553 days. This is the amount of time that had elapsed between Sebastian Vettel’s victory in this season’s curtain-jerker in Australia and his previous victory in the September 2015 Singapore Grand Prix. For a four-time world champion, that’s a very long time, and for Ferrari, one of the most iconic manufacturers in all of motorsport, it’s even longer.
There were questions, especially last season, about whether Vettel’s drive (pardon the pun) to win another world title was still there. Fans also wondered if Ferrari would cope with the array of new regulations introduced this season. From the moment qualifying began on Saturday, the answer to both of those questions was a resounding yes.
The new SF70H Ferrari looked superb in pre-season testing, but reading too much into testing data has caught punters out before. It is always difficult to know how much fuel the cars are running with and how hard the other teams are trying relative to the Italian manufacturer. Another caveat in recent seasons: testing has taken place in Barcelona, which has a relatively mild climate compared to the climates of Australia, China, and Bahrain at the start of the season.
In qualifying, Mercedes still came out on top. Lewis Hamilton secured pole position by almost three tenths from Vettel, and Hamilton’s new teammate Valtteri Bottas was just 0.025 behind the former Red Bull Racing star.
However, the gap between Hamilton and Vettel was almost certainly down to the driver’s capability on the circuit –– Hamilton had secured pole in four of the previous six races in Australia. It was in the race, though, that the maestro really returned.
Vettel perfectly executed a game of tight margins to narrowly come out in front of Dutchman Max Verstappen. From there, his victory was a formality. Hamilton pushed him hard, but the man from Heppenheim always looked in command and eventually cruised home to win by a margin just shy of 10 seconds. Valtteri Bottas completed an excellent drive to come in third and secure a podium finish, his 10th in Formula 1, in his Mercedes debut.
Fans have clamoured for a more competitive Formula 1, and it had been hoped the end of the previous hybrid era and wave of technical regulations introduced by the FIA for this season would make the cars more aesthetically pleasing, authentic, and competitive. Obviously, it is a little premature to make too many judgments after one race, but so far the season seems like a resounding success. We’ve got real racing and competition again.
It must be a huge relief to Liberty Media, which forked out a huge sum to buy the company from Bernie Ecclestone despite a decline in TV and advertising revenue and continual struggle throughout the world of single-seater motorsport.
Ferrari seemed to have narrowed the gap with Mercedes thanks to its smoother car, but warm weather has been the Maranello outfit’s downfall in the past, and therefore some of their bigger tests are still to come.
A real title battle between these two teams, and not three as had been hoped before the season began with Red Bull struggling for pace in Australia, will lead to a better standard of racing. It will also force the two teams, who possess some of the best brains in motorsport, to try and outwit one another. That can only be a formula for dramatic and entertaining racing, something die-hard F1 fans have been starved of in recent seasons.
The midfield this season looks incredibly close, with Toro Rosso possessing the best-looking car but Force India and Williams leading the way in terms of pace. The Haas looks very serviceable, whilst the Renault car looks hugely improved on last season despite Jolyon Palmer’s woeful qualifying performance and Nico Hulkenberg’s failure to score in the race.
Sauber has definitely improved on last season, and Antonio Giovinazzi was excellent in his debut race, finishing 12th after a very strong weekend, but they’ll struggle to score regularly.
Then there’s McLaren-Honda. I’m not really sure there’s much left to say about the travesty that is this year’s car. Honda still hasn’t produced a competent engine, and McLaren, which should be fourth in the constructors considering its resources, looks like it will struggle to be competitive this season. McLaren’s struggles are even more upsetting when you consider its driver line-up is one of the best on the grid. Fernando Alonso is still, in my opinion, one of the three best drivers on the entire grid, and Stoffel Vandoorne is one of the most cultured and talented prospects in years. They are both hard-workers, though, and I am sure they will strive to get the most out of the car as the season progresses.
Formula 1 is back, and it looks to be in great shape for this season. Although it will be the year of the rooster when the teams touch down in Shanghai this weekend, the grid has seen the re-emergence of a German dragon. And he seems hungry for a fifth world championship.