Sebastian Vettel reignited the title battle with Mercedes, winning the opening round of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Melbourne.
Ferrari made a strategical call when the first round of pitstops came in just under half race distance, electing to keep Vettel while Mercedes pitted Lewis Hamilton from the lead after he complained about draining tyre performance.
Hamilton initially emerged in clean air, but after a handful of quick lap times he was soon on to the back of Max Verstappen who was lapping nearly a second slower having yet to pit. Even though he was on fresher rubber, the three time world champion conceded that it was difficult to overtake having taken out the best of the tyre life.
Out in front Vettel managed to stretch the gap to 23 seconds, which was enough for him to pit and emerge ahead of both the Red Bull and Mercedes as the de-facto race leader. Hamilton meanwhile still struggled with tyres, eventually getting released by Verstappen who pitted three laps later – although by then Vettel had built up an eight second lead.
Mercedes were going to switch to ‘Plan B’ which be a stop towards the end of the race, although the pace at the front seemed to be steady as drivers who pitted later started to challenge for fastest lap. That eventually went to Kimi Raikkonen, who was unable to jump Valterri Bottas in the pits and finished in fourth place.
Bottas had a steady race and nearly passed Hamilton towards the end as his tyres had more life in them, but it seemed he suffered from the same drop off in performance. That prompted Mercedes to conserve his position against the charging Raikkonen, who had saved his tyres up for the final few laps.
Red Bull rolled the dice with Verstappen, fitting the Super Soft tyre to his car as he was the last of the leaders to pit just over half race distance. This turned out to lose him time though, then towards the end the tyres were just unable to keep up with those running the Soft.
Sergio Perez hung on to seventh place, after two late challenges from Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat. Toro Rosso switched Sainz and Kvyat when they left the Russian on a longer first stint, with the potential to challenge both Perez and sixth placed Massa. But an air pressure shortage meant Kvyat had to pit for the team to rectify it, losing him crucial track position.
Sainz did challenge Perez towards the end, however the Mexican held on with the help of some late yellow flags prompted by Haas’ Kevin Magnussen who joined the list of seven retirements in the closing stages of the race.
One of those happened to be homeboy Daniel Ricciardo, who suffered a nightmare showing in front of the Australian crowd. After his crash in qualifying caused a gearbox change (and a five place grid penalty), Ricciardo stopped on his way to the grid before the race started with more gearbox problems. The team rushed to get him back out, which they did two laps after the start in the hope of a Safety Car. However, despite Melbourne’s history with stoppages the race ran green for the entire 53 laps, and in the end Ricciardo stopped with an electrical issue which topped off his miserable weekend.
Esteban Ocon gained his first points in Formula 1, after getting involved in a colourful battle with the day glow orange McLaren of Fernando Alonso and the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg. Alonso had a good start and managed to get into the top ten, but a suspension failure within the final 20 laps allowed Ocon to sweep past alongside Hulkenberg, in a rather aggressive three-a-breast move into the first corner.
Considering he only just drove the track on Saturday, Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on his F1 debut by nearly beating his team mate in qualifying and then translating his performance on track to finish in 12th place.