By John O’Brien
Mercedes will be looking to reassert their Formula One dominance at the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend after the team received the loudest of wake-up calls in Malaysia by Sebastian Vettel’s revitalised Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton led a Mercedes one-two ahead of Nico Rosberg in the season opener in Melbourne last month, the pair enjoying a Sunday stroll around Albert Park that left the rest of the field trailing in their wake and fans fearing the worst.
Another procession was expected in Malaysia but Vettel and Ferrari had other ideas with both winning a race for the first time since 2013, thanks to a car that was much kinder on the tyres in the sweltering heat and a tactical masterclass from race engineers.
Mercedes are now fully aware they have a real title fight on their hands from a team that stumbled from one crisis to another in a winless 2014 campaign, but the German outfit will be happy to race at a circuit that suits the car with track temperatures far less demanding on the Pirelli tyres.
“We left Malaysia with plenty to think about. It may have been a good result for the sport… but for us, it was a wake-up call,” Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff said.
“Our opposition has raised its game and we must now raise ours even further. As we have said since Melbourne, we expect a season-long battle for both world championships and we must maximise every opportunity,” he added.
“China is the next chance to do that… a circuit which has been a good hunting ground for the team.”
Hamilton beat Rosberg to the chequered flag in Shanghai a year ago and while recent trends make Mercedes favourites at the 5.451 km Hermann Tilke-designed circuit, Ferrari won the race in 2013 and will be keen to prevent the Briton from registering a record-extending fourth win in China.
Fernando Alonso was another driver given a rude awakening in Malaysia and while the Spaniard put a brave face on an early withdrawal on his season debut for McLaren after missing Melbourne due to concussion, the sight of his old employers storming to victory must have left a bittersweet taste.
Undeterred and insisting he was happy to rejoin a team with whom he spent one unhappy season in 2007, Alonso firmly believes the car is making rapid improvements since a disastrous season-opener and double retirement last time out.
“The steps we took between Australia and Malaysia were extremely impressive,” the double world champion said.
“That sort of progress really gives the whole team belief and confidence in the path we’re taking, so I hope we can keep moving forwards every time we take to the track.”
Williams and Red Bull will also be hoping for a more positive weekend after two races that starkly exposed their early-season limitations.
The former had been expected to battle with Ferrari for second place but have been well beaten by Vettel in Australia and Malaysia, while Red Bull have become bogged down in a public spat with engine suppliers Renault and were unable to back up an impressive qualifying session in Malaysia during the race.