Australian Grand Prix: Winners and Losers
The Australian Grand Prix threw up several surprises, none more so than Valtteri Bottas’ stunning race win and spiky “f*** you” radio message. It wasn’t such an enjoyable race for everyone, though, and Rob Watts has picked out the winners and losers after a thriller at Albert Park.
Valtteri Bottas (1st)
At some point over the winter, while reflecting on a year that he, in his own words, described as having “turned to shit”, Bottas will have dreamed of the kind of performance he delivered in Melbourne.
The talk during pre-season was that Bottas simply had to come back as a meaner, more determined, and perhaps a slightly more selfish driver if he was to get the better of Lewis Hamilton this season and rid himself of the ‘number two driver’ tag that he had earned as a consequence of going winless while his team-mate romped to the title.
To win the opening race of any season will always be a boost for a driver, especially one harbouring ambitions of a world championship challenge, but the manner of Bottas’ victory in Melbourne and the spicy ‘to whom it may concern…’ radio message that followed it, will have served as a clear message to anyone daring to write him off.
Hamilton may well have had some performance loss during the race, and we can’t be sure of how much that affected his challenge, but that aside, Bottas’ rocket start and pass into turn one were impressive enough, but his qualifying lap on Saturday seems to not have gotten the praise it deserved.
Melbourne has always been a happy hunting ground for Hamilton, and his record-equalling eight pole positions there mark it out as a circuit he’s very difficult to beat at. Bottas’ Q3 time was just 0.112 shy of Hamilton’s best and is the closest any team-mate has got to him since Jenson Button out-qualified him in 2010.
If this was a glimpse of a new and improved Bottas, then we could be in for an unexpected treat this season as the Finn appears to be taking a ‘nothing left to lose’ approach to earning himself a new contract for 2020.
Max Verstappen (3rd)
Red Bull’s first race with Honda was more than decent, and the Milton Keynes squad will head home from Australia encourage by the potential of their 2019 package. Verstappen, in particular, had another strong weekend and his drive to grab third place – and give Honda their first podium since 2008 – was impressive for a few good reasons.
Verstappen has now finished six consecutive races in the top three – the best run of podiums he’s had in his career to date, and also the longest current run of any driver on the grid. Given that he outscored both Ferrari drivers in the second half of last season, to begin the year ahead of them again will have given the Dutchman cause for optimism at being able to compete regularly for wins this year.
In outqualifying one Ferrari and out-racing another, Verstappen showed again that he’s maturing into a more measured driver than we were seeing at this time a year ago. Spotting his opportunity, Verstappen got under the gearbox of Sebastian Vettel exiting turn two, used DRS to pull alongside, and then made the move stick around the outside approaching turn three. A great move!
Kevin Magnussen (6th)
Following pre-season testing in Barcelona, there were some signs that Haas may have produced another strong contender this year, and could potentially be in the hunt to steal Renault’s placed as best of the rest.
After a superb qualifying in Melbourne, with Romain Grosjean and Magnussen lined up sixth and seventh for the race, it ended up being a race of redemption in some ways for Haas, banishing the painful memories of this very outing last year when a hatful of points went up in smoke through calamitous pitstop errors.
While Grosjean was forced to retire with a broken wheel nut, Magnussen proved once again that he’s becoming Mr Reliable in F1’s midfield with another assured drive to secure his first points at Albert Park since his debut podium for McLaren back in 2014 (which feels like a lifetime ago!).
Lance Stroll (9th)
When Stroll was inevitably confirmed at Racing Point there were suggestions that his new, and much more experienced, team-mate Sergio Perez would wipe the floor with him. But if the Australian Grand Prix was anything to go by, the Canadian might just put up a tougher fight this year than many are expecting.
He made up several places on the opening lap with one of his now trademark lightning-quick starts, and his climb from 16th on the grid to 9th in the race was one of the standout drives of the midfield, especially as he had to defend from quicker cars toward the end after running the opposite strategy to many of the cars around him.
To cap his excellent afternoon off, Stroll even managed to set the seventh fastest lap of the race, four tenths faster than Vettel in the Ferrari! A fine achievement on his debut for the team.
Daniil Kvyat (10th)
The returning Kvyat admitted to GPFans last month that he had some anxiety about returning to an F1 cockpit after spending a year out from racing as Ferrari’s simulator driver.
After a challenging couple of years for the Russian, his performance on the weekend will have boosted his confidence significantly and will have laid to rest any worries Toro Rosso may have had about which Kvyat they were getting – the frustratingly error-prone driver that we saw in 2017, or the supremely quick and talented driver that we saw a few years prior.
But for Vettel going off-track in front of him, Kvyat would have likely made it through to Q3, and despite starting the race down in 15th and behind rookie team-mate Alexander Albon, Kvyat delivered a calm and mature driver to grab the final world championship point for his team.
He’ll have taken great pleasure too in first passing Pierre Gasly – the man he previously lost his Toro Rosso seat to – and then holding him at bay in the final stages of the race to deny him a scoring Red Bull debut.
An extremely disappointing start to the season for Ferrari will have left Vettel scratching his head and wondering where his car from pre-season testing has disappeared to.
Coming a whopping seven-tenths off Hamilton’s pole time will have raised a few eyebrows.
But finishing Sunday’s action almost a minute behind race-winner Bottas will have brought the four-time champion out in a cold sweat.
Daniel Ricciardo (DNF)
Twelfth on the grid was Ricciardo’s worst starting position here since his Toro Rosso days, and any hopes of salvaging some points from the race were effectively over before the first corner when a brief excursion across the grass smashed his front wing to pieces.
There’s definitely pace in the Renault so Bahrain could well be a different story for Ricciardo, but this weekend will most certainly go down as one to forget.
Pierre Gasly (finished 11th)
As debuts go, this was probably one of the most underwhelming in recent years. Red Bull pretty much admitted during pre-season that Gasly’s promotion was happening a year too soon and while the Frenchman certainly has more ability than his results in Melbourne suggested, his weekend really was dreadful.
Some positives & negatives to take with us from Australia. Not the outcome we wanted obviously but practices were good, then qualifying clearly cost us a lot & made our Sunday difficult to recover on such a track with couple issues.
We will bounce back in Bahrain. pic.twitter.com/jdHYYMAPdu
— Pierre Gasly ???????? (@PierreGASLY) March 18, 2019
Being knocked out in Q1, before failing to make his way beyond Kvyat in the race and finishing out of the points won’t have impressed the notoriously fickle Dr Helmut Marko.
Romain Grosjean (DNF)
The 2019 Haas appears to be very quick and should be a points contender at most races this season, therefore, Grosjean’s DNF – caused by a damaged wheel-nut during another cumbersome pitstop – will have angered Haas team boss Guenther Steiner, who described his team in the Netflix F1 documentary as “looking like a bunch of wankers” when a similar issue happened last year.
Carlos Sainz (DNF)
A torrid debut weekend for Sainz at McLaren, who was hampered on his hot lap in Q1 meaning he was forced to start the race from a lowly 18th place on the grid.
His race wasn’t much of an improvement either as he became the first retirement of 2019 when his MGU-K failed in dramatic, fiery fashion on lap nine. Hopefully, it wasn’t a sign for things to come.