Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel beat Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in a straight fight as Formula 1’s new era started at the Australian Grand Prix.
Vettel’s first win since the Singapore GP in September 2015 was final proof Mercedes’ domination is over after the introduction of faster cars.
Hamilton started in pole but Vettel had an advantage on pace and tyre wear.
The German pressured Mercedes into an early pit stop and benefited when Hamilton was held up by Max Verstappen.
Ferrari were simply quicker in Melbourne and the world champions were forced into a position where they had to make a decision that did not work out.
The truth is, the race was almost certainly lost for Hamilton whatever choice Mercedes made as Vettel lapped just a second or so behind him on lap 16.
Mercedes were telling Hamilton he needed to up his pace to build a gap before his pit stop. The Briton was complaining his tyres were going off and he had no more pace.
Fearing that Ferrari would recognise Hamilton’s problems, Mercedes had the choice of leaving him out and risking Vettel passing him by and stopping earlier, or bringing him in and losing the lead that way.
To make the early pit stop on lap 17 work, Hamilton had to pass Red Bull’s Verstappen, but he returned to the track 1.7 seconds behind him.
But Hamilton always expected it to be a difficult task.
“This is race-critical – you need to pass Verstappen,” Hamilton was told by his engineer Peter Bonnington. “I don’t know how you expect me to do that,” he replied.
Sure enough, Hamilton was quickly on Verstappen’s tail but could not pass for four laps.
Vettel stopped on lap 23 and rejoined right in front of the Red Bull while Hamilton fended off Verstappen’s challenge into Turn Three and disappeared off into the distance.
By the time Verstappen stopped on lap 25, Vettel was nearly six seconds up the road.
Hamilton had to watch his mirrors for team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who had struggled in the first stint, dropping back 10 seconds in 17 laps, but closed in on the former world champion in the second stint to finish just 1.2 seconds behind.
Ferrari’s pace was not exactly unexpected – the red cars had looked competitive in pre-season testing and Vettel qualified less than 0.3 seconds behind Hamilton.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said on Saturday evening that his team faced “a hell of a fight” this season – and they are right in it following Vettel’s imposing victory.
Mercedes accepted that the Ferrari was simply a faster race car on Sunday – something that was clear from Vettel’s ability to stick close to Hamilton in the opening laps despite the turbulent air from the Mercedes costing him aero-dynamic downforce.
The leaders might have made only one pit stop, which some might not like, but the intensity of the fights created by cars that test drivers to their limits for the first time in years made for a compelling afternoon.
However, the suggestion from this race is that a corollary of the quicker cars may well be that racing is harder.
As FIA president Jean Todt said before the race in a media briefing, this may have been a price the sport had to pay to return it to a position closer to its essence than the tyre-managing era of the previous six years.
Home hero Daniel Ricciardo had a turbulent afternoon. The Australian’s Red Bull stopped on the way to the grid.
It was returned and Red Bull were able to get it going again, but not before the race was two laps old.
Ricciardo was sent back out and told “to have some fun” but the car stopped for good after about 30 laps.
Britain’s Jolyon Palmer also had a difficult weekend, starting from the back after a troubled qualifying and suffering brake problems before an early retirement.
Fernando Alonso looked poised to rescue a surprise point for a McLaren-Honda team that came to the race in disarray after reliability and performance problems with the Japanese company’s engine.
But while running in 10th place and holding off Force India’s Esteban Ocon, which had been behind for a long period, the Spaniard’s car suffered what he suspected was a suspension problem.
He was passed by Ocon and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg in one go and then was told to retire the car. –BBC