Lewis Hamilton has ensured that the 2018 F1 history books will record he and Mercedes-Benz as the dominant partnership for the year. Taking pole position in Saturday’s qualifying sessions, Hamilton converted that to a win in the final race of the year. The finish was indicative of the year as well, with Ferrari and Red Bull in second and third, piloted by Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.
Daniel Ricciardo, in his final race for Red Bull, was in the lead in the early part of the race, however a call to pit on lap 34 put him back behind the top three.
At race start Ricciardo’s habit of bogging down transferred to Verstappen, with the young Dutchman falling to tenth within seconds. Not unexpectedly there was a lap one issue and it’s a ripper. Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg have collided, with the Renault of Hulkenberg barrel-rolling and landing on the track side barriers upside down. A stewards review found it was an unavoidable crash and neither driver would be penalized.
Fernando Alonso is in P14th and called in to the team to say he’d deliberately ease off at the start to ensure he wasn’t hit by another driver. The safety car has bunched everyone up and after a quick recovery, lap six has the race back underway.
Esteban Ocon quickly takes it to Verstappen, with the next few laps seeing the two within inches and swapping places. The same luck doesn’t go to Kimi Raikkonen, with the veteran’s Ferrari enveloped in smoke, putting the Finn track side and out.
Hamilton has taken the safety car opportunity to change to supersoft rubber. With a scheduled race lap count of 55, over forty laps on these means judicious tire management. It’s game on for the restart, with Hamilton and Verstappen arguing for track space.
Carlos Sainz is tracking down Marcus Ericsson on lap 15 and Alonso has clawed his way to 11th. Ferrari pits Vettel, rejoining in sixth and with work ahead of him. Valtteri Bottas has also pitted and this puts Ricciardo into the lead, but for how long? Lap 19 has Ocon in on badly worn ultrasofts. Back in the pack, the Williams pair of Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin are close on track, at 13th and 16th. Verstappen’s new tires see him lapping close to a second per lap quicker than Ricciardo.
Coming towards the race’s mid point and the forecast of rain comes in as positive as light showers sweep the circuit. In unrelated news, Ericsson reports a total power loss in his Sauber and in his last race for the team will see DNF against his name.
Twenty six laps to go and Alonso has pitted for supersofts. He re-enters in P17, hearing that Hamilton has been complaining that his rubber is going off. This seems to be the time for drivers to pit as Pierre Gasly also pits for fresh rubber on lap 30, with Ricciardo’s lead crueled by the call to pit on lap 34.
In the mix was Esteban Ocon, who was hit with a five second penalty after an off track excursion had him gain a place. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to re-dress that due to traffic.
Whilst all of this has been happening, the formerly quiet front end battle between Bottas and Vettel heats up, with the German making his intentions clear. His charge is aided by heaving braking from the Mercedes, with smoke billowing from his tortured tires. Ricciardo has been given the go ahead to drive his tires off the wheels too, in a late game effort to get a podium.
On lap 38 Sainz is finally called in. 38 laps on the same set of tires is a solid effort and comes back out in sixth. With 15 laps to go Hamilton is told Vettel is gunning for him. It’s a conundrum from the champion, as he’s leading but nursing his car on tired rubber. Lap 42 and Kevin Magnussen finally pits.
With just ten laps to go Ricciardo has closed to under two seconds on Verstappen. At the other end of the field, Alonso is back into 13th and looking at the top ten to get a point at least. Esteban Ocon retires on lap 46, with his Force India’s engine expiring. This moves Pierre Gasly up a notch and with his final Toro Rosso race before filling Ricciardo’s soon to be vacant seat, he’s in the points. For a lap, as his engine also gives up a lap later. This has Alonso suddenly in P11.
With just five laps left, Verstappen calls the team to say there’s a potential issue. A calm call back and some engine management settings changed, all is good. Alonso is pushing and with just a couple of laps left, a momentary lapse sees him go off and also gain what’s called an unfair advantage. He’s hit with a post race five second penalty.
It’s the checkered flag and Hamilton pumps the air as he takes the win. There was little between Vettel, Verstappen, and Ricciardo in the closing laps, with the Australian missing out on a final podium opportunity to “shoey” in celebration.
Hamilton says: “It’s been an honor and a privilege to battle against Sebastian. There’s so much pressure on us all, don’t ever look at our short-comings as anything other than us doing our best… “ And in response, the gracious side of Vettel comes to the fore: “He’s the champion and deserves to be the champion. It’s been a tough year. We will come back next year. “
F1 returns to the world stage with the season opener in Melbourne on March 17, 2019.