It only took two races for four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to claim his first Ferrari victory, but while an early safety car period played into his hands, this was by no means a lucky score.
“Grande gara, bella macchina,” came the call. It was a call delivered with renewed energy and passion and one that reached out to a fanbase groomed in red. The Tifosi had not been long in waiting. “Sorry for starting to speak in Italian, but today is such a special day for me. I don’t really know what to say, I am speechless.” Sebastian Vettel had arrived and had done so with confidence and a certain style.
After a year on the fringes, Ferrari appears to have bounced back, following substantial improvements to their power unit in parallel with the restructuring of the technical department and the race team. Yet despite the positive noises made about the SF15-T machine, it is doubtful many expected Vettel could take such an early Grand Prix victory in red.
“It is a great boost for the entire team,” noted the victor. “Ferrari had a horrible year last season, and they got criticised a lot from all sides. A lot of things have changed already, including one driver. And I do hope for the better, and I am very happy to join Ferrari. For sure this is a great day for the team and for myself, and it makes me very proud.”
That Vettel has made his mark already places him in the same category as Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher; all of whom claimed races for the Scuderia very early in their respective times at Maranello.
Indeed once he had assumed the lead at the end of lap four, the German looked in supreme control and even seemed to have the measure of the Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the final stages of the race.
The former Red Bull man needed to get aggressive from the start. As poleman Hamilton romped away in the opening metres, Vettel was forced to defend against the other turquoise-and-silver entry, piloted by Rosberg.
It was close too. On the previous day, Vettel had managed to split the Mercedes pair, but while that was a noteworthy effort by the Ferrari man, it did place Rosberg just shy and to the right of Vettel, albeit on the second row, but as Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff correctly pointed out after qualifying, “you get no points on Saturday…”
Post-qualifying, Rosberg already planning ahead. “Two other guys just did a better job, […] but I think I have a good chance tomorrow at the start as I will be on the clean side of the grid. I will try to attack [Vettel] off the line and then there are some good opportunities also to catch Lewis.” Rosberg did attack, but Vettel would defend hard as he squeezed his countryman close to the pitwall and then later the inside kerb through the lingering turn one. With little choice but back out, Rosberg obediently dropped into 3rd place.
And that should realistically have been it – except Marcus Ericsson was slow to get the message on a weekend when Sauber had lost their Melbourne sheen. Having qualified well, the Swede was running 8th when an overly ambitious attempt to pass Nico Hulkenberg into the first turn on lap four went awry, as he explained: “When I tried to pass him down to Turn 1, I went for the move to the outside. I know it is possible to overtake there, but unfortunately I lost the rear, went off and got stuck in the gravel trap…”
With a large lumbering tractor required to pull the stricken Sauber from harm, the safety car was called to neutralise the race and in a moment, the face of the event was altered.
Whereas Vettel stayed on track, the two Mercedes cars – as well as both Williams’, Red Bull’s, McLaren’s and Max Verstappen (Toro Rosso) – stopped for a change of tyre and strategy, promoting Vettel to lead and demoting Hamilton and Rosberg to 6th and 9th respectively.
Vettel: “They pulled in obviously, which I think we were a bit surprised by, but we saw on Friday that they weren’t too happy on the medium compound and Lewis was struggling in the first stint and I was able to keep up with him, which I enjoyed a lot.”
Upon the lap seven restart, Vettel – now trailed by the Force India of Hulkenberg – pulled away and held a 9.9s gap to Hamilton when he eventually climbed back to 2nd on lap ten and the gap stayed more or less like that for much of the running.
Vettel, however, was being kept on his toes throughout. “I knew I had to deliver, trying to make those tyres last and trying to go as fast as I can,” said the victor. “Second stint [Hamilton] was chasing me down, which was tough, so he had a strong second stint. In the end I think I was able to rebalance the car a little more and I was able to have a solid gap the last couple of laps.”
The German eventually made his first stop on lap 17, with Hamilton venturing to the pit for the second time on lap 24; however from this point Mercedes were left with a conundrum – do they leave their leading man on track for the remainder of the 32 laps and risk a large fall-off late on, or do they opt for a third stop.
Come the two-third mark, the decision would be taken away from them – earlier than expected degradation and a raft of traffic forced Mercedes’ hand and Hamilton was called in for a third time on lap 38, just one lap after Vettel completed his second and final stop.
With seventeen laps remaining, Vettel’s lead over Hamilton was just over fourteen seconds, but as the duo slipped through traffic, the German held his nerve and allowed the gap to fall to a manageable 8.56s come the chequered flag.
“It’s not only one childhood dream that becomes true, it seems to be many dreams together,” said Vettel, adding, “It was amazing to look down from the podium and see the mechanics, the engineers, the whole team and listen to the German and Italian anthems. The atmosphere in the team has always been great, but it’s just getting better and better.”
There was no doubt whatsoever that fortune played its part in Vettel’s first Ferrari win, but one must not discount what was a devastatingly excellent drive by a champion out to prove himself again after a difficult 2014.
Almost breathless and dripping with sweat, the relief was clear and present. “I shouldn’t say it but […] I was shitting myself the last couple of laps because here and there the thought was coming to my head, I was looking at the top of the chassis and thinking, ‘this is a red, you’re about to win’ and then I thought, ‘OK, stop thinking that, otherwise you’ll miss the next apex or something.’”
For Sebastian Vettel, the first hurdle has successfully been cleared. Whether Ferrari has the strength to produce this type of performance regularly in an unknown, but the Scuderia are on the March again and Mercedes will be looking over their shoulder from here on in.