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View from the Pit Lane: Australia

Sebastian Vettel leads Lewis Hamilton in Australia.

By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst

The 2018 Formula One World Championship kicked off in Australia with a surprising winner.

I always enjoy going to Albert Park for the race, and the track itself is very flowing and one that I enjoyed driving. The Aussies really love their sport and, despite all the drama surrounding the cricket team at the moment, it’s really hard to pick a better place than Melbourne as a sports-loving city to start the season.

The weather this weekend was all over the place with strong winds, rain and glorious sunshine all making appearances at different times, which was a bit tricky for everyone.

All through pre-season testing, Mercedes seemed to be a step ahead of the Ferraris and Red Bulls and, sure enough, when we got to Melbourne Lewis Hamilton was in devastating form. The reigning world champion has lost none of his motivation and hit the ground running on Friday with the fastest time.

The final free practice session was a washout and therefore it really came down to qualifying before we could see where everyone stood in the dry in terms of outright pace. There’s been a lot of talk about the higher power “party mode” that Mercedes may have for qualifying, and Red Bull especially have been left frustrated that, much like in 2017, they still can’t get the boost in power for that one lap that Mercedes and Ferrari can unleash.

The results of qualifying echoed what I had seen in Barcelona when watching trackside: Mercedes a step ahead of Red Bull and Ferrari, who were very evenly matched. Haas underlined their potential as best of the rest with a brilliant sixth and seventh on Saturday, with Renault and McLaren close behind. Force India and Williams seem to have lost out in the midfield battle to these three teams at this stage of the season.

I did some video analysis of the Q3 qualifying laps from Lewis and Kimi Raikkonen. This threw up a real surprise as actually it was the Ferrari that was faster than the Mercedes on the straight. Across the lap, Kimi actually gains about 0.25 on the straights, and while this of course could be influenced by the amount of drag, it also highlights that there wasn’t really any huge surge in power from Mercedes in Q3. Just a brilliant lap in a chassis that’s working very well.

I also had a look at the numbers between Red Bull and Mercedes, and actually Max still lost about 0.45 on the straights across the lap to Hamilton, so Christian Horner’s frustration is probably justified.

McLaren were a bit of a disappointment on Saturday. In the second half of last year, when they often claimed to have one of the best chassis in F1, on average they were 0.05 away from the Renaults in qualifying with a Honda engine. So now to be a couple of tenths slower than them and a gulf behind Red Bull with the same power unit shows just how much work they still need to do on the McLaren chassis.

On Sunday, Hamilton got off the line well and managed to break the DRS threat from the Ferraris. In the opening stint on the ultrasoft tyres, both Lewis and Kimi seemed to have better pace than Sebastian Vettel, which meant that by lap 18 when Kimi pitted, Lewis led the Finn by 3.9 seconds with Vettel another four seconds adrift.

When Kimi pitted for the soft tyres, Mercedes chose to react immediately by bringing Lewis in next time round. In hindsight, they needn’t have done so, because actually Vettel on his used ultrasofts was able to stay out for another seven laps with very similar pace to Kimi on his new softs, so you have to assume that Lewis too would have had no problem staying out.

Analysing things in hindsight is of course easy, but perhaps Mercedes need to think about the big picture of the championship straight away and actually aim their strategy to cover off Sebastian, who is the more likely title contender from Ferrari rather than Kimi.

Fast forward a little bit to lap 26, and the virtual safety car was deployed as they had to retrieve Romain Grosjean’s car from the side of the track.

One of the criticisms of the virtual safety car system is that it affects different drivers in different ways, depending on where you are on the track. If a driver is at a point where he’s flat out doing over 300 kilometres per hour, he is allowed a few seconds to slow down to the pre-determined VSC speed. This means that he will gain time over a driver that is in a corner doing 140 kilometres per hour, for example.

This, to me, appears to be what cost Hamilton and Mercedes the win. At the very moment the virtual safety car was deployed, Vettel led Hamilton by 11.6 seconds, with Raikkonen 18.2 behind the leader. Under normal green flag conditions, with a pit stop costing 23 seconds, Sebastian would have come out in third place.

However, by the time they all slowed down to the defined VSC pace, the German’s lead was up to 15.9 seconds when he dived into the pits, and these crucial four seconds were enough to allow the Ferrari to emerge from the pits a fraction ahead of the Mercedes.

From then on, Sebastian, with tyres that were eight laps fresher, was able to hang on. The wider cars and more sensitive aerodynamics once again showed just how difficult overtaking is in F1 these days. Lewis will take solace in the fact that he and Mercedes are certainly the quickest combination out there, and his 18 points is still a solid start to their title defence.

Looking outside the top three, Fernando Alonso racked up some good points for McLaren in fifth place, but, once again, he was a big beneficiary of the VSC. Without it, he would probably have ended up seventh behind Max Verstappen and Nico Hulkenberg but, ultimately, while you could argue he had the good fortune, Fernando also put himself in the position to benefit.

Vandoorne in the other McLaren was just one place behind him when the VSC was put out but the 9.4-second gap between them meant that the Belgian finished ninth after the pitstops.

The biggest heartbreak of the weekend was reserved for the Haas team. Both cars were running very strongly in the top six early on but, unbelievably, during both pit stops the wheel nuts got cross-threaded (rear left for Kevin Magnussen, front left for Romain). This meant that the wheels weren’t secured and the team had no choice but to tell the drivers to stop the car and retire. This was such a shame for a team who had performed brilliantly until then.

The most disappointed man after Australia will be Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas. All weekend long he really didn’t look like he was anywhere close to Hamilton and then had a massive crash in Q3 on Saturday that put him down to 15th on the grid, being penalised for a gearbox change.

He made very slow progress in the race and finished a rather anonymous eighth. As a driver, to have a bad weekend when your team-mate is setting the pace is the worst feeling in the world. Valtteri took pole in Bahrain last year and it’s going to be a crucial weekend for him to bounce back there in two weeks' time.

After a weekend of racing on a low-grip street track with relatively cool temperatures in Melbourne, I’m intrigued to see what sort of a challenge the desert throws up for the teams and drivers.

Read more: Virtual Statman's Australian round-up

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