Ferrari, Formula One’s oldest and most successful team, has been on a dark and tumultuous ride since its last win in September 2015.
In 2016 it threw away opportunities to win races, it lost highly prized technical director James Allison, and it briefly threatened civil war with star driver Vettel just two seasons after prying him from Red Bull Racing.
Things, to put it simply, had been better – which made the Australian Grand Prix champagne, expected by almost no-one only a matter of months ago, all the more sweet.
The season-opening Melbourne race weekend was difficult to read. The advantage waxed and waned between Mercedes, Red Bull Racing, and Ferrari throughout practice, with no team wanting to show their hand.
By qualifying Red Bull Racing had fallen by the wayside with a 1.3-second deficit, and Ferrari could only lap within 0.3 seconds of Lewis Hamilton’s ace pole time of 1 minute 22.188 seconds.
Despair over the ominously familiar Hamilton-Mercedes advantage over the field proved premature mere minutes into last Sunday’s (Mar 26) race, however.
At lights out Hamilton rocketed off the start line and started lapping half a second quicker than anyone else – except for Sebastian Vettel. The four-time world champion clung to the back of the three-time title winner’s car like glue.
“He was relatively close,” Hamilton said. “If he was ahead, he probably would’ve pulled away.”
Vettel, his car at one with his ultrasoft tyres, sensed the hunt was afoot.
“I was really trying to keep the pressure on to make sure that they got the message that we are here and we’re here to fight.”
The German’s pressure did the trick. By lap 17 Hamilton had chewed through his Pirellis and had to stop for a new set.
Vettel, on the other hand, kept pushing his advantage, and on lap 22 his strategy had worked – Hamilton’s early pit stop had put him behind Max Verstappen’s slower Red Bull Racing car, and around Albert Park with Formula One’s new wider and faster cars, the Briton struggled to overtake.
On lap 23 Vettel returned to the pits for his own new tyres. The gamble was tight, but it paid off – Vettel emerged from pit lane alongside the duelling Verstappen and Hamilton, and within a matter of corners he was rebuilding his advantage.
Mercedes, caught without the speed advantage it had enjoyed since 2014, had been bested on merit.
“The Ferrari was the quicker car,” admitted Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “We were pushing flat out and we were just not able to pull away.”
It was a breath of fresh air for a sport dominated by the Silver Arrows for three consecutive seasons, and it was the perfect sporting complement on a weekend new-look cars, the fastest in F1’s history, took to the track for the first time.
It was meaningful for Formula One, but it was critical validation for Ferrari’s determination and toil after 2016 threatened to sink the team for years.
“It was about time,” said Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne. “Hearing the Italian national anthem again was very moving.
“His victory is something to share with the entire team, both at the circuit and back in Maranello, because teamwork is the only way to achieve major goals.”
But the boss’s celebratory message came with a salient warning.
“Now, however, it is absolutely essential to remember that this is not the destination but the first step on a long road that must see us all focused on improving each and every day.”
Improvement will be the name of the game for two cashed-up manufacturers in a 2017 season that promises a titanic battle between two icons of the automotive world.