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Ferrari vs. Mercedes Thriller Shaping Up In F1

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 28 2017

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes AMG, it appears, will not cruise through the 2017 Formula One season without competition. (File photo)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Reigning World Driving Champion Nico Rosberg began the 2017 FIA Formula One World Championship season Sunday in his new role as Josef Fan.

And after the checkered flag had fallen upon Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari at the Australian Grand Prix, Rosberg felt compelled to tweet: “Congrats Sebastian/Ferrari. Respect. Could be a cool Merc vs. Ferrari battle all season. You up for that?”

Pardon this conspiracy theorist for believing that question squarely was directed at Lewis Hamilton, Rosberg’s former teammate/nemesis at Mercedes AMG Petronas and certainly one of the myriad reasons why the German has traded his form-fitted cockpit seat for a spot on the family couch.

Any respect Rosberg held for Hamilton, a three-time World Champion, was begrudging given their often public displays of contempt on and off the world’s racing circuits during the past three seasons. Still, Rosberg’s Dec. 2 decision to retire in order to spend time with his young family, announced only six days after pipping Hamilton by five points for the title, was a jaw-dropper. Rosberg tearfully joined father Keke (1982) of Finland as an F1 World Champion.

Vettel’s victory over Hamilton and new teammate Valtteri Bottas at Albert Park Circuit added to the ongoing intrigue. Vettel’s 43rd career victory and first since 2015 is being viewed as immediate proof that Ferrari’s preseason testing prowess has positioned the Scuderia to take a legitimate fight to the Mercedes juggernaut led by Toto Wolff. And clearly, Sunday’s result set the stage for a Vettel-Hamilton duel that could rise to the level of the Rosberg-Hamilton intramural squabbles of recent seasons.

“I would very much love to (battle Hamilton)!” Vettel said post-race, after an enthusiastic celebration reminiscent of former Ferrari hero/fellow-German and seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher. “I still believe that Mercedes is ahead _ they’ve been in front the last couple of years. I think Valtteri just fitted in and kept doing a fantastic job for the team. No weak link from the outside, not that we can see. They will be the ones to beat for sure. Today I’m just happy and we take it as a team. For us the start into the new season was superb, we couldn’t ask for more.”

After shadowing pole-sitter Hamilton through the opening stages, Vettel leapfrogged the Brit and his Silver Arrows at the first round of pit stops. Hamilton’s lead came at the expense of his Pirelli ultrasoft tires after 17 laps; Vettel managed to reach Lap 22 before making his sole stop. Hamilton theoretically should have been able to regain the lead, but when he exited the pits and wound up behind Max Verstappen, he could not pass the fifth-placed Red Bull despite running on fresh rubber. Vettel was able to make his stop and emerge in the lead, much to the fist-slamming disgust of Wolff.

Vettel never looked back, the four-time World Champion taking the flag by almost 10 seconds to record Ferrari’s first win since Singapore 2015. The Scuderia’s Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 World Champion, finished fourth to complete the Ferrari-Mercedes monopoly. Still, the matchup carrying huge marquee value for new owner Liberty Media heading to Shanghai, China, for Round 2 on April 9 is Seb vs. Lewis.

“Great respect for Lewis,” said Vettel, who has driven “Gina” to the top of the driver point standings for the first time since the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix. “I think (Hamilton) had an amazing debut here 10 years ago. I still remember his move around the outside, when he made other people look a bit silly. I think since then, since Day One, he’s proved that he’s very, very quick, very talented but also working hard. I think it was a matter of time before he won the World Championship, which I tried to stop him doing in Brazil as hard as I could, in my Toro Rosso.

“Yeah, to cut it short, I have great respect. He’s proven to be one of the quickest drivers on the grid and for sure I would love to have a close battle. 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 and a lot of fun to race against the best.”

Hamilton, who finished second in this event last year to Rosberg, was seen smiling and chatting with Vettel as he strode into a lounge area after exiting parc ferme. Recall that Hamilton and Rosberg rarely made eye contact with one another, much less spoke, during their post-race cool downs last season _ particularly if Rosberg was headed for the top step during podium ceremonies.

“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 I think. It’s going to be physically and mentally demanding but racing the best is what Formula One is all about. Ultimately it makes you work that much harder, having to raise the bar, and I’m looking forward to that.”

Asked to supply a “road map” to Ferrari’s re-emergence, Vettel traced a journey that began in 2015. “I think the road we followed is pretty simple: we didn’t look left; we didn’t look right; we didn’t look forward; we didn’t look back,” Vettel said. “I think we focused on what we had to do at the time. Obviously there has been a lot of up and down, left and right the last 12 months but I think, especially the last couple of months, things calmed down and we just tried to do our job.

“Obviously there has been a big reshuffle but, as I said, people are happy _ happy to work, working with each other. That’s the key. At the end there’s no shortcut, you need to get the job done and invest a lot of hours thinking. Passion, I think, is a great driver back in the factory, also here. I think up and down the pit lane the amount of hours the guys are covering is mad. You need to love what you’re doing but especially… I said it years ago joining Ferrari, there seems to be an extra passion just working for the Prancing Horse and, I think, just focusing on ourselves really has been the big difference.

“A key (was) to deliver a great car, which we obviously have. The speeds look alright _both on the straights and in the corners we are competitive. I was able to stay with Lewis. It’s the first race of the season, I’m surprised we didn’t have a Safety Car but anything can happen. I wanted to stay in there and make it clear we had the pace. It was nice to see that we have and, as I say, to get the job done.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 28 2017
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