Britain’s Lewis Hamilton insists he is relishing the prospect of a titanic duel with Sebastian Vettel this season after the German upstaged him at the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix.
Vettel proved too quick for Hamilton in Melbourne in a race that appeared to confirm that Ferrari are finally equipped to end the era of dominance enjoyed by Mercedes.
It was the four-time world champion’s first grand prix win since September 2015 and – in remarks that doubled as a slight on last year’s title winner, his former team-mate Nico Rosberg – Hamilton welcomed a likely tussle for supremacy with Vettel.
“This year you are seeing the best against the best, with the best drivers at the top,” said three-time champion Hamilton.
“We have a great driver in Sebastian, winning four titles after his incredible surge into Formula One, and he will continue to be a force for many years to come.
“I am really grateful to have that fight with him, against Ferrari which is the next best team. It has been a privilege to be racing in an era with him and finally we are in a period of time when we can actually have a real race.”
Vettel concurred with Hamilton’s assessment, saying: “He has proven to be one of the quickest drivers on the grid and I would love to have a close battle. It is a lot of fun to race for victories and a lot of fun to race against the best. Right now it looks like we have equal machinery and I hope it stays that way.”
Ferrari’s return to competitiveness comes after months of profound change in F1, following its takeover by Liberty Media and the implementation of new rules resulting in faster cars.
Vettel’s decisive move came on lap 23, when he emerged from the pit lane just in front of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Hamilton.
He staved off an attempted overtake from Verstappen and built a lead which a frustrated Hamilton could not overhaul once Verstappen pitted two laps later.
Valtteri Bottas took third place behind Hamilton on his Mercedes debut, with Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari fourth and Verstappen fifth.
Young Briton Jolyon Palmer retired after brake problems, Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull endured a home grand prix to forget as he eventually aborted on lap 30 and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso suffered suspension problems when running 10th.