F1: Surprises galore in first GP of the year

Mercedes Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas (L) leads a pack at the start of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 17, 2019. Image: Peter PARKS / AFP
Mercedes Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas (L) leads a pack at the start of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 17, 2019. Image: Peter PARKS / AFP
Peter Parks

Politics in F1 is part and parcel of the game. The sport is therefore never short of intrigue. But it is rare for F1 to dish up a surprise of the magnitude we experienced over the weekend in the opening Grand Prix of the 2019 season, Down Under in Melbourne, Australia.

Pre-season testing was all about Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel and Charl Leclerc dominated winter runs in Barcelona with headline times. It was only natural to expect the Prancing Horse to gallop to an easy win in Oz. 

Roll along race weekend and not only were they thrashed by Mercedes, but Verstappen’s Red Bull split the red cars in qualifying and beat them in the race as well.

That was a massive upturn for the books. But here is the crucial question: Does it mean that Ferrari fans will have to endure another frustrating F1 season?

Differences between Oz 2018 and 2019

Not necessarily. The qualifying gap between Hamilton and Vettel in last year’s Oz GP was very much the same as on Saturday, in the order of three-quarters of a second.

Ferrari then went on to clinch pole in the following three races, which just goes to show that Melbourne’s Albert Park is a unique track. There are differences, however, in how the Australian GP played out in 2018 and 2019. 

Last year, Vettel was third on the grid, like he was this year. With a bit of luck, though, he went on to win the 2018 race. This year, he got beaten by both Mercedes cars as well as Verstappen's Red Bull. For the Mercs to be strong in Melbourne is not a surprise.

Hamilton was busy winning last year’s race at a canter before the team made a disastrous calculation under Safety Car conditions to let Vettel through into the lead. And as passing is almost impossible on Albert Park’s street circuit lay-out, Hamilton was helpless, once the lead had been conceded, even though his Merc clearly had the legs on Vettel’s Ferrari.

Bottas was also not in play after a massive mistake in qualifying. Vettel therefore won, even though he had no chance of beating Hamilton in a straight fight. 

Not time for doom and gloom, yet

This all changed in the very next Grand Prix, in Bahrain. In fact, by the race following on that one, in China, the Ferraris had pulled a qualifying gap of half a second to the Mercs.

By the middle of the season, the red cars were flying like rockets. The fact that especially Vettel was so slow in Australia this year, does not therefore spell doom and gloom.

It is not for nothing that the Ferraris were the quickest cars in pre-season testing. In Melbourne, they were clearly hampered by something that was not in play in Barcelona.

Team principle Mattia Binotto blamed car balance. Ferrari just could not get the SF90 in the right window to extract the best from the tyres. Once they do, the Prancing Horse will be back in the picture.

Expect that to happen as soon as the next race at the end of the month, in Bahrain.

Surprise, surprise

Mercedes, on the other hand, could not have hoped for a better start to the year, even if Lewis Hamilton must be scratching his head at how it all turned out. Lots of wheelspin had done him in, off the line, as Bottas had a perfect launch and surged into the lead.

That much is easy to understand, easy to explain.But what happened next must have surprised Hamilton as much as it surprised the rest of us.

Bottas not only kept on pumping in one fastest lap after another to pull out an impregnable lead, but he did this on his initial set of tyres, well into the first stint.

Even on used rubber he was able to beat the time Vettel had posted as fastest lap just after the Ferrari driver made his switch to fresh rubber on lap 15.

No wonder Bottas then set his sights on the extra point for fastest lap of the race.

This extra point is a new rule, of course, and will only be allocated to a driver in the Top 10, to prevent tail enders from darting into the pits to slap on a brand new set of tyres, just to go fastest with.

Easier overtaking?

Other new regulations, or all those of a technical nature that have been introduced to enhance overtaking, had a mixed reception. Lance Stroll, who showed surprisingly well in his first outing for Racing Point (as the erstwhile Force India team is now called), reckons that the technical changes to facilitate overtaking have worked, to a degree.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner disagrees. Albert Park being a fast paced street circuit is probably not the best place to judge, but Bahrain and especially China will give a better indication of whether we can expect more overtaking action this year.At a guess, I would say yes, the indications are there.But don’t expect miracles, or the sort of slug fest you’ll see in lower formulae.

Red Bull

Australia 2019 has left us then, with a couple of intriguing questions. Ferrari’s form disappointed, but fans should not despair. Don’t bite on the cyanide capsule just yet. The SF90 might or might not beat Merc’s W10 in Bahrain, but it will be a hell of a lot closer. The bigger question is about Red Bull and the Honda engine in the back of the RB15.

Has the Japanese company found the silver bullet?

Mercedes boss man Toto Wolff seemed to have been impressed with the RB15’s straight line speed in Barcelona and Melbourne. Couple this to an Adrian Newey designed chassis, and the signs look good. Good enough to give Verstappen a shot at the world title this year? We will get a better idea in the two races coming up, but on the face of it, that might be a bridge too far. 

At the moment, Verstappen also seems to be able to handle his new team mate, Pierre Gasly, with ease, but even this is an unknown factor. In Oz, Gasly got stuck behind Robert Kubica’s injured Williams to drop out of Q1, so that we never had a chance to compare his outright pace with Verstappen’s, but telemetry traces confirm that the young Frenchman – only 23, compared to Verstappen’s 21 – has the pace if all goes well.

Intriguing midfield battle

The midfield battle will be another intriguing facet this year. In terms of pace, Haas started out with a bang in Oz, but they did so a year ago, as well. Behind them, McLaren’s Lando Norris sprang a surprise by reaching Q3, whilst the Renaults were disappointingly off the pace.The sandwich in between was filled with Räikkönen’s Alfa Romeo and Sergio Perez’s Racing Point, whilst Toro Rosso and Williams brought up the rear. 

The midfield is incredibly tight this year, so expect the pack to shuffle around from race to race, depending on circuit layout, asphalt particulars and weather conditions.

But what seems to be the only outright certainty at the moment, is that Williams is dead last.Not even Merc’s current standing as the top team in F1 seems to be as unshakable as the fact that Williams will bring up the rear, race after race.

So, predictions for Bahrain?Only a fool sticks his neck out in F1. Even Hamilton won’t sleep easy about Merc’s dominance in Oz, if not for the possibility of an immediate Ferrari insurrection, then for the fact that Bottas trounced him in Oz 2019, but – more ominously – also in Bahrain and China, in 2018.

Now, if Valtteri can repeat that, this year, with 26 points already in his back pocket, it will truly be game on.

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