Melbourne, AT…Sebastian Vettel took his and Ferrari’s first win since the Singapore Grand Prix of 2015 beating Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to Australian Grand Prix victory after a strategic slip by the champions allowed Vettel to inherit the lead midway through the race at Albert Park. Pole sitter Hamilton was in control of proceedings ahead of Vettel until his first pit stop on lap 17. After taking on soft tyres, the three-time champion emerged behind the slower Red Bull of Max Verstappen, as Vettel took the lead.
Hamilton could find no way past the Dutchman and when Vettel made his sole pit stop he emerge ahead of both, in the lead. The German then build a solid gap and controlled the pace until the end, finishing 9.9s ahead of Hamilton.
There was drama before the start as on his lap to grid home favourite Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull slowed dramatically. The Australian’s car had been repaired overnight following his crash in qualifying and his team had performed a gearbox change, which dropped him to 15th on the grid.
As he circled to take that spot he reported that the car had lost power and then stuck in sixth gear. It was recovered to the garage and his crew then began to work frantically to get the car repaired so that he could start from the pit lane.
They were afforded a little more time when there appeared to be confusion about grid slots following Ricciardo’s stoppage and the start had to be aborted.
After another formation lap the race finally got underway and Hamilton held his advantage, taking P1 through Turn One. He was followed by Vettel, Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen.
As the field flowed across the line at the end of the first lap, Ricciardo’s car was finally fired up and he joined the action – a lap down.
At the front, Hamilton attempted to stretch a small gap to Vettel but the Ferrari driver responded and over the course of the first 15 laps the deficit stayed hovered around 1.5s. Bottas held third, some six seconds behind the Finn, while Verstappen was fifth ahead of Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean, Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat.
Grosjean’s stint in the top 10 was coming to an end though. On lap 15 smoke began to billow from his Haas’ engine cover and he quickly steered towards the pitlane where he retired from the race.
Hamilton made his first stop on lap 17 and took on soft tyres. He emerged in P5 behind Verstappen. Thus, Vettel assumed the lead. Soon after, Hamilton was told that it was “race critical’” that he pass Verstappen but the Briton was quick to point out that there was no way past the Dutchman. As Hamilton’s pace dropped behind the slower Red Bull, Vettel powered away at the front and when the German made his first stop, for soft tyres, on lap 23 he emerged ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton, with Vettel quickly building a 6.0s advantage.
Later, Hamilton would say that his early stop was caused excessive tyre wear and that he has simply ‘run out of grip’.
Elsewhere, Ricciardo’s frustrating afternoon came to a close when he suddenly lost power on lap 29 and ground to a halt at Turn 3.
By lap 40, Vettel was looking comfortable in the lead, 7.8s ahead of Hamilton who was in turn 2.8s ahead of Bottas. Behind the podium positions Bottas was 13s ahead of Raikkonen and the Ferrari driver was 4.0s ahead of Verstappen.
Verstappen was making headway, though, and on lap 41 he turned a 4.0s deficit to Raikkonen into a 3.3 gap. A lap later he clawed another eight tenths of a second back. It looked like there might be a late-race duel on the cards but as his supersoft tyres faded it was as near as Verstappen got. By lap his pace began to drop and the gap to Raikkonen drifted to 2.2s.
Further back Fernando Alonso was heading for a P10 finish and McLaren’s first points of the season. However with just a handful of laps remaining the Spaniard was in trouble. First with Ocon and Hulkenberg swarming all over the back of his McLaren and then with a mechanical issue that was making his car pull to the right. Ocon swiftly pounced and took the final points position for Force India. Alonso steered to the pits to retire from the race.
At the front, Hamilton was offering no threat to Vettel and the order remained stable, with Bottas third ahead of Raikkonen and Verstappen now settled in fifth place.
Vettel took the flag for his and Ferrari’s first win since Singapore in 2015, followed by Hamilton and Bottas. Raikkonen took fourth ahead of Verstappen. Massa was sixth for Williams with Perez scoring solid points for Force India with an impressive seventh place. It was a good day too for Toro Rosso, with Carlos Sainz eighth ahead of team-mate Daniil Kvyat. The final points position was taken by Ocon.
Just three other drivers finished the race, with Nico Hulkenberg 11th for Renault and Italian Antonio Giovinazzi 12th for Sauber on his Formula One debut. Thirteenth place went to McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne. The weekend’s other rookie, Lance Stroll retired from the race at two-thirds distance.