“A new battle is afoot”

It may not have been the most dramatic of Grand Prix, but the events in Melbourne offered a sign that Formula One as a championship battle has been rejuvenated.

All it needs to do now is turn on the races and keep it up. Easy, right..?

It would not be a surprise if I was not the only one to be both delighted and disappointed to see Sebastian Vettel pass Lewis Hamilton for what would eventually be the lead, as the Ferrari exited the pits on lap 25 of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.

That is not to say that I favour or am against Ferrari in any way – my role is unbiased one – but rather it was pleasant to see, for the first time in a very long time, a team other than Mercedes take victory that was not attributable to the retirements of the sport’s recent dominant team.
On a few occasions since the new power unit regulations came into play in 2014, Mercedes have managed to pull significant results together, such was their dominance on track.

This race gave Ferrari an opportunity to prove their pre-season pace in a competition setting, something that seemed a while away following Friday’s free practice running. Vettel was in buoyant mood. “The last months have been really intense, it’s been tough to get into the rhythm. It’s just the beginning and there’s still a lot of work going on. This is one of many steps and we have to enjoy what we do. It’s great to see people smiling.”
Ferrari’s success instantly invited the possibility of a multi-team championship battle – something that has been missing from Formula One for nearly five years, but while one suspects that the pass delivered some relief to the viewing public, the overtake to decide the race was reduced to action in the pits.

Watching just the laptimes, it is clear that it was a very tight contest between Vettel and Hamilton. Neither Mercedes nor Ferrari appear so absolutely strong as to drastically pull away from the other and dominate the other, but Hamilton’s early struggles on the ultrasoft did not help matters and although Hamilton performed better on the softs, traffic rendered his efforts null. Hamilton: “Towards the end of the first stint I caught some traffic and that overheated the tyres. I struggled for grip to the point where I needed to come in, plus the gap was closing up and I was sliding around a lot. We made the call to pit, because otherwise I think Sebastian would have come past me anyway. After my stop I got caught in some traffic, which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”
Mercedes’ new Technical Director, James Allison, called for caution from the Brackley team. “If it wasn’t already clear after qualifying, then it’s certainly clear now that this is going to be a season of very small margins. We got a good getaway from the flag, but credit to Ferrari today, they had a very quick car and we just weren’t quite good enough to stick with them.
“We won’t panic, though. It’s race one of a long season and we scored some very good points with both cars today.”

Vettel was close to Hamilton in the early stages, but not close enough to commit to an overtake, such was the force of the turbulent air pouring from the rear of the Mercedes. Later when Hamilton pitted on lap 19 to escape sluggish and damaged Marcus Ericsson, the Englishman would briefly emerge in clean air, only to soon find himself stuck helplessly behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, before the Dutch teenager stopped for fresh tyres on lap 26.

Between the three-tenths that Ferrari saved in the tyre stop and the (net) two seconds that Hamilton lost frozen behind Verstappen, Vettel overcame his British rival. But making the move stick on track proved too difficult a prospect for Vettel and if this is the impasse that Formula One is to face for the foreseeable future, it will make the sport an equally difficult sell for viewers. “The GP was all decided at the pit stops,” said Ferrari’s Chief Technical Officer Mattia Binotto. “At that moment, we probably had less tyre degradation than our rivals towards the end of the stint and that meant we were able to stay out on track for longer. From then on, it was a case of bringing home the car in terms of reliability.”

Going back to Hamilton, his predicament was probably more telling. Through testing, the Red Bull’s seemed well shy of Ferrari and Mercedes’ optimum pace, but when the Melbourne updates proved somewhat indecisive, Red Bull fell into the road of de facto third-quickest team – not close enough to the leaders to challenge, but still well clear of the Williams, Force India fight. Yet when Hamilton rejoined on fresh tyres just behind Verstappen, the Briton could do nothing to slice by the Red Bull, who was by now on twenty-something-lap-old ultrasofts.

If the rest of the season plays out like Melbourne, we could very well see Mercedes will do the business in the qualifying session on Saturday, while Ferrari’s strengths can be employed during the race itself. The challenge for Ferrari is whether they can consistently overcome Mercedes through strategy or improve their own qualifying performance in order to leapfrog the silver and turquoise cars. Mercedes, too, have little choice but to redouble their efforts to improve both their race pace and the treatment of their tyres.

Realistically the drawn out nature of the race was not unexpected, and Melbourne is far too small a sample upon which to judge a season, but while the cars are undoubtedly much faster, they did underline just how drastically the new technical regulations can hinder the art of overtaking.

2017 Australian Grand Prix, Sunday - Steve Etherington

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