Victor and vanquished, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton sat together in a picture of uneasy harmony. The German had swept into the press room in jubilation, almost lifting his manager, Britta Roeske, clean off her feet as he celebrated Ferrari’s restoration to their accustomed place at the summit of Formula One.
Beside him, Hamilton was respectful but pensive, as if recognising that his rival’s superbly-judged win here at Albert Park heralded a changing of the guard.
Toto Wolff knew it, too. When Vettel emerged on track ahead of Hamilton after the decisive pit-stop, the normally composed Mercedes team principal was caught on TV banging his fist hard on the desk, twice. “Yes, I need to work on my emotions during the race,” Wolff said, acidly. “Perhaps I need to see someone professionally about it.”
For three years Mercedes have enjoyed a stranglehold over this sport, but Ferrari wrenched it away with a display of exceptional pace and cunning. The Prancing Horse has discovered a kick in its legs once more. Even more tantalisingly, the long-awaited battle between Vettel and Hamilton, two drivers who have won six of the last seven world titles between them, has at last begun to be drawn.
It is a duel conducted, for now, in an atmosphere of intense mutual respect. One can count the drivers for whom Hamilton has genuine regard on one hand, but in Vettel, who has amassed four championships to his three, he seems to have found a kindred spirit. Both made stunning early statements in their careers – Vettel when he won at Monza in a Toro Rosso, Hamilton when he audaciously passed Fernando Alonso at the first corner of his first race in 2007 – and both share a mischievous streak of humour. Belatedly, on this evidence, the pair looked likely to be locked in combat for the next 19 races.
Vettel, who had not won for 18 months, could barely keep the smile from his face. A quadruple champion at Red Bull, he moved from Milton Keynes to Maranello to join the realm of legends. On Sunday, at last, after an Australian Grand Prix that he controlled exquisitely, he is on the path to doing so. He dare not think about it yet, but a fifth title has only ever been accomplished by two men: Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. Vettel is still just 29.
His preference, he made clear, would be to enjoy the toughest confrontation with Hamilton first. “I would love to have a close battle with Lewis,” Vettel said. “It looks like we have equal machinery, and I hope it stays that way. I have great respect for him – I still remember his move on Alonso here 10 years ago. He made other people look very silly.”
Hamilton never quite pulled off the same dazzling effect this time. While he started strongly from pole position, Ferrari’s superior performance on the ultra-soft tyres meant the odds were always stacked against him to retain the lead. He felt under pressure from Vettel’s pace to dive into the pits early, and immediately regretted the decision as he ended up caught in traffic behind Max Verstappen.
An irritable exchange ensued. “It’s race-critical that we get past Verstappen,” Pete Bonnington, his chief engineer, said over the radio. “How do you expect me to do that right now?” Hamilton shot back, irritably. “There’s no way I can overtake this guy.” So it proved, and when Vettel returned after his own pit-stop with a comfortable lead, the contest was effectively over.
It is clear beyond doubt that Ferrari’s restoration is real. Wolff, having seen the Scuderia's startling pace in winter testing, had warned that Mercedes faced “one hell of a fight” to retain their supremacy and this was a day that did nothing to contradict his logic. It is a decade since Ferrari were last able to call themselves champions, but after several faltering campaigns, Vettel’s Melbourne masterclass has revived confidence in F1’s most fabled marque. There was a reason why actress Nicole Kidman had gravitated to their corner of the paddock during the race. There is simply no team to match them for glamour.
They look unsurpassed for speed, too, although Mercedes will work feverishly to close their fractional deficit before the next grand prix in Shanghai. “The fact we are very similar, pace-wise, will make it a long, hard slog this season,” Hamilton said. “It has been a privilege to race in the same era as Sebastian, and finally we can have a real race. It will be physically and mentally demanding, but racing the best is what F1 should be about.”
Chase Carey, glad-handed by all and sundry on his grid-walk as the sport’s newly-appointed chief executive, clearly liked what he saw. It is not healthy for business to have one team as remorselessly dominant at Mercedes and it is refreshing that Ferrari have shown the calibre to reel them in.
A measure of how much they are adored is that even here, 10,000 miles from their home in northern Italy, hundreds of fans – the Antipodean tifosi – flocked on to the track after the chequered flag to share in Vettel’s triumph.
It is rare these days that F1 lends itself to such spontaneous outpourings of joy. But the sparking of a head-to-head battle between two iconic teams, not to mention the two most celebrated drivers of their generation, seemed worthy cause for a party.
Formula 1 is definitely back
So Sebastian Vettel starts the season on the podium, but will he still be there in two weeks time when Formula 1 heads to China?
Our man in Melbourne
Our Chief Sports Feature Writer Oliver Brown was in Melbourne to see Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel come out ahead of Mercedes.
To read the key lessons from Albert Park, click here.
Predict the winner
Only 25percent of voters thought that Sebastian Vettel would win the Australian Grand Prix.
Hamilton thanks his team
Lewis Hamilton came second but there there wasn't much he could do once Sebastian Vettel took the lead.
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) March 26, 2017
The race winner speaks
"It's a long, long way ahead. For now, we're just over the moon. It's been a hard winter, and an incredible race today. We're here, we're here to fight."
Australian Grand Prix
The winning team
It's a great victory for Ferrari and Australia is their 225th Grand Prix win.
Australian Grand Prix
And here is your podium for the first race of the 2017.
Provisional Australian GP Results
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 26, 2017
Fans on the track
We love the support of the fans but going onto the track while the cars are still moving is not the best idea.
Sebastian Vettel wins the Australian Grand Prix from Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Lap 54 of 57
And Alonso is out!
Hugely disappointing for the driver who had been in the points for most of the race but it's another retirement for the McLaren.
Lap 53 of 57
Ocon overtakes Alonso to get into tenth with Hulkunberg trying to take advantage by coming around the outside, but the Frenchman manages to hold on to his position in the points. Alonso now drops to 12th.
Lap 52 of 57
Is it too late for Hamilton? The team certainly don't seen to think so.
— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) March 26, 2017
Lap 51 of 57
Kvyat pits. a bizarre decision so near the end of the race.
Lap 49 of 57
Magnussen is out of the race and it's an awful weekend for Haas.
— Sauber F1 Team (@SauberF1Team) March 26, 2017
Lap 47 of 57
With just ten laps remaining; Vettel has an 8s lead over Hamilton. With Bottas baring down on his new teammate. It could be a very interesting end to the race with Raikkonen and Verstappen making up the top five.
Lap 45 of 57
There's a nice battle going on between 6th and 8th with Massa, Perez and Kvyat with just 0.3s between the drivers.
Lap 41 of 57
Vettel leads the race from Hamilton, Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen
Then from sixth we have Massa, Perez, Kvyat, Sainz and Alonso.
And bringing up the rear is Ocon, Hulkenberg, Giovinazzi, Stroll, Vandoorne and Magnussen.
Lap 39 of 57
Toto Wolff has an interesting decision to make as Bottas closes on Hamilton. The three-time world champion is not have a good day so far.
A nation weeps
You have to have a heart of stone not to want this guy to do well.
— Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) March 26, 2017
Suspect Hamilton will be asked about this in the post-race press conference
Wow crazy Sebastian got Lewis! Didn't see that coming! #ferrariisfast!
— Nico Rosberg (@nico_rosberg) March 26, 2017
Lap 35 of 57
Hamilton is nearly 7s behind Vettel as we wait for the 'Plan B' which is likely to be a two-stop strategy Bottas closing down on the Brit.
Lap 33 of 57
Alonso is in the points. I repeat, Alonso is in the points.
This is not a drill.
Lap 29 of 57
Ricciardo is out of the race and we have the yellow flags.
Christian Horner suggests it is an engine failure and they both probably wishes this weekend was over already.
Lap 27 of 57
Verstappen is having a very good race and once again the teenager does not seen fazed by his illustrious competition.
Lap 24 of 57
It is Bottas, Raikkonen, Vettel, Verstappen and Hamilton but the front two haven't pitted.
Last 23 of 57
Hamilton is not a happy bunny and Vettel is in the pits. It's key the Briton gets past Verstappen.
Lap 21 of 57
Perez gets past Sainz and it looks a little cheeky but the Mexican is up to 8th.
Lap 19 of 57
There's a nice little battle going on further down the pack with Kyatt chasing down Massa who is ahead of him in 6th.
Lap 18 of 57
Hamilton pits first and he's on the soft tyre.
Vettel now leads the race from Bottas, Raikkonen, Verstappen and Hamilton.
Palmer has retired.
Lap 17 of 57
Here are the fastest laps so far as Hamilton and Vettel continue to trade blows.
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 26, 2017
Lap 15 of 57
Grosjean is into the pits and the smoke coming out of his car and sound suggests it is something fatal.
His race is over as he heads into the garage. It's a shame for the French,man who was seventh.
Lap 13 of 57
Vettel and Hamilton are getting into a real battle at the front with just 0.20s between the two cars and Bottas a further 0.5s behind.
Lap 10 of 57
Hamilton has told his garage that a 1:28.0 is not currently possible.
Lap 8 of 57
The Red Bull engineer has just told Ricciardo: "Go on Daniel, get stuck in and have fun."
Good piece of advice after a nightmare weekend for the Australian.
— Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) March 26, 2017
Lap 6 of 57
Hamilton leads ahead of Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen.
The stewards will investigate and incident between Ericsson and Magnussen after the Haas driver picked up a puncture.
Lap 4 of 57
Sebastian Vettel has the fastest lap so far with a time of 1:29.043
Ricciardo is out on track much to the enjoyment of his home crowd.
Lap 1 of 57
Lewis Hamilton gets ahead of the pack but Valtteri Bottas is already challenging Sebastian Vettel.
Sergio Perez has just sailed past Danii Kvyat, move that looks even better in Force India's pink.
While Kevin Magnussen is told by the garage that his Haas has a puncture.
And we are off! For real this time.
In other news
How cool is Fernando Alonso?
We think a car was in the wrong spot and we have another formation lap.
Are you ready?
I don't know about you but I am excited.
Lewis Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel looks set to be the battle of the season and it is unlikely to disappoint.
We are moments away from the start of the 2017 season!
Here are your 20 drivers for the first race of the 'new era' in Formula 1.
Who will be smiling after 58 laps at Albert Park?
15 minutes to go
The national anthem has been sang, the grid walk has been done and I don't know about you but I think it's time to get a coffee before those lights go out and the drama begins.
Ricciardo's nightmare contines
Daniel Ricciardo's weekend may be over!
His car got stuck in sixth gear out on track and the Red Bull is now back in the garage.
The crowd were hoping to see this smile on the podium today...
The record is still held by the legendary Michael Schumacher who set a time of 1:24.125 in 2004, on the way to his 7th and final title.
30 minutes to go...
The pit lane is open and those engines are getting ready for business.
40 minutes to go
Who do you think will win the first race of the season? Will it be another Mercedes 1-2?
Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo have both got five-place grid penalties after changing their gearboxes.
The Australian now starts in 15th and the rookie will start from the back of the grid. Williams' have also received a €25,000 fine, suspended for the course of the season, after failing to notify the FIA of the change.
Click here for a little qualifying round-up to remind you what happened yesterday.
Hello race fans, the 2017 Formula One season is about to start and we will be keeping you posted with all the latest from Australia's Albert Park.
I'm Natasha Henry and you can get involved with all things Australian GP by emailing me at email@example.com or tweeting us @telegraphsport.
We have just under an hour until lights out and after yesterday's qualifying, we could be in for a good one.