MELBOURNE, Australia -- Sebastian Vettel won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix against the odds after taking advantage of a Virtual Safety Car to beat Lewis Hamilton to victory.
Starting from the pole position, Hamilton had looked locked in for a win for the first 25 laps, but found himself shuffled behind Vettel's Ferrari when Romain Grosjean stopped on track with a loose wheel nut. The resulting Virtual Safety Car gave Vettel, who had yet to pit, an opportunity to make a tire change while the rest of the field was going at a reduced speed. In doing so, he emerged ahead of Hamilton.
The Ferrari victory was in part opportunistic, but also had a strategic element after Ferrari coerced Hamilton into an early pit stop by bringing Kimi Raikkonen in for a tire change from second place on Lap 18. Hamilton, who was leading at that point, followed on Lap 19, allowing Vettel to stay out longer in the hope something would disrupt the flow of the race. Grosjean's misfortune proved to be the catalyst the Ferrari pit wall had hoped for and Vettel retained the lead when he emerged from his pit stop.
Racing resumed on Lap 32, and Hamilton pushed hard but was unable to find a way past the Ferrari on the tight Albert Park circuit. As a result, he had to settle for second ahead of Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso (who also benefited from the Virtual Safety Car) and Max Verstappen.
The victory will be sweet for Ferrari, which was thoroughly outperformed by the Hamilton/Mercedes combination in qualifying. But the turn of events that led to Ferrari's first victory of the season did not go unnoticed, with Vettel pointing out that there was "still work to do" over the team radio as he returned to the pits following the checkered flag.
How the race unfolded
Ultimately the race swung on Haas' botched pit stop, which not only presented Ferrari with a shot at victory but also brought an end to a promising race for the American team. Grosjean and teammate Kevin Magnussen were running in fifth and fourth when they made their routine pit stops, but were both forced to pull over with loose wheel nuts on their outlaps. Magnussen's was the rear left where whereas Grosjean's was the front left, but both had the same devastating effect of forcing the cars into retirement.
Magnussen's Haas was pushed away under yellow flags at Turn 4, but Grosjean came to a halt in a dangerous position on the exit of Turn 2. Race control took no risks and deployed a Virtual Safety Car -- a mechanism that forces all drivers to slow to a pre-designated lap time for the safety of the marshals on track.
If the race had continued without incident, Hamilton would have cruised to victory regardless of when Vettel pitted but Grosjean's stoppage offered Ferrari the opportunity it was hoping for. As Hamilton lapped at a restricted pace, Vettel dived into the pits -- effectively getting a pit stop with a reduced time penalty. He emerged just ahead of the Mercedes and on fresher tires, meaning he then only had to keep Hamilton behind from that point onward to secure victory.
On some tracks that may have proved problematic, but overtaking at Albert Park requires a two-second pace advantage over the car in front. Hamilton undoubtedly had the quicker car but it wasn't enough, and in trying to put pressure on the Ferrari on Lap 47 he ran wide onto the grass -- effectively ending his challenge. Vettel then managed the gap to the checkered flag to kick his season off with an unexpected victory.
Alonso also benefited from the same turn of events as Vettel in his McLaren to finish in a strong fifth position ahead of a ragged Verstappen. The Red Bull driver had a disappointing race, losing a position to Magnussen at the start and then spinning on Lap 10 in his pursuit of the Haas and falling behind teammate Ricciardo, who finished fourth.
Nico Hulkenberg finished seventh for Renault ahead of Valtteri Bottas, who recovered from 15th place following his accident in qualifying on Saturday. Stoffel Vandoorne added another two points to McLaren's tally in ninth place ahead of Carlos Sainz, who finished 10th in the second Renault.
The next race of the season takes place in Bahrain in two weeks' time.