8 Things we learned from the Australian GP
The first race of the season is always hotly anticipated, and this was no different. Some things had changed a lot, some not at all.
Williams are struggling
This year’s Williams looks like a good car, but they struggled a little in pre-season testing to find pace in the car, and that has resulted in a lowly fourteenth place finish for Lance Stroll 78 seconds off the lead, despite the mid-race safety car. Sirotkin was the first casualty in the race on lap 5 after brake failure caused, he said, by a plastic bag.
Stroll’s fastest lap of a 1:28.511 was quicker only than the Sauber and the Haas cars, which set their fastest times on full fuel tanks.
This is not where Williams would have wanted or expected to be.
Honda still haven’t improved
There was real optimism around Toro Rosso in Barcelona, the team completing a record number of laps. But there were rumours that they were using more power units than they perhaps should have been.
In the first race of the season, Brendon Hartley managed to get his Toro Rosso Honda to the end, but he was the only driver to be lapped. Pierre Gasly had an MGU-H failure early on and had to retire the car. So Honda have yet to demonstrate their claims of improved reliability and performance, because neither was on show in Melbourne.
Haas are the new Force India
It is fair to say that the Haas team surprised everyone at Barcelona, and they did so again in Melbourne. In the early stages of the race, the US team’s cars ran fourth and fifth, behind only Lewis Hamilton and the Ferraris, and they weren’t being left for dead either. Their car has decent genuine pace, as did Force India over the last couple of seasons. Haas have taken over as the new “best of the rest” team, and should be able to accumulate a good haul of points through the season... provided they sort out their pitstop procedure.
It is massively disappointing for a team to make a mistake like not securing a wheel properly. To do so twice in a row in the space of a few minutes shows that there is a gaping hole in their procedures. I’m sure they won’t make that mistake again though. The rest of the midfield are worried enough - petrified even - to ask for an official investigation into this 'magic' car.
Interestingly, Gary Anderson's analysis of lap times over the weekend compared to last season, reveal that the Haas is - relative to the fastest car - no faster than it was last year.
McLaren also have a decent car
Not, as Fernando Alonso claimed last year, the best chassis on the grid, but decent nonetheless. They finished 5th (Alonso) and 9th (Vandoorne) and had the 6th and 7th fastest lap times, Stoffel just 2/100ths faster and set on the same lap as Fernando's.
Fernando’s reaction to his fifth place finish over the team radio was “… now we can fight”. It appears that McLaren’s new engine partnership with Renault has lifted them into contention in the midfield battle that will likely last all season and also involve Haas, and Renault. But sadly they won't be swapping places with Red Bulls and Ferraris this season. They still have some way to go to be that good.
Virtual Safety Cars don’t neutralize the race
While it is still legal for cars to pit during a Safety Car – or VSC – period, it will always introduce a ‘joker’ into the race order. On this occasion, both Vettel and Alonso, neither of whom had stopped at that point, benefitted from the relatively slower time taken to complete a normal racing lap, so their time lost in the pitlane was proportionally less. A VSC will (mostly) neutralise the race for those who stay out on track, but there is an opportunity to change strategy if it comes at an opportune moment.
It put Fernando Alonso up into the top 6, where he was able to stay, thanks largely to the difficulty in overtaking on the Melbourne circuit. And Mercedes’ glitch aside, it put Vettel ahead of his teammate Raikkonen and into contention with Lewis Hamilton at the head of the field.
But in my view, he should never have been able to get that close. In the early stages of the race, Lewis Hamilton was clearly managing his pace to stay just a few seconds ahead of the Ferraris while keeping his tyre and engine wear in check. He went quicker whenever the red cars threatened to close in. But it could be argued that if he had driven to the car’s limits for the entirety of that first stint, he might have been some way further ahead when the VSC came into effect.
Vettel was lucky. He drove very well indeed, but he won through luck and a tiny error at Mercedes.
Max Verstappen is not yet the finished article
We all love Max Verstappen’s ability to pedal an F1 car extremely quickly, and he has to date made very few mistakes – a mark of the greats. But at this race, he seemed overly emotional at losing his fourth place to a Haas of all things, and in his hasty attempts to rectify that situation, on lap 6 he ran wide over the exit kerbs of the fast turn 12 and damaged the floor of the car. This upset the balance and he was ragged from then on, battling with an oversteery car. He spun in turn one and was luck not to do a Bottas and put it in the wall. Instead his 360 degree spin lost him a good few places and almost certainly cost him a podium finish.
This will hopefully be a lesson learned for the young Dutchman. Personally, I wish he didn’t have to learn to be more patient and safeguard his track position, or overtake in the pits… but that’s the state of F1 in 2018. Which bring me on to…
Overtaking is no easier this season
Even with a third Drag Reduction System zone for this year, it is arguably even harder to overtake than ever before here. The DRS does allow a following car to close the gap a little to the car in front; what it does not do is allow a following car to stay close in the corners.
We saw dramatic evidence of this during this opening race of the season – Max Verstappen trying in vain to get past the Haas of Magnussen, Daniel Ricciardo trying to get past Vettel, and towards the end, Hamilton also trying – and giving up – to get past the Ferrari man and ultimate race winner.
Surely there is a way of limiting the ‘dirty air’ effect that causes the processions we are so used to seeing now and are the cause of so-called ‘boring’ races. Current aerodynamic regulations / freedoms encourage a search for peak downforce in the interests of ultimate lap time, but inhibit the thing we want most – wheel-to-wheel racing. Come on Ross Brawn, give us something better for next year please.
The title is up for grabs - again
Last year, Mercedes had clearly the quicker car in qualifying, but Ferrari were closer, if not quicker, in race trim on some circuits. This year, little, it would appear, has changed. I suspect on raw pace the Mercedes is still about three-tenths quicker than the Ferrari, but whether they can maintain that pace over a race distance depends on tyre wear, and will be circuit-dependent.
On the other had the fastest lap of the race was set by Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, and at some stages of the race, it looked like they were a match for the Ferraris when on the same tyre. We could well see 6 different drivers winning races this year. And that’s very good news indeed.