Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, left, of Britain steers his car ahead of Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen of Finland during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, left, of Britain steers his car ahead of Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen of Finland during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

Classy act after F1 horror show

A MONUMENTAL battle between two four-time champions graced Albert Park for the first race of the 2018 season.

Sebastian Vettel pipped Lewis Hamilton of his comfortable lead midway through the race and then capitalised on a number of key errors by the Englishman to hold him off and seal his first victory of the year.

Kimi Raikkonen also raced out of his skin for the Scuderia and placed third after qualifying second, while Daniel Ricciardo enjoyed a strong end to the weekend and finished in fourth after starting at eighth on the grid.

5:42pm

Vettel snags upset win

Sebastian Vettel was the first man to meet the chequered flag in 2018 after blitzing Lewis Hamilton out of his cushy pole position midway through the race.

If one photo could sum up the season ahead.
If one photo could sum up the season ahead.

The German sneakily pulled out ahead of Hamilton, catching the defending champ snoozing while a virtual safety car was in place.

Hamilton had few opportunities to pass the four-time champ and butchered a potential overtake through Turn Nine late in the race after running too wide and finding himself partially off the track.

The 2017 champion was spotted giving a warm handshake to his bitter rival after leaving his car.

"Congrats to Seb and Ferrari, they did the better job today. I had great pace, and I was able to apply some pressure at the end... it's an awesome circuit but it's so hard to pass," Hamilton said after the podium ceremony.

5:20pm

Dan's desperate charge

After a disappointing qualifying weekend and a horror DNF in last year's visit to Melbourne, Daniel Ricciardo looked as if he'd do anything to stand on the podium at the close of the day.

The Aussie star tried slipping in front of Kimi Raikkonen in third with an attempted overtake through Turn Three on the 40th lap, but he was efficiently shut down by the veteran Ferrari as the Scuderia fought to start the year with two red men in the top three.

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were locked in a bitter struggle for first as the German held off the defending champ in the waning laps. Hamilton butchered a prime opportunity to reclaim first place after locking up his wheels and running wide through Turn Nine and dragging his wheels off the track.

4:52pm

Vettel thwarts Hamilton's dream run

Lewis Hamilton was fuming at himself after he found long-time rival Sebastian Vettel ahead of him during the safety car speed restrictions.

"What just happened guys. Why didn't you tell me Vettel was in the pits? Was that my mistake?" Hamilton said after leading comfortably for the first half of the race.

The safety car was brought in as the marshals scooped up Romain Grosjean's car from the track following the Haas driver's wheel failure.

4:27pm

Ricciardo pips Verstappen, Haas in a mess

Max got a little too impatient here.
Max got a little too impatient here.

Max Verstappen had a moment to forget on the 10th lap after spinning out through a turn as he approached Kevin Magnussen in fourth. Sky Sports' David Croft described the 20-year-old's start as "disastrous" as he dropped back down to eighth and offered Daniel Ricciardo an opportunity.

The Aussie star sits in sixth, two places ahead of his starting place.

In other news, Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin was forced out of the race with a brake problem, becoming the first DNF driver of the season.

But the real disaster went to Haas' F1 team.

Magnussen was the next to bail out of the race after a poorly fitted tyre forced him off the track - and seconds later teammate Romain Grosjean was in the pits for the exact same reason.

"What is happening?!" Croft exclaimed. "This is an absolute disaster."

This is the second year running both Haas cars have been forced out of Albert Park.

4:10pm

Lewis dukes it out with Kimi

The 2018 season kicked off with Lewis Hamilton making a clean start from pole as all 20 drivers escaped Turn One without a scratch. Hamilton was almost pipped by Kimi Raikkonen in second through the first lap as the Finn blasted out of the blocks ahead of Sebastian Vettel.

"Pleasingly, Raikkonen matched Hamilton's time despite being in the turbulent air," Sky Sports' Martin Brundle said.

"The early race pace of the Ferrari looks very good."

Daniel Ricciardo couldn't make any significant moves from eighth in the first lap rush but found his way ahead of Nico Hulkenberg in seventh in the sixth lap after beating the German on brakes.

2pm

Expected starting grid

1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

2. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari

3. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari

4. Max Verstappen, Red Bull

5. Kevin Magnussen, Haas

6. Romain Grosjean, Haas

7. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault

8. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull

9. Carlos Sainz, Renault

10. Fernando Alonso, McLaren

11. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren

12. Sergio Perez, Force India

13. Lance Stroll, Williams,

14. Esteban Ocon, Force India

15. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

16. Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso

17. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber

18. Charles Leclerc, Sauber

19. Sergey Sirotkin, Williams

20. Pierre Gasly, Toro Rosso

 

1:30pm

Ricciardo whacks Hamilton, Mercedess

A deflating day of qualifying left Daniel Ricciardo a little sour after the Aussie copped a three-spot grid penalty.

The 28-year-old Red Bull, who will start down in 8th position at his home Grand Prix, wasted no time in sharing his opinion of the harsh reality that is Mercedes' domination of the upper echelon of the sport.

"It's frustrating because I think everyone else wants to see them [Mercedes] to get challenged a bit more, so that was a little bit of a punch in the stomach to everyone," Ricciardo said.

"I didn't expect that much," he said. "Particularly from Q2 to Q3 - I knew they had a bit more, I expected them to be more than two tenths quicker than us.

"That [being six tenths up] was like throwing a pie in everyone's face.

"I know that obviously they're loving it, they're in a good position, but everyone else is hating it."

Ricciardo claimed any of the top drivers would be able to claim pole in a Mercedes.

"I think he's very good - but I think obviously their car and their package is too good," the Aussie said.

"It's not to discredit Lewis, not at all, but I think even him at 90% with that package, he still would've got pole. "I feel any of us top guys could've made that happen [in the Mercedes]."

1pm

Freak Hamilton rewrites F1 history

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton set a blistering time in his final lap of qualifying to take pole position at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Saturday for a record seventh time, outpacing his nearest rival by a sizeable 0.664 seconds.

Lewis Hamilton is kicking off the year on the right foot.
Lewis Hamilton is kicking off the year on the right foot.

The defending Formula One champion set a time of 1 minute, 21.164 seconds at Albert Park circuit, breaking a tie with Ayrton Senna for most poles at the Australian GP. It's the 73rd pole of Hamilton's career.

"I'm so happy with that lap. It was such a nice lap," Hamilton said. "And, you know, I'm always striving for perfection and that was as close as I could get." Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen finished second with a lap of 1:21.828, with teammate Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo rounding out the top five. Ricciardo will start the race in eighth position after a penalty for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday's practice. The gap between four-time world champion Hamilton and the rest of the field took many drivers by surprise, with Ricciardo likening it to "throwing a pie in everyone's face." Mercedes has been dominant in Formula One in recent years, but both Ferrari and Red Bull made strides last year and are hoping to challenge for the championship this season.

"I think everyone else wants to see them get challenged a bit more," said Ricciardo. "That was a little bit of a punch in the stomach to everyone. I know obviously they're loving it, they're in a good position. But everyone else is hating it." It wasn't all good news for Mercedes, however, as Hamilton's teammate, Valtteri Bottas, crashed at the start of the final qualifying session and finished in 10th place. He will start in 15th after a grid penalty for needing another gearbox.

Bottas briefly veered off the track going into Turn 2 and then lost his traction, sliding into a wall at high speed. The crash did serious damage to the right side of the car, tearing off both tires and scattering the track with debris. Bottas walked away without any injuries.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the team was lucky the damage wasn't too extensive and that Bottas would be able to compete on Sunday. But the crash was a blow for the Finnish driver, who had finished last season strongly and was looking to push Hamilton at the start of this year.

"This is a moment where you could start to question yourself," Wolff said. "And this in Race 1 is not good for the psychology of the driver, so we're trying to give him all the support we can." Ferrari looked capable of matching Mercedes' speed early in Saturday's qualifying, as both Raikkonen and Vettel went out fast with their ultra-soft tires.

"It was a real surprise to see how quick the Ferraris were, the speeds they already had on the straights," Hamilton said. "They've obviously made an improvement to their power mode." And though Hamilton maintained his dominance in qualifying, Vettel believes Ferrari may have the advantage in Sunday's race with Bottas being forced to play catch-up. Vettel also outdueled the pole-sitting Hamilton here a year ago to win the race.

"Obviously, the gap is bigger than we want it to be," Vettel said. "But we've seen many times now - 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 - that usually on Sunday things get a little bit closer.

"He's free to have the party tonight, and hopefully Kimi and myself will have the party tomorrow." Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean of Haas took sixth and seventh places, respectively, followed by Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz of Renault in eighth and ninth. Magnussen, Grosjean and Hulkenberg will each move up a space on the grid due to Ricciardo's penalty.

Ricciardo believes Mercedes is still beatable, despite the speed Hamilton displayed in qualifying.

"I think Lewis is very good. I don't think he's too good," he said. "The buffer they had was a little bit disheartening, but we've got to try and figure it out." Wolff, too, is waiting to see whether Hamilton's pole-setting lap was an "outlier" or simply Mercedes getting even faster thanks to off-season engine improvements.

"If you take the majority of timed laps in qualifying, the Ferraris, Red Bulls and Mercedes were always very close to each other," Wolff said. "Within tenths (of a second) on some of the laps." Both McLaren drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, failed to qualify for the final qualifying session and, following Bottas' grid penalty, will start in 10th and 11th positions, respectively.

It's not the best start for McLaren's new partnership with Renault after ditching the Honda-made engines which the team had been using for the past three years.

- with AP



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