BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Despite his recent win at the Canadian Grand Prix, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton still considers Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to be the Formula One favorite.
Hamilton’s win in Montreal came after a terrible weekend in Monaco, underlining how unpredictable Mercedes has been after three years of dominance.
“Consistency is the key to winning the championship,” Hamilton said Thursday at a news conference. “Up until now, Sebastian has had the consistency of a winning championship, so we have to improve on our consistency if we are going to have a shot at winning this title.”
Victory at this weekend’s Azerbaijan GP would give Hamilton back-to-back wins – and would be a further boost after cutting Vettel’s overall lead to 12 points with his Canada GP win two weeks ago.
But he remains circumspect as to whether Mercedes has truly turned the corner.
“(Ferrari) have had a more consistent season so far. We’ve had more of an up-and-down season,” Hamilton said. “I think they (Ferrari) still are favorites in terms of the fact their car seems to work everywhere. But I think there’s more unlocked potential in our car.”
Hamilton believes the Belgian GP in late August will show whether Mercedes can release that potential, and topple Ferrari in the title fight.
“I’m hoping by August, coming into September, by then we are the favorites,” said Hamilton, who is chasing a fourth F1 title.
Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s new teammate and the only other driver to win a race, is in third place and trails Vettel by 48 points. Whether or not Bottas can become a title contender remains to be seen, however. Most observers conclude that Hamilton undoubtedly holds No. 1 status at Mercedes.
“Lewis is in the best place I have seen him during any of the last five years since he joined the team,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “He is coping so well with the difficult days. This is what the very best are made of.”
Vettel, who is gunning for a fifth F1 title, also appears to be No. 1 at Ferrari ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.
Ferrari has been more reliable and might even be slightly faster than Mercedes. That bodes well considering that the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) Baku circuit, which glides through the city’s medieval walls and passes the Caspian sea, has F1’s fastest top speed of 370 kph (230 mph).
Ferrari is chasing its first drivers’ title since Raikkonen in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.
Although Ferrari missed out on a podium place in Montreal, with Vettel finishing fourth, there was some bad luck because his car was damaged by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull heading into the first corner.
It would have been more worrying for Ferrari had Vettel finished fourth in a straight, trouble-free contest with Hamilton. Encouragingly for Ferrari, the way Vettel cut through the field following his early trouble showed the German driver is back to his very best.
Vettel’s previous title came in 2013, the last of four straight with the once-dominant Red Bull, and there are clearly shades of the confident Vettel of old this season.
Verstappen, tipped to be F1’s next big star, needs a strong performance in Baku.
Last year, the 19-year-old Dutch driver became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But he has secured only one podium and failed to finish three races so far this season.
Worse still is the misery two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is enduring at McLaren.
Although still widely considered the equal of Hamilton – and slightly ahead of Vettel – on pure ability, Alonso has not won since the Spanish GP in May 2013.
He can hardly even finish a race these days, such is the unreliability of McLaren’s Honda engine.
McLaren is the only team yet to score a point. Between them, Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have completed only four races, with a best finish of 12th by Alonso.
Considering how demanding the Baku circuit is on engines, it promises to be another frustrating weekend for Honda amid growing rumors McLaren is considering a new engine supplier deal with Mercedes. An embarrassing but realistic possibility for beleaguered Honda.
“Like Canada, we don’t have very high hopes,” Vandoorne said Thursday.