Sebastian Vettel uses VSC-inspired strategy call to beat Lewis Hamilton to Australian GP victory

Sebastian Vettel profited from a well-timed Virtual Safety Car period to open the 2018 Formula 1 season with victory at the Australian Grand Prix.

World Champion Lewis Hamilton had controlled proceedings from pole position during the first stint, with Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel slotting in behind, as per their grid slots.

Hamilton extended his advantage over Raikkonen to three seconds, with a similar gap back to Vettel, when Ferrari triggered the pit stop phase, bringing in the Finn on lap 18.

Hamilton responded one lap later, mirroring Raikkonen’s switch from Ultrasofts to Softs, though Vettel stayed out, inheriting the lead in the process.

Vettel’s advantage over Hamilton was 14 seconds – insufficient for a pit stop – but he was handed a golden opportunity when Haas’ strong showing came to nought.

Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean had run fourth and fifth, but the Dane pulled to the side of the track on his out lap from the pits.

Grosjean was set to pick up the mantle, but he too halted upon leaving the pits, ostensibly due to a loose wheel, leading to distraught scenes from the Haas pit wall and garage.

Magnussen halted his VF-18 in a safe position but Grosjean’s stricken car at Turn 2 necessitated the deployment of the Virtual Safety Car – and Vettel sagely decided to pit.

With Hamilton at a slower speed on track, Vettel was able to reduce the relative time loss, and emerged from the pits fractionally ahead, before the full Safety Car was implemented.

Hamilton hounded Vettel after the restart but was unable to find a way through, and ran wide at Turn 9 moments after outlining to his Mercedes team that he would attack.

Hamilton quickly recouped the three-second deficit but, after failing to make a move, turned down the engine and cruised home, allowing Vettel a clear run to the flag.

Raikkonen maintained third position through the final stint, fending off the advances of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who made gains through the early stages.

Fernando Alonso captured his best finish since 2016 as he was one of the key beneficiaries of the VSC, rising from the lower reaches of the top 10 to fifth.

Alonso initially emerged from the pit lane behind Max Verstappen, but stewards deemed that the McLaren driver had been marginally ahead at the relevant timing beam, and the Dutchman handed back the place.

Verstappen, from fourth on the grid, lost out to Magnussen off the line and spun through Turn 1 a few laps later as he sought to close on the Haas driver, losing several positions in the process.

Nico Hulkenberg took seventh for Renault, as Valtteri Bottas recovered from 15th on the grid to take eighth, while Stoffel Vandoorne and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Force India, frequently in the points last year, missed out, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon a low-key 11th and 12th.

Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc took 13th on his Formula 1 debut for Sauber, with Williams’ Lance Stroll and Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley the final classified runners.

Pierre Gasly, Marcus Ericsson and debutant Sergey Sirotkin all retired during the early stages of the race.

Gasly returned to the pits with smoke trailing from his Honda-powered Toro Rosso, later confirmed as a power unit issue, while Ericsson complained of a power steering failure on his Sauber C37.

Sirotkin, meanwhile, pulled into an escape road due to his Williams FW41 suffering a brake failure.

Bahrain’s Sakhir Circuit will host the second round of the year in two weeks’ time.

Australia - Race Result

Pos Driver Team Gap
1   Sebastian VettelFerrari
2   Lewis HamiltonMercedes5.036
3   Kimi RaikkonenFerrari6.309
4   Daniel RicciardoRed Bull7.069
5   Fernando AlonsoMcLaren27.886
6   Max VerstappenRed Bull28.945
7   Nico HulkenbergRenault32.671
8   Valtteri BottasMercedes34.339
9   Stoffel VandoorneMcLaren34.921
10   Carlos SainzRenault45.722
11   Sergio PerezRP Force India46.817
12   Esteban OconRP Force India60.278
13   Charles LeclercSauber75.759
14   Lance StrollWilliams78.288
15   Brendon HartleyToro Rosso1 Lap
16   Romain GrosjeanHaasDNF
17   Kevin MagnussenHaasDNF
18   Pierre GaslyToro RossoDNF
19   Marcus EricssonSauberDNF
20   Sergey SirotkinWilliamsDNF