Can Ferrari challenge Mercedes for the title this season?

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Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Hopes that Ferrari could take the fight to Mercedes in 2016 were raised from the moment the lights went out at Albert Park, even if the race ended with the familiarly predictable sight of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton atop the first two steps of the podium.

Most of the proceedings in Melbourne were led by Sebastian Vettel, whose barnstorming start sprung him to from third on the grid to the lead by the first corner, and with Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who was to retire from third place with engine failure – acting as his rear gunner in the first stint, the German found himself on course for victory in the opening Grand Prix of the year.

That Vettel did not emerge victorious at Albert Park was down more to the ultimately wrong decision by Ferrari not to fit his car with the same medium tyres as the Mercedes during the red flag – brought out by the terrifying crash of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez on lap 19 – than any wrongdoing on his part.

The super-soft tyres that had served Vettel so well in the opening stages never looked likely to build him enough of a gap to come out ahead of Rosberg or the recovering Hamilton, meaning that the third place that he has become so accustomed to in this era of Mercedes domination was his once again.

What Australia did not tell us, though, is the true speed of the Ferrari in race trim compared to the Mercedes. The only period of the race where both teams were on the same tyre was following the start, when Rosberg and Hamilton were bottled up behind Raikkonen and the Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen respectively, there unable to properly show their hand.

The straightforward manner with which Rosberg held onto the lead once Vettel stopped, and the way that Hamilton began lapping more than a second faster than the Ferrari once he had rid himself of the Toro Rossos, was a fairly conclusive indication that Mercedes still holds the upper hand, if not to the same extent as 2015.

Ultimately, there are two ways of looking at this.

Last year, Australia was one of Mercedes’ most dominant performances of the season. Hamilton and Rosberg were streets ahead of the rest and crossed the line together without breaking sweat, more than half a minute clear of Vettel, leading to fears that Mercedes would once again be as untouchable as they had been in 2014.

However, it was at the very next race in Malaysia that Vettel took full advantage of a strategy error by Mercedes following a safety car period to jump into the lead and take an astounding victory.

Given how hard Mercedes were made to work for victory at one of their strongest tracks from last year, once we hit the more conventional circuits of Bahrain and China, few people will discount the possibility Ferrari may just be able to take the fight to them, particularly in race conditions.

On the other hand, Ferrari were handed an open goal by the poor starts of Rosberg and Hamilton, and yet Vettel was still unable to translate that into victory.

Had the Mercedes drivers got off the line as well as their Italian counterparts, would they have been left scrambling to fend off Vettel, or would they instead have calmly built a gap over the rest of the field and taken a comfortable 1-2 finish? Nobody knows the answer, but Ferrari are unlikely to be handed an opportunity so golden next time out.

The Australian Grand Prix was a tale of missed opportunity for Ferrari, but only time will tell whether they truly have the speed to make this a real battle for the title, or if circumstance came together on Sunday to create a false dawn.

Stephen D’Albiac

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