Sunday 22 April 2018

Vettel victory gives Australian tifosi a tantalising glimpse of la dolce vita

Tyre superiority allows Ferrari to overtake Mercedes for once but Hamilton won't be fazed

Sebastian Vettel celebrates last week’s win. Photo: AP
Sebastian Vettel celebrates last week’s win. Photo: AP

David Kennedy

The F1 grand prix season opener in Melbourne last weekend saw Ferrari beat Mercedes fair and square. Sebastian Vettel triumphed over Lewis Hamilton and scored his first race win since Singapore in 2015 and his first win in Melbourne since 2011.

The Italian-Australian tifosi were decked out in Ferrari support gear, understandable given Italians are the second largest ethnic group in greater Melbourne and number a quarter of a million. Almost two hundred years living on the opposite side of the world has bred an insatiable desire for anything Italian. Back in 1835 Charles Brentani, who was supposedly the first Italian to settle, had been convicted in England of stealing silver cutlery and was shipped off, like so many Irish 'convicts' at the time, to the British penal colony Van Diemen's land, now known as Tasmania.

After Brentani served his time, he sailed to Victoria, married an Irishwoman, settled in Melbourne and became a respected jeweller. Many Italians came for the gold-rush and more recently during and after the world wars. When the grand prix circus comes to town a red-blooded Italian-Australian is obliged to support Ferrari.

Ferrari nailed it not just because fortune swung their way but they managed their tyres better which gave them a decided advantage. James Allison left his job as technical director at Ferrari for the same role at Mercedes. He helped in the design of the winning Ferrari and it must be bitter-sweet to see them beat his new team. The Englishman would probably have remained at Ferrari if it weren't for the untimely death of his wife from meningitis. Now based in Brackley, Allison will be looking to wipe out any advantage he left behind on the drawing board at Maranello.

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo is another Italian-Australian. He moved with his parents from Sicily to Perth 20 years ago. If Daniel ever gets a Ferrari drive, it would be a match made in heaven. As it turned out, he had a weekend from hell.

I don't suppose Lewis Hamilton will be too despondent with his second place. Albert Park is something of an outlier in the calendar. Probably one of the most impressive performances came from Hamilton's unfazed team-mate Valtteri Bottas who finished third. Other notable drives included Perez in the Force India, Verstappen in the Red Bull who was close to taking Raikkonen and Massa back from the briefest of retirements to replace Bottas in the Williams.

At Sauber, another Italian sensation was making a name for himself. When Pascal Wehrlein reluctantly withdrew from racing on Saturday morning because he felt his fitness was compromised following an accident at the 2017 Race of Champions in Miami, Antonio Giovinazzi, Ferrari reserve driver and GP2 runner-up for us at Theodore-Prema last season, stepped up to the plate to drive the Sauber-Ferrari with no notice. He almost eclipsed his team-mate Ericsson in qualifying and ended up fourteenth on the grid finishing twelfth in the race. Considering he had no preparation, it was an incredible feat. Ferrari hierarchy will have been very impressed.

You don't expect a twice world champion of the calibre of Fernando Alonso, who was dicing for tenth place, to proclaim 'that was probably the best race of my life'. He was performing a Fred Flintstone in his recalcitrant McLaren-Honda. Some wag suggested Honda was an acronym for 'Horsepower? oh no, don't ask'. Alonso, Ocon and Hulkenberg were three abreast at Turn 13 vying for tenth place. It was a throwback to the Rene Arnoux/Gilles Villeneuve era. If we get more of this then F1 is safe. Alonso retired but the satisfaction of almost finishing in the points was up there with his finest victories.

The consensus amongst drivers is that this newest generation of F1 cars are great fun to drive. Improved downforce, aerodynamics, grip and cornering have conspired to make the drivers a much happier bunch. Not being able to properly slipstream and overtake is a fundamental error of the regulations. They'll be working overtime to sort that out at Liberty Media HQ.

The sad death of English legend John Surtees occurred a couple of weeks ago. Surtees was the only person to have won world championships on both two and four wheels. He was 500cc motorcycle world championship in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960 with the MV Agusta factory team.

In 1964, he won the F1 title for Ferrari. Their website said "Ferrari has lost one of its greatest drivers". Indeed he was a favourite with Enzo. John went on to set up the Henry Surtees Foundation following the tragic death of his teenage son in a Formula Two race in Brands Hatch in 2009.

Since this column is very Italian-Ferrari-centric, I may as well add a personal anecdote. Several of our current crop of drivers are in the Ferrari driver academy and a few weeks ago we found ourselves at Fiorano, Ferrari's private test track which is located virtually next door to the factory.

There, like an aberration, stands the former farmhouse of Enzo Ferrari. The place is a time warp; his black and white TV, the desk and chair in those iconic images of him and a wall full of photographs of Gilles Villeneuve, a homage he installed to his favourite driver following the world champion's death in 1982. I sat in his chair and thought about all the great drivers that came and went from 'il Commendatore's' command centre. It was a real privilege.

The Chinese GP is next weekend. Ferrari or Mercedes, take your pick. Or could a third interloper join the fray? Roll on Shanghai.

Sunday Indo Sport

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