When Ferrari won the first round of the 2017 Formula One season in Australia, the suggestion that this campaign would be a genuinely different prospect to the previous three years was still but a tantalising aspiration. Now the final race of the season openers, the Russian Grand Prix, is upon us, doubts that it was to prove an exception have been banished.

Sebastian Vettel and the Scuderia have won two of the opening three, with Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes victorious only in China. Separated by seven points, both drivers are revelling in the competition and Sochi should complete the picture of just how close the battle will be for the rest of the season.

This fourth race of 2017 at the circuit on the Black Sea will take place at a purpose-built track which has many of the characteristics of a street course. While Australia, China and Bahrain tested the new season’s cars in contrasting fashion, Russia will be a different challenge to the previous three.

By the time the chequered flag falls on Sunday we will know whether one of the two main protagonists heads into the European season with an advantage or – and how exciting this would be – that there will be nothing to choose between them.

Sochi has been the fiefdom of Mercedes since the first race was held here in 2014. No other team has won the Russian Grand Prix and they finished one-two in both 2014 and 2016 – in 2015 only Nico Rosberg’s retirement from the lead prevented what would surely have been a clean sweep.

Over the single lap discipline, the Silver Arrows have been equally untouchable. 2014 and 2015 were front-row lockouts, and last year Rosberg took pole while a mechanical problem prevented Hamilton from running in Q3. A setback that was only to prove quite what an advantage the team enjoyed as he came back from 10th to claim second.

Everything suggests they ought to be on the front foot again this weekend. Sochi’s first two sectors reward a strong power unit, with the sweeping 180-degree, multi-apex left-hander of turn three now being taken at full throttle. The track is extremely low on tyre abrasion and temperatures will be cooler than the preceding rounds – all of which works towards the strengths of Mercedes. The race will consequently almost certainly be a one-stopper, limiting Ferrari’s ability to pull off strategic coups, as they did in Melbourne and Bahrain.

Equally, Hamilton has won here twice before and his team-mate Valtteri Bottas has repeatedly proved to be very quick, not least in qualifying. His final run in 2014 for Williams was an absolutely mighty lap, a potential pole-winner but for an opposite-lock slide at the final corner. A second career pole for the Finn is certainly on the cards.

Advantage Mercedes then it would seem but so competitive has this season been it remains almost too close to call. The Ferrari power unit is clearly no slouch and it is certainly working its tyres better come race day. Equally, where Mercedes had previously enjoyed such dominance that any errors were masked by the lead they enjoyed over their competitors, this is patently no longer the case. Thus far, tiny margins have been decisive and mistakes are being punished. Ferrari have proved to have an edge that will not be given up easily in Russia.

That they have no intention of doing so was clear as Vettel and his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen went quickest in the two practice sessions on Friday, with the German setting a new lap record, over half a second clear of both Mercedes.

The latter will be stronger on Saturday, with their focus before qualifying of putting their tyres in the optimum operating window and Hamilton acknowledged the challenge they face. “The Ferrari seemed very, very fast in the long runs,’ he said. “So we need to improve our pace.”

Nor was he anticipating Mercedes being able to trade on past glories. “If we win, it will be earned and we are here to earn it,” he added. “I am going to have to drive the socks off the car.”

Vettel will doubtless plan to do the same and he knows that if Ferrari can come to what has effectively been the Mercedes backyard and end their Russian hegemony, then they will have absolutely delivered on that promise shown in Australia.

“On paper they are the clear favourite, as the Sochi track is a circuit made for Mercedes – if we can be very close to them or beat them here it will be very good,” Vettel said with the smile of a driver who clearly believes that both are very real possibilities.

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