Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Melbourne, 2018

Vettel can’t ignore Mercedes’ superior speed after lucky win

2018 Australian Grand Prix review

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The 2018 F1 season began in much the same way as the last one.

Lewis Hamilton took pole position but on race day Sebastian Vettel jumped ahead of him in the pits and led him to the chequered flag. But the similarities are only superficial.

“Last year we had more pace”

In 2017 Vettel was clearly the quicker of the two in race trim. He hounded Hamilton until Mercedes, fearing Ferrari would attempt to undercut them, brought the leader into the pits. When Hamilton came out he lost time behind Max Verstappen, and Vettel was easily able to jump ahead of him.

Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Albert Park, 2018
2018 Australian Grand Prix in pictures
This time Vettel not only wasn’t the quicker of the two, he wasn’t even the quickest Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen out-qualified him and was four seconds to the good when the drivers began making their pit stops.

There were occasions last year – notably Monaco and Hungary – when Ferrari operated their strategy in such a way that it was clear Vettel’s title chances took priority. Here again he came out ahead when Raikkonen was arguably quicker. Were Ferrari favouring their top-scoring driver of the past three seasons as early as round one?

No: Ferrari did what you try to do when your cars are running second and third. Ferrari did what they did in Sochi last year under similar circumstances. They ran one car short and the other long, trying to cover both strategic bases.

Track position is king, especially at a track like Melbourne, considering by some teams the second-hardest track to overtake at after Monaco. Get one of your cars ahead and hope the cards will fall you way. Unfortunately for Hamilton, that’s exactly what happened when he was caught out by the Virtual Safety Car.

When a driver takes the chequered flag in first place and tells his team on the radio “we’re getting there, we have some more work to do”, they clearly aren’t trying to pass off a lucky win as a demonstration of their superiority.

“At the moment we’re a bit worse off,” Vettel admitted afterwards. “Last year we had more pace at this point.”

He even had the grace to admit he wasn’t quite on a par with his team mate. “If you look at the gaps the whole weekend and we’re not yet a true match,” said Vettel. “Obviously we had very good pace today, Kimi was very strong in the first stint. I think I was probably a tiny bit stronger in the second stint but it was a different race for us.”

Hamilton wasn’t the only one who lucked out. Raikkonen did too, arguably doubly so, for had his team mate’s final Q3 lap been clean they would have started in the opposite order and he, not Vettel, would have found himself on the winning strategy. Missing out on a substantial chunk of pre-season testing mileage compared to his team mate clearly didn’t cost the 2007 champion anything. The question now is can he sustain this form and regularly compete at – or even above – Vettel’s level?

Meanwhile Raikkonen’s opposite number had Mercedes had exactly the start to the year he did not want with his 2019 contract hanging in the balance. Valtteri Bottas not only ruined his own race by crashing in Q3, but by being absent from the fight at the front he made it harder for them to resist Ferrari’s advances.

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Red Bull stuck in the pack

Another similarity between this year and last was that Red Bull didn’t figure in the battle for the lead. But this too may prove deceiving. The team gambled on starting both its cars on super-soft tyres instead of the softer ultra-softs. This might have made sense for Daniel Ricciardo, whose starting position was going to be compromised anyway by his three-place grid penalty. But it didn’t pay off for Max Verstappen.

Verstappen was on course for third before slipping up in Q3. That left him fourth with the Ferrari-powered Haas duo behind him. But his raced began to go wrong soon after the start.

After the race Hamilton made several remarks about how strong the Ferrari was in a straight line. Heading into turn one for the first time Kevin Magnussen made full use of his prancing horsepower as he drew alongside Verstappen in the braking zone and swept by.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Albert Park, 2018
Verstappen had a race to forget
“As soon as he was behind the Haas, knowing how tough it is to overtake around here, [he] absolutely went for it,” explained Red Bull team principal Christian Horner afterwards.

Verstappen dialled his usual massive-aggressive approach up to 11. But he overstepped the mark and began to create problems for himself.

“He got a bit wide in [turn] 11/12 on lap six. That damaged the rear diffuser and that created a significant imbalance for him which he did incredibly well to manage for the rest of the race. But then that caught him out with a spin at turn one.”

The spin promoted Romain Grosjean up to fifth in the other Haas, pursued by Ricciardo, who had performed one of the race’s few overtaking moves on Nico Hulkenberg. Strikingly, he did it outside of Melbourne’s three DRS zones, the FIA having added an extra one in a bid to increase overtaking.

This was the point at which the Red Bull drivers’ raced intersected as Ricciardo moved forward and Verstappen fell back. Verstappen’s problems multiple as, having damaged his tyres, he pitted early and also lost out because of the VSC. Fernando Alonso got out of the pits with a one-tenth margin over Verstappen and that earned him fifth place.

With Ricciardo also spending most of his afternoon in traffic, Horner lamented afterwards the race had given them a poor read on the ultimate performance of their car in race trim. However there’s every indication they’ve begun 2018 in far more competitive shape than they were in 12 months ago, and perhaps even in better form than they were in at the end of last year.

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If Hamilton felt hard done by, that surely paled in comparison to what happened to Haas. Whether Melbourne is a strong track for them, or the nature of their arrangement with Ferrari means they usually start the season better than they finish it, or both, once again they performed strongly at Albert Park.

Romain Grosjean, Haas, Albert Park, 2018
Haas missed out on a big payday
Fifth and sixth on the grid was their best ever combined starting positions. After Verstappen’s spin they were fourth and fifth. Even if both Red Bulls had got back through, a finish or sixth and seventh would have been an excellent reward. Losing both cars to failures incurred during pit stops was a galling outcome.

The team may find consolation quickly as the teams head to the heat of Bahrain for the next round: “I do think we are better in hotter temperatures,” Magnussen admitted on Saturday. Grosjean said much the same, and also pointed out several times he had been quicker than his team mate before the pair dropped out.

Their loss was McLaren’s gain. The orange team scored as many points as they had in any of their races with Honda over the last three years. “The contrast to last year is quite big,” said Stoffel Vandoorne. “I think there is massive potential for the future.”

Style and substance

Now in their second year as Formula One’s commercial rights-holders, Liberty Media stamped its mark on the sport more emphatically. New graphics and revamped television coverage brought a fresh change of style. Several teething problems were also evident, and the biggest miss was their inability to offer new streaming service F1 TV Pro in time as planned.

Start, Albert Park, 2018
The order didn’t change much after lap one
But the quality of the core product remains the biggest concern. Round one has already shown Mercedes and Ferrari are potential race winners again, and Red Bull are going to be in the mix at some tracks too. Renault and McLaren showed the most year-on-year progress, so the advantage enjoyed by the ‘big three’ may not be as depressingly large as it was last year.

The difficulty of overtaking at Melbourne caused some concern. But this was also true 12 months ago. More importantly, passing isn’t everything: there may have been 47% fewer overtakes in 2017 than 2016, but we also had a proper championship fight between two teams for much of the year. That matters more, and the good news on Sunday was we look like getting another one.

Also, grid girls were absent and Halo was present, and neither of these hotly-debated changes seemed to make the slightest difference to the spectacle.

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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35 comments on “Vettel can’t ignore Mercedes’ superior speed after lucky win”

  1. This could have been a spectacular race for the fans, but alas, since 2017 aero regulations have turned some otherwise exciting races into Monaco processions. The race was dreadful. Perhaps the worst Australian GP ever, since this is usually (bar 2017) a pretty exciting, eventful race.

    Sebastian coming ahead of Lewis should have been one of those exciting twists to bring an exciting end of the race, but instead we didn’t even see a single proper attempt to overtake. Similarly, Ricciardo should have been able to at least attempt an overtake. Verstappen stuck behind a slower Mclaren, which Fernando didn’t even have to fend off. Bottas should have been able to cut through the field, but instead was stuck behind significantly slower Renaults.

    I expect Bahrain to be a lot better, but I also expect many more processions in places like Spain, Hungary, Russia, Singapore, Monaco, and Abu Dhabi. I hope I am wrong.

    1. Ricciardo dived in the inside of raikkonen once, but was closed off, just like ricciardo did with vettel in malaysia last year.

    2. Also, I agree with most of the races you said, monaco and hungary are famous for the difficulty of overtaking, abu dhabi and sochi also had basically no overtake in 2017, singapore as a street circuit offers few overtakes too, the exception might be spain here, I remember some interesting ones last year.

  2. Vettel fan 17 (@)
    26th March 2018, 21:47

    Good gamble from Ferrari, but they do have a lot of work to do. Red Bull have Haas to worry about, with McLaren and Renault very close to each other.

    1. Don’t think red bull has to worry about haas, ricciardo was penalized, and verstappen was slowed down by a ferrari in turn one, which let magnussen pass; on pace red bull is on another planet still (closer than last year).

  3. Filippo Peverini
    26th March 2018, 21:53

    My hope is that Ferrari have designed a different car that will will work better on circuits they were not fast at last year. At least the racing will be more even..

    1. This is exactly what they did, but it obviously does not suit Seb… yet. He has to get over his cornering gremlins and gain his confidence back, for us to have a proper fight.
      I am bit of a pessimist here. Usually Seb gets over his troubles by race day, only he was stuck this weekend and did not progress. Could it be because the DNA of the car itself does not suit him? As opposed to a setup issue. If so, Lewis will be lonely up front.

  4. Despite losing this win Merc are strong favourites for both titles, most likely a cakewalk unless Fezza can develop really quickly.

    1. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
      26th March 2018, 23:44

      Cakewalk? Did you see Bottas and Verstappen? Nothing is a cakewalk – it’s at least as hard for Mercedes to win as it is for Ferrari since Ferrari is probably the best car on track since 2017…

      1. Ferrari best car on track since 2017? Majority of the races in 2017 mercedes was strongest. This race it seems like they had 2 tenths advantage on ferrari, so too early to tell but mercedes look favourite.

    2. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
      26th March 2018, 23:44

      Cakewalk? Did you see Bottas and Verstappen? Nothing is a cakewalk – it’s at least as hard for Mercedes to win as it is for Ferrari since Ferrari is probably the best car on track since 2017…

  5. The onboard camera angles are a disaster. The T-cam is still enjoyable but they killed the shouldercam. I´d say that is the biggest mistake liberty did with f1. Can´t be changed till 2019. I hope this will be a BIG topic, cause the onboard camera angles are nothing short of a disaster.

    1. @zad2 – Agree. Except the T-cam isn’t enjoyable for me.

    2. @zad2 you do realise Liberty had nothing to do with the Halo, it’s position and the impact on the cameras?

      The FIA mandated it and it is up to the teams to position the supplied cameras.

      1. Well you´re right that i´m not completely on top of the legal responsibility structure of fia and liberty and so on, but liberty is responsible for the “show”… they were “boss” last year. all the argument of the aesthetics of the halo was something hardly changable. Choosing fantastic camera angles would have been very much inside the possibilities and could have been an oportunity, but shouldercam is a desaster and t-cam is “meh” @ best. :-(

        Considering all the deserved praise they get, i thought could get some call on an obvious mistake.

  6. Also, grid girls were absent and Halo was present, and neither of these hotly-debated changes seemed to make the slightest difference to the spectacle.

    Disagree about the halo. It’s the crowning Todt Thong on Jean’s power grab to make F1 truly road-relevant. The processional display of these very fast and heavy aero-tanks reinforces the point that tailgating never assists in getting past slower cars, on the track or on public roads.

    The view from halo-cams was terrible. If this is the future of F1, it says that the era of open cockpit racing is over.

    I must have missed it when TSN cutaway for commercial breaks, what was this ‘spectacle’ you mentioned in the article?

    1. Disagree about the halo. It’s the crowning Todt Thong on Jean’s power grab to make F1 truly road-relevant.

      wait no it wasn’t.

  7. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    26th March 2018, 23:43

    Is Vettel finally conceding that the Ferrari is the quickest car on the track which we’ve been saying all along?

    Why does he believe that the Ferrari isn’t as quick as the Mercedes this year? Just because he couldn’t outqualify Kimi and Lewis does NOT mean that Ferrari is slower.

    1. For now if you look at the first stint hamilton was like 2 tenths faster than raikkonen who was faster than vettel.

      So for now mercedes looks better, if vettel can be 2 tenths faster than raikkonen on a good day, which is not to exclude given raikkonen’s age the cars are even, but first he has to prove it.

      1. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
        27th March 2018, 3:43

        @esploratore well that doesn’t mean Mercedes is faster. We all thought Ricciardo was getting the most out of the Red Bull until Max showed up. For all we know the Ferrari is as quick as the Mercedes. In Baku last year, the Ferrari was faster than the Mercedes with DRS open on a straight that lasts forever.

        1. Top speeds tell you nothing at all about lap times.
          Mercedes was in 17 about .25% faster on average and it seems this year the difference is a bit larger, at least until the Italians adapt to the largely modified car.
          You seem to forget that for instance Williams is always fast in a straight line, but they’re slow over a lap, while RedBull is slow in the straights, but watch their laptimes!

          1. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
            27th March 2018, 12:56

            Yes but the Ferrari doesn’t have the higher top speed, does it? And we all know that Lewis was flooring the Mercedes with DRS after Vettel crashed into him and still couldn’t pass the Ferrari in a drag race with a tow and DRS.

      2. Hamilton got to 3 or so seconds ahead of Raikkonen but for most the 1st stint he was far closer, Vettel the same v Raikkonen, more like Ferrari dropped cars back for cooling, engines have to last 7 races and you cannot overtake on track here. Last stint Hamilton could only show pace for a few laps due to fuel, engine and tyres and in the end Raikkonen came back strongly against him so had a faster 2nd stint. Merc still probably fastest in the race but not by a huge margin.

  8. All the analysis done so far show Ferrari to be faster than Mercedes – at least in qualifying trim. In fact, both Vettel and Karun Chandok credited Lewis for the stunning lap – even accounting for the so called Mercedes “party mode”, which incidentally Ferrari (and ALL the other teams/engines) also have.

    Vettel said – “we do get a bit of data, GPS data and stuff like that,” he said. “I think they did turn it up for Q3 but not by seven-tenths. “I don’t think the gain that he had in time was down to engine. Probably a tenth, a little bit more, but not seven-tenths”.

    “So, the credit is for his lap that he did and not for the engine power. It’s completely fine what they’re doing because they didn’t do anything special. Not more than they did last year, probably even a bit less by the looks of it. So, it was clear that he just had a very good lap and he drove well.”

    Also, according to Karun Chandhok’s video analysis on Channel 4, Raikkonen was actually 0.3secs faster than Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes on EACH straight over the qualifying lap. However, Hamilton was 11km/h faster in Turn 1 on his final Q3 run, than the previous one, and also 16km/h faster in Turn 6.

    The TV coverage of Hamilton’s lap captured his entry to Turn One and the speed of his change of direction was clearly visible. Toto Wolff said – “I thought the same when I saw it. It was almost like he wouldn’t make the corner with that speed.”

    Lewis comments regarding the race also confirmed the conclusion Karun Chandok has arrived at for qualifying. He said (regarding his battle with Vettel) – “I was able to catch him in the corners, but he was much faster on the straights”.

    So far, all the information available points to the Ferrari being the MUCH faster car on the straights, with the Merc being more balanced and able to claw back the deficit in the corners.

    Now add a certain driver who is able to get the best out of the car, and also also able to get the tyres working at the right operating temperature, and the picture begins to be more skewed than it actually is.

    1. I think your conclusions are flawed here. The Ferrari couldn’t keep anywhere near the Mercedes through the corners – especially the higher speed parts, which would indicate to me that it was running lower downforce. This would easily explain the straight line deficit.

      The Mercedes was also able to accelerate out of slower corners faster than the Ferrari, despite Ferrari having a higher speed trap, which would again indicate the Ferrari having lower downforce, not a superior engine.

      Hamilton’s comments regarding the race are misleading as well. When Hamilton had a clean exit and DRS, he was catching Vettel on the straights as you would expect, but as soon as he got close you could see the car behaving badly in braking zones.

      Given how smooth the Mercedes was in qualifying, even with Bottas, it definitely looks like a superior car than the Ferrari. It’s in a league of its own when it comes to the kerbs too – Hamilton was basically driving straight over them without any negative effects, whereas the Ferraris where wrangling the wheel every time.

      1. As long Merc’s qualify 1st they will have no problem. In my eyes they have this year the same problem as last year which is that they cannot follow another car causing heat in engine/brakes etc. I suppose they are on the limit with their package as matter cooling to gain performance.
        As for Vettel, i concur, Ferrari was in low downforce setup and that is because i think they never believed they was able to outqualify MB and instead with lower downforce they would had been able to pass in DRS zones.

    2. A race track has more corners than straights & in Karun’ analysis video, he said Lewis was losing less than a tenth on the straights to Kimi. However on the overall lap he gained almost a full second. That’s a trade off any driver would take. Being faster on the straights doesn’t mean you’ve got the fastest car, just look at the Williams of a few seasons ago.

      As for Seb’ comments about gps data, Mark Hughes wrote on Saturday what the “party mode” was. Mercedes has 2 qualifying modes, one for Q2 & Q3. In his article, the Q2 mode is worth 0.4s & the Q3, 0.2. When Hamilton said he didn’t switch modes, he just finally hooked up his lap, Hughes said that he was correct, he was still in the Q2 mode. Seb also said, had he not made an error at T13, the best time he could’ve done, would’ve only put him within 0.5s.

      There’s not one single analysis done by anyone showing that Ferrari was the faster car. All the analysis showed that the testing predictions was right & the Mercedes is faster than the Ferrari.

      During the race, every time Kimi upped his pace, Hamilton was able to do the same. After the radio message that he was good on fuel & he should up his pace, he started to drop Kimi. When Hamilton was told to box, he replied that his tyres were still good. He did a 1:27 in-lap. Actually he was faster than Kimi on his old ultra-softs. Lewis was managing the gap on the first stint and could’ve gone a lot quicker.

      He was 8.2s ahead of Seb when he stopped on lap 19, that’s 0.5s per lap quicker. Watch Karun’ video again and look how the Mercedes accelerates our of the corners.

      Sorry, but your analysis is wrong, and at present, the Mercedes is the better car. And everyone knows it.

    3. @kbdavies There’s the very simple choice between downforce and straightline speed that each driver makes for the weekend, Mercedes has plenty of power in hand over the others so can lean more towards the downforce setup and continue to be a strong contender on the straight. Obviously if you compare that to a car that probably chose for straightline speed your view on it is skewed.

    4. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
      27th March 2018, 13:05

      The Ferrari is marginally the better car since 2017 – there was only 1 way for a Merc to beat the Ferrari to the WDC in 2017 and it required flawless execution. The Ferrari has the ability to mount an overtake on the Mercedes in the races while the Mercedes is at a disadvantage to both the Ferrari and Red Bull especially in the closing stages of the race.

      The Mercedes also seems to have trouble passing other cars that should be no issue.

      1. “Ferrari has the ability to mount an overtake on the Ferrari”….

        But apart from the restart at Spa & Malaysia when Mercedes had their tyre issues (both time Bottas), the Ferrari couldn’t overtake a Mercedes. But on the other hand, Mercedes had no issue overtaking a Ferrari.

  9. I hope Kimi proves a theory that I have about Vettel. I don’t think he’s as fast as he looks. I always thought that a motivated Kimi would beat him and this race showed this. Ricciardo showed it too. I get that the cars sucking in 2014 would demotivae you but letting someone else outshine you the whole season is not something you allow. I think Ricciardo is faster and Vettel knows it. Let’s see how the other races turn out.

  10. I’m actually not that ‘mad’ about the lack of overtaking. Yes, it should be easier than it was at Australia but at the same time slower cars now have a chance when they manage to get track position. I always think of Mark Webber after the 2011 Chinese GP after such races, how he said he pulled no satisfaction from fighting from 18th to 3rd, just some DRS and fresh tyres, nothing more. There will be plenty of tracks where the faster cars can perform the beloved high way passes some seem to already miss,…

  11. Seb was the first to acknowledge that.

  12. “Hamilton wasn’t the only one who lucked out”. To luck out is to benefit from good luck, not bad Keith

  13. The lack of information of the feed is ridiculous: no speedo, no rpm, no gear…. no best lap – last lap comparison, no fastest lap until lap 47 yet meaningless data such fastest sector (oh no… purple sector!!! Talking similar to race engineers!). In quali it was not possible to see three drivers time beacause the font is too big….. Is that liberty’s fault or the director’s?
    And about halo: is it really good when Brundle, Croft and other commentators cannot even correctly say who the driver is? Is it RIC or VER? RAI or VET? etc.

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