Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Melbourne was a source of real joy for everyone in F1. After three years of tedious Mercedes processions, barely interrupted by breakdowns and inter-team tangles, the sight of a Ferrari out-racing Mercedes was widely welcomed.
It is being heralded as a new dawn for F1, the end of Mercedes dominance. It wasn’t, and we could still be in for another season of the same old Silver Arrow procession.
The real relative performance between the cars was better indicated by the Bottas / Raikonnen battle. The Ice Man was never in contention.
There are two things which make me wary of heralding a new dawn. Vettel should have won this race last year, but for a botched Ferrari strategy call. Mercedes went on to dominate the rest of the season. This year Vettel’s victory rested on a mistake by Hamilton and Mercedes. By running on used ultra soft tyres in qualifying two, Hamilton was forced to start on rubber that had at least six laps of use.
Those tyres wore much more quickly than those on the Ferrari, Vettel was able to run for five more laps after Hamilton pitted and only stopped then because Ferrari knew they had the gap to stop and rejoin still in the lead, and were presumably worried that Max Verstappen might have stopped and released Hamilton to lap faster.
Mercedes one weakness over the last few years has been tyre degradation. The high temperatures in Melbourne, when added to the used tyres Hamilton’s car started on, compromised Mercedes pace.
The second thing was the quality of Vettel’s race. Fast aggressive and right on it. From trackside it was obvious that Vettel was flying closer to the limit than anyone else. At the exit to the turn 9 / 10 Clark complex Vettel was closer to the wall than anyone. At turn 16 he played with the limits of adhesion of even the new, wider rubber, again more so than any other competitor..
It was a superhuman effort, worthy of a Schumacher or a Gilles Villeneuve, two other heroes in red. Nothing was left in the locker.
To expect this perfect storm of factors to even out the gap at every race weekend this year is foolish. Only a run of extremely hot, summer races plays to Ferrari’s advantage. We haven’t had a lot of those in recent years.
China will give us a much better picture of where the new cars stand. I suspect that Mercedes will regain the initiative there, adding to their tally of four wins in the last five races.
If Ferrari (and Red Bull) are able to compete with Mercedes in Beijing, then we can talk about a Championship battle being in prospect.