The sun dipped out of sight as the circuit in the desert illuminated once more under the floodlights ready for the 999th Formula One race. Cars filtered onto the grid as the team engineers bustled through the throng of fans and celebrities gathered for what was poised to be an exciting race. Names such as five-time 500c Grand Prix motorcycle champion Mick Doohan, chef James Martin, David Beckham and film director Guy Ritchie were among the enormous amount of people watching the cars pushed into their respective grid places.
With the darkness came the continual wind which blustered down the start/finish straight, flags fluttering and grains of sand being deposited onto the track surface. Carlos Sainz alluded to the fact the wind at the back of the circuit was more like a ‘hurricane’. That may have been a bit of an overstatement, but it was very windy indeed.
What had been announced before the weekend was an extra DRS zone being added between turns three and four to increase overtaking.
Charles Leclerc stood to one side of the circuit talking with his engineer. The young Monegasque racing driver had been very impressive the entire weekend and stared at his Ferrari on pole position. The chatter in the paddock was how this could be the weekend where a future champion would stamp his authority, listen carefully to the whispers and Leclerc’s name was quietly yet confidently being tipped as the 2019 champion-elect.
Romain Grosjean would receive a three place grid penalty from qualifying.
Leclerc slowly guided his car round the last corner, the rest of the field backing up behind him, the Mercedes trying to hang back. Once Kubica had lined his car up at the back of the grid the lights came on one-by-one and at the lights out it was a Ferrari which sped down to turn one in the lead, but not the car of Leclerc.
Sebastian Vettel got ahead of his young team mate and scythed the car into the first corner. There was immediate drama as Lance Stroll nudged Romain Grosjean’s rear wheel which caused a spin, tyre smoke billowing up as the rest of the field filed away. Bottas moved up to second as Leclerc moved backwards, struggling for grip. Lando Norris ran wide, kicking up dust from the side of the circuit.
Bottas locked up which allowed Leclerc to move through, back into second place, this also allowed Lewis Hamilton to look up the inside but Bottas closed the gap on his Mercedes team mate. Hamilton was not to be put off and squeezed up the inside to put Bottas down to third.
Both Lance Stroll and Romain Grosjean pitted with Stroll having his front wing changed.
Vettel was surging ahead and now had just over a two second lead on his team mate. The following lap it would be Leclerc on a charge as he set the fastest lap of 1:36.383. Max Verstappen made a mistake which meant the McLaren of Sainz was stuck right behind him with DRS, but the young Dutchman was able to hold off the challenge.
By lap four it was Leclerc again clocking up a fastest lap time as he chased down his team mate. The midfield battles were gaining more momentum as Sainz continued to challenge Verstappen with Ricciardo battling Raikkonen. Sainz challenged Verstappen and straight away there was contact causing damage to the McLaren. Sparks began to fly up into the air as an angry Sainz went onto the radio to vent his frustrations, but ultimately his McLaren began to move back through the field.
Leclerc, now on lap five, was right up behind Vettel and pressuring him for the lead. He was straight on the radio to his Ferrari pit wall, “I’m quicker guys,” said Leclerc. Lewis Hamilton sat in third, 3.5 seconds behind Leclerc.
The next lap would see Leclerc pass Vettel into turn one, but he ran wide which allowed Vettel to come back. The two Ferrari’s nearly touched but Leclerc managed to hold the place. Shades of Hamilton vs Rosberg came flooding back and it was definitely a twitchy moment for the Ferrari team as they gazed nervously at their monitors hoping both red cars would make it safely through the prancing horse duel.
Meanwhile, down the order, Albon in the Toro Rosso was making a nuisance of himself behind Pierre Gasly and Kevin Magnussen was surprisingly losing places through the field as one-by-one cars glided by him as though he was stationary. Leclerc was now opening up a 1.3 second lead over Vettel and after pitting to have his damaged McLaren fixed, Carlos Sainz pumped in a fastest lap time of 1:35.84.
A slight comedic moment on the radio as the Alfa Romeo pit wall asked Kimi Raikkonen, “How’s the front wing?” – The sharp response from the Finn was, “I don’t know, you have to tell me.” Legendary Kimi.
Norris was now also adding to the misery of Magnussen as he passed him and if the Dane looked in the mirror of his Haas he would have seen Gasly swarming all over the back of his car.
Sergio Perez pitted which then prompted Raikkonen, Gasly and Albon in. Lewis Hamilton, still sitting in third, was on the radio telling his team that his car was over-steering. Norris and Magnussen also decided to pit on lap eleven to cover the other stops with Albon coming back out on track ahead of Grosjean in 16th. The news from the stewards was there would be no further action in relation to the Sainz and Verstappen incident.
Nico Hulkenberg was having an electrifying race, moving from 17th on the grid to 7th by lap twelve. Max Verstappen pitted whilst Kvyat was tagged by Giovinazzi at turn eleven, causing him to spin off circuit. The resulting investigation by the stewards would see Kvyat receive a five second time penalty for his troubles.
With Verstappen pitting Hulkenberg was called in on the next lap. Lewis Hamilton had now caught Vettel and was just half a second behind him. Verstappen came back out on track just ahead of Bottas.
Lewis Hamilton would be boxed on lap fourteen just as Max Verstappen set a fastest lap of 1:35.387. Bottas was not deterred by this charge. He stayed with the Red Bull and looked up the inside but Verstappen managed to stay ahead but not for too much longer as Bottas, with the bit between his teeth, managed to take the Red Bull. Now it was time to Vettel to come into the pits just as Nico Hulkenberg set a fastest lap of 135.215, but this would not last too long as Charles Leclerc knocked over a second and a half off that time to take the fastest lap spot back. Eleven seconds now separated the top six drivers.
Kevin Magnussen, who was having a torrid afternoon, was informed by his pit wall “Let’s make one stop work,” which clearly indicated the strategy of the Haas team for the Dane. Lewis Hamilton ran wide at the last turn, coming to the end of lap nineteen, he moved onto the dust but managed to keep the Mercedes pinned to keep himself ahead of Vettel, but only just.
Nico Hulkenberg had been cutting down the gap to Kimi Raikkonen and on lap twenty-one he made his move into turn one, forcing his Renault inside and on the exit he ran the Finn wide, the Alfa Romeo twitching as Raikkonen tried to get a grip on his exit.
Lewis Hamilton was back on the radio on the next lap, “I’m having big trouble, rears are nearly done.” This was evident as Vettel swarmed all over the back of the Mercedes causing Hamilton to fiercely defend his position. The Ferrari definitely had more grip as Hamilton struggled out the corners. The Mercedes ran wide in turn one, which cost Hamilton dearly going into two and three which was enough for Vettel to go by. On the following lap, number twenty-four, it was Vettel’s turn to lock up into turn one, though Hamilton was unable to capitalise as his car lacked the grip to make the important move.
Daniel Ricciardo was the only car on track by lap twenty-five not to stop, but with his times dramatically dwindling the Renault team decided to bring him in. Out on track Lando Norris was continuing to impress so far this season, he moved up on Kimi Raikkonen to take seventh place and although Raikkonen fought back he was unable to keep with Norris. At the front Leclerc, driving a very commanding race, was now eight seconds ahead of Vettel.
With a new set of tyres on, Daniel Ricciardo was now putting pressure on Kevin Magnussen and managed to leap ahead of the Haas on lap thirty. There was a nervy moment for Red Bull as Lance Stroll decided to un-lap himself and overtook Max Verstappen.
Verstappen had pit on lap thirty-three and with fresh tyres on he was able to move back up the order by taking Kimi Raikkonen, the Alfa Romeo twitching and sliding all over the track. It was time for Raikkonen to pit, which the team did.
Lewis Hamilton pitted on lap thirty-five which then prompted Ferrari to cover this stop the following lap as they brought Vettel in.
On lap thirty-seven Charles Leclerc is on the radio to his crew telling them that he is struggling just as Hamilton, with a new set of tyres on, started to find pace. Ferrari decided to pit Leclerc. Hamilton had made impressive strides and was now threatening Vettel. At turn four he went outside, wheel-to-wheel with the Ferrari but on the exit Vettel was able to switch and take the place back. Hamilton and Vettel were able to duel once more as the Mercedes went round the outside at turn four. Vettel accelerated and suddenly his Ferrari spun across the track damaging his tyres. He is straight on the radio telling his team he had to box, his front tyre had gone. As he limped back to the pits the vibrations on his car caused his front wing to under the car and shatter shards of carbon fibre across the circuit, some of it into the path of George Russell. The Ferrari bounced over the shattered front wing.
With a new front wing and tyres fitted Vettel began to make his way through the field from ninth place. Down in the midfield Lando Norris and Kimi Raikkonen both take advantage of a struggling Daniel Ricciardo.
Suddenly, with eleven laps remaining, Charles Leclerc is on the radio. “There’s something strange with the engine!” His Ferrari was losing top speed. On the next lap Hamilton had closed the gap down to Leclerc to six seconds. Leclerc was back on the radio. “What’s happening?” His team replied they did not know. Lewis Hamilton was now 1.7 seconds faster in the first sector to Leclerc when the Ferrari team came back on the radio. “We have no H recovery.” What that basically meant was that Leclerc’s car was not harvesting power and filling the battery up. He was losing ground to Hamilton and fast.
By lap forty-eight, Hamilton was at the back of Leclerc but there was nothing the Ferrari driver could do. He had no extra power and could only watch as the Mercedes breezed by.
Two laps later Ferrari were on the radio telling Leclerc that the gap to Bottas should be fine, but the Mercedes driver had just taken 5 seconds off Leclerc and it looked inevitable that he would catch him. Mercedes were also confident in this fact and were on the radio to Bottas asking him to be patient. “No need to take risks.” He is then told that he will take Leclerc, on current timings, with a lap to spare.
Mercedes were to have their own little worry on the next lap when Hamilton is on the radio. “Downshifts are very clunky.”
The gap from Leclerc to Bottas was now 3.8 seconds with four laps remaining, and a further 7.3 second gap from Bottas to Verstappen. It looked as though the impressive Leclerc would not even finish on the podium. Verstappen could smell a podium. “This pace, we’ll catch him?” Asked the Dutchman. “Yes,” was the reply from the pit wall.
Bottas moved up into second on lap fifty-four and the gap from Leclerc to Verstappen was now 5.4 seconds. It looked very likely that Verstappen would take the final podium position. A tragic and sad end to what had been a fantastic weekend for Leclerc.
A podium reprieve was just around the corner for Leclerc when, not one but both Renault’s went off at turn one. Ricciardo was on the radio saying everything stopped on his car and he had no power, whereas Hulkenberg approached the corner with a puff of smoke appearing from the back of the car with what was a suspected blown engine. The reprieve for Leclerc came in the form of a safety car which meant that Verstappen would not be able to pass him.
“Will it finish under the safety car?” Leclerc asked. The answer would be yes.
It was a certain victory for Leclerc, be it not for the loss of power, which then posed the thought as to whether this was the reason for the Ferrari performance in Australia, possibly protecting an issue.
Heart-breaking for Leclerc.
But another Mercedes 1-2, even though they would have to thank their lucky stars that it wasn’t a Ferrari 1-2.
The next race in China will the 1000th Grand Prix and promises to be another electrifying race.
Words By Neil Simmons – Xlerate
1st – Lewis Hamilton
2nd – Valtteri Bottas
3rd – Charles Leclerc
4th – Max Verstappen
5th – Sebastian Vettel
6th – Lando Norris
7th – Kimi Raikkonen
8th – Pierre Gasly
9th – Alexander Albon
10th – Sergio Perez
11th – Antonio Giovinazzi
12th – Daniil Kvyat
13th – Kevin Magnussen
14th – Lance Stroll
15th – George Russell
16th – Robert Kubica
17th – Nico Hulkenberg
18th – Daniel Ricciardo
19th – Carlos Sainz
NC – Romain Grosjean
1st – Valtteri Bottas – 44pts
2nd – Lewis Hamilton – 43pts
3rd – Max Verstappen – 27pts
4th – Charles Leclerc – 26pts
5th – Sebastian Vettel – 22pts
6th – Kimi Raikkonen – 10pts
7th – Lando Norris – 8pts
8th – Kevin Magnussen – 8pts
9th – Nico Hulkenberg – 6pts
10th – Pierre Gasly – 4pts
11th – Lance Stroll – 2pts
12th – Alexander Albon – 2pts
13th – Daniil Kvyat – 1pt
14th–Sergio Perez – 1pt
WHAT THEY SAID……
We know where we are at the moment, but it was a fun race for me. I had some nice little battles with Robert so I’m thankful to the team for letting us race as it was enjoyable. It was quite a good race from a personal perspective but obviously not too enjoyable finishing in P15. We know where we are fighting for, but we brought the car home and learned some more things.
It was a very tough race, but we expected that. The car balance issues that I am having put me in a difficult position today. Additionally, the wind didn’t help so it made it more complicated, but I had a few enjoyable laps when the tyres were fresh. However, I knew what was coming so I had to take care of the rubber and ensure that I kept the FW42 on track rather than concentrating on performance.
“That was a busy race – I felt like I was always fighting with someone at some point, there was always something to do! I didn’t have the best start as I was a bit shy into the first corner, but after that, I put my head down and got on with it. We had a good strategy and decent pace on the prime tyre. In the end, we got a bit lucky with the retirements, but I’ll take it! It was so tricky with the wind out there and it made the car unpredictable, but we were quite strong in the race, it’s just a shame about the start. It was a challenge to overtake because when you get close to another car the tyres overheat and you get a bit stuck. However, I enjoyed myself out there and it was good to get that experience. I’m very happy to pick up my first points in Formula 1 and I hope we can carry this pace into China.”
“This weekend has been a bit scrappy, starting from yesterday where we should have qualified better. At the start of the race, I had too much wheel spin which put me on the back foot on the first lap. From then onwards, you have to fight harder to make up the lost positions and, without these couple of issues, I think it would have been a better race for us. Our pace was quite good today, it’s just a shame we had the spin after the contact with Giovinazzi. This weekend wasn’t the strongest, but we learned some lessons from it so hopefully we can put everything together for a better weekend in China.”
“It’s good to pick up my first point of the season. It was an unpredictable race and in that sense it’s a nice surprise. We got a bit lucky with both Renaults retiring, but at the same time the Safety Car didn’t help me because I was closing on Albon and I lost the opportunity to overtake him for ninth place. I made a really good start and gained a few positions, but I couldn’t defend my position for long. Then, we had an issue with the brakes getting too hot and I had to pit much earlier than planned to remove some debris blocking the brake ducts. Considering everything that happened in the race we can be pleased to pick up a point.”
“I haven’t seen the replay yet but I think the contact with Romain [Grosjean] was a first lap racing incident. Unfortunately we touched, there was damage, and I had to pit for a new nose. We were racing wheel-to-wheel and these things happen, but it was really costly because my race was pretty much over after that. We carried on racing and pushing, but we couldn’t recover after losing so much time. The wind had really picked up out there today, but everyone was in the same boat and after a few laps we got used to it. We finished the race and there is plenty to analyse, but we’ve got to see where we can improve before we get to China.”
“I’m very disappointed with how things turned out today. I made a great start and had a lot of pace in the initial laps which meant I was running with the top-five cars. I attempted a move on the Red Bull, tried around the outside but was hit. I got the worst of it with the puncture and ended up retiring the car for a different reason, so I’m obviously very disappointed. I was up for some good points but it didn’t end well. On the positive side, the car felt okay and Lando scored good points for the team, so congratulations. We’ll be back in China.”
“I’m really happy and pleased to have scored my first points but also for McLaren after all of the team’s hard work over the winter. I had a good start: a good launch, good pull-away but then some wheel-spin. I was blocked going into Turn One, then was on the outside of another car and we touched. I went off and through the gravel, losing quite a few places. The pace after that was really strong. I caught up pretty quickly. I struggled a bit in the DRS train that formed but as soon as someone lost DRS, I could get them. I maybe struggled a little in the final stint but managed to stay ahead of Kimi. From my side, P6 is a really good job!”
“I didn’t see anything at the start, I got hit from behind, then the car was too damaged to continue ultimately, but I’d lost so much time with the initial rear puncture heading to the pits. That’s always the risk when you start not where you want to start. We should have been starting eighth today, but it is what it is. I think we’ll have a good test on Tuesday to understand what happened today with the pace of the car. It’s obviously not performing as we want it to.”
“I don’t really know what happened. We were a little bit skeptical about our race pace after Friday, but honestly, I thought we would have corrected that with the changes we made. It’s a little unbelievable to be able to qualify sixth, best-of-the-rest, then be so off in the race like we were. We need to try and understand why we were so far off in the race, having been so good in qualifying. We have some homework to do.”