Formula One: Mercedes geared up for China catch-up

Lewis Hamilton on the starting grid in Melbourne on Sunday. Mercedes' three-time world champion was beaten at Albert Park by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.
Lewis Hamilton on the starting grid in Melbourne on Sunday. Mercedes' three-time world champion was beaten at Albert Park by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Comeback in Shanghai the aim for reigning champions after Ferrari's rude awakening

MELBOURNE • Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes are vowing to come back hard in China after being ambushed by a resurgent Ferrari in the Formula One season opener in Australia.

The German outfit, who have ruled the sport for the last three years, got a rude awakening when Sebastian Vettel beat Hamilton by almost 10 seconds in Melbourne on Sunday.

Vettel's triumph has overturned early-season expectations and raised the prospect of a Ferrari-Mercedes battle for the world title over the remaining 19 races.

All eyes will now be on the next race in Shanghai on April 9 to see if Ferrari can repeat their improved performance through Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

"If it wasn't already clear after qualifying, then it's certainly clear now that this is going to be a season of very small margins," Mercedes technical director James Allison said. "Credit to Ferrari, they had a very quick car and we just weren't quite good enough to stick with them. We won't panic, though.

"It's race one of a long season and we scored some very good points with both cars in Melbourne. We'll be determined to come back stronger in China and make sure those small margins go our way next time."

  • 10

    Kimi Raikkonen's fastest lap on Sunday (1min 26.538sec) was the quickest in 10 years at Melbourne Park, a sign of their pace this year. Michael Schumacher holds the fastest lap time for the circuit at 1:24.125, set in 2004.

  • What we learnt from Melbourne

    MORE SPEED INDEED

    Yes, it is obvious as speed was central to the 2017 regulation changes, but this year's cars do look very fast. The fastest lap at Melbourne this year was around 2.5sec quicker than last year and the general view is that they will be another 1.5sec quicker by the end of the year. Cornering at more than 320kmh makes for good viewing. Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas all said the track that they were looking forward to this year was the British Grand Prix in July, because Silverstone is a high-speed circuit.

    OVERTAKING ISSUES

    After the race, Hamilton said it was harder than ever to get close behind cars. Max Verstappen echoed his thoughts, and Bottas admitted that overtaking would prove a little more difficult. This is not a great start, but it is worth remembering that the Albert Park track is not great for overtaking. We'll get a much better idea at the next race in Shanghai.

    BOTTAS MEANS BUSINESS

    The general consensus is that Bottas is not fast enough to challenge Hamilton but he was seriously quick, finishing third and just over a second behind his team-mate. Towards the end of the race, the Finn was closing fast on Hamilton, who did not seem to have a response. He could well prove a worthy successor to retired world champion Nico Rosberg.

    THE TIMES, LONDON

While Vettel's first win for Ferrari since Singapore in 2015, and his 43rd victory overall, has supercharged the season, he said there was still a lot of work to do.

"This is one of many steps and we have to enjoy what we do. It's great to see people smiling," said Vettel. "Now we have to reset to go to China and try to do a good job."

Vettel believes a calm approach has been the key to Ferrari's resurgence. "The people always kept believing," he said. "The last six months have been very calm, we've done our work and it's starting to pay off ."

Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne said the team's return to the top of the podium was long overdue, with the victory meaning a non-Mercedes driver leads the world championship for the first time since 2013.

"Sebastian delivered a great race and I am sure Kimi will be soon up there battling alongside his team-mate," Marchionne said.

But, like Vettel, Marchionne is not getting carried away at the start of a globe-trotting season which will wrap up in Abu Dhabi in November.

"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," he said.

Shanghai will also be an opportunity for Australian Daniel Ricciardo to bounce back after his traumatic outing in Melbourne.

The amiable Red Bull driver crashed in qualifying, was hit with a grid penalty and started Sunday's race from pit lane, before his car stopped on lap 29 of his 58-lap home GP.

"Sure, I'm disappointed now but it is what it is. I've been here before so I'll wake up tomorrow and be motivated to get ready for China," Ricciardo said after the race. "If any Aussies have a bit of energy left in a few weeks, then come out to China and you'll hopefully see a better race from me."

The weekend setback continues Ricciardo's run of terrible luck at his home Grand Prix, where he was disqualified from second place in 2014 for breaching fuel rules.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'Mercedes geared up for China catch-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe