Albert Park, 17 March – Ferrari leads the Constructors’ World Championship after the opening round. That statement alone is enough to generate a sigh of relief from Prancing Horse fans around the world. After testing, the stated first objective was for Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa to be given a much more competitive car than last year and this evening, the F138, although not the quickest, delivered on that promise. Kimi Raikkonen won the race, running an impressive two stop strategy in the Lotus, with Fernando joining him on the podium in second place, in front of Sebastian Vettel, who finished third for Red Bull, having started from pole. The reason the Scuderia heads the Constructors’ table is that Felipe Massa rounded off the weekend with a strong drive to fourth place.
After a dry and sunny spell in the middle of the day, the clouds were again menacing Albert Park as the cars set off on their formation lap. The two F138s were on the Supersoft Pirelli, like all the top ten qualifiers, so early pit stops were predicted. Vettel got away cleanly from pole in the Red Bull, but his team-mate Webber dropped to seventh from second on the grid. Felipe made a lightening start to take second with Fernando right behind him in third as they crossed the line for the first time. Behind them came Hamilton, Raikkonen, Rosberg, Webber, Di Resta, Button with Sutil completing the top ten.
Button pitted on lap 4, followed one lap later by Webber, Grosjean and Gutierrez. At the front, Felipe trailed Vettel by 0.7, with Fernando a further 0.6 behind, while in fourth, Raikkonen in the Lotus was over two seconds behind the Spaniard. The race leader came in on lap 7, dropping to ninth, which meant the Ferrari duo were now heading the field. Felipe changed to the Medium on lap 8, rejoining seventh and Di Resta also came in at this time in the Force India. In first place, Fernando’s advantage over Raikkonen was under half a second, as the two of them dived into pit lane together on lap 9, leaving in the same order. This left the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Rosberg out in front, followed by Sutil, Perez, Vettel, Massa sixth, Alonso seventh and Raikkonen eighth. On lap 12, both Ferraris dispensed with Perez in the McLaren.
Hamilton pitted on lap 13, with Rosberg coming in next time round, so that Sutil, the only front runner not to have pitted yet in the Force India was a temporary leader ahead of Vettel, who was 0.7 ahead of Felipe with Fernando an identical gap behind. Perez pitted the McLaren on lap 16, dropping to 13th. At the front the gaps were getting smaller, with Felipe now 0.5 behind Vettel and Fernando 0.6 down on his team-mate. On lap 20, it was Fernando who made his second stop, fitting another set of Mediums, which dropped him to seventh. Next time round, Sutil pitted and so do did Vettel for his second stop, also for Mediums, which meant Felipe now led by 1.4 from Raikkonen and Hamilton was a further 11 seconds behind. Lap 23 and Felipe came in for fresh rubber, which dropped him to seventh behind Sutil.
Lap 27 and third placed Rosberg retired the Mercedes at the side of the track, so that Fernando was now third, chasing the leader Raikkonen and then Hamilton, who both had only made one stop so far. Behind the Spanish Ferrari man, Vettel was 1.2 behind, followed by Sutil, who had Felipe just 0.2 off his tail. At half distance – lap 29 – as Felipe was pressuring Sutil – a few drops of rain began to fall at a couple of corners towards the end of the track, but not enough to require rain tyres. Fernando had now closed right up to second placed Hamilton, ducking and diving either side of the Mercedes, eventually getting past on lap 31, after which the Englishman immediately pitted. On lap 32, Fernando was slowed slightly by a Caterham which allowed Vettel to close up. Raikkonen finally made his second stop on lap 34, so that Fernando was leading, from Vettel, Sutil and Felipe, with the Finnish Lotus driver resuming behind the Brazilian. However, with Raikkonen’s second stop coming much later than that of his rivals, it was now clear he was going to the flag without a third stop.
Lap 36 saw Felipe make his third and final stop, again fitting the Medium Pirellis with Vettel doing the same next time round, followed in by Button and Grosjean from eighth and ninth. With 20 of the 58 laps remaining, Fernando led Sutil by 10.5 as the Spaniard dived into the pits for his third and final stop, rejoining third. On fresh rubber, the Ferrari man at first began to close dramatically on Raikkonen, but once the initial boost from the tyres was over, the gap between them stabilised.
Meanwhile, Vettel swept past Hamilton to take third and Felipe was the next to dispense with the Mercedes man. Sutil had still not made his final stop, but the Force India needed new rubber and when the German came in from second on lap 46, this produced the finishing order that, at least for the leaders, would remain unchanged to the flag at the end of 58 laps.
This is a very encouraging start to the 19 race season for Scuderia Ferrari and the race did not produce the expected total dominance from Red Bull. However, there is no time to rest on one’s laurels with the hot and humid Sepang circuit hosting the Malaysian Grand Prix in just one week’s time. It will be another tough challenge, but the result here in Melbourne is a good morale booster and incentive for everyone at the track and back in Maranello, to keep pushing hard on the development of the F138.