Kurt Verlin
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2019 Australian GP: Bottas Dominates Season Opener

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2019 Australian GP Start
Bottas leads Hamilton into T1 at the 2019 Australian GP
Photo: FORMULA 1 | YouTube
2019 Australian GP Top 10

Compared to the second half of 2018, Valtteri Bottas was like a changed man at the 2019 Australian GP. He was fast, aggressive, and decisive, much like he had been in his junior formula days, and much unlike the way he had driven last year, when he seemed almost cowed by the sheer driving force that was Lewis Hamilton.

Bottas nearly grabbed pole, took off like a rocket when the lights went out on Sunday, beat Hamilton by more than 20 seconds, and scored the fastest lap of the day (now worth a single championship point) after having been instructed not to pursue it in the morning’s team briefing. After passing the checkered flag he came on the radio and declared: “To whom it may concern, f*ck you” — addressing, presumably, his former sponsor Antti Aarnio-Wihuri, who had dropped Bottas after almost 20 years while criticizing his driving ability.

This is the same man who, at last year’s Russian Grand Prix, had seemed utterly defeated after complying with team orders not to pass Hamilton despite his better pace — even though it meant abandoning an almost sure shot at his first win of the year, for which he desperately yearned after poor luck had robbed him of success earlier in the season.

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What changed? Perhaps the presence of Esteban Ocon at the Mercedes garage, the reserve driver who many believe will be taking over Bottas’s seat in 2020, encouraged him to show he had more to give. Perhaps it was the new driver weight regulations, which Bottas praised for allowing him to get closer to his natural weight. “I’ve been able to actually eat,” he said, adding that it was the first time in many years he had not experienced illness over the winter.

Or perhaps it was just the beard. Whatever spurred Bottas to action, if the man can keep performing the way he did in Australia throughout the season, he will have made a pretty good argument to keep Ocon on the sidelines, and may have a real shot at the championship title.

But enough about Bottas. How was the 2019 Australian GP for everyone else?

One of the headlines is surely Max Verstappen’s podium finish, which represented Honda’s best-ever result in the new hybrid era. There’s been a lot of speculation about the performance of the new Honda engine but so far, while the Red Bull car is still not quite on the pace, the engine doesn’t seem to be at fault.

In fact, according to Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull may have designed the car with too little downforce as a result of being so accustomed to a power deficit with Renault. That may explain why Pierre Gasly struggled for so long to pass the slower Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat, though the latter was undoubtedly reinvigorated by his return to the sport and even managed to score a point.

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Homeboy Daniel Ricciardo couldn’t have had a worse afternoon. While his former teammate qualified on the second row and would go on to taste podium champagne, his car didn’t have the pace for the top 10 in qualifying, and on Sunday the Aussie had a taste of grass at the start, only to lose his entire front wing and eventually retire from the race. Meanwhile, his new teammate went on to score six points, though he likely would have hoped that Renault would be more competitive than that.

One of the biggest surprises at the Australian GP was Ferrari’s lack of pace. In testing, the team had seemed to have the advantage, yet by the second official practice session it was clear something was up. In qualifying, Sebastian Vettel could only manage third while his new teammate Charles Leclerc placed fifth, and during the race they were both outclassed by Mercedes and Red Bull.

Notably, while Ferrari seemed quickest during testing, its power units also had the most amount of technical niggles. It seems likely that, fearing a potential reliability breakdown, Ferrari turned down the power in Australia. The fact that Ferrari-powered cars were hogging the bottom of the speed traps seems to support that idea.

As far as overtaking went, the new regulations — designed to improve overtaking — seemed to have been a wash, but then again the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne is not known for producing great overtaking opportunities. In fact, the Australian Grand Prix in general is not always indicative of a car’s true pace throughout the season. We’ll have to wait for the Bahrain Grand Prix in two weeks to get a better glimpse at how it all stacks up.

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2019 Australian GP Championship Standings