Sebastian Vettel remained adamant here on Thursday afternoon that, his victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix notwithstanding, Ferrari are behind Mercedes when it comes to choosing the favourite going into this weekend’s race in China.
In Melbourne’s Albert Park, Vettel was able to hound pole-sitter and early leader Lewis Hamilton for the first 17 laps, before moving ahead when the triple champion’s tyres wore out.
Vettel then continued for another five laps before changing his Ferrari’s rubber and, thanks to Hamilton getting trapped behind Max Verstappen, was able to maintain his lead to the finish.
His victory appeared to confirm what close observers had noted during pre-season testing: that the new Ferrari SF70H is a much better car than last year’s in terms of both power and handling, and a match for Mercedes’ new F1 W08 EQ Power.
Last year Ferrari also looked strong Down Under but ultimately failed to deliver the goods, however, and the four-time champion said he does not place too much store on what happened on a track notorious for its stop-start nature and the difficulty it presents with overtaking.
“Just because we won there doesn’t mean we come here expecting to fight for the victory,” he admitted.
"It’s completely different here. The weather is completely different looking outside now [it was raining, and may do so at times throughout the weekend]. It’s always a grand prix full of surprises. In 2007, in my first race here, I started 17th or 18th in the Toro Rosso and finished fourth. We had the rain helping us.”
Both of F1’s major teams face critical weekends here as their battle for the World Championship is expected to intensify. If Mercedes hit back here with victory, many will see it as situation normal given their domination of the past three years. But if Ferrari again have the upper hand, the Brackley-based team will be on even stronger Red Alert.
The Shanghai International Circuit is always hard on tyres, especially the left front which does so much of the work, and though Pirelli’s wider 2017 tyres have more durable compounds, the rubber will undoubtedly play a key role as the long, fast corners traditionally place a premium on wear. That could again play to the strengths Ferrari demonstrated so well in Melbourne.
The track also has the season’s longest straight: It’s 1.17 kms long and last year’s maximum speeds hit 340 kmh on the approach to Turn 14 and cars run at full throttle for 55 percent of the lap.
In the past three years that would have been manna from Heaven for the Mercedes-engined teams, but Guenther Steiner, the team principal of the Ferrari-powered sophomore Haas team, firmly believes that Italian power unit now matches the Germans’ horsepower.
"I still think Mercedes has to be the favourite," Vettel insisted.
"We had a strong first race but we really go race by race. We know we have a good package which puts us in a good place, but we know there are a lot of things we need to do to keep up with them and keep up with the position we are in now to fight for good races.
"The victory was the best medicine for everyone, it’s good we did that and we move on. But after one race it's easy to say this year is better than last year, but it is only one race.
"The team has evolved, we are generally in a better position, people are more comfortable. We are more confident in the way we work now and hopefully we can keep up the trend to show it on track.
"It’s a demanding track for tyres and cars in particular and also drivers – so it's difficult to predict anything."
After criticism that the opening race was dull, China - and Bahrain next weekend - may paint a more dramatic picture as both tracks enable the cars to ‘breathe’ and the racing to flow more.
At tracks such as Albert Park the greater grip of the wider tyres and thus the reduced braking distances militates against overtaking, but the fact that Vettel was able to hound Hamilton closely in the early stages there indicates that drivers can push the new tyres much harder without them fading when running in another car’s wake.
That could set up some interesting overtaking opportunities. Those made on-track, as opposed to via pit stop strategy, are likely to be more robust and spectacular since the drivers must be even more committed given the reduced zones in which passing may be possible.
After this weekend and next it may be possible to make a clearer judgement of the success – or otherwise – of the new regulations. Not just in terms of which marquees are doing the winning, but the quality of what actually happens on the track.