Thursday 14 December 2017

Formula 1: Vettel blazes trail to throw down gauntlet

Tom Cary in Melbourne

If this is how it is going to be this season, the chasing pack might as well give up now; Sebastian Vettel, looking every inch the world champion, driving a Red Bull car so superior that he could afford to dispense with his KERS power boost system for the entire weekend, winning by more than 20 seconds.

The 23-year-old was so relaxed in the aftermath of yesterday's Australian Grand Prix that he knocked back what seemed like half the bubbly on the winner's podium, swore when he thought the microphones were off in the press conference and then treated BBC Red Button viewers to fun and games by throwing cake in the face of birthday boy David Coulthard.

Not that he is becoming a latter-day James Hunt. Far from it. In the build-up to the race Vettel told reporters, with no hint of irony, that winning the championship was the reason he was put on this earth.

Clearly he can be serious when it matters and his radio communication to the team immediately after crossing the finish line was instructive.

"Thank you very much. Very cool. Excellent car. Excellent stops. We learned a lot from today, keep it in mind," he said. Not for him the blubbing victory speech of last November.

So Vettel has stepped up a gear or two; that is the first thing we learned from the weekend. The second is that McLaren are back. And with their remarkable turnaround in fortunes, brought about by an 11th-hour switch of their entire floor and exhaust, it looks as if they may lead a thrilling Red Bull run chase.

Lewis Hamilton certainly believes so. The 2008 world champion drove quite magnificently in qualifying on Saturday to split the Red Bulls and secure second on the grid. He then converted that position, despite sustaining damage to the undercarriage of his car which meant it was scraping off the tarmac for the second half of the race.

"Finally I've got something I can take the fight to the Bulls with," Hamilton said. "Just a week or two ago we were not expecting to be anywhere near the top five. Now it feels very surreal to have beaten all the guys behind me and one Red Bull. It's a massive confidence boost. I think we can challenge for the win at Sepang."

Fighting talk, but he will have to get past Vettel to do so, something which never looked on the cards yesterday despite the fact that Red Bull opted not to run with KERS.

In theory, that should have given Hamilton a golden opportunity to blast past him off the line, but the Briton got a poor start and instead found himself fending off a charge from Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber going into turn one.

He won that duel and Webber's afternoon went downhill from there. The Australian went with a three-stop strategy as opposed to two like nearly everyone else, but it did nothing for him as he ended up sacrificing his third place to Renault's Vitaly Petrov.

Petrov became the first Russian to mount an F1 podium. Webber finished well over half-a-minute adrift of Vettel in fifth. "I haven't been on the pace all weekend and we will look into why," he said. "Of course you have got to look at everything, including yourself."

Webber was by no means the only disappointed driver as the sun set on Albert Park. Hamilton's McLaren team-mate Jenson Button could have taken third, but a drive-through penalty incurred for cutting a chicane while attempting to pass Ferrari's Felipe Massa meant he finished sixth.

Mercedes, who were reckoned to be stronger than McLaren heading to Australia, had a dreadful day, with Michael Schumacher picking up a puncture on the opening lap and later retiring, and Nico Rosberg forced out after being rammed by Williams' Rubens Barrichello.

strategy

Ferrari, too, had a weekend to forget. Fernando Alonso recovered from a poor start to claim fourth on a three-stop strategy, but Massa could do no better than seventh.

Sauber's plight was the most heartbreaking. Their Mexican rookie Sergio Perez performed wonders to finish seventh on a bold one-stop strategy, but he eventually had his points taken away after both Sauber cars were excluded for infringing bodywork regulations. The Swiss team are considering an appeal.

Their misfortune did mean Britain's newest F1 driver, Paul di Resta, claimed a solitary point on his race debut.

"A mega result for me," said the Force India driver.

Not as mega as Vettel's. The wunderkind tried his best to play down expectations. "I keep saying to the team we must keep our feet on the floor," he said. "We need to keep working hard."

He is fooling no one. Red Bull have set a blistering pace and it is up to the rest to bridge the gap. But it appears McLaren are up for the challenge. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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