The opening race of the 2018 Formula 1 season left us with plenty of talking points that will follow the F1 circus to Bahrain. Sebastian Vettel was able to claim first blood for Ferrari, but the gaps between the top three teams suggest that this season will be tighter than the last. Here are nine things we learned from the Australian Grand Prix.
When Lewis Hamilton’s ‘party mode’ W09 produced a pole lap that was a staggering seven-tenths quicker than the closest Ferrari, it looked like the race could have been a formality for the Mercedes driver. But thankfully for the neutral, Ferrari’s race pace seems to be a close match to Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen was able to keep Hamilton honest through the first stint. At the tail end of the grand prix, Vettel was even able to hold off his rival despite Hamilton turning his engine up, setting purple sectors, and closing in – until he reached dirty air territory, anyway. Speaking of which…
Mercedes might be concerned about the lack of progress Valtteri Bottas made during the race. Yes, Albert Park has an accurate reputation of being poor hunting grounds for the overtake, but the Mercedes W09 did look like a different car in traffic. Given the muted weekend Force India had, it was concerning to see Bottas struggling to find a way past Sergio Perez in the first stint. Despite the clear one lap advantage of the car with an open track ahead, he was also unable to find a way past Nico Hulkenberg after the round of stops and complained of overheating
Hamilton showed what the car is capable of when in clean air, but the stark contrast to Bottas’ race should concern the team, it surely can’t all be down to a difference in ability between the drivers.
McLaren fans will be relieved after the Australian GP. It was a long winter for the team, which wasn’t getting any respite despite parting ways with Honda. Various reliability issues plagued the team in Barcelona, but it seems to have turned up to the sessions that count with a fairly strong package. Fernando Alonso said in the build-up to this weekend that this would be McLaren’s worst weekend and he’ll be hoping more than anyone that this is true after finishing fifth.
It was definitely a defensive drive towards the end, such was the gap to Daniel Ricciardo in fourth and with a small train of cars behind him. Stoffel Vandoorne finished strongly in ninth, and the prospect of regular points finishes might see the Belgian under a bit more scrutiny this season if Alonso keeps threatening the top six. But a double points finish is welcomed nonetheless and represents the Woking-based squad’s most fruitful opening race weekend in recent years. The net points tally of 12 matches the best they could muster in the entirety of the McLaren-Honda partnership. Fifth place also matches the team’s strongest ever result in the same time frame – surely good omens for the year ahead.
The twist in the pre-season sub-plot between McLaren and Toro Rosso was harsh on the latter this weekend. After coming through testing with barely a hiccup in the power unit department, Toro Rosso-Honda had a really poor opening race. Pierre Gasly retired on lap 15 with an MGU-H problem, which doesn’t bode well for getting far into the season before he has to take power unit penalties. Brendon Hartley jeopardised his prospects of climbing the order with an early lock-up ruining his ultrasofts. He pitted straight away for softs, hoping to make it to the end, but had to pit again after suffering a puncture, eventually finishing a lap down in last.
2018 is Honda’s most important year in F1 as it provides a ‘get out of jail’ card after the failings of the McLaren partnership, and its showing this weekend won’t do anything to convince Red Bull to take on a supply in future. It’s early days and Honda can still turn things around, but this weekend represents a nightmare start to the season.
It was a mixed race for Alfa Romeo Sauber. Marcus Ericsson retired early on with a hydraulics issue, but Charles Leclerc finished the race in 13th place, 75-seconds adrift of winner Vettel and just 30-seconds adrift of 10th place and a championship point. Compared to the opening round of last season, these figures should encourage the team. This time last year, Antonio Giovinazzi finished 12th out of 13 cars that made it to the chequered flag, but was an entire two laps adrift of the winner and a lap away from the points.
Sure, the safety car this year helped close that gap and whilst there is clearly work to do to climb the order, Sauber has made obvious gains from last year. The team is still slightly adrift of being considered a true midfield contender, but has definitely started this season in much better shape relative to the pack.
Pre-season predictions are always hit and miss, but the general feeling concerning some midfield teams appear to have been on the money this year. There was a sense that Haas would turn up and lead the midfield, Force India would be far from satisfied, and Williams would struggle for points.
The competitiveness of Haas was clear to everyone before double disaster struck in the pits. Force India had a really subdued weekend with both cars failing to make Q3 and making little progress in the race, though the team generally develops well throughout a season. Williams will be worried too as its perceived lack of pace was realised this weekend. A feature of the hybrid era has been Mercedes powered customer teams dominating the midfield, yet no Mercedes powered customer teams scored a point this weekend. It will be fascinating to see if this trend continues.
New in-race graphics showing sector times, the running order and the gaps between key battles generally worked well, though there were a few notable glitches. What’s really worth noting, however, is that Liberty and FOM seemed to listen to fan feedback. The awful onboard cameras from Friday practice that limited the view of the track thanks to the Halo didn’t really appear for the rest of the weekend, with onboards mainly restricted to the higher-mounted T-cam. There’s still more to do, but it’s a good start.
The official theme tune also sounds much better when cut to moving images, and also worked well in the immediate scenes after the race. It didn’t seem to be too intrusive or overused either, which is a good thing if you’re not a fan of it.
After the race, there was a lot of anger directed towards the conditions that allowed Vettel to gain the lead with a lot of fans seemingly calling for a reform on the Virtual Safety Car rules.
Safety cars (both real and virtual) have always had the effect of shaking up the race and all teams are aware that its appearance can be a help or a hindrance. Teams have always been allowed to exploit the pit-stop advantage that the lower speeds of safety car conditions present, and some even run strategies which anticipate its appearance.
To Hamilton’s credit, and this needs to be remembered in the coming weeks when this point of focus inevitably expands, the Brit seemed annoyed with his pit-wall for not seeing Ferrari’s strategy more than the strategy itself. His complaints were in no way connected to a reform of VSC conditions and It’s doubtful that he feels in anyway cheated because these have always been the rules. Hamilton will be aware that he benefitted from a VSC strategy in Spain last year, and could definitely end up exploiting it at some point this season too if the racing remains this tight at the front.
The Virtual Safety Car period and the following real safety car period did bunch the pack up mid-race, but the fact that a Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull were all covered by seven seconds at the chequered flag indicates much closer racing between the three teams this season. A 28-second gap covered them in this race last year; Red Bull seems to have made the most gains and is much closer to the two teams that finished above it in 2017.
The competitiveness at the sharp end might draw focus to the circuit-specific advantages each team might have this season. Ferrari is notorious for being easy on tyres in hot conditions, which could see it do well next time out in Bahrain. Red Bull has produced another car strong in the corners so tight circuits should lend themselves to the RB14 in the coming months. Mercedes still enjoys a strong qualifying advantage, which could negate any disadvantages, but thankfully doesn’t look as dominant as was feared after testing.
We needed competition at the front, and the early signs from this race suggest that we could be getting it. Albert Park isn’t exactly typical of other tracks on the calendar, though, so who knows – we could get to Bahrain and see a completely different story unfold.