Lewis Hamilton had just broken the lap record at the Australian Grand Prix’s Albert Park circuit, but no-one had seen it coming.
Things had been close right up until the dying seconds of qualifying. Hamilton held provisional pole by a slender 0.03 seconds from Sebastian Vettel. The tension was palpable.
But something clicked on Hamilton’s final lap. From the first turn you could see it: a little late on the brakes, a little extra speed, a little more warmth in the tyres.
The Briton had found his sweet spot, and it was devastating. He improved his first lap by almost an entire second. Vettel had no answer.
“What were you doing before?” Vettel asked the pole-sitter.
“I was waiting to put a good lap in to wipe the smile off your face!” Hamilton replied jokingly.
Vettel responded: “I think what goes around comes around,” he said. “He’s free to have a party tonight, and then hopefully Kimi [Raikkonen, his Ferrari teammate] and myself will have a party tomorrow.”
Perhaps in his mind during the good-humoured exchange was last year’s Australian Grand Prix, when he strategised his way past Hamilton for the victory. What he certainly didn’t have in mind was that Mercedes would undo Hamilton’s good work for him.
Reigning world champion Hamilton got away cleanly, keeping the Ferraris at bay, and when Raikkonen stopped early on lap 18, Lewis covered him the next time around, holding position. He had the race under control.
Vettel stayed out, but his pace wasn’t particularly competitive. When the time came for the German’s sole pit stop, he would drop back behind Hamilton and Raikkonen. The race would be decided that simply.
The twist came on laps 22 and 24. The surprisingly competitive Haas cars driven by Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean made their respective stops, but as they exited the pits they were forced to stop on track and retire with incorrectly fitted wheel nuts.
Race control activated the virtual safety car, mandating that all drivers lap at the same speed while the stricken machines were cleared. Vettel dived into the pits, but thanks to the reduced speed of the rest of the field, he emerged from his stop with the lead.
“What just happened, guys?” Hamilton said over team radio.
“We thought we were safe, but there’s obviously something wrong,” replied his engineer.
Mercedes was later forced to concede it had got its numbers wrong. Blaming a software glitch, team principal Toto Wolff admitted the team had been relying on incorrect data to guide Hamilton’s race.
“Our computer said 15 seconds was the necessary time in order [for Vettel] to jump us,” he said. “Then suddenly the cameras showed us the pit exit and Sebastian came out in front of us.
It was a crucial error, and with older tyres on a track that makes overtaking difficult, Hamilton found no way past his German rival.
For the third year in succession Hamilton had failed to convert pole position into victory at the Australian Grand Prix, and for the second year in a row Vettel had wiped the smile from his face.
“We got a bit lucky,” Vettel admitted on the podium. “But we’ll take it.”
“I’m not yet exactly happy with the car … but I think it gives us a good start, a good wind and fresh motivation for the coming weeks.”
Hamilton and Mercedes, therefore, have reason to remain optimistic.
“It feels like a dark cloud, but it’s still a positive result,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got a great car … and with a couple of adjustments, we can win the next race.”