LONDON: It was an all-too familiar result in Melbourne on Sunday as Mercedes claimed a one-two finish at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix even if, this time, it was Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas who stood atop the podium and not his teammate Lewis Hamilton.
The Silver Arrows romped home to the constructor’s world title last season, while Hamilton cruised to his fifth driver’s championship title with relative ease after the challenge of Ferrari faded away in the second half of the year.
And if the action at Albert Park is anything to go by, the German giants look unlikely to face much competition this year either.
All credit must go to Bottas, though, for overtaking his more illustrious garage partner and guiding the car home at one of his least-favorite tracks on the grand prix circuit, his best finish being third-place in 2017.
“It was definitely my best race ever. It felt so good, truly enjoyed it,” he said.
Not only did he blitz Hamilton and Verstappen, but he also sealed a bonus point for fastest lap of the grand prix — a rule reintroduced for this season.
The fast lap was icing on the cake and a calculated risk on old tires: “Definitely, it’s a new rule for this year. I had really strong pace, I wanted to go for that in the end.
“We’re all here starting a new season, both me and Lewis will want to fight this season, for sure, against each other, and against everyone.”
Hamilton, who was on pole for the sixth successive year and eighth time overall in Melbourne, had to settle for second as he battled to hold off Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
“It was a good weekend for Mercedes,” he said. “Valtteri drove an incredible race today. Really deserved it.”
The obvious highlight of the race for those not of a Mercedes persuasion was the performance of Verstappen, who had split the Ferraris in qualifying on Saturday and pipped both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc to claim the final podium spot.
The Dutchman overtook two-time defending Melbourne champion Vettel round the outside just at the halfway point of the race and pulled away from the Ferrari ace to finish third. It was his sixth consecutive F1 podium finish, and delivered the Honda team its first since 2008.
His gritty, determined performance offers a glimmer of hope for F1 fans that the title race will be between three teams rather than two.
“To be able to challenge Lewis at the end of the race and overtake Seb on-track, which around here is very difficult, is very positive,” Verstappen said. “Since we started working together (with Honda) it has been amazing and I am really enjoying the partnership, so this is a well-deserved third place for all of us.
For the Scuderia, it was another frustrating day at the office. Their engineers will be back at the drawing board trying to assess what went wrong in Australia and remedy it ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time.
The Italian powerhouse was the standout team in pre-season testing in Barcelona, but struggled to keep pace with Mercedes all weekend — blaming balance issues, with Vettel bemoaning the car’s performance around corners as “not good enough.”
“Clearly we’re missing something right now, but we don’t have an answer,” said the German.
“We need to get back, have a good look and I’m sure we’ll find something because we know that the car is better than what we have seen today.”
On Thursday there was a sense of hope, anticipation and expectation of a genuinely competitive season this year. As Valtteri Bottas crossed the line on Sunday, that had been replaced with a sinking feeling that it had all been bluster and a false dawn.
It was heartening to see Bottas claim the chequered flag, especially as he did not win a single race last season. But seeing the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc so far behind does not bode well for the rest of the year. Fans will want to see a marked improvement from the Prancing Horse in the next half-dozen races, or we could be set for a mind-numbingly depressing repeat of seasons previous.