So, here’s your starter for ten this week. Is it just me or are we falling in love with Fratelli d’Italia once again? You don’t know the song? Trust me you do. It goes something like this Da da da daaa, da da da daaa, da da da daaa, da da da daaa. You’ve got it, it’s the national anthem, one of the most jolly happy national anthems you could ever wish for and one that, for the 226th time in Formula 1 history, was played out in Bahrain on Sunday night.
After the fireworks had left their red stains on the night sky, Sebastian Vettel stepped out, dancing his way onto the podium – note to Seb here, the Egyptian Walk isn’t really a local dance in this part of the Middle East, but it was a nice try. The trophy he said, “is really special here, one of the best of the season”, and he should know, it’s the third time he’s held it aloft.
But it’s the first time he’s done so as a Ferrari driver and you can tell that it means so much to him. The Scuderia is back, ladies and gentlemen, and all is right with the world. After a long period of expectation, followed by exasperation, the most famous team of them all has appeared on the track in 2017, taken two of the first three races, backed up their winter testing form and look like genuine championship contenders.
Now, come on Crofty you say, there’s a long way to go this season and anything could happen. Which is true, it could, but that’s not the point. The point is that they look like contenders rather than flattering to deceive, and after three years where Mercedes have lead the way to the extent that you felt they could have beaten the rest with one wheel tied behind their backs, isn’t it great not only to see a challenger emerge, but for that challenger to be Ferrari.
Certainly at Brackley and Brixworth they’re loving the challenge. It might feel rather strange that they’re not winning everything in sight. But from the top downwards, they’re springing into work ready to give their all and more. Why? Because beating Ferrari is what the rest thrive on, and to beat Ferrari when they’re on form is to take on Formula 1 royalty and steal the crown.
Sitting in the airport lounge en route back from Bahrain I got chatting to Matteo Bonciani, the FIA Head of Communications. 6 foot 3 inches of proud Italian and a man who worked for the Scuderia for 11 years. “Happy? I’m very, very happy indeed” he said, taking a big deep breath to puff out his chest at the thought of how joyous it was to collect Sebastian Vettel a few hours previously and lead him towards the top step of the podium.
“The Italian and German national anthem, it’s so special to hear them together once more. To see the joy on the faces of the people watching, and sympathy in their faces for Ferrari too. I remember the first win when I went to work there. Woah, it was something, something so super. You know it’s funny, but it’s been many years since I worked for the team, but even today, with my FIA shirt on, people still came running up to me to congratulate and celebrate the victory. Just amazing”
There’s a feeling in the Paddock that whilst Mercedes still have the upper hand on a Saturday, Ferrari have come up with a better race car, one that can sit and bide its time before pouncing when the Silver Arrows pit. In the case in Bahrain however, it was Ferrari who got aggressive on strategy and brought Sebastian Vettel in early, to try and leap frog Valtteri Bottas in the first round of stops. A bold move that very nearly didn’t come off. The Safety Car that came out just three laps later, should have given Mercedes a lifeline, but for once they couldn’t change the tyres fast enough and the Finn emerged onto the track to see that Seb had shot past him.
A stroke of luck, and you know that winning a championship requires the odd stroke of luck from time to time as well as effort and brilliance.
It happened in Melbourne too, Mercedes brought Lewis Hamilton in too early and he found himself held up by Max Verstappen, unable to pass whilst Seb sped off up the road.
The stats say that the 4 time world champion has never lost a championship he’s led at any stage, which isn’t going to win him the title this year, but it’s a lovely little confidence boost for a man for whom the smile has returned, the passion for winning and racing has come flooding back, and for whom the realisation that his reason for leaving the comfort of the Red Bull family, might just have a chance of coming to fruition.
What must Fernando Alonso be thinking now? He could have lead the Ferrari revival, but he didn’t have the faith and thought the grass was greener elsewhere. I should go and ask him really, he’s sitting about 20 yards away, but to be honest he’s not had the best of days so it might be best to leave well alone for the time being.
He may be one of the very few that don’t welcome the return to form of the Scuderia, because from what I see and hear, there’s a genuine delight in the way the season has opened up. The promise that the Vettel/Hamilton, Ferrari/Mercedes tussle has got people talking, and in Italy and beneath the podium in Bahrain tonight, it’s got people singing too.
Ferrari on song, Da da da Daa, don’t you just love it.