Seven conclusions from the 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Mercedes have maintained their advantage…

Lewis Hamilton may not have won the first race of 2018, but we saw enough over the course of the weekend to conclude that Mercedes have maintained their advantage over their closest rivals over the winter, both in qualifying and race trim. Going into the final run in Q3, Hamilton was fastest but only by half a tenth. Whether it was a special engine mode or a special lap, the reigning champion ended the session six tenths ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and his rivals were left to bemoan their lack of a ‘party mode’.

Fast forward to Sunday, and Hamilton was in control of the race until the virtual safety car, which gave Sebastian Vettel the opportunity to pit and come out just ahead of the Brit, after which he was able to control the race and take the win in Melbourne for the second year running. Hamilton was able to get within a second of Vettel on a couple of occasions but was never in a position to attempt an overtake (more of that later), indicating that the Merc had some pace in hand. Unfortunately for him, Albert Park is notoriously bad for overtaking and his mistake at Turn 9 was a clear indication of how much he was pushing.

Of course, if Hamilton had built a bigger lead in the first stint he would have been able to cover for any safety car periods in the pit window. His advantage over second placed Raikkonen at his pit stop was around three seconds – was he driving within himself and controlling the pace, or was this the best he could manage? Recent experience would suggest the former, but we’ll only know for certain after a few races. A lack of a rear-gunner in Bottas also had an impact on how the race unfolded. If the Merc number two had lined up directly behind Hamilton, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where the Brit runs off into the distance with Bottas controlling the rest of the pack behind. Ferrari had the option to split their strategy and this paid off in the race in favour of Vettel. Overall it was a poor season opener for Bottas, and with his contract up at the end of the year the pressure is already ramping up on the Finn.

…but Ferrari and Red Bull are not far behind

It’s too early to be clear on the gap between the Mercs and their main rivals, but this first race would suggest that on Sundays at least, Ferrari and Red Bull should at least be able to push them, and take advantage of any good luck that comes their way. Unfortunately for them, the gap in qualifying looks to be significant so they’ll most likely be playing catch-up in the races, and if overtaking is as difficult as it was in 2017 it won’t be easy to mount a serious title challenge.

Kimi Raikkonen put in a strong performance all weekend and was very unlucky to finish behind team-mate Vettel. He qualified just ahead of the German for the first time since Malaysia last year and briefly threatened to take the lead on the first lap, before settling into the race and the gap between himself and Hamilton when the VSC came out was only around four seconds. Unfortunately, when the safety car came in he was sleeping and quickly fell back from the front two, spending the rest of the race fending off Ricciardo’s Red Bull. Vettel, on the other hand, had a below-par weekend and would certainly have come home third if it wasn’t for the fortunately timed VSC. He’ll need to up his game significantly to consistently challenge Hamilton over the course of the season.

Ricciardo can be pleased with his race, particularly given his starting position of eighth following his three-place grid penalty. He worked his way up to sixth before the double Haas disaster, and after the safety car harried Raikkonen all the way to the chequered flag. It was a less impressive race from Verstappen, who pushed too hard and spun at Turn 1, and was a little fortunate to come home in sixth. The Red Bull appears to have strong race pace but their lack of a special qualifying engine mode will likely mean they’ll always be playing catch up on Sunday, and there’s little hope of them improving the chassis enough to make up for that deficit. We’ll get a better idea of their pace relative to Mercedes and Ferrari in the next few races, but at this stage a title challenge from either Dan or Max appears highly unlikely.

Haas are the best of the rest… for now

The talk in the paddock before the weekend was that Haas had produced by the fastest car outside the ‘big three’, and what happened in Melbourne would certainly back that up. They achieved their best ever qualifying result, filling the third row after Ricciardo’s penalty was applied, and backed that up in the first stint of the race. Kevin Magnussen made an excellent move around the outside of Verstappen at Turn 1, and a few laps later Romain Grosjean took advantage of the Dutchman’s spin to move up to fifth.

Ricciardo started to pile on the pressure as the pit stop window approached but both Haas drivers were holding firm, and the team’s biggest ever points haul looked likely until their double pit stop disaster. This was a gut-wrenching moment for the American team, but they can take heart from their excellent pace over the course of the weekend. Haas have struggled for consistency in their first two years so the next few races will tell us more about whether they can mount a serious challenge for fourth in the constructors’ standings. Although their relationship with Ferrari will undoubtedly be a factor in their improvement over the winter, the team deserve a lot of credit and a strong season would prove that it is possible for a new team to enter F1 and make an impact.

McLaren and Renault have work to do

The two teams expected to make the biggest leaps forward over the winter were McLaren and Renault, and while both teams will be happy to have taken double points finishes they might be a little disappointed not to be closer to the ‘big three’. McLaren, in particular, often claimed during the three-year spell with Honda that their chassis was one of the best on the grid, but in 2018 at least that would appear not to be the case. Both of their cars were knocked out in Q2 while both Renault and Red Bull cars progressed, leaving them as the slowest Renault powered team in that session.

However, the tables were turned on Sunday as Alonso took advantage of the VSC to get ahead of his nearest rivals, and he was able to comfortably hold off Verstappen to come home in fifth, a higher place than he achieved at any point in the 2017 season. All Renault-powered cars finished in the points, with Hulkenberg in seventh, Vandoorne ninth and a nauseous Carlos Sainz in tenth. Fernando Alonso made positive noises all weekend – this was McLaren’s first double-points finish since Hungary last year – but he will surely be disappointed that the team isn’t closer to Red Bull, and in fact appears to be the fifth or sixth fastest car. Renault, meanwhile, have made a step forward and will hope to challenge Haas and McLaren for ‘best of the rest’.

Force India and Williams have fallen back

When the V6 hybrid power units were introduced in 2014, both Force India and Williams were catapulted up the pecking order, and since then both teams have been regular points scorers. However, if Melbourne is anything to go by this season could mark a change in fortunes for both teams.

Many were predicting Williams to struggle this season, given their relatively weak driver line-up and their poor performance in pre-season testing, and the first weekend was a torrid one for the Grove-based team. Lance Stroll did well to get into Q2 but that was as good as it got for them. In the race, Sirotkin retired early on and Stroll finished 14th, behind the Sauber of Charles Leclerc. It’s too early to draw firm conclusions on the pecking order but the indications are that Williams have dropped from the midfield into the backmarkers, along with Toro Rosso and Sauber.

Force India were always going to struggle to match last season’s superb fourth in the constructors’ standings, but no points from the opening race will still be a disappointment. They did get a little unlucky with the VSC but even without that, they would only have scored two or three points at most. The big upgrade package they brought to Australia didn’t bring the performance boost they expected, and it could be a long and frustrating season in the midfield for drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon. Both Force India and Williams will hope their engine advantage will have more of an impact in Bahrain.

Honda’s problems persist, while Leclerc impresses on debut

Toro Rosso-Honda showed impressive reliability and respectable pace during testing, but Melbourne was a reality check and without serious upgrades through the season they’ll struggle to score many points. Both cars dropped out in Q1, then on Sunday Pierre Gasly retired with a power unit failure and Brendon Hartley finished in last place. This was what many expected after the team’s switch to Honda power units over the winter, but their performance in testing raised hopes that the team could achieve more.

Sauber may still be at the back of the field but the team were pleased with their performance over the weekend, and with proper investment behind them they can expect to score points in at least one or two races this season, and possibly even aim for eighth in the final constructors’ standings. Marcus Ericsson had competitive pace before an early retirement while debutant Charles Leclerc finished in 13th, ahead of both Stroll’s Williams and Hartley. The reigning F2 champion will only get better as the season wears on, so all in all the Swiss team can be placed with where they stand after Melbourne.

Dirty air and engine restrictions are damaging the racing

Albert Park has never been the best circuit for overtaking, but Sunday’s race once again highlighted some of the issues with the current formula. Overtaking shouldn’t be easy, but on too many occasions we saw a car get to within a second of the car in front but never even threaten an overtake. A number of drivers overheated their tyres and power units just keeping pace with the car in front and deliberately dropped back to cool their car, denying us the wheel-to-wheel fights that we’ve all missed over the winter. It was also disappointing to see that a one-stopper was the only viable strategy, after Pirelli’s talk over the winter of returning to multiple-stop races.

The ‘aero problem’ has existed in F1 for a long time, but this is now being exacerbated by the increasingly stringent engine regulations, which this year state that a driver can use a maximum of three power units over the course of the whole season. Teams are so concerned with stretching out of the life of their engines that most of the time they are operating at nowhere near full power, and on several occasions we heard drivers ask their teams for permission to use a more powerful engine mode. You can’t blame teams for holding back performance in favour of reliability, given the harshness of the penalties, but surely the racing would be better if drivers were able to push more?

Drivers’ standings

  1. Vettel – 25
  2. Hamilton – 18
  3. Raikkonen – 15
  4. Ricciardo – 12
  5. Alonso – 10
  6. Verstappen – 8
  7. Hulkenberg – 6
  8. Bottas – 4
  9. Vandoorne – 2
  10. Alonso – 1

Constructors’ standings

  1. Ferrari – 40
  2. Mercedes – 22
  3. Red Bull – 20
  4. McLaren – 12
  5. Renault – 7

 

 

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