“WHAT just happened, guys?!”
A Virtual Safety Car (VSC) called to retrieve two stranded Haas cars from the track left Hamilton staring past his halo at the rear tyres of championship nemesis Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari.
The Maranello team timed a pit-stop to perfection, bringing Vettel in for fresh tyres at precisely the right moment to take advantage of the mandatory stagnated speed conditions under the VSC to leapfrog both Raikkonen and Hamilton.
You could almost hear the smile being wiped from Hamilton’s face as what had just happened dawned on him.
Vettel went on to win the opening round of the 2018 Formula 1 championship with little difficulty. Current aerodynamic regulations make passing manoeuvres a laborious process, particularly at Melbourne's Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit, as its track layout provides little opportunity for overtaking. Hamilton’s chances to reclaim the lead faded away, even with an extra DRS zone this year.
At the end of the race, Hamilton manoeuvred his W09 Mercedes-AMG into parc ferme, and sat motionless, the reality of the situation sinking in.
It was just 24 hours earlier that Hamilton had been cheerily ribbing his fellow four-time champion in the post-qualifying press conference. The reigning F1 champ was bristling with confidence after crushing the field by six-tenths of a second to claim pole.
Immediately, accusations of sandbagging by Mercedes during the pre-season started to fly, with murmurs of a high-boost "party mode" engine setting the secret to Hamilton’s sudden turn of speed at the end of Q3.
"I can assure you we don't have a party mode," Hamilton said in the post-qualifying press conference. "I used the same mode in Q2 and Q3. There was no extra button, there was no extra mode that I engaged."
Vettel wasn’t buying it. "What were you doing before then?" he retorted.
Hamilton fired back: "I was waiting to put in a good lap in, so I could wipe the smile off your face!”
Kimi Raikkonen remained typically nonplussed during the exchange. He finished the race in third, holding off hometown hero Daniel Ricciardo, who finished fourth.
The Australian had a tumultuous weekend, with an initially strong showing of speed soured by a three-place grid penalty handed down on Friday after the second practice session for speeding during a red flag. Ricciardo was seething. "I think it’s shithouse," he said. Plenty of Aussie fans agreed.
The penalty dropped the 28-year-old from fifth to eighth for the race start. His charge to fourth by race end was aided by the retirement of both Haas cars that independently struck tyre issues following their first pit stops while running in exceptionally strong fourth and fifth positions.
An unforced error from Ricciardo's Red Bull Racing teammate, Max Verstappen, also assisted the Aussie's climb up the order. Verstappen eventually crossed the line in sixth, behind Fernando Alonso, who finished his first Australian Grand Prix since re-joining McLaren.
Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, Stoffel Vandoorne, and Carlos Sainz rounded out the top 10.
Supercars Melbourne 400
While the 58-lap F1 race was the headline act, it was arguably overshadowed in racing terms by the local Supercars championship, which produced four different winners over four races.
It was the first time Supercars has awarded championship points at Albert Park, with seven-time champ Jamie Whincup claiming the inaugural Larry Perkins Trophy for the round win.
Scott McLaughlin drew first blood for the weekend, winning the opening race in dry conditions.
The heavens opened up for race two. This time it was Whincup who was the victor, his first race win of the year after a difficult Adelaide 500.
McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske teammate Fabian Coulthard were hot on his heels, while rainmaster Shane van Gisbergen overtook Cam Waters on the last lap of the race to claim fourth place.
But the best race of the weekend would occur late on Saturday, after the F1 circus had completed qualifying.
The sun was beginning to kiss the horizon, while rain clouds hung above, threatening to burst.
It was Scott Pye who jumped to the lead at the start of the race, for new super-team Walkinshaw Andretti United. Whincup was second on the road, keeping his fellow Holden driver honest.
Midway through the race, the clouds came good on their threat, and the teams and drivers scrambled with strategy changes – stay out and risk a wet track on slick tyres, or pit for wets and claw back to the front.
Pye, Whincup, and the following Percat held strong at the front of the field, while others – including both DJR Team Penske cars – caved and peeled into the pits.
Fortune favoured the brave, with the rain easing enough for the slick-shod leaders to stay true up front.
Darkness had descended by time the final lap started, with Pye holding on for his first win against Whincup, the greatest driver in the category’s history.
McLaren F1 team boss, and new co-owner of Walkinshaw Andretti United, Zak Brown was in the garage as the team claimed its first win in more than a year.
Behind them, Percat held on for third place in what was a brilliant weekend for the Albury-based Brad Jones Racing squad. The South Australian driver would also feature on the podium in the final race.
David Reynolds won for Erebus Motorsport in the final sprint of the weekend, while off-track drama continued.
Both the Nissan and Ford teams were granted dispensation by Supercars to use lighter body panels at Albert Park following a war of words in Adelaide over the composite panels that were fitted to the Holden ZB Commodore.
Red Bull Holden Racing team boss Roland Dane said he “couldn’t care less” about what the other teams fitted to their cars, while Whincup branded the situation a “storm in a teacup”.
Van Gisbergen held onto his championship lead at the end of the weekend, with Reynolds close behind heading into the third round of the championship in Tasmania.