Vettel’s drought-breaker for Ferrari sets up F1 duel in 2017


By JOHN PYE, AP

MELBOURNE, Australia — With Sebastian Vettel ascending the top of the podium in his red Ferrari race suit, the new regulations for Formula One cars seemingly needed only one Grand Prix to produce one of the desired effects.

Vettel’s drought-breaking win for Ferrari was widely celebrated, with Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas having to settle for second and third. Mercedes won 19 of the 21 F1 GPs in 2016, and Red Bull collected the other two titles.

Ferrari’s first win in Australia since 2007 has already given 2017 a different complexion. Kimi Raikkonen, who won for Ferrari a decade before, placed fourth on Sunday as Ferrari earned a four-point cushion over Mercedes in the constructors’ standings after the first of 20 rounds.

It sets up a genuine contest this season between two of the dominant drivers of the past decade — three-time world champion Hamilton against Vettel, who won four straight drivers’ titles with Red Bull from 2010-13.

“He’s proven to be one of the quickest drivers on the grid and for sure I would love to have a close battle,” Vettel said of Hamilton. “Obviously right now it looks like we have equal machinery.

“I hope it stays that way and then we will see how it turns out — but it’s obviously a lot of fun to race for victories.”

Hamilton had a tense relationship with Nico Rosberg in their duel for dominance at Mercedes, which has dominated the last three seasons. Hamilton won back-to-back drivers’ titles in 2014 and ’15, and narrowly lost last year to Rosberg, who then retired.

That made room for Bottas, and the personnel change means Hamilton now expects to look beyond the Mercedes garages for his main rival.

“Incredible amount of respect for Sebastian and what he’s achieved in his career,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a privilege to be racing in an era with him and now finally at a period of time when we can actually have a real race.

“I wish we could race a lot closer in the cars that we have today but still I think the fact that we are similar pace-wise, it’s going to be a very, very hard slog this season.”

Max Verstappen was fifth for Red Bull, which only got one car to the finish and struggled to match the pace of Ferrari and Mercedes, which both notched lap records at Albert Park in practice and qualifying. Local hope Daniel Ricciardo finished third in the championship last year but his turbulent weekend ended in mechanical failure on lap 28 of a race he had to belatedly start from pit lane.

With regulations designed to make the 2017 F1 cars faster and increase the competition at the front of the grid — wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce — Vettel proved Ferrari’s extra pace in pre-season testing was genuine as he picked up the team’s first GP win since his last victory in Singapore in September, 2015.

Vettel had some luck when Hamilton — after starting on pole position for a record-equaling sixth time in Australia — pitted early to change tires and then got stuck in traffic behind Verstappen and couldn’t overtake.