MELBOURNE, Australia — The first race of the Formula One season is notorious for offering more questions than answers, and Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix was no exception. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Mercedes romp away to a one-two victory, but the absence of Ferrari from the podium was a real shock.
And so we are left with some obvious questions: Where did all of Ferrari’s preseason promise go? Will it come back on a different type of track? And, ultimately, will anyone be able to challenge Mercedes?
Ferrari entered the Australian Grand Prix as the preseason favourite but leaves Melbourne after a baffling loss of pace and an early decision to implement team orders on its drivers.
After telling Charles Leclerc to hold station behind Sebastian Vettel in Australia, Ferrari decided not to give its wonderkid a chance to go for the new championship point available for fastest lap. Here’s why it made both those calls.
There is a weight of evidence (outlined below) that suggests Ferrari will recover, but even if it doesn’t, the emergence of a more aggressive Valtteri Bottas this year has the potential to keep things interesting. Again, it’s too early to draw conclusions, but if Bottas can continue to drive on the level we saw in Australia, he will be a genuine threat to Lewis Hamilton’s title defence.
So let’s start with the race winner and how he managed to put a five-time world champion in the shade on Sunday.
The real Valtteri Bottas
The 2018 season was not kind to Valtteri Bottas. He entered it keen to build on the three victories from his first year with Mercedes but finished it a broken man. Bad luck played a part early in the season and team orders kicked him when he was down towards the end, but the crux of the issue was that he simply wasn’t fast enough.
Those who know the Finn insisted he was falling well short of his potential. They said his performance in junior categories had indicated that he was championship material — a match for Hamilton. But when it mattered, when he had a car capable of winning not just races but the championship, he came away without a single victory. For everyone else it was easy to write him off. A nice guy, no doubt about it, but one destined to finish last as long as he was in a head-to-head battle with Hamilton.
In the three-and-a-half-month break between the last race of 2018 and the first race of 2019, Bottas had no way of changing that perception — no means with which he could prove to the world that wasn’t the case. Naturally, the frustration built up. Some of it was released with a couple of almighty drinking sessions in Helsinki, but the majority was focused on starting the season in the right way in Melbourne.
Things got off to a solid start when he qualified just over a tenth off Hamilton on a track that has never suited him, but it wasn’t going to be enough to silence the critics. Again, when it mattered on that all important Q3 lap, he had still been be found wanting to the tune of 0.112s.
But then, at 4:10 on Saturday afternoon, he made a perfect start as Hamilton bogged down, moved ahead of his teammate in the first corner and spent the rest of the race showing him a clean pair of heels. It was one of those rare occasions in a driver’s career when he looks unbeatable against the 19 most talented drivers in the world.
“To whom it may concern, f— you!” Bottas said in a message to the person or persons that had kicked him most when he was down. He wouldn’t reveal exactly who the message was aimed at, but it nicely summed up the emotions in the cockpit of car 77 on Sunday evening.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was a part of Bottas’ original management team before the Finn moved from Williams to Mercedes in 2017 and has known the Finn for over a decade. Perhaps it’s not surprising to hear him talking up his own driver, but he believes we could be about to see the real potential of F1’s quiet man.
“In 2008, I got a call from a young boy who asked for a meeting,” Wolff said. “It was a snowy day in Vienna, and this young Finnish boy came in with a pullover, no jacket, and asked for advice. He went on to dominate the Formula Renault EuroCup, in a strong year that included Daniel Ricciardo, and he almost lapped the whole field. This is the Valtteri Bottas that I have seen yesterday and today. It was in him.
“I think that maybe these years at Williams, and then the shock draft into Mercedes was something that he needed to digest. He went off tired at the end of last season and the 2008 young man came back. I’m very happy and he deserves it.”
Such was Bottas’ dominance that he had enough of a gap over Hamilton to consider making another pit stop for fresh tyres — something he suggested in order to ensure he took the extra point on offer for fastest lap. The team talked him down from the risky idea and he used that as motivation to set the fastest lap by 0.5s from Hamilton, 0.7s from Max Verstappen in third and over 1.3s from the fastest Ferrari of Charles Leclerc — massive margins and proof of how much performance he and Mercedes had in hand.
It later emerged that Hamilton’s floor had been damaged as early as the fourth lap, worsening the problems he had teasing 43 laps out of a set of medium compound tyres. But that shouldn’t take away from Bottas’ victory.
Make no mistake, this was a product of a winter of focused aggression and hard work. This was the real Valtteri Bottas and, as his new race engineer Ricci Musconi said on team radio, the race victory was “payback” for 2018.
“Since I started to work with drivers 15 years ago, I try to comprehend what is going on in their brains and I can’t,” Wolff added after the race. “How he recovered from being written off as not up for the job in the second half of the season last year, to scoring one of the most dominant victories that we’ve seen in recent years shows us that human potential. It shows us how much it is a mind game.
“For me, it’s a bit of a fairy tale: don’t let others break you, believe in yourself and he has showed that the whole weekend, not one single session that he wasn’t good enough.”
There is a long way to go for Bottas and one win in Melbourne guarantees nothing for the coming season. But for a driver who is out of contract next year and under intense pressure to perform with Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings as a potential replacement, a strong start to the season was essential.
“In sport, and especially in this sport, the confidence you get from the results is a massive help,” he said on Sunday night. “It boosts you a lot, even through the difficult times that will come in every season. But you always remember the good ones and you get strength from knowing you can do something like today.
“I was obviously one year without a win, so this is absolutely the win I wanted and it’s going to be a big boost for this year. It was the perfect start of the year, very different from last year, so I just need to keep it up and build from what we’ve learned.”
What happened to Ferrari?
It’s easy to look at Sunday’s result and assume Ferrari spent all of pre-season showboating while Mercedes was sandbagging. But based on everything we know about the 2019 season, the pace in Melbourne is still more likely to be the anomaly rather than the reality. There’s no doubt Mercedes took a step forward between the last day of testing and the first day in Australia, but equally Ferrari took a step back as the team struggled to find a setup that gave the drivers confidence.
“Well if you want to be fair, we had way less grip,” Sebastian Vettel said when asked to compare the feeling of the car in Australia compared to testing. “I think in Barcelona we were very happy with the car right from day one. I think the balance was right, the car was responding to what I was asking it to do, and we had a lot of confidence.
“I think the whole weekend summing up, I didn’t get that confidence that I had in Barcelona, so I didn’t have the car underneath to play around. It wasn’t doing what I was asking. I think there were glimpses here and there that were really strong, and I think our performance in some corners looked really good. But the majority of corners it wasn’t, and that’s why we were slower than other people and lost out yesterday as well as today.”
Finding the right setup for a given circuit is an incredibly detailed equation. The better you understand your car, the easier that equation becomes and the whole idea of spending two weeks testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in February is to verify the how setup changes will impact car performance. Ferrari turned up to those two weeks with a car that was quick out the box and immediately suited to that track.
The perceived wisdom in the paddock is that the Circuit de Catalunya acts as a barometer for a quick car. A good lap time is reliant on aerodynamic performance pinning the car to the track in high-speed corners, so if you can generate enough downforce for a quick lap there, you are likely to be able to generate enough downforce for a quick lap anywhere.
But by testing at a single venue, you are also limiting the variables. The ambient temperature in Melbourne was 10 to 15 degrees higher than Barcelona two weeks ago, and that’s the kind of difference that can shift a set of tyres out of their operating window. If the compound of a tyre overheating, performance will quickly spiral downwards and it seems that Ferrari could not keep both front and rear tyres at the optimum temperature. Combined with a much bumpier surface than the Circuit de Catalunya and far more low and medium-speed corners, Albert Park is a very different challenge. Ferrari knew all that heading to Australia, but the extent to which the car struggled was still a big surprise.
“You’re right, it’s not what we were expecting,” team principal Mattia Binotto said on Sunday night. “I think winter testing was certainly different and since Friday FP1, we never found the right balance on the car, and we struggled with the tyres. We tried a different setup approach during the weekend, but I have to say that we never had the right balance: unhappy in qualifying yesterday, and then obviously after that you are in parc ferme and that is what you’ve got. I think the performance of today is simply reflecting what we had yesterday in qualifying as well.
“Generally speaking, we didn’t find the right balance through the weekend, and we were lacking grip. Did we understand that yet? Probably not. That’s something we need to go back and analyse all the data and try to assess really what happened.”
But Ferrari is an experienced team and it was somewhat surprising it didn’t find a better solution over the course of three practice sessions at Albert Park. Which raises the question: is there a more fundamental issue that has come to the surface now that the veneer of its pre-season performance has chipped away?
“Normally you’re always hoping to address and improve the situation through the weekend when you’ve got some issues of balance in the setup but it didn’t happen,” Binotto said. “Why? I think again we need to bring all the data back and try to analyse. We do not have an answer today.
“As I said before, we are still confident that is not the potential of our car. But I think it will be a good lesson learned. I think if we do identify what was the issue, we can be back even stronger.”
Worrying times for Ferrari then, but perhaps it can take some consolation from an almost identical gap single lap gap to Mercedes 12 months ago at the same venue. In stark contrast to Sunday’s result, Vettel actually went on to win the Australian Grand Prix last year — albeit with a bit of help from a Virtual Safety Car — but it was fair to say the car wasn’t working that well on that occasion too. So could it be that Albert Park is simply a circuit that doesn’t suit Ferrari?
“No,” Vettel said. “Last year was a year ago, so no big secrets anymore: last year we left winter testing with problems on the car. It wasn’t behaving the way we wanted it, the way it should. This year was the opposite, the car was behaving the way we expected and it felt very good. That’s why we came here last year and the balance wasn’t right, because we had to cover up.
“We had a very poor rear end last year and felt we had to trim the car towards understeer a lot. That didn’t feel great. We managed for the weekend last year, and the race pace was fine, but we weren’t there in qualifying. We got lucky in the race, but I think by Bahrain we had fixed all our issues from winter testing last year in the first race, and that’s why I think we all of a sudden unlocked a lot more pace for last year.
“This year, the problem that we have has nothing to do with what we have seen last year. Still all the car and all the numbers and so on make sense also this weekend, but clearly we’re missing something. Right now, we don’t have an answer, but we need to get back, have a good look, and I’m sure we’ll find something because we know that the car is better than what we’ve seen, not just today but the whole weekend.”
And yet, the performance of the SF90 in testing was still too good to ignore. It wasn’t simply a flurry of media speculation — Mercedes was also convinced the Ferrari would be the car to beat in Melbourne. Bahrain and China will hold more answers, but as things stand you’d be brave to write the Italian team off.
Mercedes’ star rising
Although it is only one race old, the story of Mercedes’ 2019 car, the W10, is a remarkable one. From the ugly duckling of the first week of testing, almost every aerodynamic surface bar the survival cell was reworked ahead of Melbourne, and the results in terms of lap time were absolutely stunning.
For several seasons, Mercedes has ploughed its own furrow in terms of aerodynamic design and, even without a degree in aeronautical engineering, it’s easy to spot some key differences between the cars from Brackley and the rest of the field. But when the regulations changed with the aim of improving racing this year, some of the key tools that F1 engineers use to manipulate airflow and create downforce were changed significantly.
Under last year’s regulations, Mercedes had a finely honed machine, and the simplification of the front wing, brake ducts and barge boards threatened to unpick the hard work of the last two years. By changing the front wing, you change the flow of air to every part of the car rearwards from that point and, like a ball of string, it has the potential to unravel if you lose your grip on it.
Ever since a major rule change in 2009, teams have been using the front wing to manage the aerodynamic wake generated by the front wheels and force it out sideways. Those two rotating lumps of rubber at the front of the car have the potential to create a nasty cocktail of turbulence that can play havoc with the downforce-generating elements of the car downstream.
The key this season is finding a way to claw back control of the flow structures that were so carefully controlled by the complexity of the old front wing, and different philosophies were clear to see from the first week of testing. Once again, Mercedes went its own way compared to Ferrari and Red Bull, but with no actual competition during testing there was no way of telling who had got it right and who had got it wrong.
What was clear, however, was that starting from scratch meant the development curve was going to be far steeper than in 2018. That much was demonstrated by a significant aerodynamic upgrade that arrived on the Mercedes in the second week of testing. The car in week one had only ever been intended as a launch package to gain an understanding of cooling levels and verify data from the team’s test benches back at the factory. Yet the performance of the relatively basic car had still raised concerns about the baseline of the W10 and, ultimately, how big the gap to Ferrari would be at the first race.
The team was slightly spooked, but it was too late in the day to change the aerodynamic philosophy and start again. It had to stick to its guns and believe in its concept, hope that the upgrades in week two could offer not just the performance step they promised but significantly more. The first three days of the second test showed steady progress before the performance ramped up massively on the final day of testing.
“When there is such a regulation change, it’s an opportunity but it’s also a massive risk and we saw various aero concepts hit the road in Barcelona [in week one] and we saw us not having the pace,” Wolff explained. “So we just gave it our all and tried to understand, tried not to be too distracted by other people’s lap times.
“All due credit to Loic Serra [performance director] and his team and [chief race engineer] Andy Shovlin’s team, that we continue to follow our programme during the tests and back to back testing, baseline, new component, baseline, set-up change, baseline, set-up change, and finally towards the end of the second week, things came together.
“The drivers like the car more, but honestly coming to Melbourne, we didn’t know whether the pace was good enough or not. It was a bit of a surprise the advantage that we had, a bit of a surprise the non-pace that Ferrari had and probably the truth is somewhere in the middle. They took a wrong junction on setup and we got things right.”
Not knowing the car would be quick in Melbourne should not be confused with lucking in to victory. Mercedes arrived with the most competitive package in Australia through hard work and believing in the aerodynamic philosophy its engineers picked out when the regulations were first published. That is the sign of a world-championship winning team and if Ferrari is to challenge Mercedes this year, it must do the same to turn its poor performance in Australia around.