Lewis Hamilton believes rivals Ferrari hold all the aces as Britain’s five-time Formula One world champion gears up for the biggest battle of his career.
The 34-year-old Mercedes star will head to Melbourne a week on Sunday to begin his quest for a remarkable sixth world championship, and move to within just one title triumph of Michael Schumacher’s record haul.
Hamilton, who is now earning a staggering £40million-a-season, delivered a superb campaign in 2018 to close out his fourth championship in five years and see off Sebastian Vettel’s error-prone challenge with two rounds to spare.
Yet Vettel’s Ferrari team have emerged from Formula One’s winter hibernation boasting the fastest car.
Indeed, Hamilton fears the Prancing Horse could gallop out of the starting gates at Albert Park on March 17 with an advantage of up to half-a-second a lap. A fast mile in motor racing terminology.
Last year, Hamilton won 11 of the 21 rounds, excelling in a Mercedes car which was not always the cream of the crop.
And the Stevenage-born driver knows all too well that he will have to dip into the top drawer if he is to write another chapter of grand prix history in 2019.
“Last season, there were many occasions where we were behind on performance so we had to overachieve with our delivery,” said Hamilton.
“Now we have to reach even further than we’ve done before.
“You have to be careful in that scenario because it could push you over the edge and you can make faults but we don’t mind a challenge. We love a fight and it just means that we have to work harder.
“When you start two or three steps ahead it is easier to keep at least one step in front.
“But I am not worried or disappointed. We have a hill to climb. We know how to do it, so it is just about being diligent, taking no shortcuts and bringing even more performance. There is no reward for going quick in testing. What matters is that we are fast in Melbourne.”
Hamilton’s pragmatic approach is evidence of his ease on track – leading a Mercedes team this year bidding to create history with a sixth consecutive team-and-driver double – and his ease away from the circuit, too, as he navigates his way around the globe promoting his Tommy Hilfiger clothing range.
Yet, there will be cause for concern at Mercedes, for they can no longer draw on a huge performance advantage which has enabled them to reign supreme in F1’s recent engine-dominated era.
Ferrari have caught up and they had the machinery to win both championships last year, but driver errors by Vettel and strategic mistakes by his team proved their downfall.
Now there is new management at Maranello and with it renewed hope. Maurizio Arrivabene was sacked as team principal and replaced by Mattia Binotto.
Vettel has a fresh, exuberant team-mate in the highly-regarded Charles Leclerc, aged only 21 but thought of by the Italians as a world champion in the making.
Kimi Raikkonen remains the last driver to win a title for Ferrari, 12 years ago, while it has been more than a decade since the famous team last lifted the constructors’ trophy.
But will the Scuderia finally end their silverware drought in 2019?
“We have all the ingredients,” said Vettel, the four-time world champion.
“In previous years, maybe we didn’t put everything 100 per cent together. So, there’s always room for improvement.
“We know what it needs to succeed, but it only really matters when we find ourselves in that position again, and that’s what we are working towards.”
Ferrari backed up its early promise in pre-season testing by ending the second week at Barcelona a comfortable favourite for the start of the new Formula One season.
With teams packing up and heading home before the opening race in Australia on March 17, the evidence from eight days at Circuit de Catulunya suggested the Prancing Horse boast superior pace to champions Mercedes.
With the first race of the season set to get under way in two weeks, we take a look at how each team fared in Spain.
Drivers: Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc
The speed of the Scuderia was impressive over the past two weeks and the Italian marque look to have made a considerable jump again from this time 12 months ago. They have no issue clocking up the laps, with Vettel setting a new lap record on the final day – a stunning 1:16:221. But whether they can continue to carry this form into Melbourne and beyond remains to be seen. With Vettel determined to atone for last season’s errors and Leclerc eager to prove his class, the foundations are built for a fantastic championship battle.
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas
Laps completed: 1,190
Victims of their own high standards at times. The Silver Arrow completed 1,190 laps over the two weeks – a total of 18 grand prix distances – and introduced a heavily revised aerodynamic package for week two. In terms of performance, they are not too far behind Ferrari, but finished firmly second. Hamilton was just 0:00:003 seconds off Vettel’s fastest lap and believes he’ll make more progress by sifting through the data and seeing what improvements are needed before March 17. Ferrari look to have gained strong understanding of their machines, but the Mercedes technical team have shown before how well they can respond to challenges.
Drivers: Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly
Laps completed: 833
One of the enigmas of testing. With Verstappen restricted to just 29 laps on the final day due to gearbox failure and Gasly crashing out, they were unable to push the new Renault engine to the absolute limit. Small errors that cost the team valuable track time to collect data and information. And despite Verstappen finishing fifth slowest, he should still be threatening for a podium finish come Australia. Overall, Red Bull have made significant strides with the new engine and the package looks tasty. A positive start.
Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg
Laps completed: 961
The French manufacturer made promising gains on the engine side, but need to be more consistent on speed. If Renault can prioritise its power unit development then they could push for a first podium since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2011. Hulkenberg himself finished fifth fastest for the entire test, just behind Mercedes and Ferrari drivers. And in Ricciardo, they possess a driver with buckets of experience at the front of the grid from his halcyon days at Red Bull. An exciting partnership who can bring glory back to Oxfordshire.
Drivers: Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen
Laps completed: 871
Very impressive package and flying below the radar ahead of the new campaign. In terms of pace, the car looked really sharp, with only a few tenths separating them from their other midfield rivals. The American outfit finished seventh in the standings for laps completed. They produced positive performance on the final day, which saw them amass 167 laps, and Magnussen set a personal best time of 1:17:565. Should challenge at the top of the midfield.
Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi
Laps completed: 922
Hit their potential in week one, extracting more from the package, but levelled off as the days progressed. The car doesn’t look perfect on track, but the drivers are positive, with Raikkonen’s time of 1:17:239 ranked 13th best across the two weeks. There is good development potential and should aim to be best of the rest this year.
Drivers: Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon
Laps completed: 935
A lot of changes behind the scenes for Toro Rosso with technical director James Key leaving for McLaren. Should start reasonable well despite rear end limitations. Albon and Kvyat impressed with sixth and seventh fastest times respectively.
Drivers: Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll
Laps completed: 625
A vanilla car. It wasn’t a convincing showing in Spain and not a huge amount of pace was recorded either. But then again if it is just about learning the ropes first, then they should be encouraged. They have an excellent technical team so there should be plenty to build on as the season wears on.
Drivers: Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz
Laps completed: 873
The car looks a little unstable, but the Woking team completed more laps over the two weeks in Barcelona than they ever managed before. In fact, they even topped the time-sheets on two of the eight days with Sainz finishing seventh quickest overall.
Drivers: George Russell and Robert Kubica
Laps completed: 567
Appear to be struggling after missing the first two days of testing. They were slow to get going and were missing car parts – completing just 567 laps – half the number recorded by Mercedes. To highlight how far behind they are, Russell’s best lap was three tenths of a second slower than Lance Stroll’s 1:17:556 at Racing Point. Kubica also admitted he knows only 20 per cent of the things he should know about the car ahead of Melbourne Grand Prix. It’s a long road ahead.
As Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November, he must have been desperate to find the exit gate and return to Germany for his winter break.
It was a disaster of a season for the four-time world champion, who started off the year with plenty of promise but countless errors eventually put Lewis Hamilton on course to collect his fifth title.
With another strong showing in pre-season testing over the last two weeks, Ferrari should have renewed optimism for the campaign ahead, with a new technical director in Mattia Binotto and new driver in Charles Leclerc.
The Monaco native is only 21-years-old, and after producing a solid first season with Sauber, has the chance to put real pressure on the experienced Vettel.
The German himself is a quality driver. Four world championship triumphs and 50 grand prix wins don’t come easily and definitely put him up there with the best to have graced the sport. But if the 31-year-old does not back it up this campaign then it raises more questions about his tenure at Ferrari. Driver errors in 2017 and 2018 effectively contributed to two of Hamilton’s titles.
In his four years at Ferrari so far, Vettel has had one team-mate in Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn, who will race for Sauber in 2019, was solid if not spectacular and only won once in five years in the second fastest car on the grid. For all Raikkonen disliked about being the unofficial number two driver, he irregularly challenged Vettel on race day.
In fact, over their four seasons together, Vettel won 13 times in comparison to Kimi’s sole victory at the US Grand Prix in October. In the drivers standings, Vettel registered 1,127 points from 2015-2018 in contrast to Raikkonen’s 792 – a 30 per cent difference.
But when was the last time Vettel truly had a team-mate that actually challenged him? Back in 2014, when Daniel Ricciardo joined Red Bull from Toro Rosso, the young Australian was determined to make an early statement and took three wins in his maiden season, outscoring Vettel by 238 points to 167.
Vettel already had his four world titles at that point and could not secure a single victory during that 2014 campaign, whereas Ricciardo won three races.
With Leclerc coming in, this could potentially be his most difficult season since then.
Leclerc’s arrive presents all sorts of questions, and in Ferrari’s new signing, they possess the most talented young star on the grid. He purred with confidence in his maiden campaign with an under-performing car and has the chance to showcase his talents further in one of the best machines on the grid.
The 2017 Formula 2 champion said he wants to challenge for the title, but whether he lives up to that in just his second season in Formula One, will be fascinating to watch.
With Binotto replacing Maurizio Arrivabene as the new Ferrari boss, it will be interesting to see how the Italian manages both drivers. Vettel will inevitably be the number one, but will they let Leclerc challenge for race wins? Will he even be good enough in just his second season? Or will the former Sauber man be forced to play a wingman role so Vettel can challenge Hamilton?
Leclerc blew away his Sauber teammate Marcus Ericsson – a veteran of 100 Grand Prix – in his first season and didn’t seem fazed at all by the attention and hype around his brilliance. He dazzled to claim sixth in Baku and finished 16 points ahead of the Swede in the drivers standings.
But Ferrari will be a different challenge altogether. Without a constructors championship since 2008, the pressure is on both drivers to topple Mercedes’ dominance.
After all, it is a statement of intent for the Italian marque to promote Leclerc so early, but he will be expected to deliver every week instead of sporadic podiums in every couple of races. Raikkonen clinched 11 podiums and one victory in 2018 and was still criticised at times.
For Vettel, it is make or break in the final year of his contract. The German will back himself against his younger team-mate but if he is beaten then his reputation and future will be questioned, especially considering a large chunk of his success was at Red Bull.
Leclerc is an unknown quality. He is young, at the start of his sporting journey and has plenty of promise. He has his best years ahead while Vettel has some of his best drives behind him. In one of the fastest cars, mixed with fresh motivation and optimism, the challenge between Vettel and Leclerc will be one of the intriguing stories of 2019.