Can Sebastian Vettel spoil Lewis Hamilton’s party?

As the new F1 season's testing gets under way, this is the question on everyone's mind

The 2016 Formula One (F1) season got under way in earnest this Monday, when the first winter test was green-flagged at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. Winter testing for the forthcoming season is being held over two sessions, with a four-day break in between. On the opening day of this first test then, beyond the glitz of new cars being unveiled, the arrival of a new team, Haas F1, on the grid, the end to doubts about Red Bull Racing’s participation, and a ceremonious quote from chief executive officer Bernie Ecclestone about the sport’s poor health, all eyes were trained on Ferrari, and how they would fare in comparison with defending champions Mercedes. For this is the time when teams get to put their new or tweaked cars on the track and pit them against each other. This season’s testing has added significance since it has been cut to half from 2015, when there were four sessions.

There was this one moment, before lunch on Day 1 of testing, when Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel went quickest in his SF16-H, lapping in at 1:25.206. That lap time was quicker than Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton’s 1:25.409 earlier, and the 2015 defending champion immediately took to the track to try and go one better. Try as he might, Hamilton couldn’t do it as he settled into accruing mileage for his new W07 Hybrid. For the record then, Vettel’s Ferrari topped the time-sheets on the first two days of this test, ahead of Mercedes, which finished second and fourth respectively.

It would be foolish to read too much into it, for this is only the first test of the closed season, and a lot still has to be done before the lights go out in the opening race in Melbourne, where the Australian Grand Prix (GP) will be held from 17-20 March. But it does set the tone of the narrative.

This has left the neutrals praying desperately for Ferrari, F1’s only shot at redemption this season, to do well.

“I am expecting a strong Ferrari showing. They had a good year last year coming on from one of their toughest seasons (in 2014), and they were the only team to come close to Mercedes (in 2015)," said Pirelli motorsport head Paul Hembrey at the Autosport International Show in Birmingham, UK, in January. Indeed, there is a positive vibe coming from Ferrari’s factory base in Maranello, Italy, and it isn’t related only to the winter development of their new car, or the positive results last season. Vettel was the focal point of their campaign last year, and in his first season with the Italian marquee, he impressed with three race wins and another eight podium finishes.

True to their intention, Ferrari have thrown the kitchen sink at their new car, changing the design philosophy over the last few years and pursuing a new development path. They have abandoned Alonso’s favoured pull-rod suspension system, moving to a push-rod design on the SF16-H and making extreme aerodynamic changes to the bodywork, with a shortened nose and a tightly packaged rear end.

To say that the Scuderia’s resurgence has been noticed by Mercedes would be an understatement.

“Ferrari are a very strong competitor and one we worry about. It keeps us motivated to keep us pushing all the time. We see them as our main threat and it remains to be seen how we position ourselves in the weeks to come," Mercedes’ executive director Paddy Lowe told the Sky Sports F1 channel last week.

This is not to say that the defending champions are trembling in their shoes. The Brackley, England, based German manufacturing team has immense resources at its disposal, matching Ferrari’s at the very least. Their power unit is still the best on the grid, and this advantage over their closest rival was still sizeable when the chequered flag dropped in Abu Dhabi last year.

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any hint of a drop in their performance, with the W07 completing a humongous 328 laps in the first two days of testing itself, without a hint of trouble. Such high-mileage performance from their newly launched car has set up Mercedes for an intensive performance programme for the remainder of the winter testing season. “When it went so well, like last year, there is still room for progress. You shift your expectations and what you are trying to achieve. We had the plan of clocking so many kilometres and we showed that the team is capable of achieving that, and the drivers are capable of holding on to it," Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said on Tuesday.

Ferrari could possibly have improved their whole package. Bored with winning without too much competition, Hamilton himself wished for this on umpteen occasions in 2015. The brightest sparks flew last season when Vettel charged Hamilton, most prominently in his race wins in Malaysia and Hungary, while there was a brief pit-lane, wheel-to-wheel scuffle in China as well.

“I saw a photo the other day where Nigel Mansell and (the late) Ayrton Senna were wheel-to-wheel down the straight with sparks coming out. I can’t wait for that to be Sebastian and me. Imagine if we had a race like that, where we were back and forth, back and forth, exchanging places. That would be the most exciting thing ever," Hamilton said during the US GP weekend last year.

A true maverick, Hamilton idolizes Senna; Vettel thinks of Mansell as a personal hero. Given the German’s shrewd calculative nature, perhaps their rivalry could be closer to what Alain Prost endured with the Brazilian Senna. The underlying point here is that both are committed to their teams for the near future. And staying with these two top teams will allow F1’s next big rivalry to thrive, at a time when fans around the world are praying hard for it.

“It’s coming—it’s almost inevitable," said former F1 champion Damon Hill after the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP last year. “Mercedes have dominated for a couple of years now, and I think we can clearly see signs that Ferrari are closing that gap. I don’t think it’s going to be quite so straightforward in 2016."

Chetan Narula is the author of History Of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.

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