Sebastian Vettel won the opening race of the 2018 season, the timing of the Virtual Safety Car (VSC).
Lewis Hamilton looked in control of the race and looked to be on course for victory, he had opened the gap up to almost four seconds. That meant by Hamilton lead until the race until the safety car on lap twenty-six.
Hamilton came in on lap nineteen to cover Kimi Raikkonen, who had already made his pit stop. Mercedes needed to react to that stop, as they knew already that Raikkonen would undercut Hamilton if he stopped later.
Meanwhile, the stops had allowed Vettel to take the lead for now. Hamilton was still gaining time over the Ferrari, who had left Vettel out for longer. Mercedes were attempting to cover the German more than Raikkonen as, over the course of the season, Vettel should be the stronger fighter.
Mercedes should have close up more if the Haas of Romain Grosjean had not stopped on track on lap twenty-six. The stopped car brought out the VSC which essentially neutralised the race, allowing Vettel to maintain a gap over Hamilton.
Haas was expected to be a main player in the race, but not with the tyres failures. Haas looked as if there speed and performance on the track were going to prove a headache for the top two teams. The cross threading of the wheelnuts on both cars gave the team no option but to tell both drivers to retire the car.
At the moment the VSC was deployed, Vettel had an eleven and a half second lead over Hamilton. This effectively gave him a free pit stop, as there was more time to be gained than under racing conditions. When he did stop, Vettel had a free stop as he could gain time through stopping.
A normal stop would have cost twenty-three seconds dropping him to third place stopping. But, because of the VSC the pit stop time lost was less costly to Vettel allowing him to re-join leading the race.
The reason why we have the VSC is to maintain the running order when there is an incident on track. But, this can lead to an impact on the running order.
Mercedes also didn’t have Bottas in the mix because of the penalty after his massive crash in Q3. That means he was unable to be used as a buffer against Vettel. Also, he had made very slow progress through the midfield
The issue was Mercedes should have told Hamilton to push earlier in the race, but believing they had the buffer over Vettel ordered Hamilton to save tyres and the engine. That was because they expected Vettel to challenge Hamilton later in the race.
Following the end of the VSC, Vettel was six tenths ahead allowing the German to have the option of a free stop. In that final stint of the race, Hamilton demonstrated that overtaking remains an issue as he tried to close the gap.
Hamilton’s charge was halted with five laps remaining thanks to a lock up. He said after the race “I am going for it’ and I gave everything in that moment. I was quite close behind in his tow, just nipped the right front and didn’t make the corner.”
“After that, I was catching him again but in trying to catch up the temperatures again were on the limit so I was constantly being pushed and pulled.”
But while Hamilton was setting personal bests, it wasn’t enough to close that gap down. Which allowed Vettel to win the race.
So that pit stop error showed that while Mercedes have the fastest package this season they have weaknesses in the car. This season, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have all shown they could be in the title fight.
However, the key to beating Mercedes this season will be making the most of opportunities when they present themselves.