Aussie Sunday

Today marked possibly the one day every year when a 5am wake-up call from my alarm does not bother me in the slightest. What it marks is the start of the frantic, unrelenting eight-month world tour that is the Formula One season, and within minutes I was out of bed and downstairs waiting for the 2018 Australian Grand Prix to begin. Since the end of the previous season in November, there had been plenty of speculation – as there often is – regarding how 2018 would unfold for all of the teams, but as the field lined up on the Melbourne grid the time for talk was over. Honda and the Halo would be forgotten for at least the next two hours, as only the race remained.

I can now safely say that it did not disappoint. Of course, you can never be¬†entirely¬†sure of what will happen during a season-opener, but as someone expecting another demonstration of Mercedes dominance from Lewis Hamilton I was pleasantly surprised to see Ferrari end the day with the upper hand, thanks to a win from Sebastian Vettel. Some may see his triumph as lucky or even controversial, since he plucked the lead from Hamilton in the pit exit during a Virtual Safety Car period triggered by maladies for effective Ferrari B-team Haas. It is not an outcome to be sniffed at, however, for if it is representative of what we can expect from the next 20 races this year, then I am very excited by the prospect of another close title battle between Ferrari and Mercedes. What’s more, it would be foolish for anyone to discount Red Bull, even if they didn’t show quite what they are capable of in Australia. Max Verstappen started the day stuck behind a fast-starting Kevin Magnussen, and ended it trying and failing to claim fifth from Fernando Alonso’s Renault-powered McLaren – his lack of pace can most likely be explained by damage his car picked up during an off-road excursion in the early laps. His team-mate Daniel Ricciardo started from eighth on the grid following a three-place penalty, but spurred on by his home crowd, the man from Perth charged to within spitting distance of the podium, coming home fourth after an unsuccessful assault on Kimi Raikkonen’s scarlet machine. His more encouraging performance must surely indicate that Red Bull can once again challenge their biggest rivals in 2018, although whether they can usurp Mercedes from their throne remains to be seen.

Further back, there were a number of other noteworthy performances in a very tight midfield. The most commendable of these came from the Haas duo of Magnussen and Romain Grosjean. After Ricciardo’s penalty had been applied on Saturday, they found themselves locking out the third row of the grid and took full advantage of this as the lights went out, keeping themselves solidly in the top six. From the outset, it looked as though the American team were virtually assured of a valuable haul of points for both men, but their dream start would turn to a nightmare on lap 23 when Magnussen ground to a halt after his pit stop with a loose wheel nut. In the garage, the mechanics and engineers were visibly frustrated, but total devastation would follow just two laps later when Grosjean also retired at Turn 2 with exactly the same issue. Every team member who appeared on camera thereafter seemed genuinely inconsolable, and I struggled to think of another time when a team had been so upset following a crushing defeat such as this. It was impossible not to feel sorry for Haas, but the new VF-18 possesses a great deal of pace and they will have another opportunity to shine again next time out in Bahrain – after they’ve ensured that their pit stops run more smoothly. McLaren enter 2018 with a new papaya orange colour scheme and, as aforementioned, a new engine partner in Renault. During the Australian Grand Prix the Woking team’s new alliance paid dividends, as it easily achieved a double points finish. Alonso’s fifth place equalled – in just one race – the best result he was able to notch up in three seasons with Honda engines. It was incredibly uplifting to see such a great champion almost rejuvenated on track, knowing he can now be confident in McLaren’s ability to be consistent scorers and fighters once again. Indeed, he made the somewhat bold post-race claim that the team could now forget about lingering in the midfield and focus their sights on Red Bull instead. Perhaps nobody will really know whether McLaren can catch the Austrian giants until after a few races have passed, but surely no fan can honestly say they wouldn’t be overjoyed to see this happen after all the misery the squad have experienced in recent years. Finally, I feel as though I must give a special mention to Carlos Sainz, who finished tenth whilst battling a spraying water bottle and resulting sickness for Renault, and to veteran Swiss minnows Sauber. Marcus Ericsson was an unfortunate early retirement thanks to a loss of power steering, but his rookie partner Charles Leclerc completed his debut race in a respectable thirteenth, ahead of Lance Stroll’s Williams and Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso. In doing so – on the lead lap, too – he kept up well with the rest of the field, giving me hope that yet another team can move up from the back of the grid and into the mix against their rivals.

Those who must have wished for much better things from their afternoons include the aforementioned Williams and Toro Rosso teams. In the case of the former, it was an uneventful and disappointing drive to fourteenth for Stroll, whilst the second debutant on the 2018 grid, Russia’s Sergey Sirotkin, pulled off after only three laps with a brake failure. Toro Rosso were hampered by a blown Honda engine for Pierre Gasly – after the Japanese powerplants had performed faultlessly in pre-season testing – and a last-place finish for Hartley, who was left a lap down after an early pit stop and unable to regain lost ground. It was also a surprisingly unremarkable race for Force India; deserted by their usual pace, they left Australia without a single point for the first time since 2009.

Thankfully, we are only one event into a long season, and those affected by the misfortune that is typical of motor racing have many more chances to strike back. As I have already suggested, there are plenty of unknowns and questions to be answered as this year’s Formula One narrative takes shape, and whatever they may bring, I can’t wait to be on hand to witness the twists, turns and everything in between. Let’s go racing!

Mason

 

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