SOCHI, Russia – For the last three years, Mercedes was the undisputed top dog in Formula One. Its drivers battled each other for the title, and no one else really had a shot.
Ferrari has come roaring back into contention this year, as Sebastian Vettel won two of the first three races to take the standings lead ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. Still, there were questions over whether that success was more about smart tactics and Mercedes’ slip-ups than Ferrari’s raw pace.
The Italian team proved it has the speed Saturday, as Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen snatched a one-two in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix. For the first time in 31 races Sunday, there won’t be a Mercedes on the front row.
“We knew at a certain stage it was going to change. Now it’s exactly the challenge that we embrace,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said after qualifying.
“The Ferraris have done a very good job over the winter, and so it’s the two teams that are miles ahead of everybody else. Now we just need to be rigorous in the analysis of what’s missing, put the dots together and outdevelop Ferrari throughout the season. That is not easy.”
Ferrari’s recovery partly comes down to new regulations – which Mercedes opposed – introducing wider tires and more downforce for 2017. Getting the new tires to work at their best has been a struggle for Mercedes.
The last time Formula One had two teams in a tight, season-long battle, it was 2012 and Vettel was at Red Bull, narrowly beating Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the title. That was followed by a season of pure Vettel dominance in 2013, then three years of inter-Mercedes battles between fractious teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who retired after winning last year’s title.
When Mercedes was out in front, there was little risk in letting Hamilton and Rosberg fight each other on the track, since other teams were typically too far back to take advantage of any consequences. That’s not the case this year, and Mercedes has indicated it will impose team orders that could force Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas to let their teammate past if his pace is faster.
Bottas starts third for Sunday’s race and is keen to take the fight to Ferrari after missing out on his first win in Bahrain two weeks ago, when he started from pole but ended up third behind Vettel and Hamilton.
Hamilton, starting fourth, is downbeat after two days of struggles to find a balanced setup.
“Not every weekend goes perfectly smoothly. We worked toward improving the car, but generally it got worse and worse,” the British driver said.
Vettel seemed surprised by Ferrari’s competitiveness in Sochi, and even suggested after Friday’s practice that Mercedes had been deliberately concealing its true pace. On Saturday, Vettel was delighted to take pole position. “The car was phenomenal,” he said.
Regardless of whether Ferrari can repeat its qualifying one-two in Sunday’s race, Wolff acknowledges Mercedes’ unquestioned dominance is over. “Every series ends,” he said. “And we cannot win forever.”
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