F1 analysis: Vettel should celebrate victory in Australia but Hamilton will be pleased with pace of Mercedes
Ferrari and their German driver have taken the first race win of the new season, and while it was perhaps somewhat fortuitous, that can happen in F1.
Credit to Sebastian Vettel in that he was consistent with his emotions throughout the Australian Grand Prix race weekend.
The Ferrari driver was pragmatic on Saturday after he had been almost 0.7 seconds off the pace of Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes-GP in qualifying in Melbourne.
After a dramatic change of fortunes that saw Vettel win the opening race of the 2018 season on Sunday ahead of the Briton, he was not getting too excited either.
A calmness prevailed from the German as he took full advantage of a virtual safety car (VSC) period mid-race. It allowed him to leapfrog Hamilton during the pit stops and go on and win his 48th grand prix, his third in Australia.
Vettel acknowledged that on raw pace Ferrari would not have won the race. For the first 25 laps Hamilton had it under control.
The defending world champion led from the start and eked out a lead of three seconds over the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, with Vettel a further three seconds back in third place.
Vettel won the race due to the decision to not pit when Hamilton and Raikkonen had both made their stops on laps 20 and 19 respectively.
Vettel took the lead, but would have dropped back to third had Romain Grosjean's Haas not stopped on track after it had left the pits without one of its tyres fitted properly.
With the car in an unsafe position race stewards brought out a VSC. That is where the safety car does not actually come out on track, but drivers must keep to a reduced speed and meet a set lap time to demonstrate they have slowed down.
Vettel pitted at the end of Lap 26 with a lead of around 12 seconds over Hamilton. That, at racing speed, would never have been enough to retain the lead, but with Hamilton forced to go slow to respect the regulations, it allowed the Ferrari to come out of the pit lane still in front.
Passing is notoriously difficult at Albert Park and there was nothing Hamilton could do once Vettel had track position. Therefore, first blood in the fight for the 2018 title between the two four-time world champions went the way of the German.
Vettel was honest enough to admit that he was not a complete match for Hamilton.
"We are not yet a true match," he said in his post-race news conference. "Therefore at this point we know that we are not yet where we want to be because we want to be fastest."
That is true, but Ferrari were still competitive enough to keep Hamilton in their sights and were able to exploit the element of luck the VSC had afforded them.
It is a good base to build from if they are to try and match Mercedes over the course of the season.
We did not see Red Bull Racing's true pace as both Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo spent much of the afternoon bunched up behind slower cars, but Ferrari over the whole weekend looked well placed to be Mercedes's nearest rivals.
It was not just Vettel. Raikkonen was a strong third, and could be pleased with a weekend where he out-qualified his teammate and only fell behind him during the race due to the VSC.
Hamilton can take heart from the fact that Mercedes are stronger then they were last year in Melbourne when they were deservedly beaten by Vettel on that occasion.
It took the German marque half the season in 2017 to find the consistency that would propel them to a fourth successive drivers' and constructors' championship double.
Not this time. They are on it immediately and are clearly the fastest package. Yet they have finished with only a second place, and an eighth for Valtteri Bottas, and have been outscored by 18 points by Ferrari.
That will not concern Hamilton too greatly at this stage though. He will know that only circumstance denied him victory and if he maintains that kind of level seen this weekend for the rest of the year he will leave the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November as a five-time champion.
But the unpredictable does happen in F1 and he now knows that any deviation from a clean race will open the door for Vettel and Ferrari to challenge.
Updated: March 25, 2018 06:24 PM