounded out the top five in a frantic, but incident-free first lap.
There was heartache for the Haas/Ferrari team, that had performed so well in qualifying – with Magnussen starting fifth and Grosjean sixth – as both cars retired as problems during the pitstops meant they were both released with a wheel incorrectly fastened.
Vettel meanwhile took advantage of the resulting safety-car period, pitting after a longer first stint than teammate Raikkonen. Rules allowed him to make his way down the pitlane quicker than the cars circulating on track, re-joining ahead of Hamilton in the lead of the Grand Prix.
Hamilton pushed hard behind race-leader Vettel, suffering an off-track excursion in the process, with the 2017 World Champion finishing five seconds back from eventual winner Vettel, at the flag.
Drive of the day perhaps goes to Spaniard Alonso however. The double World Champion bringing his traditional shod orange McLaren home in fifth place, from tenth on the grid.
“Overall, it’s a great result for the team” commented Vettel, “obviously we did our homework, we spoke about exactly that [virtual safety-car] before the race and you never know what happens and that’s the proof that you have to remain sharp, so as soon as I saw the virtual safety-car I knew what to do, it was tight, but it worked”.
“I did everything I was supposed to do. I’m in disbelief” admitted Hamilton, “I came, I was prepared, I drove as well as I could, I didn’t put a foot wrong. All of a sudden, I came out behind and I’m thinking what just happened.
“At least in my heart I know that I gave everything this weekend, and I didn’t leave a stone unturned. I’m sure the team is feeling pain right now, but we’ll regroup and work on it” continued Lewis.