By Sean Kelly, C4F1 Statistician
Lewis Hamilton dominated practice and qualifying to set a new outright Albert Park track record, but in the race Sebastian Vettel took advantage of pitting later than the Englishman to claim victory in the season-opener.
That was also the opening paragraph of last year’s Australian GP Stat Wrap – it required no editing to fit events in 2018, when Ferrari overturned not only Mercedes’ obvious advantage over a single lap, but also what appeared to be an advantage on out-and-out race pace.
This year was the first in Formula One history to begin with a pair of four-time world champions on the grid, so it was fitting that those drivers finished 1-2 on Sunday, with Vettel – the first to reach four titles – ahead. The German helped himself to a number of landmarks this weekend.
He became the fourth driver to score 100 career podiums (joining Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Hamilton), and the third man to reach 3,000 laps led (behind only Schumacher and Hamilton – who coincidentally passed that mark in the same race last year).
Australia 2018 was also Vettel’s ninth win in 60 career starts for Ferrari, matching the total of teammate Kimi Raikkonen, who was making his 131st start for the Scuderia, and he now reclaims a championship lead that he held as recently as last September.
Even the most hardened Ferrari supporters would surely agree that Vettel benefited from a fortunately-timed virtual safety car that swung the advantage away from Hamilton, who had looked untouchable to that point in the weekend.
This Safety Car means we've lost the genuine prospect that Michael Schumacher's 2004 #AusGP race record average speed of 219.010km/h would be beaten today.— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) March 25, 2018
Hamilton has topped every Friday practice session and taken every pole position at Albert Park for the past three years, but he hasn’t won the race at any of them. On Saturday he lapped the Melbourne circuit in a blistering 1:21.164, over 11 seconds quicker than Jacques Villeneuve’s pole time for Williams-Renault on F1’s first visit back in 1996.
In doing so, Hamilton took his seventh Australian GP pole position, breaking Ayrton Senna’s previous record (all six of his poles were set in Adelaide). It was also Hamilton’s 47th career pole in a Mercedes, surpassing Senna’s total with McLaren. Only Schumacher has ever taken more pole positions with a single team (58 with Ferrari).
Although Hamilton lost out to Vettel in the race, he will go to Bahrain with a chance to tie Raikkonen’s all-time F1 record of 27 consecutive points finishes, set in 2012-13. Hamilton has scored in every single race since his infamous engine failure while leading the 2016 Malaysia GP.
How did @LewisHamilton lose the race?— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) March 26, 2018
"As a driver, it's easy to be confused," says our @AussieGrit
But he has a novel way of explaining it: ➡️ https://t.co/I5Yxfe86LR #AusGP pic.twitter.com/pmqs5iTI6M
Speaking of Raikkonen, the 38-year-old set a record of his own this week. By putting his Ferrari on the front row (the first time he’d outqualified Vettel for six races) he also set a new record for most front-row starts by a Finnish driver. He had previously been tied with Mika Hakkinen on 39 apiece.
Kimi only has eight front-row starts in this decade – and he is yet to win any of them – but he was at least on the podium in Australia for the first time since his victory for Lotus in 2013.
Australia has never been a happy hunting ground for home drivers, with Daniel Ricciardo thinking he had scored the first podium finish for an Australian driver four years ago before being disqualified. Ricciardo came up one position short this year, although realistically the damage was done before the race started – he received a three-place penalty for a red flag infringement in practice, leaving him eighth on the grid.
That still ties the best official result for an Australian in Australia (Mark Webber was fourth in 2012), and Red Bull did at least have two cars on the starting grid this weekend. Reliability problems in previous seasons meant that they hadn’t done that since 2014!
"I thought maybe it was a trick!" @alo_oficial explains why he wasn't quite sure about @Max33Verstappen's gesture to let him pass.— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) March 26, 2018
Watch his funny #AusGP chat with the @C4F1 team: ➡️https://t.co/tbLkndSqYE pic.twitter.com/GjkrQVzhQk
That 2014 race was the last one in which a McLaren scored a podium finish. After a barren three seasons with Honda there were genuine signs of progress this weekend, their first with a Renault power unit. Fernando Alonso tied his best result since rejoining McLaren in fifth place, at a track on which he had not finished a race since leaving Ferrari.
With teammate Stoffel Vandoorne ninth, it gave McLaren a 12-point haul at the opening round, tying their highest total from any race with the Honda turbo hybrid power unit from 2015-17.
The works Renault team had not got a car into Q3 in Melbourne in either 2016 or 2017, but not only did both Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr get there this weekend, they then both scored points. Remarkably, the last pair of Renault drivers to score in the same race were Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov at the 2011 Turkish GP.
For Sainz – battling a stomach upset caused by drinking too much water during the race – 10th may have seemed a decent result, but it was actually his worst finish at Albert Park. The super-dependable Spaniard was ninth on both his F1 debut in 2015 and the following year, and eighth last season.
The Renaults sandwiched the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, forced into a recovery drive after a heavy shunt in qualifying (and consequent gearbox penalty) left him 15th on the grid. This has been a recurring theme for Bottas in Australia. He’s only started higher than that once in his five Albert Park races (third on the grid in 2017).
It was a perfect start to the season for Vettel, after the Ferrari ace overtook Hamilton with a clever pit-stop under the virtual safety car— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) March 25, 2018
Further down the order both McLaren drivers came home in the points in their first race with Renault power pic.twitter.com/gumJ2gAvcN
Excellent reliability and a lack of major incidents meant just five constructors scored in Australia, the minimum possible number. This happened only once in all of last season (Italy), but six times as recently as 2016.
A notable absentee from the points this weekend were Force India, who have finished fourth in the last two world championships. The Silverstone-based squad went home empty-handed from Australia for the first time this decade, a marked turnaround from last season, when they were the only team to score points with both cars in the opening five races.
The true hard-luck story of the weekend was surely Haas. A promising winter testing performance bore fruit on Saturday as Kevin Magnussen not only reached Q3 for the first time since the 2014 Brazilian GP, but went on to qualify fifth, the highest-ever for a Haas car, and team-mate Romain Grosjean matched his sixth from last year.
In the race itself Magnussen took advantage of a napping Max Verstappen to go up to fourth at the first corner, and both he and Grosjean looked set for a major result until both cars fell to a bad case of finger trouble at their pit stops. The sight of both cars stopped by the side of the road with loose wheels will haunt them if they find themselves unable to repeat this pace at subsequent races.
The events of the past 90 seconds may have made a critical difference to @HaasF1Team's finish in the 2018 Constructors' Championship. They have to strike big points early in the season because they can't keep up with the big budget development. Gutted for them #AusGP— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) March 25, 2018
While unfortunate for Haas, their problems triggered the VSC that allowed Vettel to outfox Hamilton and Mercedes in the pit sequence, and claim a win that was statistically unlikely at the start of the day. This was only the fifth time in Vettel’s entire career that he emerged victorious from a race when he didn’t start on the front row.
Prior to Sunday, the last such occurrence was at the 2017 Bahrain GP. Vettel will go back there in a couple of weeks’ time for his 200th race start, aware that another win would make him the odds-on favourite for the title.
In the past 35 years, a driver has won the opening two races of a season on 11 occasions. In every instance, they have gone on to claim the title.