For several years now, Australia has been hosting the first Grand Prix of the season, which in 2018 will include 21 rounds. This is a classic stage, which will allow us to begin to understand the true values of the single seaters, although not completely, given that the circuit is to be considered semi-city. With a length of 5.303 km, the Albert Park circuit has a fairly short main straight (with a top speed of just over 315 km/h) and sixteen bends that make it crucial to have a high aerodynamic load.
In the last edition, the first day in Australia was a promising one for the Maranello team, because Sebastian Vettel won, then managed to establish himself as leader until mid-season, forcing Lewis Hamilton to a chase with subsequent reversal of positions from the Italian Grand Prix. Both drivers had revolutionised cars compared to previous years, faster and with wider tyres, and this year both teams started from that model of car, as the innovations from the point of view of regulations are less disruptive, but still present. An important change will be the introduction of the halo, which will make its appearance in Melbourne. Introduced for safety reasons, the halo is positioned at the height of the driver's helmet and is made of titanium. Its purpose is to protect the driver's head from debris or possible collisions. The halo adds around 14 kilos to the overall weight of the car, which should be considered as the FIA has increased the minimum weight limit for single seaters by just 6 kilos to 734 kilos.
Another important change concerns the number of engines available: three instead of four. This means that power units will have to last an average of seven races to avoid penalties, which will make reliability an even more decisive factor. In addition, from this season, the use of T-Wings and shark fins will be banned, and it will no longer be possible to use the front suspension system that can vary the height of the single-seater from the ground depending on the degree of steering angle. There will also be news regarding the tyres, with the introduction of two new Pirelli compounds: the Pink HyperSoft (more performing than the UltraSoft) and the Orange SuperHard. The regulation of grid penalties also changes in 2018, any driver who accumulates 15 positions or more in penalties will start directly from the back of the grid. From this Grand Prix Liberty Media will abolish the presence of the umbrellas, the girls who held up the numbers with the drivers on the grid, to make way for the grid kids.
But there's no shortage of news for some of the teams either: McLaren, in fact, from this year will no longer be powered by Honda but will have a Renault power unit (with a three-year contract) while the Japanese manufacturer's engines will be used by Toro Rosso, driven by Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly. As for the novelties in the different team line-ups in this 2018 we will see Sergey Sirotkin flanking Lance Stroll in Williams, and the debut of Charles Leclerc, the 20-year-old driver of the Ferrari Driver Academy, who will instead flank Swede Marcus Ericsson at the wheel of Alfa Romeo Sauber.
The tyre compound choices for the weekend are also interesting: Mercedes will choose the maximum number of Ultrasoft tyres available for both drivers. For both drivers, the maximum number of Ultrasofts available. Ferrari and Red Bull are more cautious, with the Maranello team choosing three sets of Soft, three of Supersoft and seven of Ultrasoft, while Red Bull requires two sets of Soft, three of Supersoft and eight of Ultrasoft. On Thursday 22 March 2018, the press conference that opens the Formula 1 World Championship is packed. For this first event, the two main title rivals, Lewis Hamilton and Vettel, both four-time World Champions, are invited to speak to journalists:
"Now obviously I'm looking for the ultimate satisfaction, to win the title with the greatest team in history and in the paddock, Ferrari, and I would like to do it against the best. Lewis is one of them".
Admits the German driver, but certainly his rival is not unprepared and declares:
"It starts a very long season, and you have to focus on what happens on the track. I think about breaking barriers and pushing as hard as I can to get the most out of my potential. In a rider's career there is always a peak, physically it will be difficult to go beyond the level we are at now, I don't think I'm in a decline, but I have a good shape, and that's why I want to continue to give my best".
To those who charge him with inconstancy as a weakness, as his former teammate Nico Rosberg did, Hamilton replied:
"I think I already proved last year that it is no longer the case. There are people who want the headlines. Consistency is why I won the world championship last year".
As for the challenge he will face again against Vettel, the Briton admits:
"It's a privilege to race in Formula 1, to race with Mercedes and to be at the top of the sport. At the end of your career, it's nice to know you've been racing with the best. To be up against Vettel, who has won four world championships, and to beat him, is something that makes the challenge special".
On the changes introduced by Liberty Media in Formula 1 Lewis Hamilton is confident:
"I think there's been good progress over the last season in fan involvement, but there's still a long process to figure out what direction we're going to take. I think they are doing the best they can, and we will do everything we can to support them".
The four-time reigning World Champion is therefore ready to hit the track and get to grips with his new car, the Mercedes AMG F1 W09:
"There is anticipation around the team, the last test was distorted due to track conditions. I'm curious to see the first feedback in the race".
The other title contender this 2018 is, as mentioned, Sebastian Vettel, who is naming his Ferrari SF71H after Loria this year.
"After winning against the best, I'm looking for the ultimate satisfaction: to win with Ferrari, which is the greatest team in history and in the paddock".
This is how the German driver's season begins. He, who has already won twice in Australia, in 2011 with Red Bull and in 2017 with his Gina, continues to declare that Lewis is the favourite to win in Australia:
"He is fine and so is Mercedes. But we will try to beat him. We're all looking forward to getting in the cars and racing. The season is long, we'll see. Melbourne is special for many reasons. We have many reasons to be confident, we have a great car. We are in good shape based on the Barcelona tests, although we could be in better shape. But it's always like that. And at the beginning you don't know how the others are, where they are at. Do I have a plan this year? Top secret, I can't reveal any details".
During the conference Vettel appeared calm and very witty:
"I think I'm quite well, if Lewis says he's at peak fitness and he's older than me, I can look forward with optimism. I don't see many weaknesses in him, he's been doing a very good job for several years. But I'm sure everyone has their own weaknesses, some character, some driving. Honestly, I don't think so much about his and concentrate on improving mine".
Finally, he is asked what it would mean to win a fifth title, thus joining Fangio:
"Compared to Lewis I've had more time to think about it, one more winter. But it's not a fixation, honestly, it would certainly mean a lot. In any case, Fangio's record belongs to another era".
On the reduction in the number of engines available, from four to three, Vettel does not give a very clear answer and tries to express himself ironically:
"Predicting to use a fourth engine is definitely something you can consider, but we're still at the first Grand Prix and I don't think we'll be using four over the weekend, so it's not a concern of mine at the moment".
In addition to the challenge between Hamilton and Vettel, the attention of the local public is also logically focused on Daniel Ricciardo, 28 years old, a huge smile and a contract in search of an author: he is expiring with Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari are in orbit and the drivers captaining the two teams are giving him precious advice. Thirty-three-year-old Lewis, who is also due to expire at the end of the season but with only the potential embarrassment of turning down a $45.000.000 a year salary for two years (and an option for a third), warns Ricciardo:
"There is always the temptation to look for something better elsewhere, but when you are in a team it is very important to encourage those who work for you, because they are the ones who can help you achieve your goals. Daniel is now in a fantastic team, and I think he has a real chance of winning the championship this year".
And Vettel, who had Ricciardo as his team-mate last year in Red Bull, is only advising him not to rush. A hurry that perhaps 20-year-old Max Verstappen is in, referred to by the question that rises like a ghost from the audience:
"Doesn't the next title candidate stand outside this room and speak Dutch?"
The three drivers are asked. But Lewis glides on, saying:
"I don't have an answer".
While Seb adds:
"Hopefully the winner is sitting here now, obvious, isn't it?"
However, the British driver points out that the two Red Bulls will also be rivals to worry about:
"Ricciardo is smiling as well, I wouldn't be surprised to see a very strong Red Bull".
And Daniel Ricciardo, called out by Hamilton, is hoping to perform well in Australia.
"We've had a good winter and now the season starts, we're still in the top three teams, along with Mercedes and Ferrari, I think we're in the top group, we hope to play our cards right and get on the podium".
The Australian rider wants to start the 2018 season on the right foot, as he had to retire in the 2017 Australian race:
"The start of last season was not fun at all. Hopefully we'll prepare as well as we can for this race and then we'll see what happens on track".
As for the possibility of Red Bull being in the running for the world title Ricciardo is quite cautious, admitting:
"Red Bull in the running for the title? I hope Hamilton is right when he says we have a chance. I'll take my time and see what happens, we'll talk in a few months".
The 2018 World Championship opens as it closed the previous year: in the sign of Lewis Hamilton. The reigning World Champion is the fastest in the first two free practice sessions, which take place on Friday 23 March. In FP1 the British driver laps in 1'24"026, ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas, with a gap of 0.551 seconds, and the Red Bull of Max Vertsappen, at 0.745 seconds. The Ferrari drivers set the fourth and fifth fastest times: Kimi Raikkonen, 1'24"875, uses soft tyres only, while Sebastian Vettel, 1'24"995, runs on Soft and Supersoft tyres.
Hamilton even managed to improve on his best time at the end of FP2, posting a time of 1'23"931, ahead of Verstappen's Red Bull (0.127 seconds down) and Bottas' Mercedes (0.228 seconds down). Ferrari continues to test the various sets of tyres, switching from Soft to Supersoft, and finally to Ultrasoft. Raikkonen, 1'24"214, closes the session in fourth position, while Sebastian Vettel records the fifth best time with a time of 1'24"460. The session was interrupted half an hour before the end due to the presence of debris on the asphalt, only to resume after a few minutes.
The first penalty of the season has been handed out to Daniel Ricciardo: the Australian Red Bull driver will have to serve a three-position penalty on the grid for not respecting a rule - introduced this year - under a red flag during the second free practice session. After examining the telemetry and video footage, and after speaking to the Australian driver, the race stewards found a violation of the article that regulates the speed to be maintained under a red flag. The FIA, however, mitigated Ricciardo's penalty after finding a consistent decrease in the driver's speed in the penultimate and final micro-sector, thus signalling to the stewards that he had understood the dangerous situation and had complied with the regulations by proceeding with due care. After the first tests, both Ferrari drivers are satisfied. Sebastian Vettel, enjoying the first chronometric results, declares:
"We look close and that's good news, but we need to improve. I think it's difficult at the start of the season to say where we are, only after a couple of races do you know how much better you are. Now everything is new. We tried to change the balance because I didn't feel very comfortable, but there is no need to worry".
The German driver is calm, and even jokes about the name of his car:
"It's called Loria, maybe if we do very well there will be girls in Italy who will have this name. There's a small reason behind it, but it's just the beginning of the story. Maybe we'll add a letter at the end of the year...".
Kimi Raikkonen is also satisfied, declaring in his classic calm way of speaking:
"It was a normal day here in Australia. Everything felt a little bit different from testing, but that's normal when you're in a different place. The grip on the track has improved compared to last year. It's not easy to find a good set-up, but the start today wasn't bad. We tried different things and did our best to improve here and there. We are doing our considerations on the best way to do it. That's normal, especially at the beginning of the year. We'll see what the weather is like tomorrow. This evening we'll analyse all the work we've done today, draw out all the positive aspects and see what we can do".
The first race of the world championship has yet to take place, and yet the diatribe that recently broke out between Christian Horner and Ferrari, directed by Maurizio Arrivabene, continues. After the constant bickering this winter over the Liberty Media affair, the Red Bull team principal once again lashed out at the Maranello team during the press conference on the first day of free practice for the Australian Grand Prix. The object of contention this time is the announced arrival in Maranello of French engineer Laurent Mekies, former FIA safety director and current deputy race director, who will be placed under Mattia Binotto's orders from 20 September 2018.
An enlistment that has already been harshly criticised by McLaren, and which has now also found a heated inquisitor in Horner. According to Horner, this is a recruitment that would violate the gentleman's agreement between the teams on FIA personnel, reached after the controversy surrounding the arrival at Renault of Marcin Budkowski, former head of the FIA technical department, practically the man who holds the secrets of the various teams, who in October 2017 passed to Renault, causing controversy that was then resolved with a stop between one assignment and another of six months instead of three.
The teams had agreed to place former FIA or FOM-related employees under contract after at least twelve months of gardening, a period of non-activity to avoid divulging sensitive data acquired in the previous role, but Mekies will only start working for Ferrari six months after his farewell to the International Automobile Federation. Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari team principal, defends the Maranello team's actions by stating:
"There is nothing wrong, we have complied with Swiss laws and for Swiss labour laws a gentleman's agreement is illegal, indeed we went further by granting a six-month break. Then we gave the FIA a mandate to evaluate a proposal for the next strategy group, on 17 April".
But Horner insists:
"Some teams, including Ferrari, wanted to take three years off, but in the end we agreed on twelve months. And we're talking about an agreement reached only six weeks ago. You can hide it by saying it's not part of the rules, but as a group we agreed on something, it hasn't been respected and at this point I wonder what's the point of having these meetings".
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who was present at the press conference alongside the two rivals, tries to mediate by saying:
"Apart from the fact that I didn't see any gentlemen at the meeting, the Mekies case is completely different from the Budkowski case, the former didn't deal with sensitive data. Knowing that he will be moving to Ferrari in several months' time is not a problem for me".
There is, however, a problem and a very big one at the root of all this tension, namely the rewriting of the rules in 2021: Ferrari has in fact threatened to leave the competition if Liberty's owners decide to distort Formula 1 with a view to reducing costs, simplifying engines, and opening up to new teams. Mercedes agrees, but Wolff softens the tone by hoping for an agreement between the parties, and Arrivabene concludes the argument, saying:
"I don't comment on what my boss Marchionne says, because he knows what he is talking about. I just suggest that we take him very seriously".
The third free practice session started with a wet track from a downpour; only towards the end of the session the drivers had the chance to mount and exploit dry tyres. This brought Sebastian Vettel to the top of the timesheet, followed by his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen. In third place was Marcus Ericsson in his Alfa Romeo Sauber. At the start of qualifying the weather is uncertain but it is not raining. Kimi Räikkönen is the first of the drivers from the top teams to set a valid time in Q1. The Finn's time is not beaten by Vettel, nor by the two Mercedes. Räikkönen manages to lower his time again, before the two Red Bulls take second and third place.
At the third attempt Lewis Hamilton took the lead, ahead of the two Ferraris and the two Red Bulls, while Romain Grosjean was sixth. The track is improving rapidly, resulting in a close fight for a sufficient time to enter the second phase. The two Sauber drivers, Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc, seventeenth and eighteenth respectively, the two Toro Rosso drivers, Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly, last, and Sergej Sirotkin, nineteenth in his Williams, are eliminated.
In the following minutes the weather situation seems to worsen, and the drivers, in order to avoid the rain, decide to look for the time immediately, so that Hamilton marks the new track record. The classification is still dominated by the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull drivers, all within eight tenths of a second of each other. The two Anglo-Austrian cars differentiated their strategy, compared to their direct opponents, opting for Supersoft tyres, which will be the compound with which they will start the race. Right in the last attempt Vettel snatches the best time from Hamilton. The two Haas cars are competitive, right behind the three fastest teams. At the end of the session the McLaren drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, the two Force India drivers, Sergio Perez (thirteenth) and Esteban Ocon (fifteenth), and Lance Stroll, fourteenth in the second Williams, are eliminated.
The start of the decisive phase sees Valtteri Bottas crash at the first corner. The car is badly damaged, but the driver is unharmed. The session is interrupted for around ten minutes. When the session resumed, Lewis Hamilton took the lead, but the times of Ferrari and Red Bull were close to those of the World Champion, gathered within a few tenths. Romain Grosjean, coming out of the pits, decided to overtake Carlos Sainz Jr. in the acceleration lane, coming close to colliding.
Lewis Hamilton improves again, putting a gap of seven tenths on Räikkönen's time, who starts with him on the front row. The second row is taken by Vettel and Verstappen. It is Hamilton's seventy-third pole position, his seventh in Melbourne. The Briton takes pole position for the twelfth season in a row. Valtteri Bottas is penalised five places on the grid due to a gearbox change after an accident in Q3. With fifth and sixth place on the grid, Haas achieves its best qualifying result in Formula 1.
Lewis Hamilton, having taken his first pole of this 2018, was extremely satisfied and excited at the end of qualifying:
"To some people it all seemed normal given the results, but it's not. The emotions are always intense, and the heart is racing. It was an extraordinary qualifying session, and the car always surprises me. I'm very happy with my lap time, I'm someone who strives for perfection, and I have to say that what I did was the closest I could get".
It's his fifth pole in a row and seventh overall in Australia, an all-time record, and it's also the lead start in race number 73 of his career. Yet, according to the British driver:
"It wasn't an easy qualifying also because of the balance of the car and getting the tyres up to temperature. But the last lap was the best of the weekend".
Lewis, who also set the track record with a time of 1'21"164, over a second faster than the 2017 record, will start on pole position with the two Ferraris alongside and behind him, to whom he pays tribute:
"It will be tough to be between the Ferraris, it's a great team to fight against. I was surprised by the speed of the Ferraris, their power seemed better than I've seen so far".
Alongside the British Mercedes driver, Kimi Raikkonen will start from second position, 0.664 seconds behind (1'21"828). Referring to the heavy rain that fell on Melbourne until just before qualifying, he said:
"We did a decent job; the gap is quite big, and it wasn't a straightforward session given the weather this morning that disturbed us. We have to be happy with the position, even if the gap to Hamilton shows that there is a lot of work to do".
In third position will be team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who qualified with a time of 1'21"838:
"Yesterday I wasn't happy with the feeling, whereas today it got better and better. We were close, but in the end, Hamilton did a fantastic lap. We are confident for tomorrow; we have really improved the car. If they turned the engine on a lot today, I hope they turn it off tomorrow. In the long run we saw that we are close, here it's not easy to overtake but in the race you never know. It's still a good starting position. A lot will depend on how we start and on the fact that there will be several cars fighting".
Alongside the German will start from fourth position the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Fifth time instead for the other Anglo-Austrian car, that of Daniel Ricciardo, who will however start eighth due to the penalty he received in Friday's free practice. In the top ten we then find two amazing Haas cars with Kevin Magnussen fifth and Romain Grosjean sixth, giving the American-licensed team its best result in qualifying. Renault also performed well, with Hulkenberg seventh and Sainz ninth.
Valtteri Bottas' qualifying was a sensational one, however, as at the start of Q3 his left rear wheel ended up on the grass at Turn 2, wet from the morning's rain, losing control of the car and crashing into the wall on the right. An impact that caused both right tyres to come off. No problems for the driver but damage to the gearbox which will have to be changed, which will mean that the Finnish driver will start in more than 15th position. Valtteri's mistake and the resulting red flag also forced Hamilton to abort his flying lap on Ultrasoft tyres. But when the lights turned green again, Lewis didn't seem at all bothered by the sudden interruption: heartbeat and perfection, another Hamilton pole.
Sunday 25 March 2018 marks the official start of the sixty-ninth edition of the Formula 1 World Championship. The Australian Grand Prix opens with Lewis Hamilton in pole position who manages to maintain the lead at the start, chased by the two Ferraris of Raikkonen and Vettel respectively. Max Verstappen gives up the fourth position to Kevin Magnussen. Romain Grosjean, Nico Hülkenberg, Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz Jr. followed. All opted for Ultrasoft tyres, except for Red Bull, Williams and Sauber, who opted for Supersofts.
On lap five Ricciardo surprised Hülkenberg to take seventh place. On lap nine Verstappen spun at the first corner; the Dutchman resumed the race but lost three positions. The classification remained unchanged, at least in the leading positions, until lap 18, when Räikkönen, who was putting pressure on Hamilton, made a tyre change. The Briton pitted the next lap, putting Vettel in the lead. Max Verstappen chose lap 21 to stop, while Sainz went long, and was passed by Alonso. Soon after, the Renault driver pits.
The race is turned upside down when the two Haas, first Magnussen's (in fourth position, on lap 22) and then Grosjean's (in fifth position, on lap 24), make two disastrous pit stops: Magnussen's left rear tyre and Grosjean's left front tyre are badly fixed and both drivers are forced to retire. For the Haas team mechanics there is nothing left but despair, they put their hands on their helmets in an eloquent gesture as the track goes into virtual safety car mode. This is how Sebastian Vettel manages to take the lead in the race: with an excellent and fortunate strategy, the mechanics call Vettel to the pits and the German driver, cutting trajectories between the kerbs and maximising the time needed for the pit stop, comes out ahead of Hamilton who had been in the lead until a few moments before. The Briton is completely incredulous and asks over the radio:
"How could this happen?"
The safety car then must enter the track as the marshals fail to safely remove Grosjean's car. In the meantime, Verstappen gives up a position to Alonso, after passing under Virtual Safety Car. At the restart, with 26 laps remaining, Vettel holds the top spot with Hamilton threatening behind him ahead of Raikkonen's Ferrari, which is in turn threatened by Ricciardo's Red Bull. Vettel has tyres six laps fresher, and it's hard to overtake in Melbourne. They were followed by Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Alonso, Verstappen, Hülkenberg and Vandoorne. Verstappen ruined the bottom of the car in the spin and is struggling to keep up with the pace of the leaders.
Hamilton, however, tries with a series of fast laps and making the most of the DRS, but Vettel resists, while the British driver complains of an engine problem and of seeing liquids coming out of the rear of the leader's car. Elastic game between the first two until Hamilton, on lap 47, makes a serious mistake in turn 9 when his left rear tyre slips on the grass, losing ground and the chance to overtake the German Ferrari driver. In the final laps, Sainz Jr. reported physical problems, while Hamilton, with rear tyre problems, lost ground and was approached by Kimi Räikkönen. At the end of 58 regulation laps, Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line of the first race of the year as the winner, followed by Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, and the host Daniel Ricciardo. Fernando Alonso finished fifth, ahead of Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, Stoffel Vandoorne and Carlos Sainz Jr. Sebastian Vettel, winner of the Australian Grand Prix for the second time in a row, marking his 48th career victory and 100th podium finish, opened the radio channel and exclaimed in Italian:
"Grandi ragazzi. Grande. Great race".
A Grand Prix that will be remembered for Ferrari's excellent strategy which, thanks in particular to Spanish engineer Inaki Rueda, took advantage of the only opportunity offered by a race that might otherwise have been almost written in stone.
"Things went the right way for us, the timing helped, but last year there were so many races where it went against us, so we'll take it".
The German driver admits candidly, and with good reason, and then calmly makes a more precise analysis after the race:
"We're lacking a bit of pace; I'm lacking a bit of confidence in the car so we're still not where we want to be. There is still work to do. It went pretty well; we had a bit of luck but I really enjoyed it. I was hoping to get a better start but then I struggled with the tyres in the first stint and lost a bit of contact with Lewis and Kimi. I prayed for a safety car to come in and it did, I was full of adrenaline. I managed to get in front, and it was difficult to overtake, Lewis kept the pressure on, but I was able to enjoy the last few laps. Something happened and we were there, we did our work before the race trying to foresee the different scenarios, and in the end, we also had the pace to hold the first position. For sure Lewis was a little bit faster, he put pressure on us, but he wasn't fast enough".
Sebastian Vettel's words are always positive and manage to charge the team he loves so much:
"We bring another win and another flag to Maranello, but we want many more. The car gives good sensations, we all know that when the car doesn't respond well it's more complicated. But for sure this victory gives us a good motivation for the next weeks".
Raikkonen, who took the third step on the podium, was also celebrating:
"It was a positive race; we didn't make the most of what we could but Seb got lucky and so we brought home the win. It's hard to overtake here, I just tried to keep the pace up and do something with the pit stops. We had a bit of pressure from Red Bull towards the end but I'm still holding on to third place. We're happy with the car. It wasn't the best result for me, but we had a good result all weekend so that's good. I'm satisfied, of course there are things to improve. There were better conditions than yesterday morning and that allowed us to go faster. This circuit is special in many ways, let's see what we can do in the next races. If the sensations remain these, we will have the tools to fight for important results".
Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne also commented immediately, expressing his affection for the team:
"There could not have been a better start for Ferrari in this World Championship. Hearing the Mameli anthem resound in Melbourne was an emotion for all of us and for every fan of the team. It is the most beautiful recognition for the team, which has developed a competitive car and has been able to take advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves with a perfect strategy. Congratulations to Sebastian and Kimi, who both drove a great race. Of course, there is still a long way to go: there are twenty more Grands Prix to go, and it would be wrong to make proclamations. We know we have a lot of work to do, but the first step is in the right direction".
A team victory and a Ferrari victory, says team principal Maurizio Arrivabene, who then adds a biting comment on Saturday's post-qualifying skirmishes between Vettel and Hamilton (with the Briton saying he wanted to wipe the smile off the German's face, who in turn replied with an eloquent: "Everything that is said, comes back"), saying:
"There are those who talk and those who do the deeds. The race is on Sunday, the points are made on Sunday, and we have made the points".
On the podium with the winner is the architect of Ferrari's success, Iñaki Rueda. Thirty-seven years old, a Spanish engineer from Madrid, he is the invisible man who builds the race strategies. At the last briefing, Rueda laid out all the possible race tactics on the table. What are they based on? On fixed parameters such as fuel quantity, tyre degradation and performance, driver skill, overtaking opportunities, accident probability and weather. Chances play a fundamental role in the success of a strategy: but more than luck, Formula 1 designs them through sophisticated predictive modelling software that analyses the probability of certain events happening and constructs results that become plans of action.
Formula 1 teams have huge amounts of information that they obtain from the single seaters, like talking control units with their 1.25 kilometres of wiring and up to 150 on- board sensors that read data 1.000 times a second and then send it wirelessly to the garage. That's almost 1.5 billion pieces of data collected every race, which are then analysed in supercomputers capable of making 40 trillion calculations per second. Big Data. A bit like what happens in financial analysis. Or in the art of magic. That's why, perhaps, the strategy is called luck. The joy in the Ferrari box is palpable, while Hamilton is reserved for a second place that leaves much dissatisfaction:
"It was a really incredible weekend; I have to congratulate Sebastian and Ferrari who did a better job. We have to go back to the table and study the strategies better".
Admits the British driver, when he learns that a flaw in the Anglo-German team's software gave wrong numbers on the advantage until then accumulated over the two Ferraris. Speaking on the podium, he adds:
"I was hoping to put more pressure on at the end. This circuit is beautiful, but it is very difficult to overtake. The difficulties in the final? At the end I tried to save the car to come back and fight another day and preserve the engine. It's painful as always when you don't win. There has been a lot of talk about our party mode and the Ferraris not being fast enough, but they proved the opposite. I would have liked to fight a bit more towards the end, but still we were a tenth apart in the race pace. Congratulations to them".
Regarding the strategy adopted, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff explained:
"We thought we had the margin to be able to stay in front, but that wasn't the case. Problems with Hamilton? No, he attacked for thirty laps, and you can't do that with tyres. Problems with fuel consumption? No".
The second place in Australia, despite the bitter taste, still leaves Lewis Hamilton's positivity intact and he is already thinking about the second round, which will take place in Bahrain on 8 April 2018:
"There is a lot of optimism in the team. Second place is still a positive result, we have a great car, we are the world champions, and, with a couple of adjustments, we can win the next race".
He may have started to show some concern for Ferrari's competitiveness, which he himself had somewhat underestimated on the eve of the World Championship, as he added:
"Ferraris always do well on circuits in hot weather. Even though it's a night race, it's very difficult for the tyres".
So, for the second year running, Ferrari wins the first race of the season in Melbourne. But there is a fundamental difference between the victory in Melbourne now and the one in 2017. A difference that has nothing to do with the pace of the cars, the performance of the engines, the choices made by the walls and not even the undeniable stroke of luck of the number 5. In fact, the difference between this race and that of 2017 can be attributed to the strategic and psychological role played by the second drivers of your top teams. And by Kimi Raikkonen.
While a year ago the Finn was 22 seconds behind his team-mate, and well behind the two Mercedes drivers, this time he was close to the leading duo from the very first lap, with the class and competitive spirit that he deserves. If you look at the facts, he was the one who started the series of events that led to Ferrari's successful and brilliant strategy: Kimi tried to overtake Hamilton right from the start, and in doing so forced the reigning World Champion to choose which of the two Ferraris to mark. And making the wrong choice. Exactly the opposite can be said of what happened at Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas, who started fifteenth and only came eighth. His disappearance from the radar helped Ferrari and cost Hamilton the race. Toto Wolff himself points this out:
"The race started quite well, but with only one car it is difficult to make a good strategy. Bottas? When you start 15th, you can't do much in Melbourne".
The impression, after the first 58 laps of 2018, is that therefore the difference between victory and yet another defeat in the end will not only be made on the issues of reliability and developments but on the second drivers. The winner will be the one who can keep the concentration of the whole team higher. He is certainly not as happy Max Verstappen, who does not choose a fine line in commenting on the first Grand Prix of the season in Australia, in which he started fourth and finished sixth:
"Boring and completely useless for the public. I would have turned off the television".
Next, the Dutch driver comments on Ferrari's winning strategy:
"The Haas cars were a second slower than the two Ferraris, they were simply lucky to be ahead of us. You can't overtake here, just look at Hamilton and Vettel. Same story with Alonso. They were much slower, but it wasn't possible to overtake them. After 4-5 laps something broke in the car, in the middle of the corner I kept sliding and it was hard to push. As I approached the Haas at Turn 1, I had a problem with oversteer and lost the car, damaging it further".
He concluded by talking about the Red Bull performance in general:
"Does Ricciardo's fourth place bode well? He was seven seconds behind the winner, but you can't overtake here, the pace of the car would have been good enough for the win I think".
Excellent start to the season for the McLarens of Alonso and Vandoorne, who finished fifth and ninth respectively. The Spanish driver was satisfied:
"It was a good race. It was a relief to see yesterday that we were competitive, as well as today to see that in the race we can compete wheel to wheel with the other cars. Both cars scored points in the first race and we're looking forward to lots of updates. The integration between engine and chassis will have to be better in the next races, but now we must look at the top three teams, which is our long-term goal. We have to improve a lot, but this is a good starting point".
Dull weekend instead for the two Force Indias: Perez and Ocon end the race respectively in eleventh and twelfth position, unable to fight for a top ten position. Not bad instead the two Renault with Hulkenberg seventh and Sainz Jr., who also had physical problems during the race, tenth. A nightmarish start to the season for Haas, the single seater built by Dallara and powered by Ferrari), which also got two $5.000 fines for unsafe release of the cars following the pit stop. The scenes seen as soon as the mechanics realised that they had not tightened the bolts on both cars were eloquent: hands on helmets, wide-eyed, desperate mechanics. One of them goes out, slamming the door, another sits with his helmet on in the paddock without even Grosjean being able to console him. Kevin Magnussen says, almost crying:
"It was a very bitter pill for the whole team to swallow, with both cars we could have finished on the back of the podium. It's heartbreaking to end a race like that".
And Romain Grosjean adds:
"Everyone is down right now".
Team principal Guenther Steiner commented on the incident, saying:
"It was a disappointing end to a promising weekend. Almost unbelievable the same problem on both cars: we did not mount the wheels correctly. It happens, even if it shouldn't. But we have a competitive car. And we just need to raise our heads again".
When the Australian weekend has already been closed for three days, on Wednesday 28 March 2018, a controversy erupts in the Circus: Haas is a replica of Ferrari, exclaim Force India and McLaren, who raise suspicions about the relationship between the American and Italian teams and ask the FIA to clarify. The controversy was raised after the excellent performance of the two Haas cars in Melbourne, in which they shone in both qualifying and the race (obviously until the double retirement). Both McLaren and Force India see something potentially illegal in the relationship between the two teams:
"I don't know how they did it, it's something magical and never seen before in Formula 1. I don't know how someone who has only been in the Circus for a couple of years can make a car like this. Does it happen by magic? If so, I want their magic wand".
Otmar Szafnauer, Force India's chief operating officer, says bluntly. And if Fernando Alonso defines the new Haas as a replica of Ferrari, the executive director of the Woking team, Zak Brown, goes even further and claims that the relationship between the two teams is something that needs to be examined carefully. And while acknowledging that he has no evidence to suggest that Haas has violated the regulations, Brown adds:
"We all know they have a very close alliance with Ferrari and I think we just need to make sure it's not too close. It's up to the engineers and the FIA to go and have a closer look".
The suspicions of the two teams are promptly returned to sender by Gunther Steiner, team principal of Haas:
"We have a team that can be proud of what it is managing to do at the moment. We're not doing anything we shouldn't or couldn't do".
A start to the season decidedly marked by controversy between the teams, and an already heated fight between the two most likely contenders for the title. Next appointment under the lights of the international circuit of Bahrain, in Sakhir, for the continuation of a championship already started under the banner of high competitiveness.