After the championship challenge that never was in 2016, Ferrari heads into the 2017 season hoping a revamp of the regulations will propel it to the front of the grid and finally allow it to bring an unacceptable ten-year title drought to an end.

2015 had the makings of a breakthrough year for the Scuderia. Sebastian Vettel was back to his brilliant best and the team had Mercedes rattled. The stage was set for a real battle in 2016, but the Italian marque tumbled dramatically short of its lofty expectations, eventually slipping to a distant third in the pecking order behind Red Bull. The cycle of initial promise before inevitable disappointment continued.

Could 2017, though, be the year? An overhaul of the aerodynamic regulations has presented a golden opportunity for the chasing pack to end the Mercedes tyranny, and Ferrari has attacked the rule changes in encouragingly aggressive fashion. The stand-out feature on the SF70H is the bold sidepod design, a risk which, on the evidence of Barcelona testing, appears to have paid off.

For the third year in succession Formula 1 fans find themselves delving into the numbers from pre-season testing and questioning whether Mercedes can truly be caught. It is worth remembering that Ferrari led the way at the testing stage in both 2015 and 2016 yet only amassed three victories over the course of those two seasons. This year, however, Ferrari really has Mercedes looking over its shoulder.

A dazzling 1m18.634s from Raikkonen was the fastest lap of the eight days’ running at Barcelona by some distance, with Valtteri Bottas seven tenths adrift on the overall leaderboard on the same compound. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that Ferrari was quickest on all four tyres.

While sceptics have warned that Mercedes tends to run higher fuel loads in testing, meaning the lap times are not representative, there were also rumours that the Brackley outfit was disappointed by the performance of its week two upgrades. Combine Ferrari’s mightily-impressive pace with its equally strong mileage, 956 laps to be precise, and it’s not difficult to distinguish the ‘winners’ of pre-season testing.

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Of course, what matters to Ferrari is running out victorious in Melbourne in a week’s time, yet the early signs are certainly cause for optimism, particularly when one considers there were murmurs of a Maranello crisis and a forced redesign of the new chassis a matter of days before testing got under way.

Year on year, we are warned not to take testing as an indicator of the ultimate pecking order. Indeed, it is strong possibility that Mercedes will arrive in Melbourne and deliver a Q3 time which breaks its rivals’ hearts, but champions rarely enjoy a smooth transition to new regulations (an issue compounded by Nico Rosberg’s sudden retirement) and Ferrari could well be set to capitalise.

Lewis Hamilton was among those warning of Ferrari’s potential in Barcelona, even claiming that his Mercedes team is no longer the favourite, and given that the Briton is not traditionally one for mind-games, insisting that he does his talking on the tarmac, this could be taken as an indicator of genuine anxiety within the Mercedes camp; perhaps there is finally trouble in paradise.

“I think Ferrari must be the favourites,” the title favourite said. “They’re very close to us. It’s difficult right now to say exactly who is quicker. But they are very close, if not faster.”

The extent to which Mercedes itself was bluffing is unclear, but it appears that no member of the leading triumvirate has shown its hand just yet. It would be nothing short of extraordinary if Ferrari maintained its testing advantage at the first race, and there is surely more to come from Red Bull, who had been touted as the Silver Arrows’ nearest challenger before the events of Barcelona. The good news for the neutral is that a real battle is, at long last, shaping up at the front.

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On then to the drivers. Which Sebastian Vettel will we see this year? The Vettel who peerlessly steered his Red Bull to four consecutive titles and threatened to spearhead a Ferrari resurgence in Schumacher-esque fashion, or the out-of-sorts Vettel who was humiliated by Daniel Ricciardo in 2014 and outclassed by Kimi Raikkonen in the latter part of 2016? Therein lies the key to Ferrari’s success.

Vettel is very much a dark horse this year, provided he rediscovers his best form, and could finally be set for a long-awaited title scrap with Lewis Hamilton as the German looks to dismiss the doubters who have followed him throughout his decorated career and reaffirm his status as one of the finest drivers in the sport’s history. Just as Ferrari has conducted its 2017 preparations with relative secrecy, revealing its challenger online with minimal flourish, Vettel has steered clear of the spotlight and seems to have refocused over the winter months after his 2016 campaign unravelled.

“Yes!” Vettel swiftly replied when asked if the title was a possibility. “If not, I wouldn’t go to the start grid. All I can say is that the spirit in the team is good, everyone is working for everyone else’s benefit.”

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Hamilton, Vettel and Red Bull’s fiery duo have thus far been the poster boys of the 2017 season, tipped to be the chief protagonists of a hotly-anticipated title duel. Yet Raikkonen cannot be discounted. After comprehensive thumpings at the hands of first Fernando Alonso in 2014, and then Vettel a year later, Raikkonen upped his game last year with his seat under threat, and convinced fans he could pose a real threat to the man opposite him in the garage.

Raikkonen’s success may well hinge upon the handling characteristics of the 2017 Ferrari car, such is the unique nature of his aggressive driving style, but his electric pace in testing suggests the Finn is adapting well to a car which, amid the regulation change, bears the hallmarks of the machinery of the early 2000s – the era during which was the Iceman was in his prime. If Raikkonen can carry the form he showcased at the end of last season into this year, the intra-team duel at Ferrari may truly be intense for the first time this decade.

It is conceivable that 2017 will be the final year of Ferrari as we know it. One would imagine that Vettel will one of the first drivers Mercedes approach for 2018 if Bottas, handed only a one-year deal, is unable to deliver the goods; that is, of course, unless Ferrari can convince the German that it has a platform for sustained success. Moreover, Raikkonen, who will have reached the ripe old age of 38 by the season’s end, could well be set to hang up his helmet. Either way, it is likely that Ferrari will be forced to turn to F1’s fiercely competitive midfield in search of its next superstar, for the odds very much stand against the maintenance of its present partnership.

It is gloriously tempting to tip Ferrari for the 2017 title but Mercedes must, for now at least, be considered the favourite, regardless of what Lewis Hamilton says. No team in F1 places greater demands on itself than Ferrari; this is an outfit for whom perfection is scarcely good enough. Thus, only the world championship will suffice in a year which will see either a spectacular re-emergence or spark a fresh Maranello exodus. The Ferrari team and its global fan base await at the beginning of the season with bated breath.

Read more from David Comerford