MELBOURNE, Australia — We wrote yesterday that 2019 needed to start with someone other than Lewis Hamilton on the top step of the Australian Grand Prix podium — his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas duly obliged on Sunday, turning in the drive of his career to kick off the most important year of his career in style.
But joy for Mercedes was a stark contrast to Ferrari’s weekend, and that’s where our round-up of the good, the bad and the ugly of this race must begin…
Serious questions at Maranello: Based on its performance at pre-season testing, Ferrari had the fastest car coming into this race weekend. But at some point in the intervening two weeks, the car that looked so easy to drive on the limit in Barcelona became unpredictable and just plain slow. Understanding what happened will be Ferrari’s primary goal ahead of the next race in Bahrain, but the team also needs to look at its race strategy.
A podium should have been possible given Vettel’s clean start to the race and the difficulty of overtaking at Albert Park, but Ferrari went aggressive by pitting their lead driver early in an attempt to undercut Hamilton. That left Vettel exposed to Verstappen, who held off for his single pit stop by a further 11 laps, and passed the German with fresher rubber to take the final place on the podium.
The curse of Albert Park: Daniel Ricciardo’s run of bad luck continued at his home race. Driving for Renault this year, expectations had been lowered coming into the weekend but that wouldn’t have eased any of the frustration of retiring on lap 31. For the first 100 metres of his Australian Grand Prix things were looking rosy as he powered alongside Sergio Perez for tenth place, but in dipping two wheels on the grass his front wing snagged on a drainage channel and was ripped from his car. He was left marooned at the back of the pack and Renault eventually decided to retire him as a precaution.
Go big or go home: If his move on teammate Lewis Hamilton at the start of the race didn’t impress you, then Valtteri Bottas desire to pit for a fresh set tyres and chase the fastest lap, something now rewarded by an extra point for anyone also finishing in the top ten. The team talked him down from it — his 23.9s lead over Lewis Hamilton held no guarantees of holding up with a botched pit stop — but the fact he was considering it while on the verge of his first win since Abu Dhabi 2017 said a lot about his new mindset for this year. And after all that he still took the point with a stellar penultimate lap to unseat Max Verstappen’s effort three laps earlier.
Best overtake: Ahead of the weekend, nobody would have expected a Red Bull to pass a Ferrari for the final podium position. But Max Verstappen has made a career out of proving people wrong and would have taken an enormous amount of satisfaction from beating Sebastian Vettel into Turn 3 on lap 31. He was helped by a 11-lap tyre advantage but it was impressive nonetheless after he put Vettel off line in Turns 1 and 2 in order to complete the move in Turn 3.
“We could have looked like rock stars…”: After the heartache of Haas’ double retirement 12 months ago, it was hard to watch Romain Grosjean pull to the side of the track with a loose front wheel on lap 32.
Images of the pit stop on lap 15 showed the team struggling to get the left-front wheel attached and clearly something went awry in the 17 laps that followed. Anyone who has seen F1’s Netflix series can imagine the choice words coming from the mouth of team principal Guenther Steiner as it happened.
Driver of the day: After all the team orders and missed opportunities Valtteri Bottas endured last year, it was hard not to get carried away by the story of redemption that played out in Albert Park on Sunday. But that shouldn’t take anything away from the drive the Finn put together. The move on Hamilton at the start was crucial, but his performance in the laps that followed, especially after Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had pitted for fresh rubber earlier than expected, was hugely impressive. By the end of the race he had a 20-second advantage over his teammate and, regardless of strategy, there are not many teammates that have beaten Hamilton so comprehensively over a race distance.
Other observations worthy of mention
Albert Park is never one to judge overtaking on, but the early indications are that cars are easier to follow this year following the 2019 regulation changes — if that’s the case, it should be easier to overtake at other circuits.
Robert Kubica was never likely to finish anywhere other than one of the final two positions, but his day was made all the more difficult when his Williams lost a front wing in the opening moments after being caught up in the Ricciardo drama. Given that Kubica waited nine years for this race, it must have felt like a massive anti-climax.
It should be duly noted that as Honda scored its first podium since returning to F1 on its first race with Red Bull, its former engine partner McLaren had one car finish out of the points and the other retire with a fiery failure in the Renault.