Hamilton stunned as team error sinks hopes
Lewis Hamilton felt only "disbelief" after an almost certain victory under pristine Melbourne skies was derailed by a major Mercedes error, which team principal Toto Wolff attributed to a software malfunction.
It was a painful setback for the four-time world champion to accept as a miscalculation by his garage under virtual safety car rules - imposed to limit speed when Romain Grosjean's Haas stopped on track - allowed Sebastian Vettel to snatch away the win.
For a team who have long prided themselves on meticulousness, winning four straight constructors' titles by virtue of obsession with detail, it was hardly their finest hour.
Hamilton's incredulity was best expressed by a radio exchange with race engineer Pete Bonnington, the moment he realised what had happened.
"Why did you not tell me Vettel was in the pits?" he shouted. "We thought we were safe," a chastened Bonnington replied. "But there was something wrong."
Too right there was: Ferrari had used their two-on-one advantage over Mercedes at the head of the field to fullest effect, bringing in Kimi Raikkonen early so that Hamilton would have to stop one lap later to counter his rivals' superior performance on fresh tyres.
The upshot? Vettel could nip into the pits for his stop while everybody else circulated at a snail's pace, somehow turning a nine-second deficit into a race lead that he would never relinquish.
Mercedes were working deep into the Australian night to analyse their mistake, with Wolff suggesting that it had sprung from a computer glitch.
"I think we have a software issue with the safety-car data, a situation we haven't had before with a special constellation of cars on track, one going at high speed and the other at slow speed. The gap that we needed was wrongly calculated."
Of all the excuses offered for losing a race, this was a novel one. Formula One truly is its own worst enemy sometimes: on the first day of a fresh season, with the prospect of thrilling racing hanging in the summer air, the post-mortem instead degenerates into boffin-speak about deltas and algorithms.
Delta, to most of the planet, is an airline. Or a Greek letter. In F1 it is the gap in time between two cars. It is not what Liberty Media, the sport's owner and a company desperate to make it more accessible, wants anybody to be talking about.
At least the fight between two quadruple world champions did fleetingly materialise. But the claim by Mark Webber on to the podium that we had witnessed a "titanic" tussle, was wide of the mark.
Hamilton battled gamely to reel in Vettel over the closing laps, but, as so often, the dirty air from the leading car meant he could not come close enough to pass.
Oh for an Australian Grand Prix that could be decided, unambiguously, on race-craft alone. But the layout of Albert Park, statistically the second most difficult circuit for overtaking after the streets of Monte Carlo, militates against it. Hamilton said he would have needed to be lapping 1.8 seconds faster to have a chance of getting by.
The situation was, frankly, ludicrous. So, too, was that of Hamilton backing off in the final stages to conserve an engine that he needed to last another seven races.
Hamilton was adamant that he had done all he could to recover from Mercedes' strategy nightmare.
"I did everything I believed I was supposed to do," he said. "At the last minute I was told the Ferrari was coming out. It was disbelief from that moment."
Mercedes could console themselves that their misfortune paled against that of Haas. The American team, bankrolled by US billionaire Gene Haas, has been the revelation of 2018 to date, vaulting from midfield anonymity to be podium challengers.
They were shattered, then, when the cars of both Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, running fourth and fifth, were forced to retire after tyres were replaced incorrectly during pit stops. (© Daily Telegraph, London)