MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Lewis Hamilton won the Formula One driver’s title in three of the last four years, but the Mercedes driver said Thursday on the eve of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix that he believes this year could be one of the most competitive yet in the sport.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who pushed the British driver hard last season, performed well in testing a few weeks ago in Spain, along with teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
And Hamilton said F1 fans will “be surprised just how competitive” Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will be in Melbourne after putting a frustrating and inconsistent 2017 behind them.
“There’s a lot of hype around our team,” Hamilton said. “I’m excited to see how we all fare up when we get to practice.”
For Mercedes, the hype at the start of each season is well-deserved: the team has dominated Formula One since 2014, winning four straight constructors’ championships and 63 of 79 total races.
But Ferrari demonstrated it could challenge Mercedes for a good portion of last season – Vettel actually led Hamilton through 12 races before the Mercedes driver took the lead for good at the Italian Grand Prix.
Vettel said although he still believes Hamilton is the favorite to win the title again this year, his team has reason to be confident.
“Our car is great . there’s plenty to look forward to,” he said. “Usually around this point, you don’t know where the others are. That’s why it’s a bit pointless to come here and say you’ll blow everyone away based on testing. I think we are in good shape. We could be in better shape, but it’s always like that.”
Hamilton and Vettel have something else to vie for this year – a chance to pull even with former Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio for second place on the all-time championship list. Both drivers are tied with four titles, one short of Fangio’s five. Michael Schumacher leads the list with seven titles.
But for both Hamilton and Vettel, this statistic isn’t top of mind. At least not at this early point of the season.
“It’s a long, long season,” Hamilton said. “You don’t really think about what could be, in the sense of matching others.”
And don’t count out Red Bull. After a disastrous 2017 that saw the team struggle with engine problems and Ricciardo and Verstappen fail to finish 13 races combined, Red Bull is coming into the new season with hopes of challenging for victories again.
“I think the car, compared to last year, definitely made good improvements,” said the 20-year-old Verstappen, who finished last season strongly with two wins and a second-place finish in his last six races.
“From my personal feeling, we have quite a strong car, but we have to wait and see how good our overall package is with the straights here (in Melbourne).”
Ricciardo said anything will be better than last year’s Australian GP, when he crashed in qualifying, started the race from pit lane due to a mechanical problem and then was forced to retire on the 28th lap.
“Last year, we missed the anthem on the grid because I was in the garage trying to get the (car) going. I missed a lot of the Sunday build-up which was not fun,” he said. “So, for sure this preparation is going to make more fun this weekend and we’ll see where that fun takes us.”
It could take Red Bull all the way to the top of the podium – a result that couldn’t come at a better time for Ricciardo, whose contract with the team expires at the end of 2018.
“He’s in a great place still with Red Bull,” Hamilton said. “I think this year, he can really have a fighting chance to win the championship.”
Ricciardo, who’s also facing a spirited challenge from his precocious teammate for the No. 1 position on Red Bull, said he’s putting contract talks on hold to focus on starting the season strongly.
“This is the year,” he said. “Obviously, our prep’s been good and I really, really hope Lewis is right and we will have a chance to fight for title and that will ultimately make me happy.”
Hamilton, though, isn’t about to give an inch. He sounded a bit world-weary on Thursday, saying that after 12 seasons he’s “not the most excited” about doing media conferences anymore, but he believes he still has as much passion for the sport as he did when he started out.
“In my mind, I’m trying to break down new barriers, push the envelope,” he said. “I’m seeing how far I can take the opportunity I have and obviously the ability I have to my full potential. I don’t know what that is, and that’s what I’m discovering.”