Sunny skies and a picturesque setting underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the perfect scene for the launch of the 2020 Supercars Championship season.
Only the bravest of punters would’ve tipped Valtteri Bottas to romp into the setting Melbourne sun at such a convincing canter at the first race of the season.
As far as Australian grands prix go, the 2019 edition was an intriguing one. When the flag drops, the bullshit stops, and in the warm light of Albert Park in March preseason expectations were shredded, with Bottas’ powerful resurgence after his morale-killing 2018 season chief among the surprises.
“After a winless 2018 it feels even better.” said Bottas, who now sits atop the championship standings for the first time in his career. “Obviously for winning you need a quick car, and as a team we’ve been able to get that, even after quite a difficult winter testing.”
Indeed preseason testing suggested Mercedes would start the season on the back foot, but upgrades brought to the second half of preseason testing, the dramatically different conditions of autumnal Melbourne compared to wintery Barcelona and perhaps a Ferrari misstep delivered a performance advantage that caught the entire paddock off guard.
The Silver Arrows bested Ferrari by 0.704 seconds in qualifying, and the Scuderia’s weekend only unravelled from there. Vettel finished off the podium and almost an entire minute behind Bottas and in so doing asked some serious questions of Maranello’s pre-race, post-preseason expectations.
“Why are we so slow?” Vettel asked helplessly deep in the second stint of the race, only to be told, “We don’t know at the moment” by his engineer.
Team principal Mattia Binotto admitted he was aiming for a great deal more from his disappointing weekend in Melbourne.
“It’s not what we were expecting,” Binotto said. “Do we understand that yet? Probably not. That’s something we need to go back and analyse.”
A wide-ranging post-mortem must be on the cards, because in neither qualifying nor the race did the Scuderia stack up to the reigning titleholder Mercedes, and with the German marque off to a flying one-two start, every race spent searching for the SF90’s hidden performance will be costly.
If there was a bright spot in Ferrari’s weekend, it was Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque wasn’t at his sparkling best in his new all-red overalls, but his pace came good on Sunday afternoon enough to be issued his first team order of the season to hold station behind the struggling Vettel late in the race despite being on the faster strategy.
It was a minor headache, but already the 21-year-old is delivering as expected.
The third season of Mercedes vs Ferrari got off to an unexpected start, but sandwiched between the two in Australia and tentatively promising to make it a three-way championship fight was Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, whose Honda-powered RB15 finished third to score the Japanese motor manufacturer’s first podium of the turbo-hybrid era and its first since 2008.
The result validated Red Bull Racing’s switch from Renault with the expectation it would be no worse off performance-wise in exchange for works support. Just how close Honda is to Ferrari and Mercedes is difficult to read given Albert Park isn’t a particularly stern test of car or engine, but the signs are positive regardless.
Red Bull Racing would’ve been doubly pleased given its estranged partner experienced its first power unit failure just nine laps into the season when Carlos Sainz’s Renault-powered McLaren lit itself on fire with an apparent MGU-K problem.
The works Renault team’s fortunes were mixed at best. It couldn’t qualify in the top 10 and had only one car finish in the points after new signing and home hero Daniel Ricciardo succumbed to a clumsy off-track crash with a gutter seconds after lights-out.
Despite aiming to lead the midfield and score podiums this season, the team was comfortably behind Haas all weekend. It’s a blow for a manufacturer that should be achieving more.
The rookies impressed early in the weekend but struggled over a full race distance. All bar Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi outqualified their experienced teammates on Saturday, but both Alexander Albon and Lando Norris struggled to negotiate the traffic generated by Giovinazzi’s damaged car. The less said about George Russell’s Williams plight, the better. None scored points.
The race was positive news for the health of Formula One in general. Though the hoped-for shrinking of the gap between the top three teams and the midfield was only partially realised — last year’s 2.175-second gap shrunk by around 0.8 seconds — there were seven drivers who finished within 1.5 seconds of another car, suggesting following has been made at least slightly easier by the aero regulation changes made for this season.
Albert Park remains a difficult track for passing, though, so the real test will come at the wider permanent circuits coming up on the calendar.
Finally, the 2018 Australian Grand Prix was the first since the 1950s to award a point for the fastest lap, which winner Bottas duly swept despite some late-race competition from Max Verstappen.
Most drivers were indifferent about the new bonus point rule, which is available only to those in the top 10 to avoid distorting race results further down the field, but the eagerness with which so many attempted to win it late in the race suggested different feelings altogether.
It may be worth only a single championship point and is therefore unlikely to make a difference to the final title picture, but the provision of additional intrigue in the dying stages of a race when the classification tends to be settled seems set to add an extra element to the sport this season.
After a long off-season Formula One roared back to life in Australia, and though the race mightn’t have been an all-time classic, it sets us up nicely for what should be a fascinating year. So long as you’re not a Williams fan.