Formula One: Sebastian Vettel in the driving seat again for resurgent Ferrari
This was a red-letter day for Formula One, an occasion when Ferrari proved that they could not just outsmart Mercedes during races but eclipse them for raw pace into the bargain.
Under pristine skies here in Sochi, Sebastian Vettel broke the Silver Arrows’ streak of 18 straight pole positions with a scintillating late burst, confirming impressions that a fifth world title is his for the taking.
Vettel wins Bahrain Grand Prix
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel wins the Bahrain Grand Prix ahead of Lewis Hamilton to go seven points clear at the top of the Formula One standings.
But the grid for today’s Russian Grand Prix tells a story of collective as well as individual brilliance, featuring a first Ferrari lock-out of the front row in almost nine years.
For weeks the two pre-eminent teams had been trading punches, with Mercedes’ superiority in qualifying typically giving way to a strategic masterclass by Ferrari on race afternoons.
On this evidence, though, the shift in power could be more definitive than first thought. Mercedes’ three-year stranglehold of the sport has finally been loosened, thanks in large part to the remorseless resolve of Vettel, whose urge to rekindle the form that made him a quadruple champion at the age of 26 is insatiable.
Vettel might earn money that would make a hedge fund manager blush – most estimates put his salary close to $70 million – but few could dispute his work ethic. Late on Friday night, four hours after practice had finished, he was still in the paddock, rubbing his eyes with tiredness as he worked out with his engineers how best to configure the car.
Such attention to detail bore fruit yesterday as the German pounced with a last-gasp salvo, edging out team-mate Kimi Raikkonen by less than six hundredths of a second to secure his 46th pole and end a drought that stretched back to Singapore in 2015. “The car was phenomenal,” Vettel said. “It is really a pleasure to drive around with low fuel and try to push it to the limit. Everyone is very happy and very proud.”
Well, everyone apart from Raikkonen, who as usual looked as if he would rather be pickled in aspic than venture anywhere near an official press conference. “Not bad” was about as lyrical a verdict as he offered on Ferrari’s finest result in qualification since Magny-Cours in 2008. For all that Liberty Media, F1’s owners, claim that they want to market the sport around the personalities of the drivers, they might have to grant an exemption to the icily inscrutable Finn.
The perma-grin on Vettel’s face showed well enough that he saw this moment as a watershed. This afternoon, in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he holds a chance to streak into the sunset with a lights-to-flag victory, while Lewis Hamilton, his arch-rival for the championship, starts back in fourth.
Hamilton endured a frustrating session, first finding himself blocked by Renault’s Nico Hulkenburg on a warm-up lap and then ruining his effort by losing half a second on Vettel through the last two corners. “It has been one of those weekends,” he shrugged. “Not every weekend goes perfectly smoothly. We worked towards improving the car, but generally it got worse and worse.”
Among the Mercedes hierarchy, the mood was gloomy. Niki Lauda, who had spent his morning signing autographs for locals on matryoshka dolls, looked on sourly. Toto Wolff, likewise, was struggling to be cheerful. “I am always on the pessimistic side, and I was already sceptical whether we could win races starting from pole,” he said.
“The data here does not give me an overwhelming feeling. Lewis is incredible as a driver and as a personality, but for whatever reason this weekend he has not got the car to have the pace he has usually. It is about finding what he needs, so that he is capable to perform on the level that is normal to him.”
The danger for Mercedes is that Ferrari could be over a distant horizon before they have worked out how to close the deficit. The Prancing Horse is kicking with real intent once more and Vettel, as his long supremacy with Red Bull would attest, is a formidable front-runner.
Wolff was sanguine. “We knew at a certain stage that it would change, and that is a challenge we embrace,” he said. “Ferrari have done a very good job over the winter. Now we need to be vigorous and analyse what is missing, put the dots together, and out-develop Ferrari. You cannot win forever, as much as we would love that.”
For the second grand prix running, Hamilton was also surpassed in qualifying by teammate Valtteri Bottas, who has been able to deflect questions about his Mercedes credentials with dazzling one-lap pace.
Sochi, with its smooth surfaces and sinuous corners, is a track that suits a driver as fluid as Bottas, and he was fast enough to beat Vettel until a mistake in the third and final sector. But even this display did not blind him to the degree of Ferrari’s advantage. “They have managed to extract more from the ultrasoft tyre, and we can clearly see that they have the upper hand,” he said.
While the neutrals’ wish is for a duel between Mercedes and Ferrari, a sense is growing that Vettel could yet pull away from his pursuers. “I don’t like the word ‘dominant’,” he said. “You work hard, you race fast and you deserve to do well.” It is a simple enough equation, and one that for a resurgent Ferrari is so far working out seamlessly.
UK Sunday Telegraph