The most remarkable thing about the opening grand prix of the 2017 season was just how close the battle for victory was.
Formula One's new regulations promised a lot, but the one thing they could never guarantee was a tight battle between two teams at the front of the grid. For Ferrari and Mercedes to spend over a year working towards a new set of regulations, come up with two very different car philosophies and be split by a single strategy decision during a 307km race is really quite extraordinary -- and it was exactly what F1 needed. The talk after the race was not so much about the quality of the racing under the new regulations, but whether 2017 will see the first inter-team title battle in F1 for five years.
In qualifying Mercedes appeared to have the edge, although much of that was due to Lewis Hamilton's ability to nail all five apexes in the first sector, while Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas made mistake at Turns 1 and 3 respectively. But despite the familiar feeling of seeing a silver car on pole position, the race itself could have gone either way.
Ferrari had the faster car in the first stint but it wasn't quite fast enough for Sebastian Vettel to attempt an overtaking move for the lead. However, his ragged pursuit of Hamilton forced the Mercedes driver to push to the limit, which in turn punished his ultra-soft tyres into giving up their optimum performance. In the knowledge that Vettel was faster, Mercedes was wary that the Ferrari would switch to fresh tyres first and use the extra pace to undercut Hamilton and take the lead. A series of messages from pit wall to car followed in which Hamilton complained about the state of his tyres and expressed his desire to pit earlier than planned.
"The team asked me to give them information where the tyres were after the run, and the race we had planned to race and I was asked to race wasn't necessarily the optimum in terms of making it," Hamilton explained afterwards. "We didn't have the pace to pull a gap, for example, to Sebastian, and we knew that from quite early on, yet I continued on this road which just didn't end up working out.
"But this is an area we have to work on, obviously our tyre usage is something we have to ... we understand where we are losing so we just have to make changes to improve that for the future. Which we will do. But it is very very close in pace, clearly. But we will continue to get faster through these next races."
When the ultra-soft tyres came off Hamilton's car they still had 30 per cent of useful tread on them. In terms of physical tyre wear, Hamilton could have gone much further into the race, which would have helped keep his strategy options open, but for some reason the Mercedes was taking the ultra-soft compound out of its optimum operating window. The tyres that came off Vettel's Ferrari six laps later had next to no useful tread remaining, but he had managed keep them in their operating window throughout the length of his stint.
"I believe that these tyres have a very narrow window and you have to keep them in that window in order to perform well," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff explained. "If you are below the window, you lose performance. So that is different to the last years and needs a new calibration for all of us in understanding the tyres."
On an empty race track Hamilton's strategy was quicker. His lap times on fresh soft tyres after his pit stop were initially quicker than Vettel on used ultra-softs, but after two clear laps he came up behind Verstappen. Before he entered the turbulent air coming off the rear of the Red Bull, Hamilton had been lapping 1.3s faster than Verstappen and as soon as the Red Bull pitted he went over two seconds faster than his previous lap bottled up behind the Dutch driver. But even that sort of pace advantage is not enough for one 2017-spec car to pass another around Albert Park.
"It has been the fundamental way the cars have been since I have been in F1, but it is worse now than it has ever been," Hamilton said when asked about his difficulties following Verstappen. "It definitely has not got any better. So it is going to be the same for the rest of the season for sure. We are going much faster through the corners.
"Last year we had to have a second advantage on the car in front [to try to overtake], and it scatters from track to track. Sometimes it is a second and a half, sometimes it is two. The delta to be able to get past is bigger this year. If it was one second last year it is two seconds this year. This is going to continue all through the season."
Those six laps between Hamilton's pit stop and Vettel's not only decided the result of the Australian Grand Prix, they also provided a microcosm of what to expect from the coming season. To start with the postives, there were two drivers going flat out in two separate cars with two very good chances of winning. The drivers jumped out of their cars at the end of the race genuinely enthused by what had just taken place and the level of performance they had been able to play with.
"You could push much harder," Vettel said on the podium. "Usually the first couple of laps you were pushing last year and then the tyres were dropping off. Now the tyres are still dropping off a bit but you can keep pushing. You can keep braking at the same point. The car is screaming "more, more, more!" You could keep going forever, it was a great race, and I enjoyed it a lot."
But the negatives were also clear to see. The fact Hamilton could not attempt an overtake on Verstappen despite having a car with a 1.3s-2.0s pace advantage does not bode well. It's true that Albert Park has never been a hotbed of overtaking (and it's also true that the layout of the track means the DRS zones couldn't physically be made any longer to compensate), but everything we know about overtaking from previous seasons suggests passing will be more difficult this year. Perhaps most disappointing of all was Hamilton's approach to the second half of the race once he saw Vettel emerge from his pit stop ahead of him.
"I didn't want to push to close the gap knowing that I could not overtake anyway," Hamilton said after the race, "and then find that I had run out of tyres at the end and lose second place. So it was really once I came out behind the other car, behind Sebastian, it was really about damage limitation."
Ultimately, the new regulations are likely to result in a different style of racing this year. Much more emphasis is expected to be on strategy and the timing of pit stops. Even in a one-stop race like Australia, it was strategy that made the difference between winning and losing, and watching it unfold has a certain entertainment factor of its own. Forcing the driver in front to push harder on his tyres than he would like -- as Vettel did to Hamilton at the start of the race -- could become a crucial new tactic for gaining positions in the following pit stops.
But however the racing evolves on track, it is going to be made several times more exciting by having Ferrari and Mercedes battling for victory. If Red Bull can join that fight then the excitement levels will multiply again, but in the meantime the sense of anticipation for the second race of the season is higher than it has been for several years.