Hamilton expects stronger challenge from Ferrari in 2019

Lewis Hamilton
AP
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MONTMELO, Spain — Ferrari’s early dominance in Formula One preseason testing has caught Lewis Hamilton’s attention.

Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc have been among the fastest drivers in the first week of testing in Spain, with the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas unable to keep pace.

Daniil Kvyat, back in F1 after a one-year absence, was the fastest in his Toro Rosso on the third of four test days at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit on Wednesday, ahead of former Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen, now with Alfa Romeo. Daniel Ricciardo was third with Renault, ahead of Vettel.

“Ferrari are very, very strong right now,” said Hamilton, who was 12th fastest, just behind Bottas. “As you have seen, they are racking up great mileage as well and it appears that they have a better package than they had last year, which means it is going to be even more of a challenge for us this year.”

Hamilton won his fifth world title last year, beating Vettel and Raikkonen in the drivers’ championship.

“Ferrari always looks particularly strong, for the last few years they have looked very strong, so that is to be expected,” Hamilton said. “For us, we are just going about our process and trying to understand, so everyone is working incredibly hard.”

He said it’s too early to be overly concerned with the rival’s performance.

“It’s not a time when we need to focus on others, we let everyone else do their thing and really dig deep and focus on making sure our processes are better than ever before, that we are analyzing the data better than ever before and that from a driver’s point of view the feedback is more accurate than ever before,” Hamilton said. “That is what we are trying to focus on and making sure we get through our run plans.”

There was some concern that Mercedes may lose ground this year because it didn’t do as well as Ferrari with the design of the new front wings, which are part of regulation changes for this upcoming season. Red Bull, which also is using a similar front-wing design to Mercedes, had Max Verstappen fifth-quickest after 109 laps on Wednesday.

Kvyat’s time of 1 minute, 17.704 seconds was the fastest of the week. Raikkonen ran the most laps with 138, one more than Kvyat, and four more than Vettel.

Williams finally made it to the track after missing the first two days of testing because of delays with its 2019 car. Rookie George Russell managed only 23 laps and was the slowest driver of the day.

“It’s embarrassing not bringing a race car to a circuit when everyone else has managed to do that, particularly a team like ours that has managed to bring a race car to testing for the past 40-odd years,” Williams team principal Claire Williams said. “We can only apologize.”

There were three red flags on Wednesday, all prompted by problems with Haas cars.

Testing will continue through Thursday and then again from Feb. 26-March 1 at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit, home to the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

The season-opening Australian GP is on March 17.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.