In The Driver's Seat

Prancing Horse's revival points to the tightest racing in years

What should we read into Ferrari's upset victory in Melbourne that kicked off the dramatic new era of superfast Formula One, which new owner Liberty Media hopes will attract greater audiences and help a beleaguered sport recover its mojo?

For sure it was precisely the fillip that it needed after Mercedes' domination of the turbo-hybrid F1 era which began in 2014.

Just to remind you, of the 59 races held from 2014 to 2016, Mercedes won no fewer than 51, leaving Red Bull five and Ferrari just three.

Sebastian Vettel's success on Sunday confirmed everything that the red cars had shown in pre-season testing to be true, and there was nothing flukey about it. New Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said that the Ferraris were faster - well, Vettel's was being driven faster at any rate, even if Kimi Raikkonen's wasn't - and he was right, though it was close and the lap times evenly matched.

But does this mean that we can expect Ferrari to become the dominant party now? Has the baton been passed?

Not necessarily. Let's remember last year's race here, which Ferrari should also have won.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton (left) congratulating Sebastian Vettel after the Ferrari driver beat him by nearly 10 seconds.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton (left) congratulating Sebastian Vettel after the Ferrari driver beat him by nearly 10 seconds. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Make no mistake: Mercedes have a fight on their hands. But, with luck, this is going to be like 2008, when the initiative vacillated between Ferrari and McLaren throughout the year.

The difference in tyre strategies then between them and Mercedes clouded the issue and made definitive comparisons difficult, but Ferrari had been confident prior to the race stoppage following the huge accident that befell Fernando Alonso that they could win.

But they made a mistake and retained supersoft tyres at the restart, thus committing themselves to a second pit stop which handed the success to the Silver Arrows, who ran non-stop to the chequered flag.

The point is that, despite looking so strong in the opening race, Ferrari went on to have a miserable year.

Truly, I don't expect that to be the case in 2017, because the SF70H is clearly a very good car and much better than its predecessor. It has great aerodynamics, a much stronger engine, and handles extremely well.

Make no mistake: Mercedes have a fight on their hands. But, with luck, this is going to be like 2008, when the initiative vacillated between Ferrari and McLaren throughout the year.

That would be something this year, wouldn't it? Because that is the best hope for a spectacular year, rather than out-and-out exciting racing on track.

Sure, the battle for 10th between the brilliant Alonso, the emergent Esteban Ocon and the very-quick Nico Hulkenberg was a highlight on Sunday afternoon, but up front the racing was dull.

After Lap 18, the first five positions barely changed. As expected, the combination of the wider, grippier tyres and the huge increase in downforce combined to bring about an effective reduction in usable track width and a dramatic decrease in braking distances.

But it's not all bad news. Vettel was not alone in raving about how much fun the cars are to drive, and they do look good as they get thrown around.

"Ah, you could push much harder," the race winner said. "Usually the first couple of laps you were pushing last year and then the tyres were dropping off.

"Now the tyres are still dropping off a bit, but you can keep pushing. You can keep braking at the same point. The car is screaming, 'More, more, more!'

"Also, at the end with the harder tyres there is hardly any degradation, so it's really good fun, especially in the fast corners. You could keep going forever, it was a great race, and I enjoyed it a lot."

And seventh-placed Sergio Perez added, after his great battle with the Toro Rossos of Daniil Kyvat and Carlos Sainz: "Driving these cars is so much fun - you can push a lot harder than in the past and I was doing my fastest laps towards the end of the race."

So the verdict is in: The new formula is, thus far, a partial success. The cars might not yet be five seconds a lap faster, as predicted, but Albert Park isn't the greatest venue to judge outright speed with its stop-start nature. And they might not race wheel to wheel.

But they certainly do look pretty and they certainly do look spectacular, and they bite, as Jolyon Palmer and Daniel Ricciardo discovered to their cost.

It's early days yet, but the signs are encouraging, and hopefully we'll see a further upswing in a fortnight's time on the faster sweeps of the Shanghai International Circuit at the Chinese Grand Prix.

•Tickets to the Singapore GP are available from www.singaporegp.sg, phone (6738-6738) and all Sistic outlets.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'Prancing Horse's revival points to the tightest racing in years'. Print Edition | Subscribe