Lewis Hamilton started the new Formula 1 season as the favourite to win a fifth world title and he remains so despite losing the first race to Sebastian Vettel – but the Australian Grand Prix suggested Hamilton might not have as easy a time as some had feared.
The Mercedes driver would have won the race had his team not miscalculated the gap he needed to ensure he kept the lead if there was to be a virtual safety car period.
That is exactly what happened. Ferrari had delayed Vettel’s stop in the hope of catching a VSC or safety car. Mercedes thought Hamilton had enough time in hand, but then saw Vettel emerging from the pits in front.
The numbers in the Mercedes computers were wrong – and they left Australia on Sunday still not sure why.
Had they been right, Hamilton would have taken a victory that would have looked comfortable. But exactly how easy it actually would have been for him in reality is another matter.
Hamilton said after the race it was too early to have a clear picture of the relative competitiveness of the cars.
“I never know how it is going to pan out,” he said. “You don’t get a good understanding until after four races.” The point being that Formula 1 cars do not behave the same on all types of tracks, and the gaps will ebb and flow.
Hamilton said he could have done a number of things to prevent what happened had he only known the problem waiting to trip Mercedes up. Team boss Toto Wolff added they would have asked him to build a bigger gap in the first stint. As he only needed another second or so, it’s hard to imagine he would not have been able to do it.
Hamilton definitely had a pace advantage over the Ferraris behind him, but it was nowhere near as big as it looked in qualifying, when he took pole with a stupendous lap that put him 0.7 seconds clear of the field.
The Ferrari behind Hamilton in that first stint was Kimi Raikkonen, driving a very strong first race weekend of the season.
Vettel admitted he had got “lucky” with the timing of the VSC and added: “We are not there yet where we want to be.”
That was a reference to the events of the previous day.
“Qualifying is extremely important,” Vettel said. “We had a good session but the gap was too big. That’s what I meant by we are not yet where we want to be.” Get pole and win the start, he said and “you can control the race – as Lewis did in the beginning and I did in the end”.
Hamilton took pole by such a big margin, there was a lot of talk in the paddock about Mercedes’ qualifying engine in “party mode” – a phrase Hamilton had used in the run-up to the race to refer to the power boost Mercedes have had for the final stages of qualifying since hybrid engines were introduced in 2014.