Motor racing: 5 highlights of the 2017 Formula One season

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany celebrates after winning the Australian Grand Prix. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ferrari's challenge to Mercedes was a shot of adrenaline to Formula One's heart, providing the edge that had been missing since the turbo-hybrid formula was inaugurated in 2014 as the advantage flowed between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

Here are my five highlights of the season:

1. Vettel wins in Australia

Vettel proved conclusively that Ferrari's testing form had been real, when the German scored a crushing 9.9sec victory over the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in Melbourne's season opener.

It was like a boxing match in which the favourite got knocked off his feet in the first round.

Vettel owned the race and controlled it as he pleased, and from the moment he went ahead, he never looked remotely like losing.

The previous year, Ferrari had lost this race through poor strategy; this time there was no way they were going to let a crucially psychological victory slip away once they had their hands on it, and it signalled just how intense their challenge would be. Mercedes had a serious fight on their hands.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany celebrates after winning the Australian Grand Prix. PHOTO: REUTERS

2. Hamilton strikes back in Canada

Hamilton went to his happy hunting ground of Montreal licking his wounds and wondering just where his Mercedes' famed poise had gone round the streets of Monaco, where he had struggled home a poor seventh in a car whose sweet spot he just couldn't find.

Vettel, meanwhile, had struck another huge psychological blow with victory the which left him firmly in the lead of the World Championship. Where Hamilton's Silver Arrow seemed ponderous, his Prancing Horse was nimble and fast. The tide was flowing with him.

Hamilton desperately needed to strike back, fast, to limit the damage.

He dominated to take his sixth Canadian GP victory on the 10th anniversary of his maiden success here a decade earlier, but by fighting back to fourth after a first-lap clash with Max Verstappen, Vettel limited damage of his own and left Montreal still 12 points ahead. But the battle between F1's two heavy-hitters was re-engaged.

3. Ricciardo wins in Baku

This one had it all. A hugely popular opportunist's victory for Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull; acrimony well and truly out in the open between Hamilton and Vettel after the German had collided deliberately with his arch-rival while the Azerbaijan GP was running under the safety car; a silly glitch with his car's headrest which cost Hamilton victory; a brilliant climb back from early adversity by his team-mate Valtteri Bottas; and a rookie - Lance Stroll - running second to within sight of the flag and finishing on the podium on his first season.

It was the first manifestation of weakness from one of the two leading protagonists, as Vettel lost his cool and was hugely lucky not to be penalised more heavily for an act which raised questions about just how much the pressure was getting to him.

As Hamilton quietly suggested that Vettel had disgraced himself, a speechless Ricciardo admitted that he was giggling like a schoolboy on his slow-down lap. Hamilton and Vettel most definitely weren't.

4. Hamilton's subterfuge in Belgium

Mercedes were expected to dominate at the majestic Sa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium, but Vettel and Ferrari matched him for speed in a tense race in which Hamilton's innate racer's cunning would play a crucial role.

It seemed inevitable that the German would sail past the Englishman after stalking him mercilessly, but when his one main chance came on the 34th lap after a safety car period, Hamilton backed Vettel up at precisely the right moment. Vettel, in his faster Ferrari, got very, very close to the back of the Mercedes on the run down to Eau Rouge, but as Hamilton feathered his throttle, Vettel got a mite too close, too soon, and had to lift momentarily. By ensuring thus that he could not be slipstreamed out of the lead as they climbed the Kemmel hill to Les Combes at the top of the circuit, Hamilton cemented a crucial triumph.

5. Verstappen smashes Mexico

Who will ever forget the sight of Vettel, Verstappen and Hamilton heading into Mexico's first corner three abreast? Or the clash that saw the young Dutchman despatch Vettel, who then lost control and damaged his nose as he split Hamilton's right rear tyre?

Mexico was already en fete on its colourful and emotional Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) weekend, hyped up for a World Championship decider. And it got one, as Vettel and Hamilton staged brilliant comeback drives - the latter to cement his fourth World Championship with what he said was a disappointing ninth place. And the man widely regarded as the sport's future yet again insouciantly put it across his more experienced rivals to underline his precocious talent yet again.

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