March 26, 2018
F1 Update!: Australia 2018 The weather was sunny and comfy down in Melbourne as the F1 horde made its way to the starting grid for the first race of the year. Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes sat on the pole, but the two Ferraris hovered ominously over his shoulders, looming menacingly behind him. A little farther back, the ever-present Red Bulls stalked the leaders looking for the opportunity to charge. The American team, Haas, was a pleasant surprise right behind them and gunning for their first podium. So what happened during the race? Who did what? It's a new season, full of hope and wonderment... it's the 2018 Grand Prix of Australia, and THIS is your F1 Update! for it!
*EARLY DAYS: Once the lights went out, the start went much as you would expect... at least for the first three grid spots. Hamilton held the lead, just ahead of Raikkonen and Vettel, but Embryo Verstappen did... something... at the start and was quickly gobbled up by the Haas of K-Mag for fourth. Only an impending turn kept Lettuce Grosjean's Haas from relegating Dutchboy to fifth... but only for a few laps, as Verstappen pushed a bit too hard going into Turn 1 and went into a lovely pirouette. And away went Grosjean, promoted to fifth.
*STRATEGERY: And none of it mattered. Hamilton was pretty much untouchable out in front, despite the noticeably quick Ferraris behind it. That's no real surprise... the surprise was that it was Kimi Raikkonen and not Seb Vettel that was clearly the faster of the two Red Cars. That was quite uncommon in 2017, and there was nothing to indicate going into the new season that anything was going to change. Instead, the Finn had nearly a five second lead on his teammate when Ferrari did the sensible thing, strategy-wise. They tried to undercut Hamilton by bringing Raikkonen into the pits first, and hope that he could put in a hot lap or two to jump Hamilton when Mercedes brought him in. It didn't work; Hamilton pitted one lap later, and returned to the track in second place, ahead of Raikkonen. Both were now some 13 seconds behind Vettel, but as the pit delta was somewhere around 22 seconds or so, unless the German did some real fancy driving, he was going to end up back in third when he pitted. Ferrari left him out in the lead, doing the other half of the high-low strategy... in theory, they had Mercedes cornered. Problem is, they had Lewis Hamilton cornered, and he was not one to sit idly by as the walls close in around him. Sometimes you can have the best strategy ever, and your opponent still trounces you.
*AND A ONE AND A TWO: On Lap 23, K-Mag brought his Haas into the pits; he was still in 4th place, his teammate just a couple of seconds behind. Things were looking quite rosy for the American team... even if they didn't finish 4-5 because the Red Bulls got by them, 6-7 is nothing to sneeze at either. In came K-Mag, out went K-Mag... and shortly thereafter came a radio call: "The suspension is broken!" He brought his car to a stop on the side of the track with what turned out to be a cross-threaded and unengaged wheel nut. Though everything looked and more importantly felt fine to the man on the tire gun, the Haas essentially went back on track with one of its wheels totally loose. The quick camera shot of the Haas pit crew was more than a little sad. But at least they still had Lettuce Grosjean looking equally racy! A lap after K-Mag's day came to an end, the Frenchman was summoned into the pits for fresh rubber... and shortly thereafter pulled his car over to the side of the road with a loose wheel. Again with the cross-threaded wheel nut. If the first look at the Haas pit crew was sad, the next one was heartbreaking... stunned looks, and one mechanic clearly going "backstage", as it were, helmet still on so nobody could see his face, clearly distraught. Though not confirmed, it's easy to assume that that was the wheelgunner. However the nightmare occurred, it left us with two cars stranded just off the track on a circuit with very little space to spare. A Virtual Safety Car was announced.
*VIRTUAL LESSON TIME: To understand what happened next, one must understand exactly what occurs in Virtual Safety Car conditions. First, since there is no physical safety car, drivers stay separated out on track. If Car 1 is 100 yards ahead of Car 2, that gap will stay roughly the same throughout the VSC period. With a real safety car, the entire field gathers behind Berndt Maylander. Second, cars are required to drive to a certain time in each of the three sectors of a lap on track. We'll be making numbers up for this next bit, but while the numbers may be wrong, the idea is correct. Okay, the VSC is called, and Vettel immediately dives into the pits. Remember, the pit delta time was 22 seconds... that's 22 seconds to drive to your pit box, change tires, leave the pit box, drive to the end of the pit lane, and regain the track. At the time of the VSC, Vettel's lead was 13 seconds, more or less... substantially less than the pit delta. But under the VSC, everybody slows to the same speed, thus keeping the gaps on track the same. But! That 13 second lead that Vettel had was at full race pace, not the substantially slower VSC pace. If the VSC pace slows the cars down to half the speed they'd normally go, that means that it takes double the amount of time to go any distance. Now normally under the VSC, nobody cares about that since everybody is going the same speed. Here though, it made all the difference in the world. The 13 second gap between Vettel and Hamilton suddenly became a 26 second gap as it would take the trailing car twice as much time at half-speed to cover the distance between the cars.
*BETTER LUCKY THAN FASTER: When the Virtual Safety Car was announced, Vettel was 13 seconds ahead of Hamilton, and Ferrari immediately called him into the pits for his tire change. As he entered and exited the pit lane, he actually sped up as "pit in" and "pit out" are NOT considered to be "on track." He just had to get himself slowed down to pit lane limiter speed (on the way in) and VSC speed (on the way out) before he crossed the timing lines used to delineate the limits. That gave him an extra little bit of time to work with... not much, but some. Ferrari changed his tires quickly and with no trouble, and the time he spent in the pits was essentially that of the delta: 22 seconds. He returned to the track with a four-second lead over Hamilton, who had taken 26 seconds to cover what under normal racing conditions would have taken 13 seconds. Hamilton was soon heard on the radio asking what went wrong, did he make a mistake or what? Post-race, Mercedes seemed to be leaning towards a flaw in their strategy software... while details are sketchy, it seems that it wasn't calculating gap times correctly. The team had Hamilton driving a bit slower than he was capable of, to preserve his tires, save fuel, and to be easier on the engine, because their software was telling them that they had a big enough gap to be safe if a VSC occurred. And thus did Mercedes relinquish the lead to Ferrari.
*TO THE BITTER END: The race wasn't over, not by a long shot. There were nearly 30 laps left to go at this point, and Hamilton spent most of the remaining laps within DRS range of Vettel. There were two problems to be dealt with by the Merc driver. First, Albert Park Circuit is considered by some to be the most difficult track on the calendar to pass on, save for Monaco. It's relatively narrow, and there's no one turn that says "aha, here's a good place to pass." And second, his engine (well, his "power unit") was overheating, and the team was telling him to lift-and-coast into turns to keep things cooler. Since each car only gets three full power units this season, it's imperative to keep them going for as long as possible. It wasn't until just a handful of laps remained that the team let him off the leash... and by then, his tires were shot, and Vettel's were some seven laps fresher. The Ferrari would finish the race some five seconds ahead of Hamilton, who was a second ahead of a hard-pushing Raikkonen. Another second behind the Finn came the Red Bull of Smiley Ricciardo. Back in fifth, some 20 second behind the Aussie, came a sight unseen in quite a while: the McLaren of LeMans Alonso. Fifth was a better finishing position for the new McLaren/Renault pairing than the team had in three years with Honda.
*FINAL THOUGHTS: It's hard to judge just exactly what the relative pace is between Ferrari and Mercedes right now. The Merc was faster up front in clean air, but when it was in second it was a whole different story, very twitchy indeed. The Ferrari is clearly slower than the Merc, but just how much slower is still a mystery. Yet they still won the race. We here at F1U! are loathe to make predictions, particularly after just one race, but... we're leaning towards a relatively easy Mercedes championship. The lucky VSC isn't going to happen again, and neither Raikkonen nor Vettel was going to catch Hamilton on-track. We do reserve the right to change our minds.
Next race is in two weeks at Bahrain! See ya then!
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