Vettel takes advantage of virtual safety car to win season opener

Sebastian Vettel snatched victory from a mystified Lewis Hamilton at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix as a virtual safety car situation played perfectly into his hands.

It had been looking like a cruise to victory for reigning world champion Hamilton, who had led every lap from pole position. But all that changed on lap 25 when Romain Grosjean’s Haas stopped on the circuit in an unsafe position, bringing about the virtual safety car. Vettel grabbed the opportunity to pit for new rubber and by virtue of his superior pitlane speed, made up vital seconds to emerge ahead of Hamilton, limited by his own pace.

“We got a bit lucky with the safety car obviously but a great turnout today and I really enjoyed the lap coming back in,” said Vettel afterward. “I was hoping for my start to be a bit better but it didn’t really work and I had to settle for third. Towards the end of that first stint I lost a little bit of connection to Lewis and Kimi ahead and was struggling a little bit with the tyres. I felt a little happier with the soft tyres with the yellow tyres at the end and obviously, I was praying for a safety car and somebody stopped at the exit to Turn 2, a Haas I think. When I saw it I was full of adrenaline to try and come into the pits and come back out ahead. When I came out ahead I knew it would be difficult to pass. He put some pressure on at the start but I was able to enjoy the last five laps.”

Despite being stuck right on the gearbox of his Ferrari rival for the remainder of the race, Hamilton was unable to force himself past around the tight confines of the picturesque Albert Park circuit and reluctantly had to settle for second.

“It has been an incredible weekend honestly,” said Hamilton. “To arrive and have the performance we had today, a big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari. Today they did a better job and we have to go back to the drawing board and work on it. But we still have great pace, our qualifying was great and in the race I was able to apply some pressure in the end. This is one awesome circuit but it is so hard to overtake even with the extra DRS.”

Kimi Raikkonen grabbed the final podium spot after holding off a charging Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso finishing a superb fifth for McLaren ahead of Max Verstappen, whose race was hampered by a 360-degree spin earlier in the race.

Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, Stoffel Vandoorne and Carlos Sainz rounded off the points scoring places.

Aside from Hamilton’s own woes, the hard luck story of the day undoubtedly lay with the Haas team. From looking nailed on for a double points finish and both cars running ahead of the Red Bulls, Romain Grosjean followed his teammate into retirement and bringing out a virtual safety car situation.

Battle will be rejoined in two weeks’ time when the F1 circus descends on Bahrain for the second round of the world championship.

Top Image: Sebastian Vettel entering the pit late during the 2018 Australian Grand Prix. © Acronis.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.