Gorgeous azure skies wrapped around the capital of Victoria in Australia as the third free practice session commenced at 14:00 local time on Saturday, March 16. This sixty minute session gives the drivers and teams their final chance to shake out any bugs lingering in their also new for 2019 cars. Temperatures were in the low to mid 20 degrees Celcius. News prior to FP 3 was in respect to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. A new chassis had arrived in Australia on Thursday evening, and with some concerns about the fuel cell in the car Verstappen used in FP1 and FP 2, the team elected to change him into the newly arrived chassis.
The “old rookie”, as Robert Kubica wryly styled himself, was first out on track for the FP3 session, followed by his team mate George Russell. It took less than ten minutes for an apparent incident to occur, with Lando Norris and Kubica having a brake test with each other in pit lane after Norris may have been released from his garage too early.
Times were down in the 1:24s inside the first twenty minutes of FP3, with Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen setting the pace. Again crucial in the practice session was the choice of rubber. With the mid three of the five available choices being used, being a gradient from soft to hard, the expert opinion was that the teams would eschew the hard rubber and use the medium or soft. And even here a team’s choice will be important with an apparent 6/10s per lap differential happening between the soft and medium.
Sebastian Vettel was the first in FP3 to crack the 1:24 to 1:23 barrier. The German, sporting a new moustache, took barely two laps to lower the times, with Mercedes-AMG driver Valtteri Bottas quickly following. Vettel’s time of 1:23.739 was quickly eclipsed by the 2018 champion Lewis Hamilton, with his Silver Arrow going to a .699, also inside two laps.
Times below them compressed rapidly, with six drivers, including Daniel Ricciardo coming to grips with his Renault, separated by under a half second. Improvement, too, for Ruseel and Kubica by the half way mark, with their gaps from Hamilton under four seconds, a vast improvement on the five plus seconds from FP 1 and FP 2. The improvement in FP 3 was also apparent for Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, in sixth and seventeenth being separated by just 7/10ths.
There was concern with Robert Kubica’s car with twenty five minutes to go, with the Pole entering pit lane and seeming to tap the wall on his left front. What looked like a part of his nose wing was seen just metres inside pit lane entry.
Pierre Gasly in his Red Bull was running the medium tires with twenty minutes to go and found that they suited his style and car. He was up into twelfth after the change and part of a group of ten cars that were lapping the Albert Park track in the 1:24 bracket. That group included Alexander Albon, Kevin Magnussen, Ricciardo, his team mate Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean, and Verstappen. Lance Stroll was knocking on that door, as was Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, all within a half second of the 1:24 group. All drivers bar Gasly and Verstappen were on soft rubber.
Eyebrows were raised with just fifteen minutes to go, with Sebastian Vettel unleashing what was a blinder of a lap. All of a sudden a 1:22.556 was on the timing monitors. This comes after paddock speculation on Friday that Ferrari may have been “sandbagging” in their two free practice sessions. It was also the spark for the top runners to amp it up, with Hamilton a lap later on a 1:22.292.
These times were all held under a totally cloudless Melbourne sky and in front of full to the brim grandstands. They witnessed in the lat ten minutes compress even further, with first to eigtheenth seeing a gap of just two and a half seconds, and first to fourteenth under two seconds.
At the drop of the chequered flag, all cars were on the soft compound, and the gap from first to twentieth was just four and a half seconds. Hamilton’s 1:22.292 would not be bested, and only three cars were under 1:23. Vettel and new team mate Charles LeClerc were the other two. The following nine drivers finished with a 1:23 to their name, with Grosjean, Magnussen, Gasly, Bottas, Kvyat, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg, and Giovinazzi split by 7/10ths. Bottas and Kvyat had 2/100ths between them, whilst new team mates Ricciardo and Hulkenberg were split by 4/100ths.
Sainz, Perez, Albon, and Stroll were ahead of Raikkonen, with the 39 year old Finn followed by Norris, Russell, and Kubica.
The first qualifying session for 2019 commenced at 17:00 and follows the traditional three segment format. Qualifying 1 runs for eighteen minutes, and all cars are allowed to perform as many laps as the team chooses. The slowest five are eliminated and the remaining fifteen move to Q2.This is a session of fifteen minutes and the again the slowest five are eliminated. The final twelve minutes then determine who will be the pole sitter for the race on Sunday.
Points are awarded on a sliding scale at race end, and cover the top ten cars only. The winner will receive 25 points, second will receive 18, third will gain 15, fourth will have 12. Fifth sees 10 points, sixth will notch 8, with seventh gaining 6. 4, 2, and 1 point go to the remaining three and new for this season is a one point advantage handed to whomever laps the circuits in the fastest times. All points gained by the drivers go towards their championship and to the constructors’ championship.
Lando Norris was the first car out. With track temperatures hovering around 39 degrees Celcius, they were up to seven degrees cooler than Friday’s. Vettel went out soon after and chose medium compound rubber.
Within minutes times were down in the 1:23s, with Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat notching a rapid 1:23.313. With most electing to use the soft compound, including Valtteri Bottas in his Mercedes-AMG dropping the time instantly to 1:22.658 then a .377, the top twelve were under a second apart from first to twelfth.
With under four minutes left in Q1, Hamilton shot to the top with a 1:22.043. At the other end were Robert Kubica and George Russell, Alex Albon, Lance Stroll, and Kevin Magnussen. Carlos Sainz was “in the bubble” with Magnussen just a few hundredths off with seconds to go. The last few seconds after the drop of the flag was frantic, with Stroll, Gasly suddenly falling to 17th, Sainz, Russell, and Kubica out, with Kubica suffering a shattered rear right tire. Unfortunately for Sainz, his time was a result of being caught in traffic as cars bunched up to avoid the debris.
The 21 year old driver from Monaco, Charles LeClerc, took Q1 with a 1:22.017, ahead of Hamilton on 1:22.043, Bottas on .367, whilst Giovinazzi and Kvyat claimed fourth and fifth in Q1. Exactly one second separated first from seventeenth. The second top five were Magnussen, Hulkenberg, Norris, Albon, and Verstappen. Vettel, Perez, Ricciardo, Grosjean, and Raikkonen completed the top fifteen in Q1.
Soft tires were the tires of choice in Q2, and paid off with instant time reductions. LeClerc notched a 1:21.7 before Bottas came out with a 1:21.241. Hamilton and Vettel also saw a 1:21 against their names. Halfway through the session it was Bottas ahead of Verstappen, LeClerc to third, with Hamilton feeling Vettel breathing down his neck with 5/100ths of a second between them. The gap was even tighter between the Renaults, with 3/100ths between Hulkenberg and Ricciardo.
Track temperature had dropped by three degrees with three minutes left in Q2. Hamilton went back out on soft rubber, as did Vettel. The rest of the field followed suit, with fresh rubber being bolted on. Hamilton laid down a blinder with a new qualifying record of 1:21.014. The news at the end of Q2 was both Renault cars out and separated by 0.008 of a second. Albon, Giovinazzi, and Kvyat also missed out on the top ten.
Perhaps the brightest smile at the end of Q2 was to be found on the face of Lando Norris. The nineteen year olf McLaren driver, in his first qualifying runs for F1, managed ninth between Raikkonen and Perez.
The top six all saw a 1:21, with Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, LeClerc, a delighted Grosjean, Vettel and Magnussen ahead of Raikkonen to duke it out for the top ten. Notable too, was the fact that the three new rookie drivers out qualified their more experienced team mates.
Q3 and it’s the Haas pairing out first. Magnussen and Grosjean were on the lookout for where the two Mercedes-AMG cars were, with Hamilton quickly reporting a minor brake issue up front. It took less than five minutes for Bottas to continue his qualifying success, with his Silver Arrow the first to crack the 1:20 barrier, clocking a 1:20.598. Hamilton, with a gap of 0.4 of a second, joined Bottas in pit lane for some tweaking with five minutes left in Q3. Vettel, LeClerc, and Verstappen would be the top five with five to go. Raikkonen and Perez had not yet come out for Q3, leaving Grosjean, Magnussen, and Norris to scrap for the minor placings.
The rest of the field also pitted soon after. Hamilton was battling the clock, his team mate, and history, with the books showing he would take pole for the eighth time in Melbourne and his sixth consecutive Melbourne pole. He did it with another record lap, this being a 1:20.486, 0.112 ahead of Bottas to have yet another Mercedes-AMG front row lockout. Vettel and Verstappen claimed third and fourth, Charles LeClerc will line up next to Grosjean who finished 2/10ths ahead of team mate Magnussen. Rookie Norris will start from eighth, just 1/100th ahead of the veteran Raikkonen. Sergio Perez rounds out the top ten.
News broke during qualifying that McLaren would face a fine of five thousand euro for the unsafe release of Lando Norris into the path of Robert Kubica during FP3.
Race 1 of the 2019 Formula 1 season commences at 16:10 local time.