MELBOURNE • Lewis Hamilton experienced frustration for a third successive year at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix after a poor start and an early pit stop condemned the five-time world champion to another runner-up finish yesterday.
The Briton claimed a record-extending eighth pole position at Albert Park on Saturday, but ended a distant second behind his resurgent Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who got the jump on him at the start and burned away.
He was called in to pit early to follow Sebastian Vettel's lead after the Ferrari driver changed to medium compound tyres.
However, Hamilton was overheard on the team radio complaining his tyres would not last, before battling handling issues late on.
On the other hand, Bottas stayed out on soft tyres, a decision that contributed to his dominant 20-second victory, which the Finn declared was definitely his "best race ever".
"In the beginning, it was all about managing the race and building the gap," the Finn said. "I knew I could do it, I've done it before, it was about being at my best level."
Mercedes later issued an official statement saying they had discovered damage to the floor of Hamilton's car and there was a "chunk missing".
AUSTRALIAN GP RESULTS
1 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes 1hr 25min 27.325sec
2 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes +20.886sec
3 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull +22.520
4 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari +57.109
5 Charles Leclerc (Mon) Ferrari +58.230
6 Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas +1min 27.156sec
7 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Renault +1 lap
8 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Alfa Romeo +1 lap
9 Lance Stroll (Can) Racing Point +1 lap
10 Daniil Kvyat (Rus) Toro Rosso +1 lap
1 Bottas 26pts 2 Hamilton 18 3 Verstappen 15 4 Vettel 12 5 Leclerc 10
1 Mercedes 44 2 Ferrari 22 3 Red Bull 15 4 Haas 8 5 Renault 6
Given the circumstances, the 34-year-old felt he "did a relatively decent job", saying: "Obviously, the strategy was not ideal in the scenario that I had. Just obviously the start, I lost out quite a lot.
"It was a good weekend for the team. Valtteri drove an incredible race today so he deserved it. I've just got work on my starts more."
Sky Sports' Formula One commentator Paul di Resta questioned the decision to have him pit early, claiming he could not recall the last time "Hamilton was beaten fair and square like this".
But Mercedes boss Toto Wolff defended the call as the team "needed to cover that undercut (by Vettel)".
He said: "I don't think it was a mistake because we could have ended up behind by not doing that. I don't know why they pitted so early. That put us under pressure."
The Silver Arrows were, however, still delighted their raw pace was more than enough to put Ferrari and their rivals out of the equation.
Expressing his surprise that the Italian team "didn't have any pace at all", Wolff added: "Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle."
While Mercedes welcomed the one-two finish despite Hamilton's teething problems, Ferrari left Melbourne with some serious questions to answer.
It was a sobering day for the Scuderia as Vettel and new teammate Charles Leclerc were reduced to fighting each other for a minor position, with early warning signs that all was not well coming to a head.
Although the German took umbrage at the decision to make him pit early as he lost pace late on, he admitted the strategy could not explain why the car, which had been the quickest in winter testing in Barcelona, was sluggish at corners and had handled so poorly.
Vettel said: "By the looks of it, of course we did (the change too soon) because I was struggling, so we need to have a good look.
"But even ignoring the lap that we pitted, it looked like other people had way less problems so I'm not quite sure what the issue was."
REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN