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First Blood To Vettel After A Thrilling F1 Opener In Australia
Graham Read, Formula 1 Correspondent
Ferrari celebrate on the Australian Grand Prix podium
This year’s 21 race Formula 1 season has begun at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, Australia and Ferrari’s quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel claimed the victory in the opening event after an incident packed race.

Prior to the race Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team had very much looked like the ones to beat as he and his new car showed amazing pace. The writing was already on the wall in Friday’s opening free practice session when Hamilton was over half a second faster than his Finnish team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who posted the next best time. Red Bull’s young Dutch star Max Verstappen was third quickest ahead of the Ferraris of Kimi Räikkönen and Vettel and the other Red Bull pedalled by Australian home favourite Daniel Ricciardo.

Hamilton maintained his advantage in Friday’s second practice period, edging out Verstappen, Bottas, Räikkönen and Vettel, with Romain Grosjean putting in a stellar performance to claim the sixth best time for his Haas team. Meanwhile Ricciardo was upset to pick up a three place grid penalty for not slowing down sufficiently during a red flag period.

Of course, Formula 1 would not be Formula 1 without the occasional off-track war of words and Friday in Melbourne was no different. The team principals’ press conference degenerated into an open argument between Red Bull’s Christian Horner, Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene and Mercedes’ Toto Wolff on two fronts.

he Albert Park circuit close to downtown Melbourne
Firstly Ferrari’s recent signing of Laurent Mekies, a senior official with the sport’s governing body the FIA, which it was claimed broke a “gentleman’s agreement” between the teams, and secondly the far wider issue of the technical and financial future of the sport from 2021 onwards.

At that time it is proposed to bring in new regulations to reduce costs and make both the playing field and the distribution of prize money fairer. Red Bull’s Horner stated that F1’s owners Liberty Media and the FIA should stand firm and introduce the new regulations once finalised without first trying to get every team to agree as that was never likely to happen.

Ferrari and Mercedes have already warned that they could walk away from F1 if the new regulations do not suit them, eroding their current advantage, and talk of a potential breakaway series has again raised its head. This may well be a game with high stakes and at least there is still plenty of time for such issues to be resolved. On race day a public spat on Twitter developed between former British F1 world champion and current Sky pundit Damon Hill and the Mercedes team as Hill criticised the stance being taken by Mercedes and Ferrari.

Moving away from the politicking and back onto the track, the final practice session took place on Saturday morning, when Vettel and Räikkönen topped the timesheets on a drying track before the all-important qualifying hour began.

Mercedes had mixed fortunes as Hamilton was still on top form, claiming pole position for the following day’s race with a stunningly fast record-breaking lap, whereas Bottas crashed heavily during the final part of qualifying.

Hamilton fends off the pursuing Ferraris early in the race
The Ferraris of Räikkönen and Vettel were the best of the rest, albeit over 0.6 seconds adrift, ahead of Verstappen and Ricciardo for Red Bull. Ricciardo’s three place grid penalty meant that the Haas duo of Kevin Magnussen and Grosjean would line up a highly impressive fifth and sixth on the grid, if over two seconds off pole position pace.

Come race day the large crowd buzzed with anticipation, enjoying the warm dry weather, and when the red lights went out at the start of the Grand Prix Hamilton led Räikkönen and Vettel into the first corner, with an opportunistic Magnussen snatching fourth place from Verstappen.

As the race progressed a frustrated Verstappen spun at Turn one whilst trying to pressure Magnussen and dropped down to eighth. Out front Lewis was in control though as Kimi and Sebastian followed in his wheeltracks and the Haas duo were performingly superbly in fourth and fifth positions.

With Hamilton’s team-mate Bottas having started from 15th on the grid and still well down the order the British driver was having to fend off the threat of the two Ferraris on his own.

As the pit stop phase began Räikkönen, Hamilton and Verstappen switched to soft tyres, leaving Vettel in the lead but still to make his own stop. On lap 23 there was a disaster for the Haas team as Magnussen was sent back onto the track after his pit stop with a loose left rear wheel and he was soon forced to park the car and retire from the race.

Romain Grosjean in his impressive Haas
Worse was to follow though for Haas when two laps later Grosjean made his stop and was sent back out with a loose left front wheel. Such a shame for F1’s newest team when they looked set for a great result and decent points haul, but at least their woes were self-inflicted. To make matters worse the team was subsequently fined 10,000 Euros for releasing their cars back onto the circuit in an unsafe condition.

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More drama was to follow as, with Grosjean’s stricken car stranded in a dangerous position, a Virtual Safety Car period was introduced by Race Control to neutralise the race. However, the timing worked well for teams who had yet to pit drivers, including Vettel for Ferrari and Fernando Alonso for McLaren, as they called them into the pits to change tyres.

As Vettel’s red Ferrari rejoined the circuit he was just ahead of Hamilton and Räikkönen and crucially in the lead. Race Control then felt it necessary to amend the Virtual Safety Car period into a full Safety Car situation to enable marshals to safely remove the stationary Haas car from the track.

Racing resumed on lap 31 and we were treated to a battle of the two multiple champions as Lewis did his best to close in on the leading Seb. Immediately to their rear Kimi and Danny Ric we’re having their own great scrap for third place, whilst Fernando, Max and Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg were having their own fight for fifth position.

With eleven laps remaining Hamilton decided to attack Vettel with all he had, but the Mercedes driver made a mistake and went off the track at Turn 9. With only three power units allowed for the whole season this year Hamilton then backed off, settling for second place and protecting his engine.

So, after a thrilling hour and a half of racing Vettel claimed the winner’s spoils with his 100th Formula 1 podium finish, as Hamilton and Räikkönen completed the top trio. Red Bull’s day ended with fourth and sixth places for Ricciardo and Verstappen and there were smiles in the McLaren garages as their duo of Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne finished fifth and ninth and thus both within the points paying top ten positions.

Spare a thought though for Renault’s poor Carlos Sainz who battled to tenth place despite having a faulty drinks pump which kept squirting water into his mouth and ended up making him feel very nauseous before the end of the race.

A rare shot of Daniel Ricciardo not smiling, but at least he finished fourth
A delighted Vettel conceded on the podium that he had been “a bit lucky” to win as Mercedes had always looked quick and that his Ferrari team still has work to do to catch their main rival, saying “If you look at the gaps all weekend we are still not a true match for Mercedes and we are not yet where we want to be as we want to be fastest”.

There was so much to enjoy about the opening Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend of 2018 and it is now time for everyone to move on to Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit in two weeks’ time, when Mercedes and Red Bull will be doing their best to depose Ferrari and claim a first victory of the new campaign.

2018 Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix

1 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1hr29m33.283s
2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +5.036s
3 Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari) +6.309s
4 Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) +7.069s
5 Fernando Alonso (McLaren) +27.886s
6 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +28.945s
7 Nico Hülkenberg (Renault) +32.671s
8 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +34.339s
9 Stoffel Vandoorne (McLaren) +34.921s
10 Carlos Sainz (Renault) +45.722s
11 Sergio Perez (Force India) +46.817s
12 Esteban Ocon (Force India) +1m0.278s
13 Charles Leclerc (Sauber) +1m15.759s
14 Lance Stroll (Williams) +1m18.288s
15 Brendon Hartley (Toro Rosso) Lapped
16 Romain Grosjean (Haas) Retired
17 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Retired
18 Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) Retired
19 Marcus Ericsson (Sauber) Retired
20 Sergey Sirotkin (Williams) Retired

2018 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship (after 1 of 21 Grand Prix)

1 Sebastian Vettel 25
2 Lewis Hamilton 18
3 Kimi Räikkönen 15

2018 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship (after 1 of 21 Grand Prix)

1 Ferrari 40
2 Mercedes 22
3 Red Bull 20

First Blood To Vettel After A Thrilling F1 Opener In Australia, 25th March 2018, 19:51 PM