Australia: Is the Hamilton/Vettel fight on?

For the first time in three years, Mercedes is not the team topping the results screen of the Constructors’ Championship. After Lewis Hamilton’s pace over the initial part of the weekend it seemed unlikely, but an early pitstop by the polesitter allowed Sebastian Vettel to go for the undercut and take Ferrari’s first win since 2015. Despite speculation that Hamilton’s downfall would be the reintroduction of the manual starts, it was his tyre wear that really let the win get away. His early pitstop brought him out behind Max Verstappen, who he remained stuck behind for six laps whilst Vettel made the most of his advantage.

The Ferrari seems to be a genuine contender in 2017 and if their performance in Melbourne can be replicated across the season, the long awaited Hamilton/Vettel title battle might finally come to pass. Between them these two drivers have dominated the last decade of F1 and have proved themselves to be the greats of their generation, but never before have they truly fought against each other. Have Ferrari finally given one of their drivers a car capable of taking the championship? It’s been a long long time since 2007.

Meanwhile in Melbourne, Bottas made a solid Mercedes debut to finish in third place, and whilst he didn’t set the track alight it was widely regarded that his predecessor Nico  Rosberg couldn’t have done a better job. Canadian rookie Lance Stroll fared little better than in pre-season testing with an incident in third practice making him very lucky to get a chance to take part in qualifying at all. A gearbox change meant that Stroll began the race at the back of the grid anyway, but a good start allowed him to run in 13th place before a brake disc failure caused him to retire.

Far more high profile was the surprise debut of Italian Antonio Giovinazzi for Sauber. Pascal Wehrlein only decided on Saturday morning that he was unfit to race after his accident in January’s Race of Champions. It wouldn’t have been unexpected if Giovinazzi had been miles off the pace, but he stayed with the other Sauber of Marcus Ericcson in qualifying and finished the race in a respectable twelfth. The weekend did little to damage the reputation of the already highly rated young driver.

McLaren seemed to perform better that they did in their woeful winter testing, with Fernando Alonso briefly running in the points, and Stoffel Vandoorne managing to finish the race, which was an accomplishment in itself when only 13 cars made it to the chequered flag.

One of the biggest talking points of the race was how drivers were finding it far more difficult to overtake in the new generation of cars,. A huge pace advantage was needed to pass on track, and this made a fundamental difference to how the race turned out. If Hamilton had been able to get past Verstappen then the race could have been a very different story.

However we’ll never really know if Hamilton would have been able to overtake in different circumstances, or if Vettel would have triumphed anyway. And whilst the argument rages on whether more processional racing is the price to pay for the speed and challenge provided by the new cars , it’s worth remembering that Albert Park isn’t known for its overtaking. It could well be that other tracks provide far more opportunities. There’s always the school of thought that DRS has devalued overtaking and that this new era will show which drivers are good enough at passing, and which are the greats of years to come.

Overtaking ridden or otherwise, a duel between Hamilton and Vettel is unlikely to be overlooked by the history books.

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