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Business as usual for Hamilton on Friday and Saturday
Melbourne started well for Lewis Hamilton, who topped the timing charts in each of the practice sessions on Friday. The Brit finished half a second above his team-mate in the first session and 0.127s ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in the second. However, for the third practice session on Saturday morning the conditions were variable and the Ferrari drivers finished at the top having managed to get in a lap on slick tyres.
When it came down to qualifying it was business as usual for the Mercedes driver, who was at the top of the leader board once again. The Brit took a while to ‘bed in’ to the first qualifying session with the Ferrari duo having posted the fastest time, but Hamilton set a blistering lap and was the only man to go below 1 minute and 23 seconds. It was a similar story in the second session with Hamilton posting the fastest time, while Red Bull tried a different strategy running the supersoft tyres instead of the ultrasofts.
The final session saw Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas crash out early, ultimately resulting in a gearbox change, but it was the Brit who posted the fastest time after the first runs. Although, it was a lot closer than imagined; however, in the second run Hamilton pulled out a track record performance to qualify in pole position over 0.6 seconds ahead of Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel. Next on the grid was the Red Bull duo, followed by the Haas pair and finally both Renault cars.
Even though Hamilton managed to secure his fifth pole position in-a-row at Albert Park, he once again failed to convert that performance into a win. This season will be closer than ever and Hamilton’s conversion ratio will be crucial in determining how his title chances will fare.
Despite Hamilton putting his Mercedes on pole, and Ferrari having their drivers just behind him on the grid, it was still a surprise to see Vettel taking the chequered flag. Throughout the race, it seemed as though Mercedes had everything under control. They had pulled out a gap over Ferrari and Hamilton was controlling from the front, they reacted to Räikkönen’s pit-stop – which as the lead car was not unusual – but the safety car period opened a window of opportunity.
Romain Grosjean did not manage to get his Haas into a ‘safe’ part of the track and as such, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed where all the drivers have to stick to the same lap time. At this point in the race Vettel was in the lead with Hamilton and Räikkönen in second and third because they had already pitted. Vettel took the opportunity to pit and at the time the gap back to Hamilton was 12 seconds, although the pit-stop takes approximately 23 seconds, the German emerged in front of the Brit. Mercedes and Hamilton were stumped by what happened and even though, they began to attack Vettel and showed their race pace by closing the gap to the leader, they were unable to overtake and settled for the second place finish.
Similarly to last season, Ferrari showed that tactically they are on the ball. They took advantage of a situation in which you can gain – they weren’t the only ones Fernando Alonso also gained places – and ended up taking the win as a result. Although they haven’t shown the pure speed of Mercedes, they have continued to work on their strategy to maximise the smallest of opportunities.
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Since making their Formula One debut in 2016, Haas have impressed with their results on track. They have Ferrari as their engine provider and finished eighth in the Constructors’ championship in their debut season, they followed it up with another eighth in 2017; although, they scored 18 more points than previously.
After the pre-season testing, it was clear that Haas have made improvements on last year’s car. Kevin Magnussen was the fastest in the speed trap in Barcelona, while their lap time showed a 2.144 second improvement on the 2017 equivalent. Further to this, both Magnussen and Grosjean placed in the top ten at Barcelona – the Dane whilst running on the supersoft tyres. Even Mercedes boss Toto Wolff stated that Haas may be the team to surprise this season.
The Haas duo proved their worth by easily making it into the final qualifying session, where they ended up in sixth and seventh place (fifth and sixth due to other penalties). At the beginning of the race, Magnussen overtook Verstappen on the first corner and both cars were performing well. That was until the pit-stops.
Magnussen was the first to come in and the team were unhappy as he left the pits, the Dane then pulled up not long after due to a loose wheel. Next, Grosjean went in for his pit-stop and the same thing happened, a loose wheel and an unsafe release; however, Grosjean did not manage to get his car to safety and had to park it on the straight which triggered the virtual and real safety cars to be deployed.
Albert Park has always been a difficult track to overtake on and the 2018 Australian Grand Prix proved to be no different. Going into the first corner, there were a few changes of position but most of the switches came through either mistakes or pit-stops. Verstappen’s spin meant that Grosjean and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo benefitted, while it was clear that the virtual safety car meant that Vettel and Alonso gained over their competitors.
When Hamilton closed the gap and tried to overtake Vettel, he did not manage to get that close. The Brit had closed the gap very quickly, after saying on Team Radio that he was “going for it”, but once within one second of the Ferrari the Brit could not gain anymore ground. Similarly, Verstappen was unable to overtake Alonso and Ricciardo couldn’t get close to Räikkönen.
However, it is unclear whether it is easier or harder for the cars to overtake one another. An extra DRS zone was added for the 2018 edition of this race, but it didn’t seem to make any impact on the amount of overtakes. It remains to be seen which cars are able to overtake most easily when they are within one second of a competitor.
Renault have three teams on the grid which use their engines: Renault, Red Bull and McLaren. Sunday’s race had all six cars in the top 10 and hopefully, a real battle will emerge between Red Bull and McLaren. It has been touted that Red Bull could push and challenge the top two of Ferrari and Mercedes but if McLaren continue to make improvements, they could potentially challenge for podium places in certain Grand Prix.
From their 2017 to 2018 testing runs, they have seen a 3.564 second improvement in lap time and last year, they said that they had the best chassis on the grid which was being let down by their engine. However, if their reliability has improved and they can put together a solid weekend, Alonso’s skills should come to the fore – having out-performed his car for the last two years.
In a different battle, the constructors’ championship has seen Mercedes engine teams dominate the top five standings with Force India and Williams performing above average. However, this year it may be Renault that has three teams in the top five and the battle for position, and more money, will be of interest to many.
Hamilton will be looking for his first won of the season at the next Grand Prix weekend, which is in Bahrain on April 6th – 8th with live coverage on both Channel 4 and Sky Sports F1.
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