LONDON (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel’s task with Ferrari this season is as easy to say as it is hard to achieve; bring the Formula One world championship back to Maranello and deny Mercedes a fifth in a row.
The oldest, most glamorous and successful team on the starting grid came close last year, with their German driver leading through the opening 12 rounds from Melbourne until Monza before the challenge unraveled.
But 2018 marks a decade since the Italians last won a championship, their 16th constructors’ crown in 2008, and the pressure — always intense even at the best of times — has been ratcheting up.
So too have expectations after Vettel and Finnish team mate Kimi Raikkonen, whose 2007 title remains the 15th and last won by a Ferrari driver, prepared for the March 25 opener in Australia by lapping fastest in testing.
Such winter times can be misleading, and teams packed up for Melbourne — a race won by Vettel last year — with a suspicion that Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes are still in front and that Ferrari might even have fallen behind Red Bull.
But there are also strong signs that the battle will be even closer this year than last, when Vettel won five races to four-times champion Hamilton’s nine.
“Overall, I feel we have a good package,” said Raikkonen, now 38 and likely to be leaving at the end of the campaign, after his last day of testing the SF71H car.
“The car gives me a good feeling and, even if there are still a lot of things to improve, it’s reasonably easy to drive and it reacts to the various set-up changes,” added the Finn.
Ferrari completed 929 laps of the Barcelona circuit over the eight days of testing, equal to 4,324km — or more than 14 Australian Grand Prix distances. Mercedes managed 1,040 laps or 4,841km.
But Ferrari’s fastest laps were set on the new hypersoft tires, the quickest type available, which Mercedes did not even take to Barcelona.
Ferrari also went quicker than Mercedes on the ultrasoft tires but slower on mediums, the best for long stints. Add in times set on different days, with a range of track temperatures, and the jury remains out.
The amount of smoke coming from the Ferrari in the pitlane in Spain will also be something to watch, with some suggesting their engine was using more oil than others.
Vettel, a four times champion who won his titles between 2010-13 with Red Bull, played down the testing times.
“We are still working on some things for the first race and it’s not really possible to make any predictions based on the performance of the other teams, because everyone is running a different program,” he said.
“However, I’m happy for the guys in the team,” added the German, whose pre-season media engagements have been kept to an absolute minimum.
That has allowed the team to focus on the job in hand behind closed doors, even if some detect something of a siege mentality, and spare Vettel too much focus on his temperament after flare-ups in 2017.
Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne, who has also made headlines by suggesting Ferrari could leave the sport if they feel it is going in the wrong direction, is clear about what he wants to see.
“The best thing I think that could happen in 2018 is for Ferrari to perform up to its true potential and to take on the competition,” he said last month after the company’s fourth quarter results.
“And especially Mercedes with whom it has a love-hate relationship, which has now gone back about four or five years. It would be great if we could see a proper fight between Mercedes and Ferrari.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar