2018 Australian Grand Prix Analysis
“We were a little bit lucky today,” said Sebastian Vettel after having grabbed victory in the opening round of the 2018 Formula 1 season. Buying a lottery ticket on the way home might not be the best option for him – lightning doesn’t strike twice.
When Romain Grosjean’s Haas crawled to a stop on the exit of Turn 2, Vettel suddenly stole a race defining advantage. As the only front-runner yet to make his pitstop, Vettel dived into the pitlane under the subsequent virtual safety car conditions.
Long-time race-leader Hamilton, who had stopped during the green flag running, could do nothing at that moment to stop Vettel emerging from the pits ahead and in the lead of the race. With Albert Park being the second hardest track on the F1 calendar at which to overtake, it was game, set and match to Ferrari in that race-defining moment.
Had it not been for the deployment of the VSC, Vettel would have finished second at best. Luck played a key role but was not the only factor propelling Vettel to victory.
In a conventional one-stop race in which everyone opts for the same strategy, the fastest car will always win. Ending the first stint early or extending it can open up opportunities – if a team has two cars involved in a close inter-team battle, splitting the strategies can be advantageous.
That was exactly what Ferrari did. Kimi Raikkonen, who was running three-seconds behind Hamilton in second place, pulled the trigger on lap 18 and made his pitstop. Mercedes had to cover and as a result, Hamilton pitted one lap later retaining most of his advantage. With Valtteri Bottas mired in the midfield after his qualifying shunt, Hamilton was without a team-mate in the fight.
Vettel was then able to extend the stint in clean air. Hamilton and Raikkonen were as much as 0.7s per lap faster on their fresher tyres. The only way Vettel was going to make the strategy work was with a safety car intervention and right on queue, his wish was granted.
“I was praying for a safety car and then there was a Haas stopped at the exit of Turn 2,” he said. “And when I saw it I was obviously full of adrenaline even though the race is frozen, to come into the pits as everything was a little bit tight to get back out.
“The team told me that it was close with Lewis. When we got out ahead I knew that it was difficult to pass but he kept some pressure on, particularly at the beginning of the last stint. Then in the last five laps, at least I could enjoy it a bit more.”
To extend the first stint as far as Vettel managed was impressive in itself. The German managed 26 laps on the ultrasoft tyre, (not including his Q3 mileage), and his pace remained unspectacular but consistent even at the end of the run. Given the narrow margin by which he seized the lead, this late-stint pace was essential to the win.
Vettel needed a safety car and staying out in the hope that one emerged was a credible strategy. In fact, it was the best card Ferrari had at their disposal. If no safety car appeared, Vettel was guaranteed third as a result of the safe gap back to fourth.
While Ferrari aced the strategy, it could be said that Mercedes missed a trick. When Hamilton emerged from the pits after his stop, he was 13.7s behind Vettel. Mercedes admitted that having beaten Raikkonen out of the pits, attention had already turned to preserving the tyres and ensuring that they would survive until the end of the race.
Had Mercedes deployed a ‘party mode’ at this point, even for a couple of laps, Hamilton would have retained the lead even with Vettel’s advantage seized under VSC.
So why didn’t Mercedes close the gap to Vettel quicker? After the race, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted that he believes a ‘software bug’ caused the team to think that Vettel was not within Hamilton’s VSC window.
“I think we have a software issue with the virtual safety car delta,” said Wolff when speaking to Sky F1. “I think that we have a bug somewhere that told us that 15 seconds is what you need to pit [under VSC]. We had 12 seconds [to Vettel] but it wasn’t enough.
“It was a situation that we hadn’t seen yet where simply the gap that we needed was wrongly calculated by systems. The computer gave us the green light to say that the gap is enough to stay ahead and then we saw the TV pictures and it wasn’t enough.”
Mercedes ultimately opened the door and Ferrari needed no second invitation to gatecrash the party. Luck combined with an adventurous strategy and just enough speed to it justice won the day.
As Vettel noted on the radio after crossing the line, “we still have some work to do.” Unlike 12 months ago, Ferrari did not have the pace alone to win the Australian Grand Prix and that will worry Maranello going forward.
In addition, we failed to see what pace Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen would have been able to deliver for Red Bull in clean air, as both spent the entire race hampered in traffic. Based on the long runs completed in FP2, there is a reason to believe Red Bull might have been even faster than the Ferrari and Vettel combination.
Nevertheless, Ferrari leaves Melbourne with the big trophy and as the early pacesetters in the constructors’ championship. With a 40 point haul for the opening race, this is Ferrari’s strongest start to a championship campaign since 2010.