Sebastian Vettel took first blood in the 2018 Formula 1 season opener in Melbourne, but he needed some luck and a deft strategy call from his Ferrari team to defeat Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton had started from pole after a dominant performance in qualifying, and looked to have the race under control until around midway through the 58-lap journey.
But when the Virtual Safety Car was deployed due to Roman Grosjean’s Haas being stranded out on the track with a loose wheel, Ferrari brought Vettel in for his pitstop – and in doing so was able to leap frog both his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Vettel used the pitlane, which is not subject to Virtual Safety Car rules, to gain time and re-enter the track in the lead.
From there, on a circuit where overtaking is difficult, Vettel had the pace to see off any potential challenge from a fuming Hamilton.
Afterwards Mercedes blamed a software glitch that miscalculated the speed which Hamilton needed to maintain during the Virtual Safety Car period.
But Ferrari had only been in the position of being able to effectively attack Mercedes with alternative tyre strategies because of the absence near the front of the field of the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. The Finn had crashed heavily in qualifying and was forced to start well down the order. Despite the Mercedes enjoying a clear pace advantage over the midfield runners, Bottas could advance no further than eighth place.
For Red Bull Racing, what had looked like being a difficult afternoon, with Max Verstappen suffering with an ill-handling car and Daniel Ricciardo being forced to start three places further back after an on-track infringement during a practice session, took a turn for the better with the exit of the two Haas drivers.
Haas was highly impressive in Melbourne, and seemed set for its best result ever in F1 as Kevin Magnussen and Grosjean jumped the Verstappen and Ricciardo Red Bulls respectively at the start. But, in a heartbreaking team calamity, both Haas cars suffered incorrectly tightened wheels at their pitstops, putting both out of the race.
Not only did the Hass exit promote Ricciardo and Verstappen up the order, but the subsequent Safety Car also brought Ricciardo onto the tail of the leading trio. Try as he might, though, the Australian could not find a way to dislodge Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari from the final podium position.
Likewise Verstappen was unable to relieve Fernando Alonso of fifth place in the debut race for the new McLaren-Renault partnership.