All that windy speculation whipped up by pre-season running in Barcelona meets the test of meaningful competition here. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas had eyes watering with a blistering second practice session that put eight tenths between them and their rivals.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the dominant figure in Barcelona testing, suggested Mercedes might just be in a league of their own. Either Ferrari were pulling the wool in practice or Mercedes were taking the Michael in testing. Not that we need headline figures to identify the contenders at Albert Park. The big dogs are always quickest out of the box and sharpest in response should things not go entirely to plan.
This is a bigger season for Vettel than it is for Hamilton. He has had the kit to get it done in the past two seasons yet in each case has seen Hamilton and Mercedes kick-on post summer recess when the challenge was at its height. There is something primal in the Hamilton psyche that squeezes preternatural performance from his bones. He finds something extra when he needs it.
Vettel is a fine technician. In prevailing conditions he brings it home. No-one flukes four world titles. It is when things get visceral that he struggles, a feature highlighted in his final season at Red Bull when Daniel Ricciardo kicked his arse in a car that no longer behaved as he liked following a regs revamp designed to disrupt Red Bull domination. With the latest protege from the House of Maranello about to launch his Ferrari career, Charles Leclerc, Vettel must manage the irreverent presence within as well as without.
The grid is flooded with next gen talent, Lando Norris at McLaren, the youngest Briton to contest a grand prix, George Russell at Williams, Antonio Giovanazzi at Alfa and Alex Albon at Toro Rosso all making debuts. Russell and Norris, who finished one and two in F2 last season, hope to enhance reputations already highly polished in junior ranks. Their problem is Max Verstappen, who at 21 is only seven months older than Russell and scoping a career that might yet blow the bloody doors off the F1 pantheon.
To be fair, Verstappen is everybody’s problem. The moment he is given a car with decent poke look out world. Vettel’s future at Ferrari might not be his to determine should Honda give Verstappen the means to boot Red Bull deeper into the mix alongside Mercedes and the Scuderia.
Red Bull showed nowt in testing and though they were nearest to Mercedes on Friday afternoon, there is insufficient data to properly assess his prospects this term. A winning car or not, it is inconceivable that Ferrari will look elsewhere when the time comes to ease Vettel aside.
Not all is perfect in our world of course. The season’s opening race is touched by sadness with the shock death of race director and F1 grandee Charlie Whiting on the first morning of the opening weekend. And yesterday, proximity placed Australia directly in the path of the shock waves emanating from neighbouring New Zealand following the horrific attack on the muslim community in Christchurch.
Australia has not been overly kind to Hamilton. Though he had started from pole seven times before this weekend he has won only twice in 2008 and 2015. That said, on each occasion he went on to take the championship. Qualifying will, as ever, clean up the BS, telling us more or less who has been speaking with forked tongue.