Tantalising signs the Ferrari horse is set to prance again

It was a deliciously provocative lap, the only one in the 1:18s, more than half a second quicker than Mercedes' best, and one that the world of '¨Formula One hopes might presage the return to prominence of Ferrari.

Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the 2017 Ferrari SF70H during Formula One winter testing at the Circuit de Catalunya. Picture: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

It was only testing, of course, and its purveyor, Kimi Raikkonen, was quick to play down its significance. But that didn’t matter. A whole lot of rubber went down over two weeks in Barcelona, and though Mercedes put down the most, recording 100 laps more than any other team, it was Ferrari who laid bare the promise of things to come.

Even Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff accepted that the shredding of last year’s rule book had introduced a degree of equivalence at the top of the grid to give his dominant team genuine pause in Melbourne this weekend.

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“What we’ve seen from Barcelona is that the margins at the front of the field have shrunk,” said Wolff, who in the past three seasons has overseen 51 race wins in 59 grands prix, returning a hat-trick of drivers’ and constructor’s world titles.

“We have done the best job we possibly could over the winter and, if we are not the fastest in Melbourne, then it’s about finding out why and what needs to be done to get us back to that top spot.

“It’s a challenge we will take on with great motivation and energy.”

Mercedes introduced a raft of aerodynamic upgrades in the second winter test without significant improvement.

The numbers generated in wind tunnels don’t always add up on track, at least not immediately. Ferrari were quick from the outset and progressed, prompting some knowing heads to nod.

Red Bull advisor and head of driver development, Helmut Marko, is intimate with the workings of Sebastian Vettel’s psyche and, when the four-time world champion took his foot off the gas after two purple sectors, a light went on.

“Ferrari is very strong and reliable as well. That’s the difference to last year,” Marko said. “What worries me somewhat is I know Vettel very well. He provocatively lifted on his fastest lap on the start and 
finish straight. Everybody could tell. And, if you do something like this, then your self-confidence and the knowledge about having a lot more in the car is huge.”

As Red Bull signed Vettel to their junior driver scheme at the age of 13, Marko knows what he is talking about and his view was underscored when Raikkonen kept his foot on the gas to stop the clock at 1m18.634s on the final day.

For a definitive understanding of testing outcomes we must wait until qualifying on Saturday and Marko added: “No one has shown his cards, properly. If you carry ten kg more fuel, you gain about 0.35 seconds. Furthermore, engine mappings differ.

“This can gain you up to one second. A lot has been kept in the dark but, if the race would have taken place with the same kind of temperatures we had [in testing] then Ferrari would be in front, for sure.”

Mike Gascoyne, former head of design at Renault and Toyota, believes the the lack of fanfare from Ferrari ought to have their rivals trembling. Apart from the modest commentary of the drivers, there has been little out of Maranello.

“They’ve come out, they’ve not said anything. They’ve just got it on the track, they’ve been consistent and they’ve been quick,” Gascoyne said.

“They’ve not particularly tried to go quickly. [When] they did at the end of the second test, they did it very, very easily. They look very impressive and very under control. I think there’d be a lot of people who are quite worried down in Brackley [Mercedes’ factory].”

In 2016, Ferrari were third place in the constructors’ championship behind Mercedes and Red Bull. There has been dismay within the group at the failure of the Scuderia to land a glove in recent seasons.

Management changes since the end of Luca di Montezemolo’s autocratic rule had produced nothing before the sweeping changes were introduced. Ferrari prioritised the 2017 design from an early stage and with a big improvement in the performance of their hybrid power unit, too, appear to have stolen a march.

If this pans out in Melbourne Ferrari can expect to hold any advantage in the opening phase – China, Bahrain and Russia – before returning to Europe in May at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

Thereafter the drive for performance gains kicks in, an arms race that, over a season, could see the cars quicken by more than a second a lap. And you can be sure Mercedes will throw everything at that.