For the first time since the hybrid era started in Formula 1 a team other than Mercedes is leading the world championship. That team is Ferrari and the driver is Sebastian Vettel.
It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that a Ferrari claimed the top step of podium as all signs in testing pointed to the fact that the Italian team had built a good car. While not too surprising, it was a breath of fresh air. Consider how refreshing it is to have a red car cross the finish line when you take into account that this is the Ferrari victory since the 2015 Singapore grand prix and the first time since November 2008 that Ferrari has led the constructor’s championship.
It was a measured start to the grand prix that Lewis Hamilton led into turn one from pole position with Vettel in close attendance. There was however a coming together of Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber a bit later in the lap. While the rest of the pack sorted themselves out Vettel was glued to the back of the Mercedes exhaust, this time Hamilton wasn’t simply scampering off into the distance.
This meant while Hamilton could control the front of the race he couldn’t run at too conservative a pace. This meant that Hamilton was not able to extend the life of the ultrasoft tyres and was forced into the pitlane ahead of the Ferrari. This gave Vettel the impetuous to push ahead and take the lead of the race.
Hamilton’s early visit to the pits came a surprise too many as the new-for-2017 pirelli tyres have a much long lifespan than their 2016 counterparts. Nevertheless, the three-time champ emerged behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen and was stuck behind the Dutchman for a handful of laps while Vettel pulled away up front.
Mercedes, and Hamilton, would have you believe that this is where the race was lost but Verstappen didn’t play as big a role. Firstly, Hamilton dived into the pitlane because he’d exhausted the tyres and was losing grip. Secondly, while he did lose a few seconds behind Verstappen he wasn’t stuck behind him for the remainder of the race, in fact, it wasn’t even half distance yet. The simple fact is that the Mercedes just didn’t have the pace to beat the Ferrari.
Post-race Hamilton bemoaned the inability to overtake Verstappen. Given the unique characteristics of Albert Park it’s not yet clear whether overtaking in 2017 will be more difficult. Shangai, in two weeks time, should be a better barometer. But again, this didn’t seem like a valid point as several other drivers pulled of overtakes, including a stunning double-overtake from Force India’s Esteban Ocon on Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg. But we’ve seen before that the Merc isn’t a car that runs as efficiently as others in dirty air, and it seems, at least from Australia that it’s an issue that haven’t gotten on top yet.
Valtteri Bottas impressed with his performance in third only two seconds off Hamilton. Ideally he’ll want to be ahead but he’ll take a lot of confidence from the margin to his teammate in only his first race with the team. Kimi Raikkonen came home a distant fourth and said that understeer in the first stint on the ultrasoft tyres put him in no-mans land. But when he swithced to the soft tyre he was able to run the pace of the top three and set the fastest lap of the race. Was fourth ideal? No, but the important thing is that Raikkonen and the team indicated that they knew where they’d gone wrong on the set-up and know what to fix for China in two weeks time.
Max Verstappen, in fifth, brought the Red Bull home in a predictable position given the team’s pace. Daniel Ricciardo never recovered from a qualifying crash as he first broke down on the lap to the grid then joined the race two laps down only to break down again.
Verstappen, in fifth, ended up pretty much where you’d have predicted for Red Bull. The unretired Felipe Massa was sixth for Williams ahead of the Force India of Sergio Perez and the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz in seventh and eighth. Daniil Kvyat was ninth in the other Toro Rosso ahead of Esteban Ocon’s Force India in tenth.
It was a day to forget for McLaren as Stoffel Vandoorne finished last and Fernando Alonso retired with suspension failure. What is evident for the Honda-powered team is that 2017 will be another painfully long season.
After Friday practice Hamilton was crowned champion at least seventeen different times and Ferrari had no chance of even getting close to the Mercedes. Just as it was premature to write off Ferrari after Friday it is equally unwise to declare them the team to beat after one race. It’s a new formula with a lot of room for improvement throughout the season. Even if a team dominates the first races it doesn’t mean that they will be the team to beat at the end of the year. The learning curve on these cars will be enormous.
But Ferrari’s victory is no fluke, or once-off, the SF-70H is a good car that has every possibility of taking the fight to Mercedes through all of the nineteen remaining races.