Mercedes and the art of throwing pie in everyone’s face

Formula 1

Oh dear. Mercedes has displayed some pretty ominous pace all weekend in Melbourne but no-one was expecting such a comfortable pole position for Lewis Hamilton. Preseason suggested Ferrari would be in the mix but the Italian team has to go back to the drawing board ahead of tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix.

Here’s a round-up of the good, the bad and the ugly from qualifying.

Ripping up the form book: Last year on the opening Saturday of the season Daniel Ricciardo said Lewis Hamilton’s easy pole position was like Mercedes flipping the bird and throwing a pie in everyone’s face. Sounds familiar.

A few weeks ago, Hamilton claimed Ferrari was 0.5s ahead of Mercedes — a significant margin in F1 over one lap — and the narrative which formed over the winter was that the Italian team had the edge. Sebastian Vettel finished 0.7s down on Hamilton’s eventual benchmark on Saturday. Mercedes seemed surprised by the gap and how comfortable things have been in Melbourne, while Ferrari expected it to be closer.

These things can vary from circuit to circuit, but that is a massive advantage at this point in the year. On this performance, you woudn’t bet against a sixth straight championship for Mercedes.

But…: You might recall that last year’s race wasn’t plain sailing for Mercedes. After the aforementioned pie slinging, Hamilton was beaten to the win by Vettel — albeit after a tactical blunder on the pit-wall around the timing of a Virtual Safety Car. But it doesn’t matter how you win them, does it?

Melbourne has served up some unpredictable season openers before and F1 really needs one again tomorrow to stop any notion of Mercedes waltzing away from the rest in 2019. I’m never rooting for a particular driver or team but it would be quite helpful for this season if Hamilton isn’t the man standing on the top step of the podium on Sunday.

An all-time Lowe: The 2019 Williams car is a shambles. Having arrived two and a half days late to preseason testing (losing over 25 percent of its running time, something Claire Williams said was embarrassing for her family team) and putting technical chief and car designer Paddy Lowe on leave ahead of this weekend, it was always going to be a tough weekend. But it was hard to forsee it being this bad… George Russell was over two seconds off the pace, while a late puncture meant Robert Kubica’s best time was 4.050s off the fastest time in Q1.

Neither time was outside the 107 percent limit required to officially be allowed to start, which is probably the biggest positive of the campaign so far for the team. That says everything you need to know about that.

Valtteri, it’s pains: Valtteri Bottas looked like a broken man at the end of last year. A win here would be the perfect start to this crucial season of his career and he held provisional pole until the dying moments of the session, when Hamilton snatched it from under his nose. It’s those sorts of moments against the elite drivers that can shatter confidence and Bottas will hope he can bounce back from that setback tomorrow.

Super Lando: The undoubted star of the day was Lando Norris, 19, who progressed to Q3 on his debut, out-qualifying McLaren teammate Carlos Sainz in the process. Norris has had a lot of hype around him in the early years of his career — if he keeps those performances up, it will have been entirely justified.

And yes, lots of people tweeted that gif of Lando Calrissian screaming “yeehaw!” after destroying the Death Star in Return of the Jedi.

Gastly mistake costs Gasly: Red Bull looked a little bit silly at the end of Q1. It opted against putting its drivers out for a second run and promptly watched everyone improve in the closing part of that portion of qualifying as the track evolved and gripped up.

Gasly dropped out, ironically, thanks to a lap from Ricciardo, the man he replaced this year. Verstappen only made it through by 0.144s. Given how close it’s been this weekend, it was a curious error of judgement by the team.

Haas on form: Haas is returning to the scene of the crime this weekend — it famously blundered twice in last year’s race while running both cars inside the top six. It was hard to judge the American team’s pace over the winter but an impressive race simulation on the final day seemed to hint at some real pace inside the VF19 car.

Haas was on great form on Saturday, with Romain Grosjean beating Kevin Magnussen to sixth position on the grid. The team will feel very confident about its chances of a big points haul going into tomorrow’s race but there might be a nervy night’s sleep in store for anyone at Haas with a good memory.

Racing for Charlie: There was a slightly sombre feel to the session. Every car was carrying with it a tribute to long-serving race director Charlie Whiting, who died suddenly on Thursday. As Maurice Hamilton wrote earlier this week, it spoke volumes about the man that in a cut-throat sport which has been called the Piranha Club, he was admired and respected by every single person involved within in it. It will be strange seeing someone else operating the start lights for tomorrow’s race, something he has done since 1997.

You can read Whiting’s obituary here.

Other observations worthy of mention

• While Norris excelled, it’s worth noting that his two fellow rookies out-qualified their teammates too. Alexander Albon beat Daniil Kvyat and George Russell finished ahead of the returning Robert Kubica.

• Sainz would have likely joined Norris in at least Q2 had he not been directly behind Kubica’s car when the Williams drove so fast it suffered a puncture, forcing him to bail out of his own last-ditch effort.

• Norris might well be starting the race from one place higher, with Kevin Magnussen (seventh) due to visit the stewards for an unsafe release from his pit box during the session. That could come with a grid penalty for the Danish driver.

• Lewis Hamilton now has equaled the record for the most pole positions at a single circuit, with eight. He’s in famous company — the other two are Michael Schumacher at Suzuka and Ayrton Senna at Imola.

• We aren’t going to know how successful the tweaked cars are in terms of improving overtaking, but they look seriously impressive on a race track. They look much more on the limit than last year.

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