Under the harsh Melbourne sun, the 2017 Formula One season kicked off at the Albert Park street track.
Usually known for its high attrition rate and decent number of accidents, the spiritual home of the inaugural race of the season never fails to disappoint.
Unfortunately, disappointment came in threes for the Australian crowd. After his qualifying crash, Ricciardo was forced to change his gearbox, taking a 15 place grid penalty. Problem one.
His headaches were further compounded when, on his way to the grid, the gearbox electronics failed, forcing him to think about taking the tow truck carrying his car to start the race. Problem two.
As the anticipation reached fever pitch as the cars finished the warm-up lap, the start was aborted thanks to a placing issue for Hulkenburg. Another formation lap allowed Red Bull’s mechanics more time to try and fix Ricciardo’s unlucky RB13.
Finally, with the grid again set up and one less lap to run, the race got underway with a blinding start from Hamilton. The top five remained the same order coming out of turn one, though there was much jostling for position in the mid-pack.
Coming in to turn three, Magnussen in his Haas decided to sneak up the inside of Ericsson’s Sauber, putting them both in the gravel. Both rejoined the race, though the Dane had no nose and the Swede would later retire due to damage sustained.
Three laps in and Ricciardo was sent out at the back of the pack, receiving applause and admiration from the adoring crowd. Over the coming laps he was to slice his way through some of the backmarkers who were still laps ahead of him, helped to no end by his choice of the ultra soft compound tyres.
As Hamilton tried to stretch his lead, Vettel kept him honest, consistently staying within around two seconds of the Mercedes driver. Both of them were easily able to clear Bottas who was putting in a strong performance in his debut for the Silver Arrows.
On the 17th lap of the race, Hamilton came in for his one and only pitstop, coming out on the soft tyres behind Verstappen. While many assumed Vettel would stop soon to undermine the undercut, the Ferrari stayed out for a few more circulations of the circuit.
Verstappen soon got on the nerves of a charging Hamilton who was clearly being held up by the Dutch driver. Vettel came in for soft tyres on lap 22 and amazingly came out ahead of Verstappen but more crucially, Hamilton.
More laps went by and Vettel stretched his lead thanks to Hamilton still being unable to get past Verstappen. Once the Red Bull racer had pitted, the gap from the red car to the silver bullet was close to ten seconds.
The scrap for the lower positions became easier when Grosjean’s engine expired, sending smoke signals which would have distracted the planes in the earlier airshow. Palmer soon followed, his brakes jamming on when he didn’t want them to, thus becoming the first driver ever to complain the brakes were working too well.
The final twist of the knife which was already deep in to Ricciardo’s weekend came on lap 28 when the Tag Heuer engine gave up coming out of turn three. After an already disappointing weekend, the Australian only made it half way through the race. Problem three.
Out in front, lapped traffic made the gap between the leaders ebb and flow, though the one consistency was the sight of a German in a Ferrari leading. Bottas gave the Mercedes crew a scare when he closed to within two seconds of Hamilton with the Brit complaining of having power “coming and going”.
Shortly after half race distance, Williams’ rookie driver went for a Stroll in the park, exiting the road at turn 13 but rejoining the race. He later retired to save the car. Magnussen was the next to bow out in the race with his Haas shutting down between turns 12 and 13. Alonso became the last car to retire with suspension failure in the dying laps.
Try as he might, Hamilton couldn’t catch Vettel who had still kept the gap at around 10 seconds. The order stayed that way as they crossed the line, Vettel taking his and Ferrari’s first win since Singapore 2015 with Hamilton and Bottas taking up the remaining steps on the victory dais.
Raikkonen came home fourth after a lonely race, breaking away from a charging Verstappen in the final laps. Massa came home sixth in his return for retirement, the last car on the lead lap. Perez, Sainz, Kvyat and Ocon were the remaining top ten drivers, giving Force India and Toro Rosso double points finishes.
Heading to China, Ferrari leads the driver’s and manufacturer’s championship for the first time since 2012, also making them the first combination other than Mercedes and Hamilton/Rosberg to lead in the hybrid era. The real question is were Mercedes experiencing problems or are the Marenello mechanics a genuine title threat?
Image via Ignite Image