After Lewis Hamilton took his sixth Australian GP pole, equalling the feat of the late Ayrton Senna, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel got the better of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport in the 57-lap season-opening race. Lewis and new team mate Valtteri Bottas claimed the other podium positions and F1 fans look to be in for a treat as Mercedes targets its fourth consecutive championship in the face of strong opposition.
'Third is not ideal'
Valtteri sets himself high standards and was not entirely happy with his third position on the grid, with Vettel’s Ferrari between him and Hamilton. “Third is not ideal,” Valtteri said post-qualifying, “and in general I’m not happy about the result.”
Was he being too hard on himself? Hamilton always excels around Albert Park and Valtteri’s 0.3s deficit to Lewis actually compared favourably versus the delta to Nico Rosberg over the four previous seasons (Nico never got closer than 0.360s in qualifying). Given the pressure of Valtteri’s first race for Mercedes and his relative inexperience with the team, it was a strong debut qualifying performance.
Vettel’s presence on the front row, however, 0.27s from Lewis, indicated that both Mercedes would face a challenge in the race, and so it proved.
With new clutch rules in 2017 placing greater emphasis on driver feel, Lewis converted his pole position and led into Turn 1, with the top four going through in grid order: Lewis, Vettel, Valtteri, Raikkonen.
Fear of an ‘undercut’
Part of Pirelli’s 2017 brief was a supply of tyres capable of being raced harder without irreversible thermal degradation and Lewis attacked hard from the start. Friday afternoon’s long runs on the ultrasoft tyre had indicated that Mercedes was well-placed versus Ferrari but, in the warmer conditions of Sunday’s race, that didn’t prove to be the case. Lewis was unable to shake Vettel’s Ferrari from his gearbox as the pair opened up a small gap to Valtteri.
Initially though, it looked as if Lewis might have been to establish a margin. By lap 10, he had almost 2s advantage and Vettel admitted: “After 10 or 12 laps Lewis was really pushing, trying to open a gap, and he succeeded a bit. I was struggling to keep up, but still hanging in there. I knew that if anything was to happen around the first stop, I needed to be right behind him to either put him under pressure or have a chance to jump into the pits earlier and pass him through the stop.”
It was this fear of an ‘undercut’ that drove the team towards the early lap 17 stop that brought Lewis out in a track position which saw him closing on Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, which failed to pit when the team had anticipated and ultimatelycost him time. Team boss Toto Wolff denied that it was a strategic error despite some angry table-thumping as Hamilton remained trapped.
“That was just my emotions”
“That was just my emotions,” Toto smiled, “maybe I need to talk to a professional about it! The Ferrari was the quicker car, seen by the way that Sebastian was able to hold onto Lewis’s gearbox. We were pushing flat-out and felt that the tyres wouldn’t last anymore, so all of that led us to the decision to pit to avoid the undercut. Coming out behind Max, who was fighting his own race, lost us the race.”
Lewis confirmed: “I had to pit a lot earlier because I just ran out of grip. After I pitted I got stuck and sometimes that’s just the way it goes.”
On the lap before Lewis pitted, the lead over Verstappen was 18.5s with around 22s needed for a stop, so the team knew that Hamilton would pit out behind Verstappen and took that risk consciously. But the pit-wall was more concerned about vulnerability to an imminent Vettel undercut.
“You are trying to take on board all the information you have, in terms of tyre temperatures, grip levels, the sliding and how the driver perceives it,” Toto explained. “All that leads to a decision and in this case it (the stop) was probably a couple of laps too early.
“These tyres have a very narrow operating window'
“These tyres have a very narrow operating window and you need to keep them in that window in order for them to perform well. If you are below or above the window, you lose performance. That’s different from last year and needs a new calibration from all of us and an understanding of the tyres.”
This was emphasised later in the race, on Pirelli’s yellow-walled soft compound, the hardest tyre on offer in Melbourne. Even on that, Lewis radioed in that tyre performance was “dropping in and out.” Not knowing exactly how recoverable the tyre was in that opening stint on the purple-walled ultrasoft, persuaded Hamilton that stopping was the better option than risking a Vettel undercut or, indeed, having the Ferrari pass him on the circuit if the tyre performance did suddenly drop away.
Once freed by Lewis’ stop, there was actually no discernible pace increase by the Ferrari. Lap 16, his last one behind Lewis, saw a 1m22.221s lap from Vettel, identical down to the last thousandth of a second to lap 12, when he was giving everything to hang on as Lewis tried to open a gap. On lap 19, Vettel found another tenth, but that was all, and the last couple of laps before his own lap 23 stop, dropped off by three tenths. By that stage, however, the Ferrari had the required 22s advantage (23.2s actually) over Lewis to facilitate an ‘overcut’ with Vettel diving in as soon as the margin was there, and pitting out just ahead of Verstappen/Lewis.
'Lewis’s pole position lap was amazing'
In hindsight, therefore ,the loss of position was caused by the time loss behind Verstappen rather than any significant Ferrari pace increase in free air – not that this information was available when the decision was made. In spite of Lewis’ traffic problems, he had set a new fastest lap of the race (1m27.551s) on his ‘golden’ lap on his fresh set of softs, which compared with Vettel’s 1:28.118 on his used ultrasofts. This lap, however, pulled him right onto the back of Verstappen’s Red Bull.
“We had actually hoped for Max to pit earlier and put us in free air,” Wolff explained, “so it was a combination of variables that went against us. I like the new cars a lot and when you looked at the onboard footage of Lewis’s pole position lap, it was amazing. That’s one of the things F1 wanted to achieve but, clearly, the overtaking was not great. We should probably reserve judgment though, because when we get to tracks where the DRS effect is larger, it might help.”
For the moment though, Lewis was trapped. “There’s no way I can get past this guy,” was the bad news over team radio. Lewis was trapped for six laps until Verstappen headed for his lone pit stop on lap 25, the same time that Valtteri, who had taken over the race lead for three laps, also stopped. By this stage, Lewis had fallen 6s behind Vettel’s fleeing Ferrari.
If it frustrated Lewis, he didn’t show it,
If it frustrated Lewis, he didn’t show it, accepting the situation with equanimity: “We had a really good start, which is fantastic, but after that I was struggling with grip from the get-go. Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time. Then I got a bit of traffic and the car started to overheat the tyres. I was struggling with grip to the point that I needed to come in. I was sliding around. It was my call because otherwise Sebastian probably would have come by anyway.”
In the early stages of the race, neither Valtteri nor Raikkonen were able to run at the same pace as their respective team mates. Valtteri, though, certainly had a race of two halves, coming on strongly once he had switched from the ultra-soft to the soft compound Pirellis.
“My main issue was the first stint,” Valtteri explained. “I felt I was always sliding around on the ultra-soft tyre – missing front and rear grip – especially after 10 laps. That wasn’t easy. But once we put on the softs I had a great feeling with the car. It’s a shame it was just a bit too late.”
After his lone pit stop on lap 25 of the 57, Valtteri rejoined 8s behind his team mate and 14s behind the race-leading Ferrari. Twenty laps later, he was 2s behind Lewis and 11s behind the race leader.
“I was very impressed with Valtteri’s driving all through the weekend”
With nine laps remaining Hamilton had Vettel’s lead down to 6.5s but then significantly dropped his pace.
“I had stopped six and eight laps before Sebastian and Valtteri respectively, so I just didn’t know how long the tyres were going to go. I just took it easy and at the end I’d got more pace but even if I did close the gap, you can’t overtake, so...”
The team informed Valtteri over the radio that Lewis was backing off and the pair crossed the 9.9s and 11.2s behind Vettel’s winning Ferrari respectively.
It was Lewis’ 105th podium and Valtteri reached double figures on a Mercedes debut that satisfied his team boss.
“I was very impressed with Valtteri’s driving all through the weekend,” Wolff admitted. “He was under a lot of pressure. He did well in the race, closed up to Lewis at the end, albeit that we had reduced Lewis’s pace when it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to win in normal circumstances, but I’m very happy with his performance.”
The man himself added: “I really want to thank everyone. The team has been so welcoming. We worked really hard for this first race to be ready. Everything went smoothly but it’s just that the red guys were a bit too quick. That means we need to work harder and I’m ready for that. Starting with a podium we can improve from here, so I look forward to the next few races.”
Next up: China
For just the third time in F1’s hybrid era (after Malaysia and Singapore 2015), the works Mercedes team did not have pace-setting speed in Australia, but Wolff was far from despondent.
“I think as a general summary we just weren’t quick enough. We could have done better, for sure. Would it have been enough to win? I don’t know. Sebastian could have attempted the undercut at any stage and it could have worked out the same way. We need to understand why we didn’t have the pace at the beginning of the race in these conditions and improve from there.”
As seen so many times in F1, events seemed to be dictated by the nuances of tyre performance. Mercedes had been in the window on Friday afternoon, out of it on Saturday morning, back in it for qualifying and out of it again on Sunday. Likely, it’s temperature related and everyone is at the beginning of the learning curve with Pirelli’s new tyres.
With China next on the F1 schedule, Wolff was philosophical: “We’ve had an exceptional run the last three years, but I’ve always said that we couldn’t expect it to continue forever. In the conditions today, we underperformed. The difference was, it was much hotter on race day and clearly we weren’t as good as in the long runs on Friday. But, rest assured, we will come back stronger!”