Lewis Hamilton has insisted Ferrari start the 2017 Formula 1 season as favourites.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team have won three successive world championship doubles since 2014 but were consistently outpaced by the Scuderia in winter testing following the sport’s rules refresh.
“Ferrari are the quickest at the moment, they’re definitely the favourites,” said Hamilton ahead of this weekend’s season-opening Australian GP. “Their pace was great in testing.”
While testing is a notoriously unreliable indicator of the true pecking order heading into a new season, Mercedes and Ferrari are thought to be closely matched at the front with the Scuderia possibly holding a slight advantage.
“It is very clear who is the favourite,” responded Sebastian Vettel. “We are trying our best to catch up.”
But speaking later to Sky F1, Hamilton maintained that Mercedes’ fear they have been overtaken was genuine.
“They were the quickest in testing, we couldn’t match them,” he said. “So when we get out there this weekend it’ll be interesting to see where we’ve come from testing, what we’ve learnt and how we apply it, and really where we do stand.
“It is unknown whether we’re level, they’re ahead, or they’re behind.”
Red Bull surprised most observers during testing by introducing an unexpectedly-minimalist car and then ran inconspicuously during the eight days of action at Barcelona. But Hamilton remains wary of the team which dominated F1 before Mercedes claimed supremacy at the start of the sport’s hybrid power era.
“I’m very keen to see what Red Bull bring because they were quite a long way behind through testing – at least compared to Ferrari,” he said. “I assume they are bringing something here which I am excited to see.”
Stung by a series of backfiring overly-optimistic predictions in recent seasons, Ferrari have kept their public pronouncements to a minimum ahead of the new campaign. But the team’s talking on track during pre-season testing offered a compelling hint they had caught Mercedes as Vettel and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen frequently appeared at the top of the timesheets.
“Mercedes have been in very strong form over the last three years and even though we have changed the rules and regulations if a team is strong they will be strong the year after no matter what you do with the rules,” said Vettel.