By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Mercedes’ three-year domination of Formula One looked on shaky ground on Sunday as the Silver Arrows’ confidence was rocked by Ferrari pace and a Sebastian Vettel victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Bookmakers had pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton as a heavy favorite to win at Albert Park but the Briton finished runner-up, nearly 10 seconds behind Vettel after complaining of poor grip on the lakeside circuit.
Hamilton’s frustrations were shared in the team garage where Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff pounded his fist on a desk in rage after Vettel snuck in front of the Briton when re-joining the race from a pit-stop.
The German then burned away for a dominant win that has raised hopes of a genuine challenge to the Mercedes team that has swept the drivers’ and constructors’ championships for the last three years running.
Three-times champion Hamilton had declared Ferrari the “quickest” after winter testing and his forecast of a title fight with the Italian glamor team appeared right on the mark.
“I don’t lie. And I’m not really good at bluffing or playing poker,” he said.
“I didn’t know how quick they were going to be in the race. The pace they showed in testing was true and today their speed in that first stint on ultra soft tires was fantastic.
“My real strength wasn’t until right at the end of the race but it was far too late by then.”
Wolff was also convinced Ferrari had the quicker car and saw testing times ahead for a team that has largely raced itself for three years.
“Some you win, some you lose and today the Ferrari was the quicker car. And it put us under pressure straight from the beginning, and that’s how we lost it,” said the Austrian.
“It’s going to be very close, there’s no big margins between the teams and also between our two team mates. It’s going to be a more stressful season than in the past but personality-building.”
Valtteri Bottas, who took champion Nico Rosberg’s vacant seat following the German’s shock retirement last season, was third on his Mercedes debut but the focused Finn was hardly jumping for joy.
“I struggled quite a lot with the ultra soft tires, I felt I was sliding around, missing some front and rear grip,” he said at the post-race media conference.
“It wasn’t a disaster but I will have my points that I will take.
“I think it’s going to be a big challenge, we need to work really hard if we want to beat (Ferrari). They were quicker today, no doubt.”
(Editing by Toby Davis)