(Photo credit: nimame)
Engines primed, visors down, 20 nose cones all pointed towards Turn One and five red lights.
The start of the first race of the F1 season remains one of the most exhilarating moments on the sporting calendar. For an event that is built around speed and motion, it is that moment of stillness before the first wheel turns that sets the nerves jangling and causes tensions to rise.
An eventful start
With the wind blowing across the lake in Albert Park and rain clouds loitering in the distance, the lights finally went out in Melbourne. The rush for Turn One was frantic as usual but reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton fought off a fierce challenge from Kimi Raikonnen. Haas’ Kevin Magnussen jumped ahead of Max Verstappen into fourth, while at the back, Pierre Gasly had gained two places by the time his Toro Rosso emerged from Turn Three and another by the end of Lap One. Sergey Sirotikin’s first race in F1 ended with mechanical failure on Lap Six and he was soon followed into retirement by Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.
In his eagerness to regain race position from Magnussen, Max Verstappen spun his Red Bull into Turn One but stayed on track. However, his brief excursion cost him three places as Grosjean, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg cruised past. Pierre Gasly’s great start proved to be in vain as his Honda-powered Toro Rosso limped into the pits emitting ominous amounts of smoke.
By Lap 17, the pace picked up at the front and the first questions about strategy were asked. Ferrari were the first to blink as Kimi Raikonnen came in for a set of soft tyres, presumably intending to make it to the end of the race. That pit stop instigated a series of tyre changes which had terminal consequences for Haas.
First, Magnussen was forced to pull over with a loose wheel, prompting an embarrassed exit from the garage for one of the Haas technicians. Then, just two laps later, Romain Grosjean was forced to retire with the same issue following another blundered pit stop.
Late pit-stop pays off for Vettel
With cars parked around the track, the virtual safety car was deployed and Sebastian Vettel could pit, emerging ahead of Lewis Hamilton whose pace was restricted by the new conditions. The field was then compressed further as a real safety car was sent out.
When the green flags were waved, a series of individual battles broke out. Max Verstappen tried to make amends for his earlier spin by challenging Fernando Alonso who had worked his way into fifth place, while ahead of them, Daniel Ricciardo was all over the back of third-ranked Kimi Raikkonen. But the big battle was up front as a disgruntled Lewis Hamilton attempted to wrestle P1 back from Sebastian Vettel.
An orderly finish
Despite much jostling, positions were maintained as the race entered the final stages. An unhappy Lewis Hamilton could not make inroads on Vettel who was running in clean air on fresher tyres. By the final turn, the Ferrari driver had opened a significant gap and could cross the line with room to breathe.
The podium was a little subdued as Vettel celebrated alongside third-ranked teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Hamilton watched on stony-faced. But with three different chassis running close at the front, Haas surprising everyone with their pace (but not with their pit skills) and the midfield looking tighter than ever, it promises to be a fascinating season as we now turn our attention to Bahrain.
What did we learn from the first race? And what do you make of the virtual safety car rules? Let us know in the comments below.