Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel claimed an extraordinary victory at the Australian Grand Prix beating Lewis Hamilton with pace and a superior race strategy.
In a race billed as a fight between the dominant Mercedes and the potential of the Ferrari, it was the prancing horse that secured first honors in a Formula 1 season now tipped to be a gripping contest.
Vettel finished the race a huge 9.975 seconds ahead of Hamilton with Bottas a further 1.275 seconds adrift. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen ended in fourth followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Williams’ Felipe Massa. Both Force India and Torro Rosso cars rounded out the top 10.
Ferrari on pace with Mercedes
The preseason testing in Barcelona hinted at Ferrari’s strong package for 2017 having laid down the fastest lap times.
And the Australian Grand Prix proved that the other teams weren’t hiding their pace and, in fact, Ferrari are genuine title contenders this season after years of Mercedes control.
The race begun much like any last year with Hamilton starting on pole and taking an early lead. The main difference this time around was that Vettel at least matched his pace during the early stages – even in the dirty, turbulent air behind the Mercedes.
With Vettel trailing about 1.5 seconds behind and Hamilton complaining over team radio of failing tires, Mercedes took a gamble and brought the Englishman in for a pit stop on lap 18 – a lap earlier than planned.
The decision to bring in Hamilton didn’t pay off with the Mercedes returning to the track 1.7 seconds behind Red Bull’s fourth-placed Max Verstappen.
Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington noted the urgency of the situation: “This is race-critical – you need to pass Verstappen.”
Hamilton replied: “I don’t know how you expect me to do that.”
The turning point in the race came after Vettel’s first and only pit stop when he rejoined the track barely ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton. After Vettel held off a passing move from Verstappen at Turn 3 the race was effectively over. Hamilton could only get past Verstappen when the Dutchman pitted and by that time Vettel had slowly extended his lead out front to 6 seconds.
“We had a really good start, which is fantastic; it’s good to have a good getaway,” said Hamilton.
“After that, I was struggling with the grip from the get-go. Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time and the majority of the time do faster lap times and then towards the end I got [stuck] a bit in traffic and the car started to overheat the tires and I was struggling with grip and it was to the point that I needed to come in.”
“So then I came in and then I got obviously stuck in traffic, which is a little bit unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”
For Vettel, his first race win since the Singapore Grand Prix in 2015 was a huge achievement.
“Obviously today is fantastic, a big reward a big relief for everyone.”
“You saw the guys: they were smiling, singing, so I’m sure we’ll see more of that tonight.”
On the 2017 version of the Ferrari, Vettel added: “You always try to build the best car possible – sometimes it works, sometimes not. But this time it seems to work. It was important that the team came to peace and that new ideas flourished. In the last few years Mercedes was the benchmark – let’s see how it will be this season.”
Ricciardo Suffers at Home GP
Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo had a race weekend to forget after initially crashing out of qualifying and damaging his drive shaft and gear box. The Australian took a five-place grid penalty for the gear box change only to have electrical problems on his way out the grid.
Red Bull’s pit crew then went about rectifying the problem and managed to release Ricciardo from pit lane two laps behind the pack.
Ricciardo was told by the pit wall “to have some fun” but the car eventually stopped with engine problems after about 30 laps leaving the Australian clearly frustrated at his home grand prix.