By Sean Kelly, C4F1 statistician
It was supposed to be all about Ferrari.
Then – after Saturday – it was supposed to be all about Lewis Hamilton.
Yet from the shadows stepped forward Valtteri Bottas, stunning the paddock, the watching fans and even himself with the utterly emphatic nature of his victory in the Australian Grand Prix.
Bottas was coming into 2019 as a man on a mission. Fresh off a season in which he set a record for most second place finishes without ever winning (7), he achieved the statistical oddity of bookending that season with a win in the final race of 2017 and the opening race of 2019, giving himself the world championship lead for the first time exactly six years to the day since he made his Grand Prix debut.
A Mercedes win might not have been quite so newsworthy were it not for the manner in which Bottas schooled the field. The winning margin of 20.8 seconds was larger than at any Grand Prix in the 2018 season, and just for emphasis Bottas also claimed Formula 1’s first fastest lap bonus point since 1959, giving him an eight-point championship lead.
The Finn had reminded the world that Mercedes are in fact a two-car team when he was the first to up the ante during Q2, but there was still no doubt that Lewis Hamilton went into Sunday as a heavy favourite, having led all three practice sessions and then set an outright lap record to claim a historic Albert Park pole position.
Fantastic effort from the team this weekend to start with a 1-2. Super proud of everyone back home for their hard work over winter to provide us with a car that we can fight with. Great drive from Valtteri, well deserved. Let’s keep this up team @MercedesAMGF1 @MSI_Images pic.twitter.com/GdeGTXEnyq— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) March 17, 2019
With his eighth pole in Melbourne, Hamilton now moves alongside Ayrton Senna (Imola) and Michael Schumacher (Suzuka) for the record of most poles by any driver at any venue in F1 history. Furthermore, his 58th pole for Mercedes tied Schumacher’s career total at Ferrari, which is the best for any driver with a single team.
Claiming pole position has never been a problem for Hamilton in Australia, but his inability to convert it into a win has also reached historic proportions. Of those eight starts from pole, Hamilton has now failed to win six of them – a record level of futility for any driver at any circuit. It’s not like he isn’t trying, as he’s now finished second in Melbourne for the last four years running!
The five-time world champion was able to hold on to second despite coming under pressure from the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, who made breakthroughs this weekend for both himself and his team’s new power unit supplier Honda.
Very happy to start the 2019 season on the podium We had a great car, so a big thank you to @redbullracing and congrats to @HondaRacingF1 for their 1st podium in the V6 era #KeepPushing #AusGP pic.twitter.com/pWNHWAsdGw— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) March 17, 2019
It seems remarkable, but Verstappen had only previously completed one racing lap in a top-three position in an Australian Grand Prix, and that was in a Toro Rosso in 2016! The Dutchman finally kicked that statistic into the long grass with his first Melbourne podium, extending his current podium streak to six consecutive races, the longest of his career and the longest active streak of any driver.
While Verstappen was able to celebrate his best-ever start to a season, Honda were finally able to emerge from several tortuous years in F1 and show they can compete with the best. Sunday saw the Japanese manufacturer led their first lap since Rubens Barrichello at the 2008 Canadian GP, shortly followed by their first podium since Barrichello at Silverstone later than same season.
It has taken precisely four years for Honda to get onto the podium since returning to the sport as a power unit supplier for McLaren. The next goal is a victory, something they’ve only achieved once in the last 27 years (Jenson Button at the 2006 Hungarian GP).
Verstappen’s joy came at the expense of a baffled Sebastian Vettel, as the preseason pacesetter was left wondering out loud why he and Ferrari were so slow at a venue where they won for the previous two years. Fourth place meant that the German failed to finish on the podium in Melbourne for the first time since joining the Scuderia in 2015, and if that didn’t hurt enough, the 57-second margin of defeat rubbed salt into the wound.
"A tough weekend for @ScuderiaFerrari"— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) March 19, 2019
Former team principal, Stefano Domenicali admits that the Scuderia were slow in Melbourne, but suggests waiting until the #BahrainGP to see if it is a sign for the season.
With Vettel not living up to even his own expectations, Ferrari were present with a diplomatic incident late in the race when the team leader was caught by new teammate Charles Leclerc, who had never previously finished in the top five until Sunday.
As Leclerc refrained from attacking Vettel for position, he still maintained a 30-second cushion over sixth-placed Kevin Magnussen, and Ferrari had the intriguing option of pitting Leclerc near the end, put on his remaining fresh set of soft tyres and steal the fastest lap bonus away from the emphatic Bottas. Ferrari declined to do this, and championships have literally been won and lost over less….
Speaking of Magnussen, sixth place for Haas was redemption after failing to finish with either car here since 2016. It was the Dane’s first points in Australia since 2014 (when he became one of only three men to finish on the podium on his F1 debut in the last 48 years), and it could have been even more for Haas until Romain Grosjean’s day was ended in remarkably similar circumstances to 2018, as a wheel worked its way loose.
Grosjean has now failed to finish in Australia for the last three years in a row, and six times in eight career starts at Albert Park. He could perhaps claim to be the unluckiest man in Melbourne, but competition for that unwanted accolade would come from Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who again suffered home race disappointment in his first start since leaving Red Bull.
Renault had emerged from preseason testing with a minimum expectation of solidly establishing themselves as the quickest team behind the dominant Mercedes / Ferrari / Red Bull juggernaut, but Melbourne proved a major disappointment.
Neither Ricciardo nor Nico Hulkenberg reached Q3, and Ricciardo’s afternoon was effectively ended within 100 metres of the start line, when he moved slightly onto the grass and had the incredibly misfortune to hit a gutter, tearing off the entire front wing in the process (although Ricciardo did an excellent job getting the car stopped for the first corner without ploughing into the rest of the pack). He would ultimately be withdrawn by the team as a precaution, Ricciardo’s second retirement in the last three years on home ground.
That left Hulkenberg as the lone Renault frontrunner for the rest of the day, and with most of the Aussie crowd decked out in the team’s black and gold the German did at least salvage seventh place. Hulkenberg has now finished in that position in four of the last five Australian GPs, showing how difficult it is to regularly break into the top six right now.
Kimi Raikkonen broke an unofficial F1 record this weekend, with the Finn returning to race for a team more than 17 years after leaving them. That team used to be known as Sauber, and while Sauber are still in charge of operations the car is now called an Alfa Romeo.
Raikkonen finished sixth for Sauber on his debut back in the 2001 race, and although he couldn’t do better than eighth this season, it still gave Alfa Romeo their first points finish in F1 since Riccardo Patrese finished 6th at the 1984 European GP at the Nurburgring.
Alfa are officially a returning constructor in 2019, and another team with an ambiguous history this season are Racing Point, for whom Melbourne marked their debut (according to most statistical definitions) or their tenth Grand Prix (if you ask the team).
Regardless, Lance Stroll made sure they scored on Sunday, in a terrific comeback drive after he was eliminated in Q1 for the fifth consecutive race (albeit only 1.000s slower than the fastest time of the session!), and after a 2018 season in which the Canadian only scored twice for Williams.
The points were rounded out on Sunday by a driver enjoying an unexpected second chance in F1, as Daniil Kvyat maintained his run of always scoring points in Melbourne when racing for Toro Rosso.
Making that point doubly sweet was the knowledge that it came at the expense of new Red Bull driver Pierre Gasly, who crossed the line just 0.335s behind him. Gasly’s weekend was seriously compromised after being eliminated in Q1, something that had only happened to a Red Bull driver once in all of 2018 (when Verstappen missed qualifying altogether in Monaco). The Frenchman’s season is yet to truly start.
Sergio Perez had a similarly disappointing race, having reached Q3 in Australia for the first time on his ninth visit to Melbourne. His 13th place finish tied his worst-ever result at Albert Park. Carlos Sainz was another non-plussed driver by the close of play, being knocked out in Q1 and failing to score for the first time in an Australian GP on his McLaren debut.
Had the car for points, but I didn’t get ‘em. First race out of the way though and got to say thanks to everyone at the track or back home on the sofa who gave me a nod this weekend. Special few days that I’ll not forget #AusGP pic.twitter.com/dXzRCb68E4— Lando Norris (@LandoNorris) March 17, 2019
Sainz’s teammate Lando Norris had starred in qualifying, putting McLaren into Q3 despite it only happening twice throughout all of Fernando Alonso’s final (?) season in 2018. It meant Norris started one place ahead of Raikkonen, a man over 20 years his senior!
One team that made an impact this weekend for all the wrong reasons was Williams, for whom Melbourne 2019 may have represented a nadir in team history. After being late on-track during testing, the team proved so dismally slow that the gap between them and the rest of the field in Q1 (1.276s) was larger than the gap that covered all of the other cars (1.067s).
George Russell and Robert Kubica did at least give Williams a double finish, albeit two and three laps behind respectively. It’s a long road back at Grove, and a far cry from when Jacques Villeneuve was 2.1s quicker than any non-Williams in Melbourne qualifying in 1997.
Their lofty perch of yesteryear is now occupied by Mercedes AMG, who leave Melbourne safe in the knowledge that they achieved something that moved them significantly closer to the 2019 title right out of the gate.
Sunday was the eighth time that a team has finished 1-2 at Albert Park since it first held the Australian GP in 1996. On all seven previous occasions, that team went on to claim both titles at the end of the season, and it was always the winning driver that became the world champion.
Right now, it’s advantage Valtteri Bottas.
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