MELBOURNE • Finally, it looks like Formula One has a fight on its hands.
After all the hope and expectation that has weighed heavy on the sport to deliver with its reboot this year, Melbourne was a proper slug-fest between two of the biggest hitters of their generation.
Sebastian Vettel's season-opening Australian Grand Prix victory for Ferrari, beating Lewis Hamilton into second and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas into third yesterday, cast doubts on Mercedes' ability to extend their dominance into a fourth successive season.
From Ferrari's perspective, this victory is doubtless of far greater importance to the team than as a positive for F1 as whole.
It was Vettel's first win since he took the flag at the 2015 Singapore Grand Pix - which was also the last victory for the Prancing Horse.
They have not won the constructors' championship since 2008 and have managed only three wins in the last three years.
Number of seconds Sebastian Vettel finished ahead of last year's world title runner-up Lewis Hamilton.
Ferrari chairman, Sergio Marchionne wasted no time in expressing how momentous this single victory was to the Scuderia.
"It was about time," he said.
"I am delighted for the team and for our Tifosi fans who stood by us throughout this whole period. We've been waiting for this victory for almost a year and a half. Hearing the Italian national anthem again was very moving."
Vettel cruised to his 43rd race victory with a 9.9sec gap over Hamilton. The win underlined the huge leap in performance made by Ferrari, whose cars showed impressive pace and reliability in winter testing.
AUSTRALIAN GP RESULTS
1 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 24min 11.670 sec
2 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes +9.975sec
3 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes +11.250sec
4 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari +22.393sec
5 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull +28.827sec
6 Felipe Massa (Bra) Williams +1:23.386
7 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India +1 lap
8 Carlos Sainz Jr (Esp) Toro Rosso +1 lap
9 Daniil Kvyat (Rus) Toro Rosso +1 lap
10 Esteban Ocon (Fra) Force India +1 lap
Not classified: Fernando Alonso (Esp) McLaren retired 50 laps; Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas retired 46 laps; Lance Stroll (Can) Williams retired 40 laps; Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull retired 25 laps; Marcus Ericsson (Swe) Sauber retired 21 laps.
1 Vettel 25 pts 2 Hamilton 18 3 Bottas 15 4 Raikkonen 12 5 Verstappen 10 6 Massa 8
1 Ferrari 37 pts 2 Mercedes 33 3 Red Bull 10 4 Williams 8 5 Force India 7 6 Toro Rosso 6
"The big difference was being able to deliver a really good car," said the German. "The new car obviously is fantastic and is a great reward, a big relief for everyone."
For the first time in the V6 turbo hybrid era, which started in 2014, there is a non-Mercedes driver at the top of the championship standings. Hamilton welcomed the challenge of a tougher rivalry this season, in comments that could be seen as a subtle dig at former team-mate and 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg.
"Definitely," he replied when asked if he was anticipating a greater challenge from the four-time world champion than Rosberg. "This year you are seeing the best against the best with the best drivers at the top.
"I am really grateful to have that fight with him, against Ferrari which is the next best team, and there is a top driver there, too. It has been a privilege to be racing in an era with him and finally we are in a period of time when we can actually have a real race."
Vettel's team-mate Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen fifth.
Daniel Ricciardo's race ended midway through, his Red Bull stopping with smoke billowing out.
He had earlier started from pit lane two laps behind the pack, after suffering a sensor problem with his gearbox that prevented him from taking his place at the grid.
"It's been a long week. I feel like crap but I feel for the fans," he told reporters after the race. "It's just not how we would have liked the opener to go, especially at home.
"Just bad luck, I guess. I can still win 19 races, that's the plan. Let's go to China (for the second race)."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE