Australian Grand Prix: Ferrari are back as title contenders with Mercedes

Vettel celebrates
Sebastian Vettel won his first Grand Prix since Singapore in 2015

Sebastian Vettel was doing his best to play it down but the message from his victory in the Australian Grand Prix was clear - Ferrari are back and the Formula 1 fans can look forward to a close battle between them and Mercedes for the world title this year.

Vettel had talked about Mercedes having "no weak link", adding that "they will be the ones to beat". But make no mistake, this was an emphatic victory and Mercedes are well aware that. After three years of almost total domination, they finally have a fight on their hands.

All in all, the race in Melbourne's Albert Park was exactly what F1 needed, and what the sport should be.

Huge names - both in the cockpits and the cars themselves - locked in an intense and closely matched tussle for victory.

It could have gone either way, but the reality is that the Ferrari was probably the quicker car and Vettel pressured Mercedes into making a decision. People will blame Mercedes' strategy, but this was not an error per se; it was a call that just turned out the wrong way.

How did Vettel win?

The Ferrari's pace advantage in the first part of the race was clear from the way Vettel could stay within about 1.5 seconds of Hamilton and not fall back.

All the drivers talked about how the increased aerodynamic downforce of these cars made it harder to follow a rival. Hamilton said that last year the average distance where turbulence started to affect a car behind was about a second; this year it is double that. And yet Vettel was able to stick right with the Briton.

"He was relatively close," Hamilton said. "And if the roles were reversed and he was ahead he probably would have pulled away."

After about 10 laps, Hamilton's tyres were starting to lose grip and Mercedes were faced with an agonising decision.

If they kept Hamilton out, Vettel was easily close enough to pit before him, benefit from fresher tyres and take the lead that way - the so-called under-cut.

They felt they had to protect against that by bringing Hamilton in on 18, a lap earlier than planned.

They could see that Hamilton would rejoin behind Red Bull's Max Verstappen and catch him quickly, but they decided to take the risk.

Vettel crosses the finish line
Vettel finished nearly 10 seconds ahead of rival Lewis Hamilton

The Dutchman might have stopped soon after, or Hamilton might have been able to pass him. Or he might not. Either way, the numbers on the Mercedes strategy computers were saying this was the best choice.

Hamilton rejoined 21.7 seconds behind Vettel, who needed 23 seconds to make a pit stop.

The closeness in the pace of the cars was obvious from the fact that even with Hamilton out of the way and stuck behind Verstappen, Vettel's lap times were not much quicker.

It took him three laps to go faster than Hamilton, and even then it was only by 0.2-0.3secs. And it took another two to build the margin he needed.

But it was still agonisingly close.

Vettel rejoined right ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton, and had to defend hard against the Dutchman to keep him behind into Turn Three. Once that was done, victory was in the bag.

Once Verstappen pitted, Hamilton was six seconds behind Vettel. He felt he was quicker, but realised the game was up.

"I didn't know how long the tyres were going to last so I didn't want to close the gap knowing I couldn't overtake anyway and then run out of tyres and lose second place," Hamilton said. "Once I came out behind Sebastian it was really damage limitation."

The former world champion was not happy to lose out but said: "All things in perspective, to see where we have come from, massive rule changes and to come here and be battling so close for a win and missing out marginally, there are a lot of things to be proud of. Today we could have won the race but I gave it everything I could and you can't do more."

Hamilton and Vettel
More of a friendly rivalry for Hamilton this year?

How close is it really?

The evidence of the weekend overall is that Mercedes and Ferrari are pretty much neck and neck in terms of pace.

Hamilton took pole by nearly 0.3 seconds but the feeling was that a fair chunk of that margin - if not all of it - may well have been the driver, on a track on which the Englishman has always excelled, rather than the car. In that sense, the true outright pace of the Mercedes was probably shown by team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who was within a few hundredths of Vettel in third place.

In the second stint of the race, too, there was little to choose between the cars.

The first hint of patterns of performance might be emerging, too.

A few years ago, before their dominant era, Mercedes used to struggle with excessive tyre usage.

It has been a characteristic that has shown up from time to time in the past three years but generally did not make much difference because the car's advantage was so big.

But it contributed to Vettel's victory in Malaysia in 2015 and it showed up again in Melbourne.

In a potentially related issue, the Mercedes' advantage has tended to be reduced by the softer the tyres, and again perhaps there was evidence of that in Australia.

This time a reduced advantage meant the Ferrari was simply faster on the ultra-soft tyres with which the leading teams started the race. This may well have been a result of much hotter temperatures than in Friday practice, when Mercedes had looked considerably faster.

Ferrari
Ferrari have narrowed the gap on Mercedes in terms of engine and chassis performance

Rivals believe that much of Ferrari's gain this year has come from a big step forward in engine performance and that it is now the equal of Mercedes on power.

But the chassis is clearly comparatively better too. As Vettel said: "We have a great car - on straights and corners we are competitive."

All of this points to a battle that will likely ebb and flow through the season.

"Right now, it looks like we have equal machinery. I hope it turns out that way and we will see how it turns out but it's obviously a lot of fun to race for victories against the best," Vettel said.

Hamilton added: "I have an incredible amount of respect for Sebastian and what he's achieved in his career. It's been a privilege racing in an era with him and now finally we can actually have a real race.

"It's going to be a very hard slog this season, I think. It's going to be physically and mentally demanding but racing the best is what F1 is all about and ultimately it makes you work that much harder, having to raise the bar. And I'm looking forward to that."

Is it harder to race?

Hamilton has been saying for a long time that this year's new rules were likely to make it harder to race, and he said it again on Sunday.

The issue is the turbulence created by a car in front negatively affecting the aerodynamics of the one following.

"It is fundamental to the way the cars have been since I was in F1," Hamilton said. "It is probably worse now than before. It has definitely not got any better.

"It is going to be the same for the rest of the season. We are going much faster through the corner. Last year we had to have a second advantage on the car in front. Now, the delta to get past is bigger. If it's one second last year, it's two seconds this year."

But others were a little more circumspect. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, his opposite number at Mercedes Toto Wolff and Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen were among those who said it would be unwise to rush to judgement on the racing.

Australian GP
"It is probably worse now than before. It has definitely not got any better" - Hamilton on the difficulty of racing

They pointed out that overtaking has always been difficult at Albert Park and that it would be better to wait to see the next races in China and Bahrain, tracks where overtaking is much easier, before making a judgement.

There, on the longer straights, Hamilton's team-mate Bottas said the extra drag created by these new cars might even make for some great racing.

And in other ways, the new-look F1 is definitely better. The cars are much better looking and tougher tyres mean drivers are now on the limit for much more of the time.

"You can push them harder and they don't go off as much," Raikkonen said. "All tyres will drop off but the combination of the tyres and cars is much more of what everyone wanted."

"I had to manage the ultra-softs," said Bottas, who made an impressive debut for Mercedes. "But on the soft tyres you could push them hard and it was a really nice feeling."

For the past six years, drivers have been lapping well off the pace in races to protect the tyres. Not any more. Or at least not in Australia.

The essence of F1 is the best drivers in the world, in the fastest cars, pushing themselves and their machinery to the limit.

In that sense, F1 is authentic again for the first time since 2010. The audience is watching real grand prix racing; not some gimmicky, pale imitation.

In that context, to complain that overtaking might be a bit harder feels churlish, to say the least.