Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel enters the new Formula One season in the unusual position of being the outsider. This time, the Ferrari driver is doing the chasing — behind the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Vettel used to be the man to beat, winning the title four years in a row with Red Bull. But Mercedes ended that dominance in crushing style last year and Vettel — who seemed isolated and despondent throughout the season — made the switch to Ferrari.
“The change felt right for me and it gives me a lot of joy,” Vettel said. “My ambition is to be right there at the top again, not only for me but also in terms of the team. In this respect, we should make a perfect fit.”
The German also gets the chance to emulate his childhood idol, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, who won the vast majority of his titles and his 91 GPs with Ferrari.
The 27-year-old Vettel, who has 39 GP wins and 45 pole positions, clearly needed to get away from Red Bull.
Vettel finished a dismal fifth in the drivers’ standings, with no wins and just four podium places. The gap between him and Hamilton was a mammoth 217 points. Worse still, he was usurped by his junior teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, who finished third and won three races.
The timing seemed just right for Ferrari, too, which needed a change following two seasons of tensions with Fernando Alonso.
Pre-season testing has been like a fresh start.
“I feel very well. The tests so far have contributed a lot to that feeling,” Vettel said. “Of course things take time, as growing into a team that works a bit differently requires that.”
The positive tone was set at the first testing session in Jerez, with Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen claiming the fastest time on three of the four test days as Ferrari announced its comeback in style.
Overall, a reinvigorated Vettel completed more than 600 laps over the three winter testing sessions and Ferrari showed glimpses that it can challenge Mercedes for speed. Over the 12 days of testing, Ferrari completed 1,182 laps — the fourth most mileage of any team — and the second most by power unit behind Mercedes.
“The path to the very top right now still leads via Mercedes and it is our aim not only to draw level with them but to surpass them,” Vettel said. “That is a very ambitious goal.”
With no reliability issues to be alarmed about, Ferrari is certainly in a position to try. The famed Italian manufacturer can finally turn the page on a terrible past year, when poor results went hand-in-hand with internal disputes.
Ferrari failed to win a race last year — the first time since 1993 — and finished fourth in the constructors’ championship, 485 points behind Mercedes. Alonso, who finished sixth, joined McLaren. Meanwhile, a chaotic year saw three team principals in charge at Ferrari, while Sergio Marchionne replaced Luca Di Montezemolo as president.
But Ferrari’s traumatic recent past already seems like a long time ago.
“Kimi, who drove last year’s car, sees an improvement and Sebastian is also happy,” team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “It’s clear that Mercedes is there, but we have to concentrate on ourselves.”
Ferrari will be pushing hard for at least a podium finish in Melbourne — which could set the tone for a successful season.