Lewis Hamilton experienced frustration for a third successive year at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, as a poor start and an early pitstop condemned the Formula One champion to another runnerup finish.
Briton Hamilton claimed a record-extending eighth pole position at Albert Park on Saturday but ended up a distant second to his resurgent team mate Valtteri Bottas, who got the jump on him at the start and burned away. Hamilton was called in to pit early and change to medium compound tyres, straight after Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel did the same.
Bottas, meanwhile, stayed out on his soft tyres and extended his lead. With Red Bull’s third-placed Max Verstappen a menacing presence behind him, Hamilton complained on the team radio that he was worried his tyres would not last and battled handling issues late on.
He later found out there was a piece of his floor missing which would have exacerbated his car’s balance problems and so did well to hold on to second to the finish.
Maximum points for Mercedes was a great team result, but Hamilton was condemned to finishing runnerup for a third year in a row in Melbourne, after losing to Vettel in the last two editions.
Overall, Hamilton has converted only two of his eight poles into wins at Albert Park, in 2008 and 2015, a record which would frustrate the most tranquil of drivers.
“Obviously the strategy was not ideal in the scenario that I had,” he told reporters of the early tyre change. “So working with what I was given, I think I did a relatively decent job.
“Just obviously the start, I lost out quite a lot.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said it was the right decision to have Hamilton pit early.
“No, I don’t think it was a mistake because we could have ended up behind Vettel, not doing that,” he said.
“I don’t know why they pitted (Vettel) so early. That put us under pressure, we needed to cover that undercut.”
While Hamilton’s day was tinged with disappointment, Mercedes were thrilled their raw pace was more than enough to put Ferrari and their rivals out of the equation.
Both Vettel and his new team mate Charles Leclerc finished nearly a minute behind Bottas, a performance that surprised the Silver Arrows.
“I think we were surprised that we had such a good pace and we were surprised that they didn’t have any pace at all,” Wolff said.
“And maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Fastest lap point helps Bottas make F1 history
Valtteri Bottas won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Mercedes with the fastest lap on Sunday and in the process achieved a Formula One first.
The Finn was the first driver since the 1950s to win a point for the fastest lap, under a new rule introduced this year, and also the only one ever to score more than 25 points in a race on more than one occasion.
The only other race in which drivers have been able to score more than the maximum allocated for a victory was the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when double points were handed out for the first and only time.
Bottas finished third in that race at Yas Marina for Williams, behind winner Lewis Hamilton and now-retired Brazilian Felipe Massa, and banked 30 points. On Sunday he scored 26.
A point for fastest lap was awarded between 1950 and 1959 but in those days a win was worth only eight points.
The Finn said he had been determined to get the maximum score, despite the risk of trying to set a fastest lap on worn tyres, and he did it on the penultimate lap of the race to deny Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
With 21 races, and therefore an extra 21 points available so long as the fastest lap is set by a driver finishing in the top 10, the tweak to the scoring system has become an important consideration.
Team bosses agreed it had added something to the show.
“It’s exciting,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner. “We were even debating do we take it with Pierre (Gasly), because he’s not in the top 10, to try and take it off Mercedes. So you’ve got all kinds of dynamics.
“Max had a go at it, he had it in the bag for a couple of laps and then Valtteri does a 1.25 (1:25.580) or something and OK we can’t do that.
“I thought it added an extra strategic dynamic which was really quite interesting.”
Gasly finished 11th and out of the points. Had he been able to go fastest, he would have been credited with the best lap but the point — which is also valid for the constructors’ championship — would not have been awarded to anyone.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff agreed the novelty provided another element.
“You can see that this extra point, which nobody gave a lot of importance to, caused some extra excitement at the end,” said the Austrian.