The opening race weekend of the 2018 season in Australia didn't quite go to plan. But there were plenty of positives to take and a few good lessons learned too...
Despite a dominant qualifying performance and after leading the opening stint of the race, Lewis came away with second place after Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel benefited from a timely Virtual Safety Car (VSC) which handed them the lead and ultimately the win.
Valtteri also had a tricky start to the new season, finishing eighth after a heavy accident in qualifying damaged his gearbox and sentenced him to 15th place on the grid.
The late Ayrton Senna managed six Australian Grand Prix poles in Adelaide but Lewis went one better with a record seventh Melbourne pole - the 73rd of his career - after one of his virtuoso qualifying laps. Vettel had topped Q2 by a tenth but on his second Q3 run Lewis took pole with 0.66s to spare.
Lewis' final Q3 lap was indeed special but the reality was that half of his gain came in sector one, where he had been conservative on his first run through Turns 1 / 2 due to the possibility of hydraulic fluid on the track after Valtteri's accident at the beginning of Q3.
"I'm always striving for perfection and that was as close as I could get," Lewis said. "It was about hooking up the tyres, getting them at the right temperature and then putting the lap together. It wasn't straightforward. It was a real surprise to see how quick the Ferraris were, right from Q1. The speeds they had on the straight -- they've obviously made an improvement in their power mode."
After finishing Q2 third quickest, just 0.03s behind Lewis, Valtteri suffered a 27g impact into the Turn 2 barrier after running wide and losing the back end on the exit of Turn 1 on his first Q3 run. While the new W09 chassis was okay, the gearbox was not, which meant a five-place grid penalty and 15th place on the grid at a track which the data shows is the second most difficult of the season on which to overtake...
"I was having a bit of trouble generating bulk tyre temperature in the cooler conditions and I just pushed a bit too hard," Valtteri admitted. "I can feel it a bit. Humans aren't meant to take 27g!"
When the starting lights went out, Lewis converted his pole position and led through Turn 1 from the Ferraris of Kimi Räikkönen, Vettel, the fast-starting Kevin Magnussen's Haas, Max Verstappen's Red Bull and Romain Grosjean in the second Haas.
Despite a wider range of Pirelli slick tyres in 2018 aimed at strategic variety, the strategy of choice was still expected to be a one-stop race in Melbourne, with the UltraSoft qualifying tyre of the top 10 starters giving way to the Soft compound Pirelli at the lone stop.
Red Bull, however, chose to qualify on the red-walled SuperSoft rather than the UltraSoft, potentially giving them a longer opening stint range. But, as it transpired, a three-place grid penalty for Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen spending his opening stint behind Magnussen, masked the team's potential.
Lewis appeared to be in complete control at the head of the field. He gradually opened out a 3s advantage over Räikkönen by lap 15, with Vettel, a further 3s behind.
From 3.38s behind Lewis, Räikkönen pitted after 18 of the race's 58 laps, the Ferrari going onto the Soft tyre, obliging the team to respond by bringing Lewis in on the next lap to defend any potential undercut. The stop went without drama and at the end of lap 20 Lewis had a 4.8s advantage over Räikkönen and ran second, 13s behind Vettel, who had yet to pit.
The time loss while making a pit stop in Melbourne is around 23s and there was no sign of any dramatic pace increase from Vettel's leading Ferrari. Lewis, in fact, was actually able to reduce his deficit to 11.3s despite being on the harder tyre. He appeared to be under no threat - but that was counting without a double drama for Haas, which eliminated both cars when the team was set for its best ever result.
When Magnussen pitted from fourth on lap 22 there was a problem with the left-rear wheel alignment and a subsequent cross-threaded nut brought the Dane to a halt with a loose wheel on his 'out' lap. The Haas pit wall looked on in sheer disbelief when, two laps later, a similar problem with the left front also eliminated Grosjean.
With the Frenchman's car stranded out on the circuit, the race was initially neutralised by a VSC (Virtual Safety Car). The timing of the intervention coupled with issues on the Mercedes pit wall played right into the hands of Vettel, who had yet to make his lone stop.
Toto Wolff takes up the story: "We were trying to maintain the correct gaps to do everything right. Lewis had built enough gap to Räikkönen to avoid the initial undercut and we also had enough margin over Haas to have a Safety Car gap. Pretty much everything was under control. We took a bit of a risk putting Lewis on the Soft compound to go to the end but it was pretty much the only choice to avoid Kimi jumping us."
What Toto means is that by committing to a one-stop race on lap 19, Lewis needed to do 39 laps on a set of Soft compound Pirellis, with the tyre company estimating the life of that tyre to be around 40 laps. Given Lewis' aptitude for tyre management, that was unlikely to be an issue but, with Vettel running a longer first stint, he would be on fresher tyres at the end of the race and so Lewis and the team were careful not to take more out of the Soft than was necessary at the beginning of the stint, especially with an element of fuel-saving also possibly coming into play.
It's still important to cover all bases, however, and one of those was Lewis' vulnerability to a VSC that would allow Vettel a 'cheap' pit stop. Mercedes was fully aware of that threat, as Toto explained.
"The pace was good and calculating the VSC gap that was needed our computer said that 15s was the necessary time gap in order (for Vettel) to jump us."
In other words, Vettel could potentially save around 8s on the regular pit stop time if a VSC period played into his hands and allowed the Ferrari to pit at a time when the rest of the field was running slower and observing the time delta demanded by the FIA's ECU cockpit readouts.
Crossing the line on lap 25, just before the VSC period was initiated to allow Grosjean's car to be recovered, Lewis was just 11.3s behind Vettel and so, in theory, should have been safe.
"We were always within this 3-4s margin and then suddenly the cameras showed us the pit exit and Sebastian came out in front of us!" Toto explained. "We have no explanation yet. It could be a very unlucky situation that Sebastian was just making it into the pits while Lewis had to brake pretty hard from high speed. Or a software system that we have been using for five years just gave us the wrong number."
Television viewers heard Hamilton's radio message to the team: "What just happened there, guys? Did I do something wrong?"
The answer was no, as Toto confirmed: "The drivers always oscillate in the time delta within 1s and he did absolutely nothing wrong. It was down to a software bug or an algorithm that was simply wrong."
That will be looked into but the reality is that Lewis suffered a bad break and Vettel caught a good one. Shortly after, the race went to a full Safety Car situation. Had that happened immediately to allow Grosjean's car to be recovered, the field would have been closed up behind Vettel, who would then have had his work cut out to score any points at all.
Once the Ferrari was in front it was always going to be a tall order for Lewis to re-take the lead. Melbourne is always a very difficult track on which to overtake and a third DRS zone for 2018 had done little to change that. It is calculated that the necessary speed advantage to allow a driver to pass a car in front needs to be of the order of 1.8s around the Albert Park circuit.
The other issue is that teams will always run the bodywork as closed as possible for aerodynamic efficiency, opening it up just enough to facilitate engine cooling. And the extreme to which that is done is often dictated by the pace you believe you have in the car. For instance, if you think you are likely to be able to take pole and run in clean air at the front in the race, you may go more extreme than if you suspected you may not have a qualifying advantage and may therefore have to follow other cars in the race. Lewis did close in on Vettel and give it a go, but to no avail.
Toto confirmed: "If you are stuck behind a car and give it your all, the systems just overheat. We saw that with other cars as well. Lewis was trying to attack Sebastian but we know that with these cars if you come too close you just lose downforce and the tyres start to slide. He tried it three, four or five times and just cooked the tyres. We didn't have any tyres at the end."
Although Lewis knew he'd had the pace to win the season's opening race, he had to satisfy himself with a new record eighth Australian GP podium. "At least in my heart I know that I gave everything this weekend," he said. "I'm sure the team is feeling pain right now but we'll regroup and work on it."
Underlining the seriousness of the overtaking problem in Melbourne, Valtteri was restricted to eighth place despite the obvious pace of the W09. It's not the kind of circuit on which you can come from the back of the grid to the podium!
"In fact," Toto said, "I think Valtteri passed more people than anyone else. He passed Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne and then was lucky with the Safety Car. His timing was spot on and he wouldn't have made it into the top 10 without that. The circuit is one thing but the whole field is much more bunched up than before and you can't just cruise through the field like we have seen before."
Valtteri himself added: "I had a good car but unfortunately we couldn't make anything out of it because it's so difficult to overtake on this track. I also struggled a bit with overheating when I was following other cars, so had to back off many times. This certainly wasn't an ideal first race but we still have 20 to go."
Although Lewis did not come away from Australia with the 25 points, his decisive pole led many pundits to conclude that Mercedes still has a pace advantage and are favourites to win a fifth successive Constructors' Championship."
Toto, however, refused to get carried away while offering his assessment: "I'm quite pleased with the pace but what I always said - and nobody believed - is that I think there are three teams capable of winning races and really fighting for the championship. We saw a sensational fastest lap from Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull at the end when he was trying to overtake Kimi, and Ferrari won it fair and square today.
"In terms of a pattern, I think it will depend on the circuits. On less power-sensitive tracks Red Bull might be a bit closer but I expect three teams to be able to win races and go for the championship."