Sebastian Vettel took advantage of a mid-race safety car to leapfrog Lewis Hamilton and take victory in the 2018 Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Despite the tension and anticipation on the grid, it was a clean start to the season with all 20 drivers coming through the opening laps without drama. Hamilton held off the charging Kimi Raikkonen to lead while Vettel hounded his team-mate.
The biggest change inside the top ten was Kevin Magnussen taking P5 off Max Verstappen ahead of Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso. Valtteri Bottas lined up P15 and was still holding that position in the opening laps, hampered by dirty air.
The Williams driver’s teammate Sergey Sirotkin recorded the first retirement of the campaign as he lost brakes, parking at Turn 13. Marcus Ericsson retired moments later, pulling into the Sauber garage without power steering.
Verstappen, having earlier complained about hot tyres, spun on lap 10 and dropped from fifth to eighth. Despite being told to pick his moment to overtake, the Dutchman ran wide at Turn 1, lost the back end and spun.
Pierre Gasly added his name to the list of retirements when on lap 14 his Honda engine puffed smoke and lost drive.
Back at the front, Hamilton was told to up his pace as Mercedes looked to avoid losing out to Ferrari in the single pitstop window. Raikkonen blinked first out of the leading runners, pitting on lap 19 for soft tyres. Mercedes reacted and called in Hamilton a lap later for soft tyres putting Vettel into the lead.
Magnussen’s impressive afternoon came to a halt on lap 23 after issues resulting from his pitstop. The rear left wheel wasn’t properly attached and the Dane parked his car. Haas’ day went from bad to worse as Grosjean then also stopped after his pit stop. A visibly frustrated Frenchman took the time to wave to the crowd while Guenther Steiner put his head in his hands. Further inspection showed that both cars had been released despite mechanics protesting that the wheels weren’t all attached properly.
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The Virtual Safety Car was deployed for safety reasons resulting from the positioning of Grosjean’s car. This prompted Vettel to pit from the lead. Due to the nature of the pitlane speed limit during the VSC period, the German exited the pits with a clear lead over rival Hamilton, turning around a potential nine-second deficit into a race-winning position. Ricciardo’s Red Bull also benefitted, coming out P4, and with it a chance to challenge Raikkonen for the final podium position.
With the Virtual Safety Car being replaced with a full Safety Car period, the field closed. At the end of lap 31 racing resumed with Vettel pulling away from Hamilton and Raikkonen, while Ricciardo and Alonso, who also benefitted from the safety car disruption, held position ahead of the charging Verstappen and Nico Hulkenberg.
Hamilton stayed around a second behind Vettel for a lot of that time, then started a serious push with a dozen laps remaining, but locked up at the Turn 9 right-hander and skated over the grass.
That dropped him back to almost three seconds behind and though he briefly got back within DRS range with five laps to go he complained of overheating rears and slipped back again.
Racing to the chequered flag Vettel safely navigated backmarker traffic to race to the win, his second successive on Australian soil.
Hamilton was second while Raikkonen finished third, keeping Ricciardo off the podium despite the home hero putting in a late spate of fastest laps to close the gap.
Alonso was dogged in his defence of fifth, keeping Verstappen at bay. Valtteri Bottas’s unspectacular recovery from 15th was boosted by the safety car and he took eighth from another beneficiary, Stoffel Vandoorne, with a nice move at Turn 3 on the restart. He then closed on Hulkenberg but was unable to pass and ended up back under pressure from the second McLaren.
The final world championship point was claimed by Carlos Sainz, who, despite claiming to feel ill in the closing stages of the race, held off the Force India of Sergio Perez.
Charles Leclerc’ debut race resulted in a 13th place finish, ahead of the Williams of Lance Stroll and Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso.