Melbourne - Mercedes has lorded over Formula One for the last three years as the dominant team but Sebastian Vettel's accomplished victory for Ferrari in Australia Sunday has the reigning champions bracing for a season-long battle.
Vettel held all the aces in the Melbourne season opener mastering Lewis Hamilton by almost 10 seconds and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas. While only the first of a 20-race season, Vettel's showing for Ferrari has signalled a possible changing of the guard in the new era of faster and more physical cars.
Here are five things we learned from the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne at the weekend:
Mercedes beware, Ferrari is back
It was only one race but the nature of Sebastian Vettel's victory suggests that three years of Mercedes domination may be over. The German's Ferrari was able to keep pace comfortably with leader Lewis Hamilton in the early stages. "He was relatively close," Hamilton said. "And if the roles were reversed and he was ahead he probably would have pulled away."
Once Vettel got in front after the pit stops the result was never in doubt. Significantly, it seems the improved Ferrari engine now matches the power of the Mercedes. "Right now, it looks like we have equal machinery. I hope it turns out that way," said Vettel.
Hamilton said after pre-season testing that the 2017 rule changes - more downforce, fatter tyres with more grip and faster cars -would make it harder to race. He saw no reason to change his mind after Melbourne, saying that the increased turbulence from the car in front makes overtaking more difficult. "It is probably worse now than before," said Hamilton. "It has definitely not got any better. Last year we had to have a second advantage on the car in front. If it's one second last year, it's two seconds this year."
Daniel Ricciardo struggled to find his trademark smile after a home grand prix to forget. A crash in qualifying, a five-place grid demotion, a formation lap breakdown and finally retirement on lap 29 left plenty to ponder before China in just under two weeks.
"Not the weekend I wanted at home," lamented the normally ebullient Australian. "For all these things to happen at my home race, that's probably the most frustrating thing. If any Aussies have a bit of energy left in a few weeks, then come out to China and you'll hopefully see a better race from me."
Fernando Alonso was surprisingly upbeat in the paddock about the new orange McLaren despite a pre-season dogged by Honda engine problems. "I was driving one of my best races so far and we were surprisingly in the points all race long," said the two-time world champion, who was involved in a ding-dong battle for 10th place with the Force India of Sebastian Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg's Renault until he had to retire on lap 50. "I felt confident and I enjoyed driving the car throughout the race," he said, before injecting a note of realism. "We are last in terms of performance. We need to be more competitive soon."
Hamilton will get a quick chance to turn the tables on Vettel when the teams meet again in China. The Shanghai International Circuit will see harder tyres and longer straights, a combination that usually suits Mercedes.
Hamilton is relishing the prospect of the two dominant drivers of the last decade, with seven world championships between them, going head to head for the title. "This year we have the best drivers at the front," said Hamilton. "I know it's been a long time coming. It shows we are going to have a race on our hands, which we are very happy to have, which is great for the fans."