Vettel and Ferrari renaissance gives Mercedes food for thought and F1 excitement again

Formula One is set to be re-energised by the return of Ferrari to the top of the podium, with Sebastian Vettel challenging Lewis Hamilton.

It was fitting that Sebastian Vettel would be the one to send Lewis Hamilton into a tailspin of frustration in Melbourne on Sunday and the early signs suggest 2017 could be the first truly thrilling Formula One season in a decade.

The brave new era started steadily around Albert Park on the weekend, but the subsequent bluster about a lack of overtaking would have you believe the season is already worth writing off.

Oh, difficulty overtaking on a tight street circuit, you say? For shame!

Such criticism smacked of the instant-gratification age striking again, and a longer-term view offers plenty to get excited about.

Melbourne's traditional exhilaration comes from the very fact that getting cars side by side there is difficult. They crash, we wince, and it's great. This year, there was no safety car to bunch a field together and Vettel won the race in the pits.

But Vettel won the race. And he won it clean as a whistle.

It was hinted at in testing, but now we know, the one-horse race is no longer.

Brawn, Red Bull, Mercedes. F1's last eight seasons have generally been dominated by a single team.

Fernando Alonso drove the wheels off his Ferrari to push Vettel close in 2010 and '12, but it was also Scuderia red vanquished the last time we had two teams of genuine equality fighting for glory - Hamilton's bonkers last-lap pipping of Felipe Massa in 2008.

Sure, the Hamilton-Nico Rosberg, all-Mercedes duel of the last three years was intense, but Formula One is an engineering battle as much as a personal one. And that is why Ferrari pulling level with the Silver Arrows is so crucial.

With Hamilton and Rosberg able to see all of each other's data - to the Brit's great chagrin - there was little mystery between them and victories on either side of the garage were often conspiratorially dismissed by the other.

Even Hamilton seemed invigorated by having a different coloured car to worry about.

"We're now finally at a period of time when we can actually have a real race," Hamilton said after following Vettel home on Sunday.

"It's going to be a very, very hard slog this season."

If Mercedes have been the bad guy for three years, stealing everyone else's ball and then booting it over the schoolyard fence, then perhaps Ferrari can be pitched as the nostalgic, and newly humble, heroes in 2017.

Complacency was often blamed for Ferrari's inability to get going in the hybrid era. This time, they left no stone unturned.

A lack of understanding over tyres cost Mercedes, and Hamilton, in Melbourne.

At last year's tyre test, Hamilton ran just 50 laps on the wider wheels. Vettel? A whopping 2,228 - far more than any front-running driver as Mercedes and Red Bull allowed junior drivers to get to know the upcoming rubber.

Knowing that the tyres could be pushed for longer helped Vettel hang onto Hamilton's tail, before the three-time champion dived in early as he felt he had nothing left underneath him.

The loss of James Allison, an aero whizz in a new aero-dominant era, to Mercedes puts Ferrari up against it to win the battle long-term, with free rein on development ensuring the champions will hit back and Red Bull will certainly catch up before long.

But having that red car back in the thick of the action, with all of F1's traditionalism and misty-eyed longing, can only be a good thing. As F1 focuses on everything new that will come under the stewardship of Liberty Media, a dash of the old could really freshen things up again.

 

MELBOURNE'S UNSUNG HEROES

Naturally, a new fight at the front caught the eye, but others had plenty to shout about.

Alonso, for one, driving his dog of a McLaren in 10th place for the better part of half the race was nothing short of phenomenal. Of course, it would fail him and he retired five laps from the end. Just pray the sniff of Mercedes in 2018 is enough to keep the great man engaged beyond this season, in which he is likely to struggle again.

Another veteran shining was Massa, retired at the end of last season, but taking his Williams to an unlapped sixth, his consistency in stark contrast with the trials and tribulations of Lance Stroll in the sister car.

And, finally, Antonio Giovinazzi - a Ferrari youth driver, no less - taking 12th place, ahead of stone-last prospect Stoffel Vandoorne, on his F1 debut in the Sauber. The Italian took over from Pascal Wehrlein on Saturday morning, was a last-lap rick away from making Q2 and more than held his own on Sunday. Bravo!

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