Lewis Hamilton is on pole position for the Australian Grand Prix. So what else is new?
This is the sixth year in succession that the world champion has been fastest on a single lap around Melbourne’s bumpy and difficult Albert Park street circuit. And the 0.7 seconds margin between Hamilton and the fastest Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel will make some hearts sink, after five consecutive Mercedes world titles.
But this is not necessarily a signal that the season can be written off already.
For one thing, Hamilton has a total of eight career poles in Melbourne, but he has won only two of those races. For another, the margin between Mercedes and Ferrari on Saturday was more or less the same as it was last year – and Ferrari not only battled for the title for much of 2018, but were prevented from pushing Hamilton even harder only by a series of errors.
Ferrari had left pre-season testing with what appeared to be the fastest car. This was not a media fiction. It was what Mercedes’ own internal analysis of their performance had told them.
“I felt good, we had a decent package to work with,” Hamilton said as he reflected on testing after so far dominating the entire Melbourne weekend. “But we were aware we might be slightly behind. That’s what we honestly thought – from our analysis we truly believed we were behind.
“We haven’t changed the car. We have understood the car, but we have not brought any upgrades. The last couple of days have felt really good.”
Hamilton said the Ferrari was clearly losing time in the corners, rather than the straights, and that he was as puzzled as anyone as to why the red cars were no longer as quick as they had looked in Spain.
“In testing the [Ferrari] car looked planted,” Hamilton said. “I just said to him [Vettel]: ‘Were you on fumes?’ But I am really grateful for where the car is. I know Ferrari will be progressing and I know tomorrow they will put up a good fight.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said: “It wasn’t the easiest of starts in Barcelona and we can’t judge whether it was a bit of an outlier because Melbourne is different or whether genuinely we have a car that is as fast as it seemed today.”
As Red Bull’s Max Verstappen said: “We know this is a strong circuit for them.” Certainly, a crestfallen Vettel will be hoping that’s the explanation.
Hamilton was Britain’s sole representative in F1 last year but this year he is joined by three other drivers born in his home country.
George Russell, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon have all done enough in their junior careers to suggest they could impress in F1, and on their debuts all three did exactly that.
Norris was the brightest star, putting the McLaren eighth on the grid – not only a great performance from him, but a welcome indication for the team that the restructuring they undertook after their dismal form last year seems to be working.
The 19-year-old was a sniff off team-mate Carlos Sainz for most of the weekend but in qualifying the Spaniard came across Robert Kubica’s punctured Williams on his second run in the first session and was knocked out.
But Norris went all the way to the top 10 shoot-out – which he and the team admitted was not expected.
“I’m obviously very happy with how it ended up,” Norris said.
“A lot of nerves going into it, especially because I never managed to put it all together in any other run in the whole of the weekend. But I am just happy with how it all went and making improvements in areas we needed to make improvements.”
Alexander Albon, who races under Thai licence but was born in London and says he leans no more to one of his nationalities than the other, out-qualified team-mate Daniil Kvyat – in his fourth season of F1 – on merit.
Albon, who has an appealing, self-effacing manner, had a tricky first day including a light crash in Turn Two but bounced back well.
“Melbourne’s not the kindest track to start out at,” he said. “It’s so bumpy. And if you’re not comfortable and confident in the car the lap time will never come because you really need to be using all the track and playing with the bumps and the kerbs. It did take a bit of time to get up to speed but we got there in the end in qualifying.
“Being a rookie when the car’s a bit difficult to drive it knocks your confidence more than it should.”
Beating Kvyat must have felt good, but he played it down, saying: “I was actually a bit on the back foot [to him] most of the weekend. It was more just like a, ‘good just to be comfortable.’ It wasn’t like I was unconfident. I was just like: ‘This thing’s a bit of a beast’. It was more me. I didn’t really know…
“This track, there’s about a thousand lines you can do in terms of entry kerbs, apex kerbs, go on the astro. There are so many places where you are putting the car in very specific places unlike Barcelona where you can almost do what you want and get away with everything.
“It was a good session, I’m not going to lie about that. We’ll see come the race.”
And then there’s George Russell, who like Norris took it steadily on day one, but was comfortably quicker than team-mate Robert Kubica all Saturday, and had every reason to be satisfied with his performance in a very slow car. Kubica ended up 1.7secs adrift, after clouting a wall on his second run, but was already a second off after the first.
Norris, Albon and Russell have much yet to learn, and still plenty to prove. But this was a good start.
Woe is Williams
Russell’s performance was about the only bright spot of a dark, dark weekend for Williams.
In the paddock in Albert Park, the Williams area is right down the far end, separated from the row of buildings housing the other teams – all side-by-side – by tyre supplier Pirelli, Red Bull’s engine partner Honda, and the bar area hosted by the sport’s official beer sponsor.
The positioning of their building was, by coincidence, a fitting and accurate reflection of where Williams stand competitively – adrift of the rest of the grid, all on their own in a world of pain. Russell was a massive 1.276 seconds slower than the next slowest car.
Over the weekend, deputy team principal Claire Williams was using gallows humour to refer to this symmetry – and the predicament in which this team which not so long ago was dominating the sport now finds itself.
Williams had a bad year in 2018 – last in the constructors’ championship with a difficult car. It was the worst season in their previously illustrious history, but it was nothing compared to their current predicament.
How on Earth have Williams found themselves in this position? It is question being asked within the team, as well as in the rest of F1.
Clearly, fingers are pointing internally at chief technical officer Paddy Lowe, who went on what the team referred to as a “leave of absence” a few days after the conclusion of pre-season testing, which Williams started two and a half days late because the car was not ready in time.
Williams have said Lowe stepped away for “personal reasons”. But few people in F1 think those reasons are anything other than Williams’ anger and frustration at the position in which they find themselves, for which it seems they hold Lowe responsible.
Lowe has been the lead technical figure for teams who have won races and championships for the last decade and more, so what exactly has gone wrong at Williams remains a mystery – including to the team’s bosses and owners.
Last year, chief designer Ed Wood left the team in the spring after their poor start to the season. At the end of it, performance director Rob Smedley walked away, and is now working for F1. Neither was replaced. Now Lowe has gone, Williams are heading into 2019 without anyone employed in any of the three most senior technical roles in any F1 team.
Clearly, any recovery is going to take a long time – and the start of it will be to find out exactly what has led Williams to this place, and more importantly, how they get out of it.
“We knew this year was not going to be easy for us,” Claire Williams said. “Clearly there are a number of issues to resolve and weaknesses that need rectifying in the team. It’s not one particular element. Equally, it’s not the work of a moment.
“We are working through the process and confident that in due course we will start presenting ourselves in a better way. The real positive of all of this is that the team has lost none of its spirit. Everyone has their heads down, sleeves rolled up and is fighting to fix it.”