MELBOURNE, Australia -- For all the talk of "party mode" engine settings and Mercedes dominance after Saturday's qualifying, Sunday's Australian Grand Prix was a much closer battle. There's little doubt Lewis Hamilton would have won the race had Mercedes got its sums right around the pivotal Virtual Safety Car period (VSC), but Ferrari was close enough to force an error and, more importantly, take advantage.
The onus is still on Maranello to improve its car to match Mercedes, which still appears to be the class leader, but the Italian team leaves Australia with a victory against the odds and an 18-point advantage in the constructors' championship to boot. If it needed an incentive to knuckle down back at the factory, that will almost certainly be it.
How Mercedes lost the race
Ferrari's strategy on Sunday was clear: it didn't have the pace to beat Mercedes on outright pace so it needed to force an error. With the way Hamilton was driving at Albert Park over the weekend it was unlikely the mistake would come from the cockpit, but with a historic 60 percent chance of a Safety Car in Melbourne there was a chance to force one on the pit wall.
By having two cars in the fight to Mercedes' one, Ferrari had the stronger strategic hand and it used it to great effect. The setup came on lap 18 when Kimi Raikkonen was pulled into the pits from second place -- a few laps earlier than the ideal one-stop strategy dictated -- which forced Mercedes to do the same a lap later. Had Hamilton stayed out, he was in danger of losing time on old ultra-soft tyres relative to Raikkonen on his new set of fresh softs and Mercedes simply couldn't risk that. As a result, Vettel was promoted to the lead where Ferrari would keep him for as long as possible in the knowledge the Haas in fourth was too slow to challenge and in the hope that a Safety Car or VSC would offer a free pit stop. We all know what happened next.
Ferrari had done its part in setting up the scenario that led to Vettel taking the lead, but it still required Mercedes error to pull it off. Ahead of the VSC, Hamilton was not pushing to the limit because the Mercedes pit wall believed he had a safe margin to Vettel should the race get interrupted. Instead he was instructed to look after his tyres and engine in case he had to defend from the Ferrari later in the race. That calculation proved to be wrong, which was all the more galling for Hamilton who is confident he had the pace to win regardless of the sequence of events conspiring against him.
"In the race, I had extra tools to go faster," Hamilton said afterwards. "I could have been further ahead by the first pit stop, I could have been further ahead after. There were so many good things we could have done, but if one thing is telling you one thing and you think you're doing it to the book and within the limits, then there's nothing you can do."
Vettel only emerged 0.648s ahead of Hamilton after making his pit stop under the VSC -- an incredibly small margin given the circumstances. If Hamilton had been just 0.1s faster on each of his laps after his pit-stop, it would have been enough to regain the lead after Vettel's stop. Undoubtedly, Mercedes' software crunched the wrong number as the team would always have planned on a much bigger margin, but it was still incredibly close.
The final stint of the race demonstrated how difficult it is to overtake at Albert Park in a modern F1 car, but also showed that Ferrari has the potential to be competitive this season if it can get its nose ahead of Mercedes. After holding back in the earlier stages of the race, Hamilton gave it everything towards the end and still couldn't find a way past Vettel.
"I had older tyres, he had brand new tyres yet I was able to manoeuvre the car and get relatively close," Hamilton said. "But it was like a magnet [repelling another magnet], you can't get the magnet past a certain region and that was how it was. As soon as I got to a point, I was able to follow, I felt a lot closer than I was able to follow in the past here but I couldn't get any closer than that.
"Then the engine was overheating, I've got to do seven races with this engine, preferably more if I can. So I was on the limit, I was too hot but I was pushing, I was like 'I've got to keep going' so I was nervous of damaging the engine at the same time. I cooled it down and it started coming back, I got relatively close."
Hamilton's charge eventually fell apart when he locked a brake at Turn 9 on lap 47 and ran wide.
"Communication is something we are obviously going to try and work on because I was like 'Can I fight? can I go?' and they [Hamilton's engineers] were taking their time responding. So I was like 'I am going for it' and I gave everything in that moment. I was quite close behind in his tow, just nipped the right front and didn't make the corner. After that I was catching him again but in trying to catch up the temperatures again were on the limit so I was constantly being pushed and pulled.
"I just thought, I couldn't get him in those other laps, my tyres are going to be worse now, I am driving at 110% and I am risking everything just for that seven points so I probably should just sit back, save my engine and use the life of it for the next ones. Now that goes against my spirit of racing because I want to race right down to the last line, but the way the sport is set up with fuel saving and all these different things, three engines, you have to think about them and back off."
Reviewing Hamilton's qualifying pace
The much smaller gap in race pace between Mercedes and Ferrari was in stark contrast to the 0.7s gap between the two teams in qualifying. The easy explanation for that is that the W09's engine has a "party mode" setting for qualifying, but closer analysis of Hamilton's lap suggests this was not the difference in Melbourne.
The term "party mode" was coined by Hamilton during a press conference organised by fuel supplier Petronas two weeks ago and gained momentum in the build-up to Melbourne. The Mercedes engine does have an extra setting reserved for Q2 and Q3 on Saturdays, but many read Hamilton's comments as proof that he has access to a power setting his rivals simply can't match.
A direct comparison between Hamilton's pole position lap and Raikkonen's second place lap (readers in the U.S.A. see video above) shows the Mercedes had little or no advantage on the straights at Albert Park and the vast chunk of Hamilton's advantage was found in the corners. The only straight where the Mercedes was faster was on the run down to Turn 13 but that was because Hamilton carried more momentum through the high-speed chicane at Turns 11 and 12.
"We get a bit of GPS data and stuff like that and I think they did turn it up for Q3 but not by 0.7s," Vettel said on Sunday. "I think probably if you look at qualifying carefully, I tried to do so last night, Lewis' last run in Q3 was the only proper run at the end and he had a clean run and I don't think the gain that he had in time was down to the engine.
"Probably a tenth, maybe a little bit more, but not seven tenths. So, the credit is for his lap that he did and not for the engine power. It's completely fine what they're doing because they didn't do anything special. Not more than they did last year, probably even a bit less by the looks of it. So, it was clear that he just had a very good lap and he drove well."
It seems, therefore, that Mercedes' advantage over Ferrari is not on the straights but in the corners. That would also explain why Hamilton struggled so much behind Vettel in the corners during the race and why he never really got close enough to make a pass in any of the braking zones after the long straights.
What about Red Bull?
Absent from the battle at the front was Red Bull. After Daniel Ricciardo's grid penalty took him out of the running for the front two rows in qualifying, Max Verstappen's hopes of challenging for the podium were lost in the first corner when he fell behind Kevin Magnussen. Stuck in traffic with overheating tyres, neither driver was able to carve an advantage from starting on the super-soft compound and the final result -- fourth for Ricciardo and sixth for Verstappen -- was underwhelming.
However, there are indications in the lap times that Red Bull had good race pace on Sunday but was simply unable to access it while in traffic. After a series of relatively slow laps to allow Raikkonen to build a gap in front of him towards the end of the race, Ricciardo set the fastest lap with a 1:25.945 on lap 54. It may have counted for nothing as he simply closed back into the dirty air of the Ferrari in front, but it was over 0.5s quicker than Vettel's fastest lap while he was pushing in clear air to defend from Hamilton.
"Every lap of the race we were either stuck behind a Renault, a Haas or a Ferrari," Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said. "So we've got one lap of the grand prix to judge our pace on and he set the fastest lap of the race with it. I think the pace is there and we have a quick race car, it's just unfortunate today, and particularly on this track, we were not able to use it."
Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull all showed promising signs in Australia and all appear to have different strengths and weaknesses this year. Bahrain in two weeks' time is another power circuit that may well help Ferrari challenge Mercedes again, but keep an eye out for Red Bull the following weekend in China.
The key to success throughout this year's championship is likely to be making the most of opportunities when they present themselves and only Ferrari can fly home from Melbourne satisfied it achieved that. Mercedes will return to Brackley confident it has the fastest overall package but keen to get to understand what went wrong with its strategy software on Sunday. Red Bull, meanwhile, will be lobbying Renault hard to provide a substantial engine upgrade for later in the year in the knowledge that its car's main weakness is still one-lap pace. Australia may have produced the same result at the front as last year, but it's also highlighted the promise of a thrilling season to come.