Events

And The Winner Of The Rolex Australian F1 Grand Prix Is…

Although Lewis Hamilton became part of history at the end of Saturday’s practice and qualifying for the 2019 Rolex Australian F1 Grand Prix, it is history that stands in his way of translating his pole position to a win. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have combined to win the 2017 and 2018 races in Melbourne ahead of Hamilton who had bagged pole for those two races. In the last seven races at Melbourne, the pole sitter has won just once.

History, however, is also against Vettel. The 2017 race has Hamilton and his Mercedes-AMG team mate Valtteri Bottas in second and third, whilst the 2018 race saw Hamilton again in second. What this means for the German in the Italian car is simple. Hamilton will be aiming to redress that imbalance, and fight for 58 laps to be the first to see the chequered flag in 2019.

What will be worth watching throughout the first F1 race for 2019 will be the performance of the three new full time drivers for this season, with Lando “Calrissian” Norris from McLaren grabbing P8 on debut, Alexander Albon from Toro Rosso for 13th, and George Russell in his Williams for 19th. How will Daniel Ricciardo perform in his Renault, and will the veteran Robert Kubica make his way through to the end? And then there is Antonio Giovinazzi, making his full time debut after being a reserve driver in recent years gone by.

Not unexpectedly, local eyes will be on Perth-born Daniel Ricciardo. Dan and his team mate at Renault, Nico Hulkenberg, missed out on reaching P10 by just four and three one hundredths of a second respectively. Ironically the man that would ultimately sit in P10 after Q3, Sergio Perez from Racing Point, went slower than the times of Ricciardo and Hulkenberg.

Appropriately, fittingly, a minute’s silence was held to acknowledge the tragedy in Christchurch, and the loss of FIA F1 Director Charlie Whiting.

Air temperature at race start was a mild 24 degrees Celsius. Track temperature was a high 45 degrees Celsius.

Lewis Hamilton will start on pole for the 998th F1 Grand Prix, with Valtteri Bottas next to him. P3 is Sebastian Vettel, and P4 the tyro Max Verstappen from Red Bull. Charles Leclerc and Romain Grosjean take P5 and P6. P7 and P8 go to Kevin Magnussen and Lando Norris. Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez complete the top ten grid positions.

Renault team mates Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo start from P11 and P12. Alexander Albon and Antonio Giovinazzi see P13 and P14, whilst P15 and P16 have Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll. P17, P18, P19, and P20 are Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz, George Russell, and Robert Kubica. Of the three tire choices available, just Kubica chose the hardest compound.

It was carnage on the start with Daniel Ricciardo going wide on driver’s right, hitting some high ground, and ripping the front wing from his Renault. This brought out a yellow flag for the starting sectors, and was just as quickly withdrawn thanks to the quick work of the sector marshalls. Ricciardo pitted and went to the hard compound. LeClerc and Vettel almost tangled entering turn 1, with LeClerc’s quick reactions saving both from impact. Bottas took the lead ahead of Hamilton and Vettel. Kubica also pitted after tagging Gasly, losing his wing also, and went to mediums in the stop. Most of the field started on softs.

It’s lap 6 and the top 6 are separated by a massive 11 seconds. Race laps are slow compared to the qualifying the day before, with the majority of the field on 1:30s. Lap 9 saw Leclerc take his Ferrari off into the grass, and somehow re-emerged with no apparent damage to his car.  The gaps grew quickly, with lap ten seeing the tenth car of Norris 26 seconds shy of the lead. All of a sudden Carlos Sainz in his McLaren are out, with his engine failing and on fire, to be the first retirement of 2019. Diagnosis appeared to be his kinetic energy recovery unit.

At the front it’s now lap 13 and Bottas is still leading. Hamilton is a substantial 3.7 seconds adrift. Vettel in third is 7.5 seconds behind Bottas, Verstappen 9.1 seconds, and Leclerc in fifth is over 17 seconds from the lead. Hamilton, though, drops down into 1:26.616 to be fastest on track.

Laps 13 to 15 also saw drivers pit for their compulsory stop, with hards and mediums the choice. Track temps are down to 41 degrees and it’s heating up between Albon and Grosjean on lap 17, with Albon nearly losing his nose while attempting an overtake at turn 2 and 3. Now it’s Vettel with the quickest lap, a 1:27.954. He’s still in fifth. Lap 18, and Bottas puts Ricciardo a lap down. Lance Stroll is up to sixth, Gasly is eighth, and Giovinazzi is tenth, but a full minute off the lead.

Lap 21 and although he hasn’t pitted, Bottas is still lapping quicker than Hamilton, and has the quickest lap at 1:27.834 then .815. Verstappen is in second, Leclerc is third and all three have yet to pit, and Hamilton in fourth leads Vettel. The gap between first and second is fifteen seconds.

On lap 24 Bottas pits and it’s a ripper at 3.3 seconds. The soft tires are on and he’s leading a field that are mostly on mediums. Norris and Giovinazzi are providing some enthralling racing for 12th and 13th, with Norris finding the Italian driver’s car just that little too wide to pass for three laps, before Giovinazzi opened the door at turn 3 on lap 27.

It’s now half race distance and Bottas leads Leclerc by 10.5 seconds. Hamilton is up to third and 4 seconds from LeClerc. Vettel, Verstappen, Gasly, Magnussen, Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, and Stroll complete the top ten. Then LeClerc pits and he’s also on the hard rubber.

Hamilton is slowly clawing his way through, and on lap 31 he’s in second. Verstappen is gnawing away at Vettel and makes a pass on him at turn 3, and Ricciardo is up to P16 before a shock retirement on lap 32 with the team saying it’s a precaution after his first lap incident. Pictures from the garage show his distraught face. Romain Grosjean has also retired his Haas with what looks like a mechanical failure or an issue with the bolting on his front left wheel.

Lap 35 and Bottas continues his amazing run as leader. The gap between he and Hamilton in second is now up to over 18 seconds. Verstappen is consolidating P3. Lap 36 sees Kvyat and Stroll in eleventh and tenth going toe to toe, with Kvyat looking at using the DRS zones for a pass. The Russian then had a brain snap and went in too hard at turn 1, losing plenty of time but luckily no track position to Norris.

Twenty laps to go and the track temperature has stabilized, with no movement from its 40 degrees Celsius since the early part of the race. The gap between first and second is now over twenty seconds. Gasly pits, this allows Hulkenberg to move to seventh, but Gasly is now out of the points at this stage.

Bottas continues to be the pace setter, with his Mercedes-AMG down to 1:26.739 with fifteen laps to go. Vettel is still in fourth and questioning the pace of his Prancing Horse. His lap times have been consistently in the 1:28 bracket and he’s eyeing off his new team mate Leclerc who is closing lap by lap.

There is just ten laps to go and Magnussen leads the second half of the top ten. Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, Stroll, and Kvyat fill those spots. Gasly is under a second out of the ten after starting 17th, leading Norris by 17 seconds. Perez, Albon, Giovinazzi, Russell, and Kubica are the 17 still running. The top four are on medium rubber, with LeClerc on hard.

Five laps to go and Leclerc seems to have taken the foot off the go pedal, he’s now over a second from Vettel. It’s looking more and more likely that Bottas will be the winner here, with Hamilton seemingly resigned to second, and ahead of Red Bull’s Verstappen. Three laps left and Verstappen claims the race’s fastest lap now, putting down a 1:26.540.

Chatter over the comms from Hamilton – he wants the fastest lap, but it’s Gasly that needs it as he’s just 0.4 of a second from tenth, and a point for the first race of the year. Verstappen is now on the rear wing of Hamilton, but Bottas has responded for the fastest lap competition. It’s now a 1:25.580 and the medium tires are gamely hanging on.

And it’s the 29-year-old Bottas, from Finland, for the first win of the 2019 season and 26 points, six years to the day after his F1 debut, and a massive 20.8 seconds ahead of pole sitter Hamilton. Last year’s champion did question at race end why his car was off the pace and an investigation found a section of floor was missing. Verstappen has third, Vettel holds out a determined Leclerc, whilst Magnussen, Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, Stroll, and Kvyat take the points. Magnussen and Haas would be the last car to finish on the lead lap.

Of his landmark win, a grinning Bottas said: “I don’t know what to say. The start was really good. It was definitely my best race ever. I don’t know what happened , everything felt so good. I had everything under control and it was so good today. Truly enjoyable, and I’m going to enjoy today.”

One important point in that top ten is the question mark for Renault and reliability seems answered, Ricciardo’s broken wing from a ground impact not withstanding.

Pierre Gasly just misses out but finishes ahead of rookie Norris, Perez, Albon, Giovinazzi, Russell, and Kubica, but it’s Bottas that gets the cake and it’s valuable points for Mercedes-AMG for the constructors’ championship. However, the question about the validity of the design changes has to be asked. Did they make any real difference or is it too early to really pin down an answer?

Formula 1 now moves to Bahrain for the 999th F1 race, on the weekend of March 29 to 31.

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David Conole

Dave Conole is the former long-term circuit commentator for Sydney Motorsport Park, has worked trackside at the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne and is self-employed as an automotive content producer.

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