Sebastian Vettel delivered a glorious and long-awaited victory for Ferrari with a beautifully-judged drive in perfect conditions at Albert Park on Sunday when, against expectations, he won the season-opening 2017 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
The four-time champion German driver started second on the grid, but made the most of his ultra-soft tyres to inherit the lead from pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton after 17 laps, extend it, and then retain it in flawless fashion.
The Briton, who had dominated practice and qualifying with record-breaking speed, struggled to find a way past Dutch teenager Max Verstappen before the Red Bull’s pit-stop and, ultimately, had to settle for a frustrated second.
Vettel’s triumph was the 43rd of his career and his and Ferrari’s first since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix. It was Ferrari’s first win in Australia for a decade since Finn Kimi Raikkonen finished first in 2007.
Only Hamilton had forecast that Ferrari were fast and strong enough to win.
It was Vettel’s second win in Melbourne and Ferrari’s 225th overall, a signal result that led to raucous celebrations for the Italian team and a possible ending of Mercedes’ domination of the world championship.
Vettel came home 9.9 seconds clear of Hamilton, who battled on with intermittent engine problems, to finish second ahead of Mercedes team-mate Finn Valtteri Bottas, who moved from Williams to succeed retired 2016 champion German Nico Rosberg.
Raikkonen came home fourth, 11.1 seconds adrift, in the second Ferrari ahead of Verstappen, back-from-retirement Brazilian Felipe Massa of Williams and Mexican Sergio Perez of Force India.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz was an impressive eighth ahead of his Toro Rosso team-mate Russian Daniil Kvyat and, remarkably, Frenchman Esteban Ocon who finished 10th in his first outing in the second Force India, taking advantage of the late retirement of two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso of Mercedes.
Luckless Australian Daniel Ricciardo endured a trying and disappointing day. After his crash in Saturday’s qualifying, he took a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, but was unable to start normally due to electronic problems, joining only after two laps. He was then forced to retire with an engine failure.
The race was preceded by drama when Ricciardo, just starting his ‘recon’ lap, pulled up at the side of the track in his stricken Red Bull.
He had crashed in qualifying on Saturday and, following a gearbox change, been handed a five-place grid penalty – moving him from 10th to 15th.
His car, which would not re-start due to electronic problems, was recovered and retrieved. “If it can be cleared with a re-set, he’ll start from the pit lane,” said team chief Christian Horner.
As Ricciardo waited, his former team-mate Russian Daniil Kvyat had a fire in his Toro Rosso that required the use of his extinguisher. This threatened his place on the grid and a third successive Albert Park non-start after two with Red Bull.
As the cars pulled out for the formation lap, the track temperature was 36 degrees Celsius and the air temperature 24 degrees, near-perfect conditions for the year’s opening contest.
Hamilton, who had earlier generously held a parasol over him-self and his nearest colleagues during the singing of the Australian anthem, led the way to the grid.
The expected start was then aborted and an extra formation lap undertaken, without any detailed explanation. The race was reduced to 57 laps.
Finally, when the lights went out, Hamilton made a flawless start and surged clear from his fifth successive pole position with Vettel retaining second place behind him.
Bottas had a clean start to keep third ahead of Raikkonen and Verstappen. Ricciardo was just a spectator and did not enter the fray until the leaders had completed two laps.
The opening lap supplied only one incident, a Turn Three tangle involving Dane Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and Swede Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber. It prompted a stewards’ investigation, but no action.
Hamilton pulled six- and then seven-tenths clear of Vettel before a fastest lap on lap five lifted him 1.1 seconds ahead. Bottas stayed third, 2.4 seconds adrift.
“Alright Daniel, get stuck in,” Red Bull told Ricciardo. “Have fun!” The Perth racer responded and the crowd roared him on.
Stroll made an early pit-stop for new tyres, having started from the back of the grid, but rejoined to climb back to 16th in his Williams.
By lap 10, the field had settled. Hamilton led Vettel by 1.8 seconds with Bottas adrift by 4.7 seconds, but leading Raikkonen by a further 4.4.
Frenchman Romain Grosjean, who had qualified sixth for Haas, was the first to retire, his Ferrari engine smoking as he pitted on lap 15.
Two laps later, Hamilton pitted to switch from ultra-soft tyres to ‘softs’ in just 3.3 seconds. Vettel inherited the lead and stayed out as Hamilton rejoined in fifth.
The German’s excellent tyre-management enabled him to stay out while the Englishman, all fast and furious, had to find a way past Verstappen.
“A lot of under-steer – is the floor ok?” asked Hamilton as his frustration built up before he declared ‘there’s no way I can get past this guy.”
As the Dutchman held up Hamilton’s progress, Vettel pulled 11.6 seconds clear of Bottas before he pitted, after 23 laps.
The four-time champion emerged in third place behind Bottas and Raikkonen, but ahead of both Verstappen’s Red Bull and Hamilton. In his garage, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff slammed his desk in anger.
Within two laps, both Bottas and Verstappen pitted, leaving Raikkonen to lead for Ferrari ahead of Vettel and Hamilton for one lap.
From the Ferrari perspective, it was strategic perfection. Raikkonen pitted, Vettel regained the lead and Hamilton rose only to second, but six seconds down thanks to his Dutch delays.
Ricciardo’s cameo charge came to an end on lap 28 when he pulled up at Turn Three, joining Grosjean and Briton Jolyon Palmer of Renault, who had brake problems, on the sidelines. “Looks like an engine failure,” said Horner.
At the front Vettel was in command and Hamilton could not close the gap. Bottas, third, closed up to just 3.4 seconds behind his Mercedes team-mate with Raikkonen 10 seconds away in fourth.
After contemplating an alternative strategy, Mercedes told Hamilton “tyres are holding up”, a message that condemned him to chase Vettel to the flag in a car that, it seemed, offered him no encouragement. The gap stabilized at eight seconds and Hamilton had no way to reduce it.
Stroll’s eventful first weekend came to an end when he pitted and retired after he ran off and down an escape road at Turn 13, rejoining via a gravel trap.