MELBOURNE • There is a particular buzz about the Melbourne paddock. It is not only the sunshine, layout and noise coming from the packed grandstands, but also the sense of anticipation ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
There are 21 races to come and all to play for. Or at least it should be. In recent years, that has not been the case as Mercedes have been all-conquering.
Ferrari have tried to change the narrative, but the German team have inked their name in the record books each time.
They have won five drivers' championships in a row, four for Lewis Hamilton and one for Nico Rosberg in 2016.
There is a feeling, though, that this could be the year the tide turns. Ferrari were quickest across the eight days of pre-season testing in Barcelona, just ahead of Mercedes.
Of course, neither team were pushing flat out and we will only see the raw speed this weekend around Albert Park, in qualifying today and when the race itself kicks off the season tomorrow, but there is a consensus in the paddock that Ferrari have the edge.
SOMETHING'S NOT RIGHT
I can feel I have the car under me that I had in testing, but it doesn't do the same thing. It's not doing exactly what I like here.
SEBASTIAN VETTEL, Ferrari driver, complaining about his car.
However, at practice yesterday, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel sounded an early alarm bell for the Italian team, saying he was "lacking confidence" in his car after a disappointing run.
After being pipped by Hamilton's Mercedes in the first session, the German was a glaring 0.873 seconds slower than the Briton in the second practice and complained of handling problems on the radio.
He skidded into trackside grass at one corner and said the car was still wobbly at turns on another run, after taking it back to the garage.
His new teammate Charles Leclerc also had a big spin late in FP2 and managed only the ninth-fastest time in an underwhelming debut for the Scuderia.
With Ferrari having been slightly quicker than Mercedes at winter testing, pundits were quick to suspect they were keeping their true pace under wraps for qualifying.
But Vettel, who is bidding for a third successive win at Albert Park, torpedoed the notion, insisting the car simply felt different to the one tested in Barcelona, before rubbishing Mercedes' claims of an out-of-shape car as "b*******".
He said: "I had this (feeling) more than once. I can feel I have the car under me that I had in testing, but it doesn't do the same thing. It's not doing exactly what I like here. At this point, we are all flat out trying to understand what happened in the session.
"It was a tricky day for us. We are not yet where we would like to be, not in terms of lap time, but more in terms of car feel and handling. We didn't really get into the groove and the rhythm."
In Thursday's media conference, Hamilton felt Mercedes had plenty of "work to do" but, after dominating yesterday's practice - his quickest lap clocked at 1:22.600 - the five-time world champion revelled in the "positive buzz from driving the car today".
He added: "The car feels like it's in a similar place to where it was in Barcelona, which is positive coming to a different track.
"We got through our programme really well, there were no issues on track."
REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON
F1 AUSTRALIAN GP
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