Lewis Hamilton was beaten by Sebastian Vettel as Ferrari triumphed over Mercedes
For the seventh time in his career, Lewis Hamilton finished on the podium at Albert Park and while he smiled his way through interviews, there wasn’t much feeling behind his assertions that it was “some good points for the team”. He is not a man who has built a career on coming second.
It is easy to blame Max Verstappen’s appearance in front of Hamilton when he exited the pit lane for the Brit missing out on a win on the opening weekend.
The Dutch Red Bull driver was lapping in the 1:29s when the three-time world champion came up behind him, times that were too slow to match Sebastian Vettel, who had taken over the lead when Hamilton pulled in for a new set of tyres.
Part of his problem came from stopping at least a lap earlier than planned. Hamilton claims it was just one lap early but given that his complaints about a lack of grip started before the race had even started, it is safe to assume the tyres had gone a lot earlier than anyone had expected.
Hamilton was not even able to achieve the pace he appeared to have been asked to do – a 1:28.0 – and told the engineers as much. With the tyres gone and the pace not where they wanted it to be, they had little option but to pit.
Mercedes were also worried about the undercut, according to boss Toto Wolff. The idea that Vettel might pit early and put on a set of soft tyres more than capable of going 40 laps to the end of the race, setting some quick times while Hamilton stretched his first stint, was an intolerable one.
Lewis Hamilton led Sebastian Vettel in the early laps but could not pull away from the Ferrari
Instead, the roles were reversed and the Mercedes driver, in scenes familiar in the earlier part of his career, had to pit early because he had not looked after his tyres.
But even when he was pushing his tyres and trying to open up a lead, Vettel was able to compete.
The Silver Arrow did not drive off into the sunset while the Prancing Horse cantered gently within a second or two.
Lewis Hamilton claims to be relishing the chance to battle with Sebastian Vettel
What Ferrari had realised was that there was no point in putting pressure on Hamilton. It is so difficult to run close behind these new beasty cars, which punch massive holes in the air and leave huge amounts of turbulence to disrupt the grip of those behind, that the Maranello realised they were better off hanging back and operating within themselves.
Mercedes have not often finished second in recent years. Both they and Ferrari spent pre-season talking up each other’s chances in a bizarre “no, no, after you” polite-athon.
For Ferrari, usually bold and bombastic in their pre-season proclamations, it was a change of pace.
The team no longer even put out daily press releases.
They are scared of overreaching themselves after last year’s winless season. Instead, they seemed happier to play a quieter, more understated role.
They sand-bagged in the second qualifying session to keep the hype train quiet, Vettel shifting down before the finish line to ensure his lap time didn’t look too good.
After winning in Melbourne, no-one will believe them any more.
Mercedes certainly never did. Almost from day one of testing, the Brackley team have been worried by Ferrari’s pace.
Even adjusting for their own sand-bagged engine and potential fuel loads, Mercedes knew the Maranello had stepped it up, especially as the lead engineer on the 2017 concept, James Allison, now sits on their own pit wall.
But the most crucial element in Vettel’s win seemed to be the set-up. Pat Symonds, former technical boss at Williams, revealed on Sky’s coverage that he thought finding the right set-up in these hugely complex machines would be a massive challenge, and it was one Ferrari appeared to have solved very early on.
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) March 26, 2017
In response, between testing and Melbourne, Mercedes are understood to have put in a huge amount of graft on minute changes to the chassis in an effort to make sure Ferrari would not be quickest in Melbourne.
And on Friday it seemed to have worked. Hamilton was quickest by a decent margin and the Saturday morning papers were full of worries about another year of Mercedes domination.
That was until Vettel forgot to slow down in the third and final practice session and accidentally set the fastest lap. It was an omen.
Mercedes meanwhile clearly still hadn’t quite hooked it all up. Hamilton was agitated – he radioed three times about a lack of grip before and during the first stint of the race. He told his garage he couldn’t overtake Verstappen. There was almost a hint of panic in his voice. He thought he might have damaged his floor because he was getting so much understeer.
And by the time Wolff had smashed his hand down on the desk, the race was done. In Hamilton’s words, he didn’t get to his very best until the end of the race. By then it was too late and Vettel was in control.
The weeks between testing and Melbourne were very busy in Brackley. The next fortnight is likely to be even more so.
They are not a team used to losing. They will have no intention of making it a habit.
The next race weekend starts on April 7 in Shanghai ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix on April 9, which will start at 7am UK time.