Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel beat Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in a straight fight as Formula 1’s new era started at the Australian Grand Prix.
Vettel’s first win since the Singapore GP in September 2015 was final proof Mercedes’ domination is over after the introduction of faster cars.
Hamilton started in pole but Vettel had an advantage on pace and tyre wear.
The German pressured Mercedes into an early pit stop and benefited when Hamilton was held up by Max Verstappen.
Ferrari were simply quicker in Melbourne and the world champions were forced into a position where they had to make a decision that did not work out.
The truth is, the race was almost certainly lost for Hamilton whatever choice Mercedes made as Vettel lapped just a second or so behind him on lap 16.
Mercedes were telling Hamilton he needed to up his pace to build a gap before his pit stop. The Briton was complaining his tyres were going off and he had no more pace.
Fearing that Ferrari would recognise Hamilton’s problems, Mercedes had the choice of leaving him out and risking Vettel passing him by and stopping earlier, or bringing him in and losing the lead that way.
To make the early pit stop on lap 17 work, Hamilton had to pass Red Bull’s Verstappen, but he returned to the track 1.7 seconds behind him.
But Hamilton always expected it to be a difficult task.
“This is race-critical – you need to pass Verstappen,” Hamilton was told by his engineer Peter Bonnington. “I don’t know how you expect me to do that,” he replied.
Sure enough, Hamilton was quickly on Verstappen’s tail but could not pass for four laps.
Vettel stopped on lap 23 and rejoined right in front of the Red Bull while Hamilton fended off Verstappen’s challenge into Turn Three and disappeared off into the distance.
By the time Verstappen stopped on lap 25, Vettel was nearly six seconds up the road.
Hamilton had to watch his mirrors for team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who had struggled in the first stint, dropping back 10 seconds in 17 laps, but closed in on the former world champion in the second stint to finish just 1.2 seconds behind – BBC