Plenty of talking points emerged from the Australian Grand Prix, where Valtteri Bottas recorded an overdue victory and Ferrari’s preseason prowess disappeared in Melbourne. Our F1 editor Laurence Edmondson, associate editor Nate Saunders and columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker offer their opinions on race one.
Was Ferrari’s woeful Melbourne display a one-off or a sign of things to come in 2019?
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.
The first race of the Formula One season is notorious for offering up more questions than answers and Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix was no exception. We take a look at the main talking points from a surprising weekend.
Laurence Edmondson: Ferrari should be worried by the result, but I don’t believe for a second that we saw the full potential of the SF90. The car had problems in low and medium speed corners at Albert Park but still showed promise in the high-speed section at Turns 11 and 12. The poor corner exits hurt top speed in the speed traps, but there was no indication that the Ferrari engine is down on power. In theory, Bahrain should suit the car better but Maranello still needs to understand what went wrong in Melbourne to avoid a repeat.
Nate Saunders: A one-off. I just can’t get my head around a team looking so good in preseason to looking so off the pace in the opening race. Maybe it’s wishful thinking but I’m expecting the red cars to look a bit more true to preseason form in Bahrain.
Maurice Hamilton: Hopefully a one-off. Albert Park is not your typical race track and frequently throws up unusual results. Look at it the other way and note just how many ‘dream debuts’ there have been by drivers in Australia, only for them hardly to be heard of again.
Kate Walker: I’m going to go with one-off. Two-off? Not-long-off, anyway. In his post-race comments, Sebastian Vettel said that Ferrari had left 2018 testing unconfident in their car. This year, they felt cock-a-hoop after Barcelona, and expected to be dominant. [Team boss Mattia] Binotto and Seb both looked shell-shocked on Sunday night, and the post-race media was delayed while the team dug deeper into their debrief. You can’t fake the confidence we saw from Ferrari in testing, and you can’t fake the confusion we saw on Sunday. Binotto will be be figuring out where Ferrari went wrong and trying to fix it, not terrifying the team into a season of fear-driven errors.
Laurence Edmondson: If he drives like he did on Sunday, then yes. But maintaining that level of performance across the next 20 races is going to be tricky and he still needs to find a couple of tenths in qualifying to make sure he is ahead of his teammate on the grid. What we saw in Australia was a vast improvement on the Bottas of last year, but we need proof he can reach that level on a regular basis to challenge for the title.
Nate Saunders: Let’s see. I hope he can and I’ve always felt he has real talent — the problem is the level required to beat Lewis Hamilton all year. Beating Hamilton off the line and completing a dominant performance at one race is one thing, but Bottas needs to show his post-race fighting spirit during the tough situations this year, not just after the good ones. If he can do that, game on.
Maurice Hamilton: One race doesn’t make a season but it’s a great start. If he can continue this steely attitude then, yes. It’s reminiscent of the way Rosberg arrived, kicked off his 2016 season and never looked back. An eight-point lead is a handy foundation.
Kate Walker: : No. Valtteri may have driven the best race of his career so far in Melbourne, and his achievement in Albert Park should be celebrated. But BeardyBottas is racing alongside one of the greatest talents of the current generation. Whatever improvements Valtteri made over the winter — and he’s clearly been working hard — Lewis’ 26s deficit made a lot more sense when we learned about the floor damage. Just look at Lewis’ conduct in the post-race presser — had he felt remotely threatened by Sunday’s result, we would have had grumpy Lewis and his black cloud of doom.
How long do you think it will be before Charles Leclerc isn’t willing to play second fiddle to Sebastian Vettel?
Laurence Edmondson: I think Leclerc knows his place in the team and, for this season at least, isn’t going to start throwing his toys out the pram. Yes, he was quicker than Vettel in the second half of the race, but that was largely down to a poor strategy decision for car No.5. Vettel was taking it relative easy under orders from the pit wall to protect his tyres, so letting them thrash it out had the potential to damage the overall team result. Let’s not forget, Leclerc was still nearly 0.5s off Vettel when it mattered in qualifying. Turn that gap around and he will start to have an argument, but with the way the entire Australia weekend panned out means he can’t be too upset about being told to hold station.
Nate Saunders: Leclerc can say all he wants, the young guys always tow the party line early on… then competitive instincts take over. This ended infamously badly at McLaren in 2007 and even in 2014 within two races Daniel Ricciardo asking Red Bull to move Vettel (who at that point had won four straight world championships) out of his way. If Leclerc keeps finding himself looking at the back of Vettel’s car he’s going to be asking himself why Ferrari is backing the wrong guy.
Maurice Hamilton: He’s not daft. For as long as he makes little mistakes, as we saw on Sunday, he’ll know this works both ways and will agree to what’s asked. That may change much later in the season if both drivers are in with a shout of the championship. But not before.
Kate Walker: : As long as it takes. Charles is the Ferrari Driver Academy graduate with a lot of Scuderia money behind his racing career, and while he’s the new signing this year he’s actually the more familiar face around Maranello. Because Seb is a multiple world champion, Charles doesn’t need to beat him in races to beat him psychologically — he just needs to keep being close enough that we keep asking this question. Seb is a delicate little flower mentally, and Charles can kill him with kindness. There’s no need to upset the team bosses by not toeing the line if Charles can mentally destroy his teammate by doing what he’s told with a smile.
Laurence Edmondson: On the face of it, yes. But I think the relationship between McLaren and Honda became so toxic in 2017 that Honda probably wouldn’t have made those gains they have in the last two years had the two stuck with it. It is proof, however, of how long it takes a new manufacturer to get up to speed under the current regulations, and that is something that still needs to be addressed for the health of the sport.
Nate Saunders: 100 percent, enough of this revisionism about it not being a bad decision to walk away. Instead of bending over backwards to please Fernando Alonso (who, let’s not forget, helped destroy what was supposed to be a 10-year partnership and then just went and quit anyway) the team should have seen the bigger picture. McLaren won’t win a title as a Renault customer. Red Bull might win one with Honda. Argument over.
Maurice Hamilton: On the basis that Honda seem to have eased ahead of Renault, that’s a ‘yes’. Easily said in hindsight, tho’. McLaren’s outlook was clouded at the time by false claims from one or two of the chancers in the technical department they got rid off too late in the day.
Kate Walker: Yes and no. Yes, because the engine has clearly come on leaps and bounds over the winter, and the Woking racers must be kicking themselves for ditching it when they did. No, because the relationship was completely untenable by the end. Fernando Alonso behaved appallingly in public, throwing Honda under the bus whenever he could, despite his alleged passion for samurai culture and the honour that surrounds it. But elsewhere in the team, those since departed were even worse, deliberately undermining their so-called partners at every opportunity..
Was Robert Kubica a victim of circumstance in Melbourne or should we expect the same performance level throughout his comeback year?
Laurence Edmondson: Clearly that car was nightmare to drive in Australia and the weekend certainly didn’t go Kubica’s way. The one thing I would say is that we can expect to see George Russell having the measure of Kubica over the majority of the season. That’s partly because of the challenge Kubica faces coming back to the sport after so many years away, but it is also a sign of just how good Russell is.
Nate Saunders: I loved the idea of Bobby K coming back but now I’ve seen it I’ve realised it’s going to be torturous all year because that Williams is a travesty. It’s like comparing a modern-day episode of The Simpsons to one of its old classics like the one about a genuine, bonafide, electrified, six-car monorail — the memory of how good Kubica was makes it difficult to process what he’s going to be in 2019.
Maurice Hamilton: What was always going to be a difficult comeback has been made much worse — if not impossible — by the uncompetitive state of the team. Judgement of Kubica’s performances will be skewed by his struggle at the back of the field with what appears to be a woeful car.
Kate Walker: In our pre-qualy grid prediction I gave Robert’s experience the benefit of the doubt and put him P19 ahead of George. As a result I was the only one in our group to get the back row wrong. I’d like to see Robert defy expectations, but even in a rubbish car he was still noticeably off the slow pace of the FW42 in two of three practice sessions. I think a successful post-accident return was always going to be an uphill battle, and in this car it’s going to be a Sisyphean effort.
After race one, who would your early pick for ‘best of the rest’ be in terms of the midfield fight?
Laurence Edmondson: It’s got to be Haas. The car looked like the pick of the midfield in testing and it proved it again at Albert Park. Dodgy pit stops aside, the Haas is the fourth fastest car on the grid.
Nate Saunders: The Haas looks legit at this point and true to our preseason rankings of being the fourth best. I’ll throw Renault in here as well as the other candidate because I don’t think we saw anything close to maximum from the yellow and black car on Sunday.
Maurice Hamilton: After this race, Haas are punching well above their weight yet again – provided they can sort out their pit stops. But it’s so close and exciting in that midfield, it’s all about who finds the narrow performance window on the day.
Kate Walker: After Sunday’s result I’d like to be a smart a– and say Ferrari, but I’d be talking out of my smart bit. In the early part of the season I think it’s a toss-up between Haas and Toro Rosso. I’ll give the advantage to Haas, because they’ve got the more experienced driver line-up, but really the midfield looks so tightly packed this season that it could be anyone’s game. Alfa are going to get exponentially better as the season progresses, and in Ruth Buscombe they’ve got a strategist unafraid of making ballsy calls. By the end of the summer I expect them to be leading the mid-field.
Is Pierre Gasly the right man to drive the other Red Bull alongside Max Verstappen?
Laurence Edmondson: When you look at the other options available to Red Bull, I would still say yes. Gasly had a horror debut weekend with Toro Rosso last year and bounced back in Bahrain to finish fourth. The main reason for his poor weekend this year was the team messing up qualifying by not sending him out again for a second run in Q1. His lap time was just 0.14s off Verstappen, which is an acceptable gap for a first attempt against one of the fastest drivers in the sport. True, he is probably in this seat one year earlier than the team would have liked, but don’t write him off just yet.
Nate Saunders: It should have been Carlos Sainz. I think Pierre Gasly has potential but it was too early to promote him — not Red Bull’s fault, but Sainz was also an option last year after Daniel Ricciardo’s August bombshell. Gasly was underwhelming on Sunday — given the pace advantage of his car Sunday I don’t buy the argument that he couldn’t get past a Toro Rosso for a point because the Albert Park circuit is narrow.
Maurice Hamilton: Not fair to make a judgement on last weekend. His race was badly compromised from the moment that decision was made not to do a second run in Q1. On a circuit such as Albert Park, you’re never going to catch up from there. Jury remains out on this one.
Kate Walker: He’s no better or worse than any other choice. Red Bull seem to work best with a clear number one driver, and whoever partners Max is going to have to do well enough that the team can secure a decent finish in the constructors’ championship, but not so well that Jos has something to worry about. Gasly is a good racer, so part one of the equation is covered. Part two is potentially problematic — not only is Gasly very likeable, but he’s got a pre-existing relationship with Honda. Alain Prost might have some advice for Verstappens Sr and Jr on that front…