Red riding good

Ferrari is back, and it’s great for F1. We have a real World Championship battle on our hands, with one team faster in qualifying and another team faster in the races.

Coming to Albert Park in Melbourne is really one of the favourites for pretty much everybody in the paddock. It has a great feel, a great atmosphere, and added to that is the intrigue of the new season with a whole new set of rules for F1. This year the whole paddock had a different atmosphere because it was the first weekend of the post-Bernie Ecclestone era. Sean Bratches, Chase Carey, Ross Brawn of Liberty Media, the new owners, were all here over the weekend. There was a totally different feel and a different tone to all the people involved in the sport.

The real effect of this ownership change we’ll get to see down the line. Right now, the owners seem to be in a ‘let’s watch and observe’ phase. A lot of things are happening differently — the higher usage of social media is one side that we’ve already seen — but really the true effects will only be known in 2020. But certainly there’s much more openness in terms of the people being able to bring in more guests to the paddock and onto the grid.

It was great to see Ferrari bounce back with a win. There were lots of people out there who had been talking about the Australian Grand Prix being a boring race and that there wasn’t enough overtaking. That may be true, but I really enjoyed the Grand Prix. I thought there was a story to it in the way we used to have.

People often look at the past with rose-tinted glasses and forget the great days of the late 1990s or the early 2000s when we had great racing. You’d only have one or two changes of position up at the front, but they were fundamental, key changes, and that’s what we saw. Think of the days of Michael Schumacher versus Mika Hakkinen for example — I think the anticipation of something about to happen is just as intriguing and interesting in a Grand Prix as what’s actually happening.

It’s great for F1 to see Ferrari back. In pre-season testing, the Ferrari looked really strong in long runs, but there were some questions about the ultimate one-lap pace, because we know from last year that the Mercedes could turn the engines up to a higher power mode for qualifying.

When you came through the weekend, that seemed a theme: over one lap in qualifying, the Ferrari was a couple of tenths shy, but in the race, the team ran a consistent race engine mode. The Ferrari seems to be working really well and it seemed less harsh on its tyres. Sebastian Vettel was behind Lewis Hamilton in turbulent air, which should have been harder, and yet was able to run around at a pace when he could potentially go faster.

The defining moment of the race was when Lewis and Mercedes chose to pit early and he came out of the pits behind Max Verstappen. The gap to Sebastian was 1.9 seconds, and then over a two-lap phase it came to 1.5s and 0.9s, so he started closing in. Mercedes believed at that stage that they were under threat of an undercut by Sebastian, meaning the Ferrari would pit earlier, change to a fresh set of tyres earlier than Lewis and come out of the pits ahead.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said to me afterwards that they were between a rock and a hard place. Do they bring Lewis in and avoid being undercut by Sebastian? Or do we leave him out there when he’s complaining about struggling with his tyres? In the end, I think they should have left him out there for another three laps, because then he would have cleared Max Verstappen, and at that stage if Sebastian had come into the pit and tried to do the undercut, he would have got stuck behind Max, which is what ultimately cost Lewis and Mercedes the Grand Prix.

Last year Ferrari had a lot of moments where strategically they made a lot of calls that proved to be incorrect at the end of the race, but this time they got it absolutely bang-on. I think it’s great for F1. We have a real World Championship battle on our hands, with one team faster in qualifying and another team faster in the races.

We’re going to see some fantastic racing all through the season. A lot of it is going to depend on what upgrades the teams bring to the cars. Can Ferrari keep pushing with the upgrades and updates to match what Mercedes can do? This year, with the new rules, the learning curve is exponential and the amount of development is just going to sky-rocket.

Kimi Raikkonnen and Valtteri Bottas just didn’t look like they had the pace of their two team-mates early on, but they settled down as the race went on. They both did the two fastest laps of the race towards the end of the Grand Prix with two laps to go, so they both have the potential and I think they’ll be up there when they hook it together.

Red Bull, what a terrible weekend for them. Max had a decent race, but they were over a second away in qualifying and they’ve got a lot of work to do and they know it. Adrian Newey and Rob Marshall, the two technical architects, along with Paul Monaghan, who looks after the engineering side, were here, and they’ve got to get their thinking caps on to get it together.

Williams thought it was going to be the best among the rest, but then Haas F1 did an amazing job and Romain Grosjean’s lap in qualifying was absolutely brilliant. In the race, though, reliability issues obviously took over and that cost them a lot of points. Last year, Haas were up and down, so we’ll have to see if they can iron out their inconsistencies this year.